A B-17 figures prominently in "Heavy Metal" (1981).
"Heavy Metal" (1981) was a Canadian-American animated feature film directed toward an adult audience. Directed by Gerald Potterton and produced by Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel, it is composed of a series of loosely connected vignettes. These scenes don't have much connection to each other aside from a murky framing device involving some kind of alien force. One of the best scenes is set somewhat incongruously during World War II aboard a USAAF B-17 bomber in the South Pacific.
The B-17 story is tight and surprisingly realistic despite the supernatural theme.
The animators drawing the different scenes basically went where they wanted to go without much regard to an overall plot. The B-17 story, written by Dan O'Bannon of "Alien" fame, apparently was drawn by a World War II veteran who just wanted to tell a supernatural tale from that conflict based on his own experiences - and things branch off in different directions from there.
"Heavy Metal" thus features creativity run wild, which either comports with what you want from an animated feature film or doesn't. Any fan of animation should get a thrill out of it. I think this scene is interesting as a kind of hallucinogenic fantasy memory of World War II. And, it's just plain fun.
The musical track that accompanies this part of the scene is by Don Felder of the Eagles. Oh, and before you hunt down the movie, just be aware that the rest of it has nothing whatsoever to do with B-17s or bombers in any way, shape, or form. Anyway, this is just a break from the usual historical heavy lifting on this blog, something a little fun. I hope you enjoy this selection! If you wish to learn more about "Heavy Metal," I have a page devoted to it here.
Major James M. Stewart, USAAF, Group Operations Officer, 453rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), counting planes after a mission. RAF Old Buckenham, 1944.
James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was one of the best-known actors of his time. He starred in classic motion pictures such as "Rear Window" (1954), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), and "Vertigo" (1958). Here, though, we're not going to talk about his acting career much at all. Instead, we'll look at his other career as a World War II pilot and long-time reservist in the US Air Force. Much of the information in this article is contained in Robert Matzen’s book “Mission” and "Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot" by Starr Smith.
Jimmy Stewart with his mother and father.
Jimmy Stewart came from a proud military family. His third great grandfather, Fergus Moorhead, served in the Revolutionary War, and both of his grandfathers were soldiers in the Civil War. More recently, his father Alexander Maitland Stewart was a Captain during WW I and kept his old military medals on display in the family store. So, Jimmy Stewart understood the service, didn’t look down on soldiers, and embraced the army life. His father ran the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store in Indiana, Pennsylvania. After going to prep school, Stewart matriculated at Princeton University, graduating with a degree in Architecture in 1932. He then set out to pursue a career as an actor during the worst year of the Great Depression.
Jimmy Stewart with costar Ginger Rogers in "Vivacious Lady."
After getting acting experience in plays throughout the northeast, Stewart signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). His first film was "The Murder Man" (1935). Some of his old friends from his summer stock days such as Henry Fonda's ex-wife, Margaret Sullavan, helped him to get noticed, and this led to starring roles in progressively better pictures. Soon, he was starring in top productions such as "Vivacious Lady" (1938), "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), and "Destry Rides Again" (1939). For "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, which wound up in his father's hardware store on display along with other family awards and military medals.
During the late 1930s, even while he was acting as a leading man, Stewart was quietly pursuing his life-long interest in aviation. He would spend his Sundays off from his acting duties flying his Stinson 105 in and out of Mines Field (later Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX), which was surrounded by farmland. As a private pilot, he logged over 400 hours of flight and was considered a very capable pilot. Stewart worked hard and acquired a commercial pilot's license in 1938 that qualified him to fly multi-engine aircraft.
Jimmy Stewart in MGM film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
World War II
Jimmy Stewart actually wanted to serve in the military despite his high-profile career. This perhaps was because of his family's longstanding ties with the service. There are some who believe that his intensive pre-war flight training was designed exactly with this in mind rather than just being a hobby.
In any event, the draft was in effect and applied to everyone, including movie stars. Stewart’s draft number was 310 and his number came up in November 1940, but though he was 6-foot-3, Stewart was very gangly and weighed only 138 pounds. The Army turned Stewart down as unfit because of this, but unlike some other movie stars such as Orson Welles, Stewart decided not to take "No" for an answer. To solve his weight problem, he started eating spaghetti twice a day, supplemented with steaks and milkshakes, then reapplied.
James M. Stewart enlists as a private in the United States Army, 22 March 1941. (Los Angeles Times).
