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Book Review by Author and OL ('39): Jack Dixon

Posted: 1st April 2011

 

2010 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (later Lord Dowding) who master-minded the RAF’s victory in the battle of Britain. He oversaw the creation of Fighter Command during the late 1930s and thus played a unique role in the defence of these islands during the supreme emergency of 1940.  His investment in radar provided the RAF with an early warning system which time and again gave aircrews that precious breathing space to scramble the fighters thus avoiding annihilation on the ground. Britain’s late commitment to all-out rearmament, after the German entry into Prague in March 1939 had finally dispelled any lingering belief that Hitler would keep the Munich Agreement, meant that Fighter Command, which had been developing steadily since 1936, was the only section of Britain’s armed forces ready for war when it came in September.  In 1940, following the fall of France, Britain faced Germany alone in a battle which arguably would decide the fate of western civilisation. Dowding’s role in this pivotal conflict was a crucial one and he was credited with winning the Battle of Britain and awarded the Knight Grand Cross.  However his removal from office without promotion in November 1940 has remained an issue which raises many questions.

 

Jack Dixon’s excellent and carefully researched book provides many of the answers.  He reveals a conspiracy by fellow officers, which was to a large extent the result of a long standing dispute within the RAF about the so-called Trenchard Doctrine.  This involved an obsession with the importance of bombers.  Many in the RAF believed that the bomber would be a decisive weapon in a future conflict, but Dowding urged research and development of the fighter as he believed that the defence of Britain would be the principal necessity.  The subsequent production of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire alongside the development of radar, which became operational from 1937, was fully vindicated by the events of 1940, and made clear the flaws of the Trenchard Doctrine.  Jealousies and clashes of personalities abounded as Dowding had to fight against entrenched views and the ambitions of other officers to develop Fighter Command in the way that wanted.  All of this ensured that Dowding was not without enemies and played a large part in his early removal.  Sholto-Douglas and Leigh-Mallory criticised Dowding during the Battle of Britain for not being aggressive enough.  Dowding resisted their urges to send fighters further afield in order to meet German aircraft before they reached Britain, believing that this would lead to greater losses of trained pilots, a precious commodity.  Dixon examines the personalities, competence and motives of Sholto-Douglas and Leigh-Mallory along with Harris (later the famed head of Bomber Command), revealing weaknesses and human failings in all.  Even Churchill comes in for criticism as he appears to have been taken in by Dowding’s detractors and certainly acquiesced in Dowding’s move away from Fighter Command in November 1940.  This is a fascinating and well written book, assessing the achievements and treatment of one of the greatest Britons of the 20th century.

 

Born in Broadstairs, Jack (J.E.G) Dixon was sent to St. Edward’s, a local prep school.  However this closed in 1935 and he transferred to St. Lawrence College, where he was a day boy.  In his biographical sketch on the Amazon website, he describes the school thus: “This was a staunchly Low Church C of E school whose headmasters were ordained ministers. In 1935 the head was one Brackenbury, whose nickname was Creeping Jesus. It was the school's Christian duty to indulge in the caning of boys by both masters and prefects for trivial offences, such as exploring the foundations of a new building or shooting stones at another boy's pigeons. It is a better school today, although perhaps getting too democratic.” He remained at the College until 1939, leaving just before his 16th birthday.  In the summer of 1940 he worked as a labourer building invasion obstacles and thus had a good view of the Battle of Britain.  He trained as a pilot between 1943 and 1945, some of it in South Africa.  He remained in the RAF until 1948 and in 1949 he went up to Merton College, Oxford, where he took a degree in Modern Languages.  He also flew with the University Air Squadron.  Emigration to Canada in 1952 was followed by 5 years service in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  In 1959 he became a lecturer in French at the University of Winnipeg, where he remained until retiring to Vancouver Island in 1990 with his wife Rika.  He lists literature, cricket, fishing and aviation as among his interests and has written other published works including Concordance des Ouevres de François Rabelais (1992) and Aircrew Memories (1999).

 

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