Lancashire Fusiliers of Interest

(or infamous)

Lancashire Fusiliers

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, (1892–1944),
Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, (1892–1944), air force officer, was born at Mobberley, near Knutsford, Cheshire, on 11 July 1892, the youngest of the two sons and two daughters of Herbert Leigh Mallory (1856–1943), rector of Mobberley and later a canon of Chester Cathedral, and his wife, Annie Beridge (b. 1862), the daughter of the Revd John Beridge Jebb, rector of Brampton. His father hyphenated his surname in 1914. Trafford followed his example, but his brother, George Herbert Leigh Mallory, who died while attempting to climb Mount Everest in June 1924, did not.

Leigh-Mallory was educated at St Leonards, Sussex (1902–6), Haileybury College (1906–11), and Magdalene College, Cambridge (1911–14), where he read history and law. In August 1914 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, but he remained in England until April 1915, when he went to France with the 3rd battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. He was wounded in June and returned to England. On 18 August he married Doris Jean, the second of the three daughters of Edmund Stratton Sawyer of Upper Norwood, Middlesex, in All Saints' Church, Upper Norwood, his father officiating. They had one son and one daughter.

In January 1916 Leigh-Mallory transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He qualified as a pilot in June, was promoted lieutenant, joined 7 squadron on the western front in July, and then transferred to 5 squadron in August. He was promoted captain and appointed a flight commander in November. Both were corps squadrons, equipped with the slow but stable BE 2c two-seat biplane and employed close to trench lines to direct artillery fire, take photographs, and drop bombs. Although valuable and dangerous, the work was unglamorous compared with that of faster, better-armed aeroplanes of army squadrons, which provided escorts, carried out long-distance reconnaissances, and, unlike corps machines, could engage in aerial combat with some hope of success.

Leigh-Mallory returned to England in April 1917, was promoted major, and commanded 15 (reserve) squadron until November, when he returned to corps duties on the western front in command of 8 squadron, equipped with a somewhat less vulnerable two-seater, the Armstrong Whitworth FK 8. His squadron was hard worked after March 1918 (when the stalemate of trench war ended) in close support of ground forces until the November armistice. His energy and efficiency earned respect but not admiration: ‘a proper little Charlie Chaplin, with turned-out toes and breeches like butterflies’ (Dunn, 41) was the verdict of one observer. His brother, George, was little kinder: ‘he affects magnificence, rushing about in a splendid Crossley car and giving orders with the curt assurance of an Alexander the Great, or Lord Northcliffe or Rockefeller’ (ibid., 45–6). His merits were nevertheless recognized by the award of a DSO on 1 January 1919.

Leigh-Mallory was granted a permanent commission as a squadron leader in August 1919. He found his niche in the School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum, Wiltshire (1921–3), to which he gladly returned as commanding officer (1927–9), followed by equally congenial service as an instructor at the Army Staff College, Camberley (1930–31). Sadly, he had little opportunity in later years to pursue his undoubted talent for such work. Having been promoted wing commander in January 1925, he attended the RAF Staff College, Andover, in 1925–6. He was promoted group captain in January 1932 and sent to Geneva as air adviser to the disarmament conference in 1932–3. He studied at the Imperial Defence College in 1934 and commanded a flying training school at Digby, Lincolnshire, until December 1935, when he went to Iraq as senior air staff officer at command headquarters; he was promoted air commodore in January 1936. Leigh-Mallory remained in Iraq until December 1937, when he was appointed to command 12 group (responsible for defending the midlands and East Anglia from a headquarters at Watnall, Nottinghamshire) in Fighter Command, even though he had no experience of fighter operations or the organization of an air defence system. He was promoted air vice-marshal in November 1938.