At a second physical on 22 March 1941, he still hadn’t gained quite enough weight. However, he talked the Army doctors into overlooking this. Stewart then ran outside shouting to his friend, fellow actor Burgess Meredith: “I’m in! I’m in!” Thus, technically Stewart was "drafted," but there is a lot more nuance to Stewart's induction than simply being forced into the Army. He reported for duty at Fort McArthur.
Jimmy Stewart entered as a private and was stationed at Moffett Field, California. His later meteoric rise in the ranks can partially be explained by the fact that he had several advantages over other enlisted men. For one, Stewart entered the service long before Pearl Harbor. Anyone in the service before the mass entry of enlistees in December 1941 had an advantage. Plus, Stewart had another leg up because he was a licensed commercial pilot - a very rare and extremely valuable commodity indeed. He set to work skillfully parlaying his talents and qualifications to advance himself.
Jimmy Stewart with Henry O. Wittman at California’s Moffett Field, July 1941. Wittman sent this photo to his cousin, Mary Thomas. He was killed during a training flight in 1943.
Stewart, as a college graduate, had the foundation for a higher rank right from the beginning of his service, but he did not just rely on that. Stewart's previous 400 hours were not quite enough to satisfy the regulations of the Air Corps proficiency board, so at his own expense, he paid for an additional 100 hours of flight time at a nearby airport. His hours logged as a pilot enabled Stewart to train for and earn his pilot wings at Moffett. Certainly, Stewart needed to be completely retrained for military pilot duties, but his commercial pilot license gave his request credibility and got him in the door. As Stewart himself later explained it, "there was a desperate need for instructors," and he already was a trained pilot, so the door was open for advancement.
Stewart studied hard to advance himself throughout 1941. This took up the remainder of 1941, and in December he was awaiting the results of his proficiency board examination on Pearl Harbor Day. His hard work paid off and he passed the test. Stewart thus earned a commission as a 2nd Lt. pilot at the beginning of 1942.
Corporal James M. Stewart was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant at Moffett Field, Calif., on January 19, 1942. (National Archives).
After earning his wings, Stewart instructed other pilots in flying AT-6 ("my first plane with retracting landing gear"), AT-9, B-17, and B-24 aircraft. His first base was Mather Field near Sacramento, California, but he was only there for a couple of months. He also trained pilots at Gowen Field outside of Boise, Idaho, and Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He then was sent to the four-engine school at Hobbs, New Mexico (near Lubbock, Texas) in order to qualify on the B-17 Flying Fortress and learn how to train other pilots on it.
Major Stewart, then executive officer, 2nd Bombardment Wing, after a mission on 23 July 1944.
Stewart also did propaganda acting work throughout his service as the US Army ordered. He worked with the First Motion Picture Unit at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California, to produce shorts and also appeared on national radio shows. Stewart, however, was unhappy at remaining stateside. Now that he was qualified to fly the "big stuff" he requested a combat assignment. During an assignment at Sioux City, Iowa, Stewart was promoted to command of a B-24 Liberator squadron within the 445th Bombardment Group, and his wish to join the 8th Air Force in the United Kingdom was granted. Now a Captain, he led his squadron to Europe on the "southern route" through Natal, Brazil, across to Marrakesh, Morocco, and then up to England.
Lt. Colonel James Stewart, 453rd Group Operations Officer, debriefing pilots after a B-24 raid over Berlin.
Jimmy Stewart flew 20 missions over Germany, a normal rotation (that commercial pilot license and resulting bomber pilot training proving its worth). He also was older than most other servicemen, being in his mid-30s, and that lends a certain gravitas that is conducive to promotions, especially in combat units. Stewart received a promotion to Major after a mission over Ludwigshafen, Germany, on 7 January 1944, then to full colonel on 29 March 1945. He became deputy commander of the 2d Bombardment Wing.
Jimmy Stewart going through a pre-flight checklist.
Stewart approached his service in a deadly serious fashion and viewed it as his “real job.” Fellow soldiers who served with Stewart said he was very by-the-book, courteous, a stickler for detail, and didn’t cut corners. He was never just "along for the ride," being on the radio during his 20 missions with a calm and distinctive voice directing the unit. The guys in his unit had a high survival rate due to his professionalism. His men came to see him as “Captain Stewart,” but others who didn’t work with him regularly still saw him as a movie star and treated him as such. He saw himself as just another proud US soldier.
