Leigh-Mallory: going down in history

Before leaving the topic of Keith Park (although I am sure we will come back to Park as his later role in the War will intersect more specifically with our story), I want to spend a moment considering his successor.

As previously noted, Park was quickly and quietly removed from his command of 11 Group shortly after the Battle of Britain. It’s worth remembering that the Battle of Britain was a short, sharp episode which covers a specific period (the late summer and autumn of 1940). Germany’s failure to gain air supremacy over the UK contributed to their decision to abort an amphibious invasion and was one of the major turning points in the War.

Park fought an intensely defensive battle. He instructed his fighters to attack the incoming bombers and resisted attempts to be drawn into dog fights. He preserved his fire power and used it where it was needed most- against the bombers who could destroy their airfields. He and Dowding combined sharp military tactics with modern ingenuity and capitalised on German mistakes (such as their failure to understand the importance of the radar network).

Why then, was Park not recognised in his time? The Battle was clearly a success as the invasion had been prevented.

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory replaced Park as Air Officer Commanding of 11 Group.

Leigh-Mallory was educated at Cambridge where he met Arthur Tedder, the future Marshal of the Royal Air Force. He passed his Bachelor of Law degree and had applied to the Inner Temple in London to become a barrister when, in 1914, war broke out. Already one catches a glimpse of the old boys’ network- an Oxbridge education and youthful friendships with the right people.

Leigh-Mallory served as a Royal Flying Corps pilot and squadron commander during the First World War. Remaining in the newly formed RAF after the war, Leigh-Mallory served in a variety of staff and training appointments throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

During the pre-Second World War build-up, he was AOC No. 12 Group  and then took the helm of 11 Group, where he assumed responsibility for the defence of London.

In 1942 he became the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command before being selected in 1943 to be the C-in-C of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, which made him the air commander for the Allied Invasion of Normandy.

During the Battle of Britain, Leigh-Mallory disagreed with Park and Dowding’s tactical decisions. Rather than scrambling small flights of interceptors, he and flying ace Douglas Bader pushed the ‘Big Wing’. The tactic involved meeting incoming Luftwaffe bombing raids in strength with a wing-sized formation of three to five squadrons. In the Battle, this tactic was employed by the Duxford Wing, under Bader’s command.

Although Leigh-Mallory and Bader claimed it was a great success, post-war analysis suggests the actual number of German aircraft shot down by the wings was probably a fraction of those claimed. However, their own losses were less- suggesting that there was some safety in numbers.

It was easier to interrogate the wing’s effectiveness after the War, when it was possible to study German logs and authenticate the claims of the pilots.

It’s not surprising that it was so well-received at the time. It was a dramatic vision- a triumphant force streaming across the skies in a wall of fury, designed to demoralise as much as destroy the Luftwaffe. It was bold in its vision and was led by a hero  (Bader was a talented pilot and flew despite losing both of his legs in an earlier crash).

This solves the first riddle: why was Leigh-Mallory so celebrated at the time? Perhaps it is simply because the idea that he was selling gripped the imagination of senior military figures and the news-hungry public. It wasn’t really possible to fully and dispassionately understand its effectiveness until long after the Battle had been fought. Coupled with his excellent political connections, it’s not surprising that he received his promotion and Park was scrubbed from the official history.

But, I wonder if there is another facet to the story that’s worth considering…

In August 1944, with the Battle of Normandy almost over, Leigh-Mallory was appointed Air Commander-in-Chief of South East Asia Command (SEAC). But before he could take up his post he was killed en route to Burma when the aircraft he was travelling in crashed into the French Alps.  All on board were killed. The subsequent Court of Inquiry found that the accident was a consequence of bad weather and might have been avoided if Leigh-Mallory had not insisted that the flight proceed in such poor conditions against the advice of his air-crew.

He was one of the most senior British officers and the most senior RAF officer to be killed in the Second World War.

With a final twist of fate, Leigh-Mallory’s replacement at SEAC was Sir Keith Park.

Leigh-Mallory, in not surviving the War, was not there to shape the fluid and developing history around the Battle. He left few papers and his wife died alongside him. The paucity of information meant that his story was frozen in the heat of War, without any chance to relive, understand or explain the story.

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One response to “Leigh-Mallory: going down in history

  • Amy Scott

    I think it quite compelling that the formation encouraged by Leigh-Mallory was physically imposing but rather ineffective. This makes me recall comments I read about the flame-throwers in WWI. They were terrifying to witness and looked dreadfully threatening but were not all that good at killing. I suppose we should be glad they didn’t “work.”

    I love that you say that his story was “frozen” in the heat of war. There is something so mundane about surviving the war and carrying on with one’s life. Those people don’t make for good “stories.” Perhaps this is where history and narrative meet. The medium of history is narrative and the demands of narrative perhaps override the lives of the people who deserve to be recorded. Hayden White has a good book about the overlap between historical representation and narrative discourse called “The Content of the Form”. In it he says that it is in historiography that “our desire for the imaginary, the possible, must contest with the imperatives of the real, the actual” (4). He also writes of the “demand for closure” in historical writing (and I think that Leigh-Mallory’s death gives historians a chance to locate a kind of closure, if tragic). White argues that the “demand for closure in the historical story is a demand […] for moral meaning” (21). I think this demand fore moral meaning might have been difficult but necessary in the years after the war. Perhaps we have begun to reassess, though, evidenced especially with newfound interest in Park’s own life, the demand for closure.

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