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Leaders of the “Few:” Winston Churchill and the Air Marshals of the Second World War

By Bradley P. Tolppanen

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was twenty-one years old at the start of the Second World War, very much junior to the Royal Navy and British army. Winston Churchill had been closely involved with the development of the RAF. As First Lord of the Admiralty before the First World War, he had overseen the creation of the Naval Air Service, which later combined with the Royal Flying Corps during the war in 1917 to create the RAF. After the war, Churchill served as Secretary of State for Air from 1919–21. As a backbencher in the 1930s, he had been consumed with air matters during his long fight against appeasement. As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence during the Second World War, Churchill immersed himself in the air campaigns. He argued, cajoled, and debated with the RAF’s air marshals over the expansion of the air force and its deployment to all theatres of war, from the skies over the Atlantic Ocean to the campaign in Burma. Like his relationship with Britain’s leading generals and admirals, Churchill’s relationship with the leading air marshals was one of both tension and admiration while the air force played its critical role in achieving victory. Here we look at five of them.

Hugh Dowding

Despite Churchill’s admiration, Hugh Dowding is “the only commander who won one of the few decisive battles in history and got sacked for his pains.”1 The Battle of Britain was won, but the man who won it was dismissed within weeks.

Dowding had led Fighter Command since 1936 and built-up the organization that would defeat the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain. An uncompromising and often infuriating man, his greatest contribution to the war was in May 1940. After the German invasion of France he vigorously opposed the weakening of his command by sending fighter squadrons to the continent. On May 15, 1940 he implored the Chiefs of Staff to avoid draining Fighter Command of aircraft to support the campaign in France, and the next day he wrote that stripping him of fighters and sending across the channel would lead to “the final, complete and irredeemable defeat of this country.” On June 3, 1940, Dowding attended the War Cabinet and observed with the rate of losses endured, “we shall not have a single Hurricane left in France or in this country.” His intervention was decisive; no additional squadrons would be sent to France.2

The Air Ministry had long wanted to remove Dowding from Fighter Command by the time Churchill learned in July 1940 of another attempt to oust him. The prime minister forestalled the effort, writing a reproach to Archibald Sinclair, Secretary for Air, saying Dowding is “one of the very best men you have got.” The next month Churchill had to remind Sinclair sternly of his wish to keep Dowding. That same month Dowding was told his appointment at Fighter Command would be indefinite. This indefinite appointment only lasted until the Battle of Britain was over. Despite the Prime Minister’s estimation that his generalship was “an example of genius in the art of war,” Dowding was replaced at Fighter Command in November 1940. He had been undone by the success of German night bombing as well as by the animosity of Sinclair and the old RAF warhorses, Hugh Trenchard and John Salmond. The Prime Minister accepted the dismissal but said “it broke my heart.”3

Unwilling to have Dowding entirely sidelined, Churchill convinced him to undertake a mission to the United States, for which he proved unsuitable. Twice in 1941, Churchill considered him for command of the RAF in the Middle East. In late 1941 Dowding’s retirement was announced. Having learned of it only from the newspapers, the Prime Minister angrily demanded that Dowding be given another job, this one, investigating the RAF’s economic management, also was deemed unsuitable. Dowding finally went into retirement in mid-1942. The next year, he accepted baroncy but was spitefully denied promotion to Marshal of the Royal Air Force as only holders of the appointment of Chief of the Air Staff had thus far been given the highest RAF rank. This precedent was ignored at the end of the war, as Sholto Douglas and “Bomber” Harris—neither of whom were ever Chief of the Air Staff—were both promoted to the rank Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Charles Portal

In November 1940 Churchill named the forty-seven-year old “Peter” Portal as Chief of the Air Staff, thinking him “the accepted star of the Air Force.” Over the remainder of the war, the Prime Minister never entertained any doubts about the appointment and later remarked, “Portal had everything.”4

Once when asked by a young boy what he did as Chief of the Air Staff, Portal replied that he did not send the bombers or fighters into battle but, instead, had “sat up till 2 o’clock this morning arguing with the Prime Minister.”5 Indeed, Portal spent the war in meetings and often arguing with Churchill. During the conflict Portal attended about 2,000 meetings of the chiefs of staff, received at least 500 minutes from Churchill, sent the Prime Minister at least 765 minutes in reply, went for the weekend at Chequers about two dozen times in just two years, and attended the major war-time conferences.