Jimmy Stewart being awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm.
After World War II
Stewart was involved for some time as the presiding officer at a court-martial of a fellow pilot and a navigator who had accidentally bombed Switzerland. With his duties in England over, Stewart and eight of his men then returned to the United States aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth (being used as a troop transport) because, he said later, "there weren't any planes left." After his return, he helped to found the Air Force Association in October 1945, then joined the reserves.
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey contemplating suicide in "It's a Wonderful Life."
After briefly considering retiring from the acting business to run the family store in Pennsylvania, Stewart resumed his acting career with Music Corporation of America (MCA). His first post-war film was "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), directed by his old colleague Frank Capta. There was a certain verisimilitude to the role, as Stewart reportedly suffered from some post-traumatic stress syndrome and this helped him to portray the anguish of his character, George Bailey. Stewart also had lived the situation of considering whether to remain in his home town to run a family business.
Jimmy Stewart expressing horror in "It's a Wonderful Life."
While not a great financial success at first, "It's A Wonderful Life" reestablished Stewart as a top actor, earned him another Academy Award nomination, and set him on the path of becoming a Hollywood legend. The film since has become a widely beloved classic and has been praised as one of the top 100 films ever made. Many other classic performances awaited, but it's clear that Stewart's first film back after his harrowing war service meant a lot to him. He called it his favorite film.
Brigadier General James Stewart on the day of his observation flight over Vietnam on 20 February 1966.
Stewart remained in the reserves until the Vietnam War, commanding Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Marietta, Georgia, in the late 1940s. He received his final active-duty promotion to brigadier general on July 23, 1959. Jimmy Stewart flew one last 13-hour combat mission from Guam during Operation Arc Light (1965-1973) as an observer in 1966 in order to satisfy some officer requirements. That flight came close to ending in disaster when some mechanical issues arose at the last moment, but the pilot successfully landed the bomber.
Stewart officially retired from the Air Force at the mandatory retirement age of 60 on May 31, 1968, when he was awarded the United States Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. President Ronald Reagan saw to it that Stewart was promoted to major general on the retired list in 1985. Stewart passed away on 2 July 1997 and is interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.
Jimmy Stewart visiting his old base at Tibenham, Norfolk, England, in 1975. You can see the metal fence on which he was perched in the picture at the beginning of this article (Terry Fincher).
Jimmy Stewart rising to the rank of Colonel was impressive, but it wasn’t unusual for Hollywood stars who took their service seriously to rise in rank. Robert Montgomery rose to the rank of Lt. Commander and was present at D-Day, Ronald Reagan became a Captain (and was denied a promotion to Major he thought he deserved), etc. But look, nobody’s trying to take anything away from Jimmy Stewart, what he did was phenomenal, exceptional, and a real testament to him. Jimmy Stewart didn’t ask for any favors, he didn’t sneak back to Hollywood to make more movies, he earned what he got. Jimmy Stewart worked hard, he studied, he qualified, he volunteered, he survived, he scored.
The simple answer to whether German Grand Admiral (Großadmiral) and Reichs President (Reichspräsident) Karl Doenitz (Dönitz) was a war criminal is "yes." That is because he was convicted on two of three war crimes charges. Doenitz was sentenced to ten years in prison (actually over 11 years including time served). However, simply saying that Doenitz was a war criminal does not answer why.
Let's look at why Karl Doenitz was convicted at Nuremberg.
Karl Doenitz was born in Grünau near Berlin, Germany, in 1891. He enlisted in the Kaiserliche Marine ("Imperial Navy") in 1910 and was a Leutnant zur See (acting sub-lieutenant) on the cruiser SMS Breslau when World War I began. Doenitz transferred to the submarine service as an Oberleutnant zur See (full Lieutenant) in 1916 and attended the submarine service's school at Flensburg-Mürwik, graduating on 3 January 1917. He rose to command UB-68 in the Mediterranean but was forced to scuttle his boat on 4 October 1918, becoming a prisoner of war. In 1920, he returned to Germany.
During the interwar period, Doenitz remained in the navy (which was considered an honor, as the size of the German military was greatly restricted due to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles) and continued his rise through the ranks. When the Reichsmarine was renamed Kriegsmarine in 1935, Doenitz was in command of the training cruiser Emden. Germany was prohibited at this time from having a submarine fleet, but Hitler negotiated the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 that erased this prohibition. Almost immediately, Doenitz was placed in command of the U-boat flotilla Weddigen.
