Guest Column: Winston Churchill's Supply Chain (Part 3)

A look at how supply chain leaders adapt and overcome in difficult circumstances


In 1936 the Observer Corps became part of the newly formed Fighter Command under Dowding and moved its headquarters to RAF Bentley Priory. This was a defense warning organization that provided a system for detecting, tracking and reporting aircraft over the U.K.

One of Dowding's most significant contributions was the physical organization of RAF Fighter Command. He created a geographically distributed hierarchy of stations (Group/Sector) and air fields all networked (five-years-old) to the Headquarters at Bentley Priory. Each sector had a main fighter air base with an operations room and maintenance and repair facilities and a number of other satellite fighter bases attached to it. He also insisted that concrete all-weather runways be built, and he got this wish granted with six airfields.

Despite the rise of fascism, the British were still striving for a peaceful solution. In February 1937, Dowding submitted a report to the government requesting the need for 45 fully operational fighter squadrons, 1,200 anti-aircraft guns, 5,000 searchlights, a functioning radar system, radio control of aircraft and a massive expansion of the Observer Corps. The report was ignored.

The U.K. only began to seriously rearm after the Munich Crisis (1938) as the threat of war loomed. Even with the substantial increase in expenditure the RAF lagged badly behind Axis in the number of fighters. Production of fighters, in the hands of the Air Ministry, was woefully low and late (Part 2). By August 1939 Dowding had a fighter force of 34 squadrons when 52 squadrons were needed. Dowding was so concerned that he wrote to the Under Secretary of State for Air, Harold Balfour, and voiced his considerable misgivings as to Fighter Commands' ability to defend the U.K., conditional on supporting a defensive position in France.

Dowding's Losses

On May 10, 1940, the war in the West erupted. By May 13 the War Cabinet had agreed to send over an extra 32 Hurricanes and pilots to France, taken from different units across the U.K. By the next day the situation was even worse: The Axis broke through the French defensive lines. By nightfall the French were asking for 10 more fighter squadrons. Dowding tried to stop further fighters from going over to France because he thought the cause there was lost and sending more fighters would only deplete an already low Home Defense. Perturbed by mounting losses he wrote a letter to the Air Ministry (May 16, 1940). This letter challenged Churchill over sending more fighter squadrons to France, after Churchill had personally promised these to the French Prime Minister Reynaud.

"I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons. I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defence of this country, and will assure me that when the level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country."

Dowding's was an uncomfortable truth that if France's survival depended on the RAF, there would have to be a sacrifice in the defense of the U.K. Dowding recognized when to cut losses. Churchill took the letter very seriously, and this created a dilemma because of his promise. In the end, squadrons were sent but only operated in France during the day, returning to England at night. While this action further strained the Allied relationship, it did show Dowding's incredible conviction to cause and his willingness to stand up for it.

Dowding's Preparation for Battle

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