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Heritage: Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding - the Wimbledon airman who saved Britain
Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding (1882-1970), head of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain and three-times a Wimbledon resident, died 43 years ago today in 1970.
From April to October 1940, his pilots had resisted the Nazi German air force using a system he himself had developed before the war.
While it was happening, he was controlling all the resources behind the scene, replacing lost men and aircraft, and maintaining a significant reserve force so that the numbers committed to battle never exceeded half of the total available.
The invasion threat had eased by the time Hugh Dowding moved to No 3 St Mary’s Road, Wimbledon, in 1941. Hitler switched his attention to the Russians after the Battle of Britain.
Dowding lived at the house for the next decade but the man who had just masterminded the most critical defence strategy in British history had also lived in Wimbledon earlier in his life - first at No 8 Lansdowne Road around 1900 and later from 1917 at No 65 Wimbledon Hill Road with his first wife Clarice, who died after just two years, leaving him to care for their young son.
By 1941 too, he had been replaced at Fighter Command. He had relinquished the post unwillingly in November 1940 after internal RAF policy differences and he retired altogether in July 1942, honoured with a peerage the following year as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory.
His book, Twelve Legions of Angels, was suppressed until after the war because the Government thought it contained information that might be of use to the Germans.
It was a strange fate for such a significant military figure in wartime but Dowding was always controversial.
He had taken over Fighter Command at its formation in 1936 and introduced the ‘Dowding System’ for air defence including radar (then a novelty), the Royal Observer Corps, raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft.
The system was unified by dedicated bomb-proof telephone links beneath the ground and commanded from RAF Bentley Priory, a country house north of London.
Dowding had also introduced the Spitfire and the Hurricane to the RAF before the war and fought the Air Ministry to ensure that fighter planes were fitted with bullet-proof windscreens.
He had reached the rank of Air Chief Marshal in 1937 and actually been due to retire in June 1939 but had remained in command throughout the Battle of Britain despite some internal hostility at senior levels.
Known to his men as ‘Stuffy’, he refused to sacrifice aircraft and pilots to support the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force before the fall of France – although he did organise cover for the Dunkirk evacuation - and always took a particularly caring approach to his own men.
This dated back to his days in the First World War when as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps he had clashed with the commander, Lord Trenchard, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty.
He had been sent home for the rest of the war as a result, although he had then gone on to a distinguished career in the newly-formed RAF.
This caring attitude continued after his retirement and, with his second wife Muriel, whom he married in 1951, he became a vegetarian and campaigner for humane treatment of animals.
They both opposed cruel laboratory experiments on living animals and the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research was established in 1973 after his death.
When he died on 15 February 1970 a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey and his ashes were laid to rest below the Battle of Britain Memorial Window.
English Heritage erected a blue plaque on 3 St Mary’s Road in April 2000 but it was removed and stored when the house was demolished in 2009.
It could not be put on either of Dowding’s earlier homes in Wimbledon Hill Road or Lansdowne Road because they too were gone.
A new house was built at St Mary’s Road but as English Heritage only allows its plaques on original buildings, the owners of the property remedied matters by putting up their own.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
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