Karl Doenitz in 1935, with the grade of captain, inspecting U-7 (photo Karl Daublebsky von Eichhain).
Doenitz, now a Kapitän zur See (naval captain), began developing U-boat group tactics. He quickly became the dominant person in the entire new U-boat service. Doenitz preferred smaller submarines, as opposed to some other powers such as France and Japan that built giant submarines, due to pragmatic issues such as cost of construction and tactics. Ultimately, he settled on the Type VII submarine, which had a range of 6200 miles that later was extended to 8700 miles. In terms of tactics, Doenitz settled on the Rudeltaktik ("wolfpack"), wherein groups of U-boats would overwhelm a convoy's defenses by working together. This was somewhat similar to similar strategies in the German Army (Heer) in which massed tank tactics were favored. Improved radio communications, directed by a central command in Berlin, made the wolfpack tactic possible.
Doenitz During World World Two
Following a 14 August 1939 meeting at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden with his ministers and military leaders, Adolf Hitler decided to wage war with Poland. On 15 August 1939, sent a coded message to Doenitz, since 28 January 1939 the Commodore (Kommodore) and Commander of Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote). It instructed Doenitz to send the U-boat fleet to sea and to take up stations off the coast of Great Britain.
British liner SS Athenia sinking on 3 September 1939.
Doenitz's problems began quickly. On the first day of the war with Great Britain, 3 September 1939, U-30 (Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp) torpedoed and sank the 13,465-ton British liner Athenia about 200 miles northwest of Ireland. There were 98 passenger and 19 crew deaths. The sinking clearly violated international law, which required U-boats to stop the ship and allow the passengers to disembark. The Kriegsmarine commander, Grand Admiral Raeder, quickly denied responsibility for the sinking, Lemp informed Doenitz of the truth when he returned to port. Doenitz sent Lemp to Berlin to talk to Raeder, who referred the matter to Hitler. After consultations, Hitler decided to keep the matter secret. despite the fact that this was a violation of the rules of war. The German Propaganda Ministry blamed the loss on the British themselves, which began or at least accelerated a cycle of distrust between the two naval powers.
Time Magazine of 10 May 1943 featured Admiral Doenitz on the cover.
Adherence to the "rules of war" quickly fell by the wayside. On 23 September 1939, Hitler ordered that any freighters using a radio should be stopped and then sunk or captured. On 27 September 1939, he ordered the enforcement of Prize Regulations ended, and on 2 October 1939, all darkened ships in the war zone were made subject to immediate attack. On 17 November 1939, U-boats were authorized to attack any passenger liners (such as the Athenia) that were considered "hostile."
Admiral Karl Doenitz (third from left), as he replaces Erich Raeder as commander-in-chief of the German naval forces in January 1943.
Doenitz was not blameless in the gradual but inevitable adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Raeder and others later described Doenitz as a fervent Hitler follower and confirmed anti-Semite. Doenitz was in favor of unrestricted submarine warfare, along with Raeder. However, ultimately this was not his decision to make. That decision could only be made by the head of state, Hitler, because of its obvious political ramifications. Heartily embracing the new policies, Doenitz, on 1 October 1939, became a Konteradmiral (rear admiral) and "Commander of the Submarines" (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU). This placed him in supreme command of all U-boat operations and, ultimately, of the German command of the vast majority of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Doenitz's wolfpack tactics proved successful. Men died in freezing waters or of starvation in lifeboats or trapped below decks of sinking tankers. Sometimes, entire crews perished and there were no survivors, no memories, sometimes not even any flotsam or jetsam. It was a brutal campaign and both sides used brutal tactics.
Despite occasional (and unproven) accusations of atrocities, U-boat commanders often helped the survivors of the ships they had sunk, giving them directions and food. This may have been cold comfort to the survivors, but it showed a certain camaraderie of the sea when truly vicious sailors might have acted quite differently. In the Laconia Incident of 12 September 1942, Doenitz personally ordered nearby U-boats to attempt rescue operations of passengers from a sinking ocean liner off the African coast. Over 1000 men, women, and children were saved who otherwise might not have been. Doenitz was not as hard-hearted as some might have wished to portray him, and this would count in his favor... later. However, after the attempted rescue backfired because American aircraft attacked the Axis ships attempting the rescue, Doenitz issued the Laconia Orders forbidding such rescues in the future. This was very controversial, and some U-boat commanders continued to render aid to people struggling in the water after their ships sank despite the orders.