Churchill enormously admired the air marshal’s great talents, engaging personality, and integrity and had great confidence in his abilities as a strategist. For his part, Portal did not seem to take Churchill’s relentless prodding and late night meetings as personally as his chiefs of staff counterparts Alan Brooke and Andrew Cunningham. Portal was thought to understand Churchill “better than anyone, and handled him with subtlety and skill.”6 With his army and navy colleagues, Portal worked to present a united front to the Prime Minister, especially over his suggestions for campaigns in Norway and Sumatra. He did not shrink from clashing with the Prime Minister and after one row apologized for being rude leading Churchill to smile and say, “You know, in war, you don’t have to be nice, you only have to be right.”7 During the war, Portal resisted the Prime Minister’s occasional doubts about the strategic air offensive, threatened to resign in 1941 over Churchill’s demand that Arthur Tedder be replaced, and demanded in 1945 that the Prime Minister’s minute about strategic bombing be withdrawn.

Churchill always retained his faith in Portal and after the war offered him the office of Minister of Defence in the cabinet if the Conservatives won the 1951 election. Although the Conservatives were returned to office, the airman was not interested in joining the government. 

Arthur Tedder

Arthur Tedder was not one of Churchill’s favorite air marshals. Despite winning an outstanding reputation during the war, he was quite frequently the subject of Churchill’s ire.

At the outset of the war, Tedder was the Director-General of Research and Development at the Air Ministry and in late 1940 was proposed as deputy commander-in-chief of the RAF in the Middle East. Churchill, probably influenced by Lord Beaverbrook, demurred in favor of another air marshal who was duly appointed but who was captured enroute after his aircraft was shot down. Only then did the Prime Minister relent and allow Tedder’s appointment. In May 1941 Tedder was named commander-in-chief of the RAF in the Middle East.

Churchill knew rather little about Tedder and soon had grave doubts about him. In advance of Operation Crusader, planned for November 1941, Tedder submitted air estimates to London that indicated the British would not possess numerical air superiority at the start of the offensive. After the extreme efforts made to provide aircraft to the Middle East, Churchill was furious and demanded Tedder be sacked. Sinclair and Portal, who both had the greatest regard for Tedder, threatened resignation over the issue which only calmed down when a senior air officer was sent to the Middle East to review the air estimates. The numbers were revised upward, and Tedder remained.

By the time Churchill arrived in Egypt in August 1942 to inspect the Middle East situation, he had improved his opinion of Tedder. On disembarking from his aircraft in Cairo, Churchill told Tedder, “I was told you were just a man of nuts and bolts. It was not true, and I was not told the truth.”8 In 1943 Tedder became deputy to General Eisenhower in the combined Anglo-American command structure in the Mediterranean. A year later he became Deputy Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the North-West Europe campaign. Ahead of the D-Day landings, Churchill was bitterly critical of Tedder’s support for the planned pre-invasion bombing campaign. Appalled by the expected French and Belgian civilian deaths, he exerted strong pressure on Tedder over the plan, which Nevertheless went ahead with President Roosevelt’s support.

In early 1945, Churchill, dissatisfied with the ground war, wanted to appoint Field Marshal Harold Alexander as Eisenhower’s deputy in Tedder’s place. The proposal went nowhere as Eisenhower flatly refused the change, but Tedder was, nonetheless, offended. In the closing weeks of the war, Churchill was again at odds with Tedder, this time over his support for Eisenhower’s decision not to advance on Berlin. The Prime Minister sent a minute to the British chiefs of staff that thoroughly berated Tedder. 

Sholto Douglas

Winston Churchill held a high opinion of Sholto Douglas but was denied his attempt to move him to the very forefront of the war.

Possessing a robust personality, Douglas started the war on the Air Staff and in November 1940 followed Dowding at Fighter Command, where he launched fighter sweeps across the English Channel. At this time he impressed Churchill with his work on the Night Air Defence Committee over which the Prime Minister presided. At the end of 1942, Douglas was appointed commander of the RAF in the Middle East, where he shared Churchill’s keenness for the ill-fated operations against Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. The operation floundered, but Douglas always regarded it a great missed opportunity. In 1943 Churchill proposed Douglas as the new Supreme Allied Commander for South-East Asia. The affair was handled clumsily with Douglas being made aware of the tentative appointment before it had been agreed with the Americans. President Roosevelt, however, declined to accept Douglas’ selection. The Americans were vehemently opposed to him and would not serve under him. General George Marshall called Douglas a stuffed-shirt. Churchill did not readily give up on Douglas and cabled the president that Douglas “is a man of exceptional physical energy and vigor of mind. I can myself testify to his very high mental ability.”9 The Americans remained unconvinced and the appointment went to Lord Louis Mountbatten.

