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Air Officer Commanding: Hugh Dowding, Architect of the Battle of Britain

Air Officer Commanding: Hugh Dowding, Architect of the Battle of Britain by John T. LaSaine Jr. ForeEdge, 2018, 272 pp.

The Battle of Britain marked a turning point in the path of World War II and in airpower history—an attempt to neutralize British military power in Europe, primarily conducted and contested from the air in the summer of 1940. The outcome of the battle rested heavily on the world’s first integrated air defense system, an operational and technical innovation largely created, and later commanded by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. John T. LaSaine, Jr., an associate professor at the Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, has written a concise, but comprehensive, biography of Dowding, and in the process, also complied an insightful account of the formative years of the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Commissioned into the Royal Artillery at the end of the nineteenth century, Dowding spent the first part of his career on the outposts of the British Empire—Gibraltar, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Hong Kong, and India. As a major attending the Staff College, Dowding applied for the new Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot’s course, not from an interest in flying but to become better acquainted with aviation technology as a means of reconnaissance and artillery spotting. After a brief return to the artillery, he was transferred back to the RFC upon the outbreak of World War I.

As part of the prewar RFC cadre, Dowding was rapidly thrust into combat, commanding squadrons, and later a wing. He was not shy with dissenting opinions, and friction with RFC commander Hugh “Boom” Trenchard relegated him to commanding training establishments during the last two years of the war. Between the wars, Dowding was deeply involved in the development of combat aviation technology and doctrine, and the eve of the Second World War found him literally designing the national air defense system from the ground up. Seniority did not mellow Dowding, though, and he often continued to find himself at odds with RAF and Air Ministry leadership. Far from a step up the ladder in the bomber-focused RAF or recognition of his expertise, Dowding’s assignment to lead Fighter Command in 1936 was intended to ease him into retirement. Instead, the onset of war and the German air campaign against Britain launched him to the forefront of the British war effort.

The Battle of Britain validated many of Dowding’s ideas but didn’t eliminate conflicts with peers and superiors. After the battle, he was swiftly replaced and only saved from immediate retirement by Winston Churchill who sent him to the US to evaluate American aviation technology. On his return, despite a still raging world war, Dowding was swiftly retired and spent the rest of the war writing memoirs and exploring the spiritualism that dominated the last part of his life. 

LaSaine’s work concentrates on Dowding’s military career— dedicating just 21 pages to his life after retirement from the RAF— primarily to place him in context with the Battle of Britain’s evolution in popular history. But the author has written more than just a biography. He also provides an insightful, well-referenced picture of the developing RAF, service politics, and debates over doctrine, technology, and force structure that contrast with similar debates occurring in the US and other countries. As such, this work is of interest as a study of airpower leadership and of broader airpower development during the years leading up to the Second World War.

Col Jamie Sculerati, USAF, Retired
New Port Richey, Florida

 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
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