Karl Doenitz makes a radio broadcast speech after the assassination attempt on Hitler, 21 July 1944. Watching him is Hitler and another survivor of the failed plot.
The U-boat campaign had its ups and downs, reaching peaks in early 1941 (the "Happy Time") and then again in 1942 during Unternehmen Pauckenschlag (Operation Drumbeat), when U-boats operated with virtual impunity off the eastern coast of the United States. Hundreds of ships were sunk as U-boats attacked any non-German ship they saw, including neutral ships. Doenitz personally controlled U-boat operations from his headquarter in Paris, making frequent trips to the major U-boat bases along the French coast to greet returning U-boats and provide inspiration to the sailors. By May 1943, however, new Allied tactics and defensive equipment had neutered the U-boat fleet. It never again posed a true threat to the Allies despite achieving regular small successes.
Admiral Doenitz meets with Hitler in 1945.
On 30 January 1943, Doenitz succeeded Raeder as Grand Admiral due to the latter's disagreements with Hitler and the failures of the German surface fleet. By 1944, Doenitz's U-boats were preoccupied with mere survival given the oppressive Allied advantage at sea. Hitler, however, never lost faith in Doenitz, perhaps because only the U-boat service continued to report victories (albeit increasingly rarely) right up until the end of the war. When Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945, he appointed Doenitz (to the surprise of many) as his successor. This was more a formality than anything substantive, however, as Doenitz's only substantive act was the surrender of the Reich's armed forces.
Doenitz At Trial in Nuremberg
The Allies arrested Doenitz at his seat of government in Flensburg, northern Germany, on 23 May 1945. The Allies dissolved the German government and sent Doenitz to Nuremberg to be tried for war crimes. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg indicted him on three counts: (1) "conspiracy to commit crimes against peace," (2) "Planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression," and (3) "crimes against the laws of war." Doenitz was not indicted on a fourth count of "crimes against humanity."
Otto Kranzbühler at Nuremberg.
With the cream of the Kriegsmarine to choose from, Doenitz asked Otto Kranzbühler, a crafty lawyer who some considered the best counsel in the trials, to represent him. It was a wise choice. Kranzbühler was a young and flamboyant junior naval officer (he held the rank of Flottenrichter (Navy Judge in the rank of a Kapitän zur See)) who came into his own as Doenitz's counsel. He may have been in part the inspiration for the classic defense lawyer played by Maximilian Schell in "Judgment At Nuremberg" (1961). As a stunt, Kranzbühler made his initial appearance before the international tribunal in his full Kriegsmarine uniform (causing the Soviet guards to almost arrest him). This was calculated to imply that if the head of the Navy was on trial, then it would be the Navy that would defend him. It also implied that it was the German Navy itself that was on trial and that the navy did not disown its former leader. In a military court, this meant something.
Otto Kranzbühler makes the case.
Kranzbühler put on what may fairly be characterized as a brilliant defense. As suggested by his dramatic entrance, Kranzbühler took the charges against Doenitz personally. He immediately made it clear to the tribunal that, though on the losing side of the war, Dönitz was not deserving of the indictments brought against him. Kranzbühler also argued that if the Grand Admiral of the German Navy was to be tried, he should be addressed by the court with the respect he deserved as a military leader. The Allies, however, did not agree. While the prosecutors (including Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson) and judges at Nuremberg continued to address Doenitz without any recognition, Kranzbühler always referred to his client as Grand Admiral, or "Herr Grossadmiral."
US Admiral Chester Nimitz helped out a fellow admiral from the other side when it mattered most (US Navy).
The first charge was that sinking Allied freighters was illegal. To defend Dönitz, Kranzbühler shrewdly obtained from US Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, an interrogatory in which he extracted various items of information about American naval practice. Nimitz answered sensitive questions about the practice of the United States Navy concerning submarines and merchant ships. These included US naval practice when a submarine crew had no way of knowing whether or not a ship was armed. Nimitz's answers made it clear that the German practice of attacking merchant ships was indistinguishable from the United States' unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific. Kranzbühler skillfully used the interrogatory to show that what his client had done, which was similar to the actions of the Allies was in accordance with the practice of war at sea at the time, and therefore was not criminal.
