Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, GCB, GCVO, CMG, lived from 24 April 1882 to 15 February 1970. He is best remembered as the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Hugh Dowding was born in Moffat and began his education at St Ninian's Boys' Preparatory School in Moffat, which had been established by his father, Arthur Dowding. He later attended Winchester College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, before joining the Army with a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Dowding was an early aviation enthusiast and gained his Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Aviator's Certificate, number 711, early on the morning of 20 December 1913 in a Vickers biplane at the Vickers School of Flying, Brooklands. He then attended the Central Flying School at Upavon, where he received RFC certificate number 156 and was awarded his "wings" on 28 April 1914. In August 1914 he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot on 7 Squadron. The following year Dowding became commander of 16 Squadron and he finished the war as a Brigadier General. At the end of the war he transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force as an Air Commodore. He became an Air Marshal in 1933 and was knighted the following year.
In the late 1930s Dowding served as the commanding officer of RAF Fighter Command. He devised, developed and implemented what became known as the "Dowding System", recognised as the world's first integrated air defence network. This incorporated radar, Royal Observer Corps observers, a central control at RAF Bentley Priory outside London to plot raids as they developed, and radio control of fighters. All the elements were connected together by a network of phone links designed to be, literally, bomb-proof.
Dowding was due to retire in June 1939 but asked to stay in post because of the tense international situation. When war came, he strongly resisted political pressure to deploy more fighters to France. In the late Summer of 1940 Luftwaffe attacks on RAF bases and then on other targets increased in intensity in what has become known as the Battle of Britain. The Dowding System came into its own, and the outcome was a hard-won victory for the RAF and an end to Hitler's ambitions invade Britain.
Dowding left his post in November 1940, possibly because he was seen as inflexible in his approach and less effective at countering the night bombing raids of the Blitz than he had been during the largely daylight encounters of the Battle of Britain, or possibly because political infighting within the senior ranks of the RAF over future policy. He spent some time studying aircraft production in the USA before retiring from the RAF in July 1942, being made Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory the following year.
During his younger years, Dowding had found time to become a UK skiing champion. In later life he became interested in spiritualism and the supernatural, and campaigned against vivisection. He died at his home in Tunbridge Wells in Kent on 15 February 1970 at the age of 87. He was succeeded as Baron Dowding by his son Derek, who had served as a fighter pilot on 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Hugh Dowding was buried in Westminster Abbey beneath the Battle of Britain Memorial Window in the Royal Air Force Chapel.
We are grateful to Lord Dowding's stepson, David Whiting, for his permission to use the images shown on this page.