An Eccentric but Essential World War II Leader's Story

Article excerpt


This book is a strange mixture of contradictions in many respects. It tells an important, almost unknown, exceptionally heroic and riveting true story and it does so execrably badly. It is a heartfelt tribute to an extraordinary and admirable man of vast historic importance and global destiny and utterly bungles the job. It is also the story of a man who by any standards of conventional society would be regarded as a ridiculous crank, but who also happened to be one of the most successful and brilliant air generals the world has yet known.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding directed Fighter Command through the Battle of Britain, the first great air battle in history. He was not a macho, confident, bright young wonder but a vegetarian, teetotaler and prickly old fellow almost 60 years old who was despised by the bomber barons who ran the Royal Air Force and was kept on as little more than an afterthought only because there was no one with comparable experience or credentials to fill the job. He was more responsible than any other man for the fast, heavily armed, monoplane fighters that fought and won the Battle of Britain and for the pioneering system of radar stations and visual observers feeding information back to a central command headquarters who directed them. He ranks with the great U. S. aircraft carrier Admiral Raymond Spruance, victor of the Battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea, as a cool, scholarly commander who was ignored by the hero-making media moguls but who never made a single significant mistake in their conduct of amazing victories against overwhelming odds.

But Dowding was also convinced that his dead wife and the ghosts of his dead pilots returned to comfort him night after night during the battle. He believed in the literal existence of elves and fairies. After the war, he wrote a series of books championing the causes of spiritualism, theosophy and talking with the dead. He believed in Atlantis, perpetual motion and the power of magnetic rays to heal arthritis and gout. He believed vivisection was evil and was an outspoken believer in the reality of UFOs from other worlds. The British Establishment regarded him as an embarrassing crank for the rest of his long life (He lived to be 88). However, it was very happy one: A widower, in his 60s he married the young widow of a dead British bomber pilot after she was convinced her dead husband had directed her to Dowding. Their marriage was an intensely happy one.

It should be impossible to bungle the telling of this story but unfortunately Mr. Fisher, a professor of cosmochemistry (whatever that is) manages it. This book is probably the sloppiest nonfiction work I have ever reviewed. There are no footnotes. Dowding's extensive papers are included in the bibliography but there is almost no evidence that Mr. Fisher ever used them. Dowding's heroic fighter pilots are endlessly referred to as his "chicks," a demeaning and weird conceit and one I have never heard a single RAF Battle of Britain vet use to describe himself or his comrades. …