The prosecution unwisely attempted to use the Laconia Orders that forbade rescues of passengers and crew against Doenitz. This backfired badly on the Allies because it enabled Kranzbühler, who was no fool, to bring up Doenitz's attempt first to try to save the passengers. The fact that the attacks on the U-boats were by US aircraft was doubly effective because it reinforced Admiral Nimitz's admission to the brutality of the US military. In a naval war that saw savagery and mistakes by both sides, guilt and innocence became shades of gray.
Kranzbühler's audacious gambits worked. The Tribunal found Doenitz not guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships. However, this was a limited victory, as the Tribunal did hold that the sinking of neutral ships was a violation of existing law.
Acquitted of the most serious charge against him, Doenitz was sentenced by the Tribunal to 10 years in prison for his conviction related to waging a war of aggression. Doenitz's carrying out of the order to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare was not officially included in his sentence, but it almost certainly influenced the verdict. It was the main reason why most judges wanted him convicted. Doenitz served 10 years in Spandau Prison plus the additional 18 months he had spent at the Mondorf and Nuremberg prison camps while awaiting trial and being tried. However, but for the efforts of Kranzbühler, particularly in respect to his defense to Count #3 above, Dönitz likely would have served a much longer sentence or perhaps even have been sentenced to death (the British and Soviet judges wanted to execute Doenitz and were only restrained by the US and French judges). It was one of the most amazing legal coups of the post-war trials.
Doenitz was not a "good man" as we would understand the term. He did not share our values. Among other faults, Karl Doenitz hated Jews, he helped to initiate and waged a ruthless war of annihilation that killed defenseless people on ships, he strove to imbue the submarine service with an air of Hitlerism, and he gladly accepted the leadership of one of the most brutal regimes of all time. However, this article is not about whether we would have anything common with Doenitz, a convicted war criminal. He was justly convicted for his crimes and served his time. His trial and defense by lawyer Kranzbühler before the Military Tribunal served the useful purpose of discharging some of the tensions between the victors and the vanquished of World War, and that at least made up for some of the violence Karl Doenitz committed on behalf of the Third Reich.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader at the conclusion of World War II. If the meeting appears a bit awkward, there is a good reason for that which we will get to below.
Why was RAF Air Marshal Hugh Dowding fired? Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was fired (“reassigned”) at the close of the Battle of Britain for reasons that are widely misunderstood. This has cast a shadow of sorts over his legacy. I shall go through some facts about Dowding as I explain why I believe he was the victim of politics and was not fired for cause.
Dowding spent over a decade before World War II in Royal Air Force leadership positions building up the institution and infrastructure. While not considered the "father" of the force (that was Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Montague Trenchard), Dowding played a large role in building the modern RAF that wound up facing off against the Luftwaffe.
Dowding presides over the graduation exercises at RAF College, Cranwell, in 1930. He became the director of training at the Air Ministry in 1926 and advanced rapidly after that.
Air Marshal Hugh Dowding Guided the RAF Through Dangerous Times
Dowding, intending to retire in June 1939, showed excellent judgment after being asked to remain in office due to the war crisis. He displayed an outstanding grasp of the air war and the proper uses of the RAF interceptor force. There was nothing outdated about his thinking and he clearly understood the power and limitations of modern fighters. He developed the “Dowding System” for early warning of air attacks that incorporated radar chains on the south coast, radio control of aircrews, the Duxford Operations Room, and the underground Operations Room at Headquarters Fighter Command, Bentley Priory, Middlesex. The cutting-edge Dowding System proved vital during the war. Hugh Dowding was no Dudley Pound falling asleep at strategy meetings.
Dowding established the entire RAF command and control operation, including RAF Fighter Command headquarters at Bentley Priory.
Dowding carefully husbanded his forces throughout 1940. His first major policy position was on 15 May 1940 to refuse the French request to send “clouds of planes” to fight the lost cause in France. This undoubtedly was the right position in terms of preserving forces to protect the homeland. The War Cabinet agreed with Dowding and this had major strategic and political implications, as it began the growing divergence between French and British strategy and war aims.
In his role as the commanding officer of the newly created RAF Fighter Command beginning in 1936, Dowding oversaw the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane, above, and other modern fighters.