Leigh-Mallory's conduct of pre-war exercises was criticized by Sir Hugh Dowding (head of Fighter Command, at Bentley Priory in Stanmore, Middlesex) and by Keith Park (Dowding's senior air staff officer). In October 1938, for example, Dowding thought he showed ‘a misconception of the basic ideas of fighter defence’ (Orange, Park, 78), and a year later he asked him ‘to remember that Fighter Command has to operate as a whole’ (ibid., 80).

During the battle of Britain (July–October 1940) Leigh-Mallory and Park (now head of 11 group, responsible for the defence of London and south-east England, at Hillingdon House in Uxbridge, Middlesex) differed sharply over the conduct of operations. Leigh-Mallory resented his place in the rear, behind the front line, and at the end of August he found in the ‘big wing’ notions of Douglas Bader, one of his squadron leaders, a means of taking a direct part in the battle. However, Park's airfields were left unguarded and his ground controllers were confused by the wing's unexpected arrival in the battle area. Wings took a long time to assemble, using up fuel that was particularly precious to short-range fighters. Once assembled, it proved difficult in cloudy conditions to keep thirty to fifty fighters together en route for an interception. Nevertheless, the confident assertions of Leigh-Mallory and his allies, together with extravagant victory claims, enabled them to win the ensuing debate, and in December 1940 Leigh-Mallory replaced Park as head of 11 group. The verdict of most post-war historians and pilots who fought in the battle strongly supports the defensive strategy devised by Dowding and implemented by Park.

An alarming instance of Leigh-Mallory's incompetence was seen on 29 January 1941, when he decided to conduct a paper exercise using the circumstances of an actual attack in September 1940. His intention was to prove correct his opinion on the use of large formations. The exercise was carefully set up and Leigh-Mallory totally mismanaged it. When his several mistakes were pointed out to him, he replied that next time he would do better.

During 1941, instead of intensive combat training—which had been necessarily neglected during the crises of 1940—Sholto Douglas (who had replaced Dowding as head of Fighter Command in November 1940) and Leigh-Mallory employed their inexperienced pilots on offensive operations across the channel. More pilots were lost—and lost for no tangible advantage—in that year than in the battle of Britain. Before the German assault on the Soviet Union in June, these operations were actually welcomed by the Luftwaffe because they offered a chance to join battle in favourable conditions. After June not a single German aircraft was diverted from the Russian front to counter Fighter Command's efforts. Worse still, by accepting victory claims even more inflated than in 1940, Douglas and Leigh-Mallory were encouraged to persist in their offensive and to resist the release of squadrons for service overseas. In the second half of 1941, seventy-five day fighter squadrons were held in England while the Middle East and the Far East had to manage with only thirty-four between them, many of which were equipped with obsolete aircraft.

Leigh-Mallory became head of Fighter Command in November 1942 and was promoted air marshal in December. In November 1943 he was confirmed by the combined chiefs of staff as commander of the proposed allied expeditionary air force (AEAF) to support operation Overlord, the campaign to liberate occupied Europe. Promotion to air chief marshal followed in January 1944.

Leigh-Mallory's awkward position, as fifth wheel on the coach, and his unpopularity with influential airmen, British and American, explain his eager acceptance in August 1944 of an offer from Lord Louis Mountbatten, supreme allied commander in south-east Asia, that he go to India as air commander. But American objections to a British airman were not withdrawn until mid-September, and he remained in France until 15 October. After a month's leave he left Northolt for India in an Avro York at about 9 a.m. on 14 November 1944. Shortly after midday it struck a mountain ridge some 15 miles east of Grenoble in south-east France and all ten persons aboard (including his wife) were killed. A court of inquiry found that the weather had been very poor on the day of the accident, but that Leigh-Mallory ‘was determined to leave and he is known to be a man of forceful personality.’ Sir Charles Portal, chief of the air staff, added that Leigh-Mallory had no need for such haste. Tragically, ‘the desire to arrive in India on schedule with his “own” aircraft and crew overrode prudence and resulted in this disaster’ (PRO, AIR 2/10593).

sent in
Mike Murray