Seeing from my window the other day a Eurofighter manoeuvring at low level over the Moray glens, I was reminded once more of the Royal Air Force’s certainty when it comes to knowing what it wants. For here is an aircraft superbly optimised for its role: air-to-air combat against the best the Soviet air force could put up. That there is now no need of such a fighter hardly seems important when you see its sheer flying quality. What does it matter that, say, the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (and others) will be axed to make room for this magnificent cuckoo in the Defence nest when so many jobs at BAE Wharton, in the regimental area, are at stake? The RAF is, after all, defined by its aircraft, and these days it plays no part in the strategic deterrent, nor does it deliver sub-strategic, ‘battlefield’, nuclear warheads; nor, with the advances in cruise missiles and long-range precision-guided artillery munitions, are aircraft any longer a cost-effective means of ground attack; and even photo-reconnaissance is easily done by satellites. So without Eurofighter what would there be left for the RAF to do but fly the army around the world in airliners and helicopters? That would hardly justify the RAF as a third service. No, a doctrine of airpower, and aircraft appropriate to the doctrine, is as central to the separate existence of the RAF as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is to Christianity.
We have been here before. In the 1920s and ’30s strategic bombing doctrine emerged, the promise of victory through airpower alone based on the absolute conviction that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Its first and chief proponent in this country was Hugh Trenchard, the founder of the RAF, and few officers gained promotion who did not embrace the doctrine enthusiastically. The politicians, too, were happy to underwrite the doctrine by creating a large bomber force as a deterrent to a rearming Germany, for unlike today the RAF was so much cheaper than the army and seemed to promise so much.
The problem with ‘the bomber will always get through’ doctrine was its obvious corollary: air defence was ultimately futile. Before the second world war, the RAF therefore gave low priority to the air defence of Great Britain; Fighter Command was only formed in 1936. Fortunately, and almost by default, the job of creating Fighter Command was given to Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, one of the few senior officers in the RAF (in public at least) to be intellectually unconvinced by the bomber doctrine, and even more convinced that the maintenance of air superiority over the home base would be one of the essential strategic principles in a war with Germany. Dowding proved indefatigable in the cause, the Luftwaffe by no means his trickiest opponents. He saw, early, the potential of radar, drove its development hard and deployed it ‘belt and braces’ with the Royal Observer Corps to provide effective warning, together with an information-handling structure — ‘filtering’ — which enabled him to husband his precious fighter resources, ‘scrambling’ squadrons just in time through his group and sector controllers, the delegated command organisation by which he fought the air battle. Churchill recognised his singular quality, and when during the BEF’s calamitous retreat to Dunkirk the PM demanded that more and more fighters be sent to France, and Dowding opposed him, the PM gave way.
The story of the summer of 1940 is well known. The Battle of Britain was won, however, not just by the skill and courage of ‘the few’ but by Dowding’s foresight and determination. Victory in that contest, he might reasonably have expected, would in time elevate him to the rank of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and further employment. Indeed, he had been told, when appointed Air-Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command, that subsequently he would be made Chief of the Air Staff.
The trouble was that Dowding was not a bomber man. Making him CAS would put to nought so much that the RAF cherished. Further, in his drive to get Fighter Command into shape he had rubbed up many senior officers in the Air Ministry, and they feared for their future. The denigration of Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding therefore became both a doctrinal and personal imperative for many in the upper echelons of the RAF, not least of whom was Sholto Douglas, the vice CAS.
The tactics were dirty and unbecoming, and are examined in painstaking detail in Professor Dixon’s book, subtitled ‘The Achievements of Air Chief Marshal Dowding and the Scandal of his Dismissal from Office’. The author is a former Fighter Command pilot, and his book deserves a wider audience, for all its editorial untidiness and minimalist index (the admirable Woodfield publishers are a small, private concern). Great RAF names such as Trenchard, Sholto Douglas, Leigh-Mallory and even Douglas Bader emerge badly from the story, as do the politicians, notably the Air Minister Archibald Sin- clair, the Minister of Information Brendan Bracken, and, ultimately, Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production and Dow- ding’s closest supporter during the Battle of Britain itself. What stands out clearly is the danger when politicians lose control of the key elements of defence policy, as Sinclair did of the Air Ministry, of its doctrine and senior appointments. In the end, Dowding, the one air marshal who proved himself in both the planning and execution of a vital campaign, was manoeuvred out of uniform by a cabal of doctrinaire and self-serving senior officers, and by political whispering of the worst kind. The one man who might have saved him, Churchill, in an uncharacteristic lapse of focus and will, gave in to the counsels of dismissal.
Had Dowding been made CAS in 1941 instead of the safe ‘bomber’ man, Portal, the course of the war would have been different. For one thing it would have been less costly in aircrew. One of the difficulties in rehabilitating Dowding’s record in command, however, is that it inevitably questions the doctrine of war-winning airpower, and therefore questions the rationale for the separate existence of the RAF. And that, of course, undermines the case today for the magnificent Eurofighter.