Dowding kept close track of British fighter forces and was careful to protect them from any unnecessary threats. On 3 June 1940, he warned that the RAF would literally run out of Hawker Hurricanes (the backbone of the RAF fighter force despite the flashier Spitfire) within two weeks at the current loss rate. This justified his earlier decision to not send his precious remaining fighters to France.
On 11 June 1940, with France crumbling, Dowding reiterated his position against sending fighters to France (they demanded “the entire RAF”). Churchill agreed with him. This was an extremely tough decision because it furthered the breach between France and the UK. However, Dowding was looking after his country’s survival.
On 23 July 1940, Dowding succeeded in getting convoys routed away from the east coast and sent north around Scotland instead. He knew the RAF was so weak it could not protect the ships even right along the coastline. On 28 July 1940, he moved his fighters closer to the Channel to better confront the Luftwaffe, a very aggressive move that led to the famous Luftwaffe losses in August.
While RAF planes were in short supply early in the conflict, pilots became scarce as time went on. Dowding took decisive steps to maintain enough of both.
Despite his wise moves that preserved the fighter force, Dowding ran into a huge problem of a dwindling supply of fighter pilots. He solved this on 17 August 1940 by receiving permission to poach pilots in training in other branches of the RAF.
So far, so good. Dowding skillfully preserved his fighter force and kept it at full strength through a sequence of canny moves. In September 1940, after the peak of the Battle of Britain, his problems began. That is when Air Marshal Hugh Dowding finally met enemies he could not overcome.
The RAF groups in 1940 with their relative strengths. The most important group for Britain's survival was No. 11 Group at lower right, led by Keith Park, which faced the brunt of the Luftwaffe onslaught.
Dowding Falls Victim to Careerists in the RAF
Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory of No. 12 Group (north of London), who was a bit of a schemer, had developed what became known as the “Big Wing” concept. In simple terms, the Big Wing involved assembling a large force of fighters (three or four squadrons) over RAF bases before sending them as a group to attack incoming Luftwaffe bomber streams. This had some advantages - it meant maximum-strength interceptions. However, its major failing was that it took time to assemble these large forces. By the time the RAF set out to intercept the bombers, the Germans had completed their work of bombing cities and turned back to France. The Big Wing tactic, however, worked well for forces further back from the “front” that had time to assemble before their own bases came under attack.
Dowding did not like the Big Wing concept. He preferred sending smaller groups of fighters immediately as they got airborne to intercept the bombers. This disrupted enemy bombing operations and gave more opportunities for shoot-downs. Dowding’s strategy was arguably better for front-line units that were under immediate threat and did not have time for leisurely assemblies. Each strategy obviously had strengths and weaknesses and reasonable people could disagree. This may seem like a minor policy disagreement that could have been settled over after-dinner cognacs, but it led to Dowding’s downfall.
Keith Park in his personalized Hurricane, which he flew to the ten airfields under his command in No. 11 Group. His personal insignia, Cerberus, is to the extreme left.
The problem for Dowding was that the Air Ministry, which never had shown much leadership or skill in operations, backed Leigh-Mallory (and had ulterior motives for doing so, as we shall see below). New Zealand native Air Vice Marshal Keith Park in command of Fighter Command in southeast England, however, agreed with Dowding. In other words, the two men at the tip of the spear, who had the biggest responsibility for confronting the Luftwaffe and the most success in the Battle of Britain, were against the “Big Wing” concept. RAF people further back from the hot spot and sitting in cozy offices, on the other hand, liked it.
So, two power blocks emerged within the RAF: the warriors Dowding and Park, opposed by the Air Ministry and Leigh-Mallory (who was in command of a secondary zone but coveted Park’s prestigious job). They could not coexist, one power block or the other was going to win and the other lose. This internal struggle ultimately became more about power than strategy.
From right to left, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, King George VI, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon during the Battle of Britain.
It’s not like Dowding was not appreciated. However, his support was not institutional within the RAF. He was on good terms with the King, who followed events extremely closely and knew exactly who was doing what. On 30 September 1940, Dowding, already a Knight, received the further honor of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (investiture on 8 October 1940). However, the fight - the real fight, never mind the air war itself - was on within the Air Ministry to gain the laurels for the saving of the country during the Battle of Britain. And this battle was fought tooth-and-nail in the corridors of power, and Dowding's downfall was close at hand.
Douglas Bader swinging his artificial leg into his fighter before a 1945 flight.