With his appointment to fight the Japanese nixed, Douglas was unhappy with his prospective appointment as deputy to Lieutenant-General Ira Eaker as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. He was senior in rank to Eaker and had much more command experience. He also thought correctly that with the impending invasion of Europe, the Mediterranean would become a secondary theatre. As a result of his protests, Douglas was swapped with John Slessor. Slessor came to the Mediterranean as Eaker’s deputy, and Douglas took his place at the head of Coastal Command. In 1945 Douglas was appointed commander of the British Air Forces of Occupation in Germany and the next year became Head of the British Forces in Germany.

Although Douglas had held successive operational appointments that were in constant action against the enemy, his career was rather anti-climactic. As many have observed, he was always late for the greatest moments of the war. Douglas arrived at Fighter Command after the Battle of Britain, in the Middle East after El Alamein, at Coastal Command after the crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in Germany after the surrender.

Arthur Harris

The single-minded and inexhaustible, Arthur “Bomber” Harris is the most controversial British figure of the war due to his leadership of Bomber Command in the strategic air offensive against Germany. Upon Harris’s taking over Bomber Command in February 1942, Churchill worked closely with him and gave him great support.

At Bomber Command, Harris implemented the policy of area bombing German cities to destroy industrial production. He was convinced that bombing alone could win the war, believing that with enough resources he could batter Germany into submission. Unlike Harris, Churchill observed as early as 1942 that bombing by itself could not win the war. The strategic air campaign was an important factor, but it would not render a land campaign unnecessary.

Harris and Churchill had a strong rapport and spoke often, with the air marshal being regularly invited to Chequers. Harris used this access to inform the prime minister personally about Bomber Command’s activities and explain his needs. He would later note that it was difficult to argue with the Prime Minister because he would not listen and frequently interrupted. When Churchill wanted a complicated explanation, Harris found it best to send him a short paper on the topic. With Churchill’s support for Harris, “obstacles to the expansion of the bomber campaign miraculously dissolved,” and critics have claimed that the support of the “Prime Minister essentially allowed [Harris] to wage a private war.”10 This overstates the case, but Churchill probably supported Harris too long in resisting the “diversion” of Bomber Command from hitting Germany to being deployed in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Although he had long advocated the strategic air campaign, Churchill recoiled after the bombing of Dresden in 1945. On March 28, 1945 Churchill prepared a minute, for which he has been accused of thinking of his post-war reputation, in which he wrote, “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror…should be reviewed.”11 Portal and Harris were incensed, with Harris calling the suggestion of terror an insult. The initial minute was withdrawn, and on April 1, 1945 a revised and more careful minute was issued on which basis the Air Staff limited further area bombing.

Harris and Bomber Command were poorly treated after the war. This started with Churchill’s own victory speech in which he described all the military contributions to the victory but neglected to mention the strategic air campaign. In 1946 Harris was promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force but was notably left out of the Honours List that bestowed peerages on the other leading British commanders. Churchill was disgusted by the omission; telling Harris, “You fought a thousand battles, a record for any commander, and won most of them. Jellicoe fought one, lost it, and they made him an Earl.”12 The situation was somewhat remedied after Churchill returned as prime minister in the 1950s when Harris then received a baronetcy.

Bradley P. Tolppanen is author of Churchill in North America, 1929 (2014).

Endnotes

  1. Probert, Henry. High Commanders of the Royal Air Force (London: HMSO, 1991), 19.
  2. Collier, Basil. Leader of the Few: The Authorized Biography of Air Chief Marshal The Lord Dowding (London, Jarrolds, 1957), 191, 194. Gilbert, Martin. Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939-1941. (Stoddart, Toronto, 1983), 458.
  3. Orange, Vincent. Churchill and His Airmen (London, Grub Street, 2013), 148. Probert, 21.
  4. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War, Their Finest Hour (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 20. Moran, Lord. Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 315.
  5. Richards, Denis. Portal of Hungerford (London: Heinemann, 1977), 181
  6. Richards, 185.
  7. Richards, 186.
  8. Tedder, Arthur. With Prejudice: The War Memoirs of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Tedder (Boston, Little, Brown, 1967), 319.
  9. Kimball, Warren. Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, Volume II (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984), 305.
  10. Saward, Dudley. Bomber Harris: The Story of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris (Garden City, NY , Doubleday, 1985), 134
  11. Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill: Volume VII, Road to Victory, 1941-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 1257.
  12. Saward. 322.

 

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