The tipping point was the support of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader for Leigh-Mallory and the Air Ministry. Bader, within Leigh-Mallory’s command, was a legend within the RAF for, among other things, remaining in action despite losing both of his legs in an air accident. Bader also just so happened to have a Member of Parliament in his unit. As a major propaganda hero (even the Germans knew all about him), Bader had a lot of pull that went way above his rank. Like any good soldier, he wanted to support his commander - Leigh-Mallory.
As always seems to happen in bureaucratic infighting, the battle was decided at a staff meeting. At a key high-level RAF meeting held on 17 October 1940, with the Battle of Britain basically won, Leigh-Mallory brought Bader (who had no reason to be there) to argue for the BIg Wing concept and against Dowding and Park. The political clout of Bader, combined with the institutional power of Leigh-Mallory and the Air Ministry itself, was too much for Dowding (who could be shunted aside as “too old”) and Park (who wasn’t even English, for goodness sakes). This meeting led directly to the sacking of both Dowding and Park - the two men most responsible for the winning of the Battle of Britain.
On 29 September 1942 at Debden, Air Chief Marshal Sholto Douglas conducts a change-over review of the three U.S. Eagle Squadrons. Trailing him are Major General Carl Spaatz (right) and Brigadier General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter (left) - Commanding Generals of USAAF in Great Britain and 8th Air Force Fighter Command.
Where They All Wound Up
Dowding then “retired” (he actually just went to a staff position in the United States, the standard dumping ground for the losers such as Lord Halifax in British bureaucratic struggles). Park was transferred to a humiliating training position (he later rebounded with prestigious commands including Malta and is considered quite a war hero in New Zealand).
Trafford Leigh-Mallory reaped many rewards from his coup against Dowding and Park. For instance, above he makes official remarks at the grand 1943 Battle of Britain Day held in London. Dowding and Park, employed elsewhere, could not attend.
And Leigh-Mallory? He got what he had wanted all along, Park’s prestigious command of the No. 11 Group in southeastern England. Guess who got Dowding’s position? The real head of the Air Ministry, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff Sholto Douglas (Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal was brand new to the job in October 1940 and likely had little stake in these internal struggles). In other words, Douglas, who was really running things as the "power behind the throne," got rid of the other power block in one fell swoop and put himself and his cronies in position to claim credit for the success of the Battle of Britain.
Bader got his rewards, too. He quickly received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 12 December 1940 and was promoted to acting wing commander and became one of the first "wing leaders" on 18 March 1941. In 1941, Bader again combined with Leigh-Mallory in an abortive attempt to equip Spitfires with four .303 machine guns, which Bader personally preferred, instead of .50 machine guns. The larger guns proved more effective and Bader's plans came to naught. He was shot down in combat on 9 August 1941 and spent the remaining war years as a guest of the German government, primarily in Colditz Castle Oflag IV-C.
Douglas Bader's home for much of World War II was Colditz Castle POW camp.
The "Big Wing" concept ultimately turned into a big flop. The claims made by Leigh-Mallory and Bader turned out to be vastly inflated. RAF ace Johnnie Johnson summed up the matter nicely:
Douglas was all for the Big Wings to counter the German formation[s]. I think there was room for both tactics – the Big Wings and the small squadrons. It might well have been fatal had Park always tried to get his squadrons into "Balbos," for not only would they have taken longer to get to their height, but sixty or seventy packed climbing fighters could have been seen for miles and would have been sitting ducks for higher 109s.
So, there were pluses and minuses to the "Big Wing," more appropriate for units further from the front than front-line units as Dowding and Park knew. It certainly was not worth a major leadership shakeup in the RAF. In any event, the days of large Luftwaffe daylight raids were over. The "Wing" name lived on as an organizational title meaning a group of squadrons, but the "Big Wing" concept died a quick death.
There was no reason to remove Dowding (or Park). They had both done outstanding work and continued to do outstanding work. The “Big Wing” concept had major failings and was just a handy way to get rid of them. Dowding and Park were the victims of a political purge in which the victors took the spoils. After they had done the “heavy lifting” that won the Battle of Britain and having shouldered the risk of massive failure, Dowding and Park were efficiently disposed of by the real powers within the RAF.
In a way, Dowding was a victim of his own success. Having won the Battle of Britain through brilliant leadership, he created a nation-saving victory that others coveted - and basically took from him.
Sir Hugh Dowding (left) at a 1949 commemoration of World War II.