Trafford Leigh-Mallory

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Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, 1944 TR2625.jpg
Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Born 11 July 1892
Mobberley, Cheshire, England, UK
Died 14 November 1944 (aged 52)
French Alps
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1914–1944
Rank Air Chief Marshal
Commands held Fighter Command
Battles/wars

First World War

Second World War

Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Mention in Despatches (3)

Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO & Bar (11 July 1892 – 14 November 1944) was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force. Leigh-Mallory served as a Royal Flying Corps pilot and squadron commander during World War I. 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 Air Officer Commanding (AOC) No. 12 (Fighter) Group and shortly after the end of the Battle of Britain, took over command of No. 11 (Fighter) Group, defending the approach to London. In 1942 he became the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) 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.

In November 1944, en route to Ceylon to take up the post of Air Commander-in-Chief South East Asia Command, his aircraft crashed in the French Alps and Leigh-Mallory, his wife and eight others were killed.[1] He was one of the most senior British officers and the most senior RAF officer to be killed in the Second World War.

Early life[edit]

Trafford Leigh-Mallory[2] was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, the son of Herbert Leigh Mallory, (1856–1943), Rector of Mobberly, who legally changed his surname to Leigh-Mallory in 1914.[3] He was the younger brother of George Mallory, the noted mountaineer.[4] He was educated at Haileybury and at Magdalene College, Cambridge[4] where he was a member of a literary club and where he made the acquaintance of 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.

Trafford married Doris Sawyer in 1915; the couple had two children.[4]

First World War[edit]

Leigh-Mallory immediately volunteered to join a Territorial Force battalion of the King's (Liverpool Regiment) as a private.[5] He was soon commissioned and transferred to the Lancashire Fusiliers though officer training kept him in England when his battalion embarked. In the spring of 1915, he went to the front with the South Lancashire Regiment[5] and was wounded[4] during an attack at the Second Battle of Ypres.

After recovering from his wounds, Leigh-Mallory joined the Royal Flying Corps in January 1916 and was accepted for pilot training.[5] In July 1916, he was posted to No. 7 Squadron,[5] where he flew on bombing, reconnaissance and photographic operations during the Battle of the Somme. He was then transferred to No. 5 Squadron[5] before returning to England for promotion to Major and assignment as a squadron commander.

Leigh-Mallory's first combat command was No. 8 Squadron in November 1917.[5] In the period after the Battle of Cambrai, No. 8 Squadron was involved in Army cooperation, directing tanks and artillery. At the Armistice, Leigh-Mallory was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.[5]

Interwar years[edit]

After the war, Leigh-Mallory thought of re-entering the legal profession, but with little prospect of a law career, he stayed in the recently created Royal Air Force (RAF), taking command of the Armistice Squadron.[5] Subsequent promotions saw him pass through the RAF Staff College[disambiguation needed] and command the School of Army Cooperation[5] before eventually being posted to the Army Staff College, Camberley.[5] He was now a leading authority on Army cooperation and in 1930, lectured at the Royal United Services Institute on air cooperation with mechanised forces.

A posting to the Air Ministry in 1932 saw Leigh-Mallory assigned to the British delegation at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva[5] under the auspices of the League of Nations, where he made many contacts. After the collapse of the conference, he returned to the Air Ministry and attended the Imperial Defence College, the most senior of the staff colleges.[5] However, lack of senior command experience meant a spell as commander of No. 2 Flying School and station commander at RAF Digby before serving as a staff officer overseas.[5] He was posted to the RAF in Iraq in Christmas 1935,[5] and two years later, in December 1937, by then a Group Captain, he returned to England to be appointed commander of No. 12 Group, Fighter Command.[5]

Second World War[edit]

The Battle of Britain[edit]

Leigh-Mallory took command of 12 Group and proved an energetic organiser and leader. On 1 November 1938, he was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal, one of the younger AVMs then serving in the RAF. He was greatly liked by his staff, but his relations with his airfield station commanders was strained. It was said of him that he "never went for popularity but he always stuck up for his staff. He was madly ambitious but he never trimmed for the sake of ambition."

12 Group and the "Big Wing"[edit]

During the Battle of Britain, Leigh-Mallory quarrelled with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group. Park, who was responsible for the defence of south east England and London, had stated that 12 Group was not doing enough to protect the airfields in the south-east. Leigh-Mallory, on the other hand, had devised with Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, a massed fighter formation known as the Big Wing, which they used, with little success, to hunt German bomber formations. Leigh-Mallory was critical of the tactics of Park and Sir Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, believing that not enough was being done to allow wing-sized formations to operate successfully.[4] He then worked energetically in political circles to bring about the removal of Park from command of 11 Group; the false claims for the Duxford Big Wing successes played a part in this. Throughout the Battle of Britain, his lack of support for Park's 11 Group contributed materially to the damage that the Luftwaffe was able to inflict on 11 Group's airfields.[6]

Leigh-Mallory at No. 11 Group Headquarters, Uxbridge, Middlesex.

After the Battle of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the new Chief of the Air Staff, who had agreed with Leigh-Mallory, removed both Park and Dowding from their posts. Leigh-Mallory took over from Park as commander of 11 Group.[5] As a beneficiary of the change in command, Leigh-Mallory has been accused of forming a plot to overthrow Dowding.

Fighter Command and D-Day[edit]

One of the reasons for Leigh-Mallory's appointment to command 11 Group was that he was seen as an offensively-minded leader in the Trenchard mould. Once appointed he soon introduced wing-sized fighter sweeps into France, known as "rodeos."[7][page needed] (When accompanied by bombers to provoke enemy fighters, these were known as "Circus" operations). However, Leigh-Mallory came in for criticism as these raids over enemy territory caused heavy RAF casualties with over 500 pilots lost in 1941 alone, losing four aircraft for each German aircraft destroyed and having little effect on ground targets. Indeed, during this period the German armed forces were mobilising for Operation Barbarossa and few Luftwaffe fighters remained in western Europe. It was indeed a steep learning curve for Leigh Mallory despite the fact that the Luftwaffe had made similar mistakes during the Battle of Britain and there were other senior RAF commanders who had understanding of this. One of his staff officers pointed out: "In my opinion we learned a hell of a lot – how to get these raids in, by deceiving radar and by counter-offensive techniques. [In the Middle East] they were still in the First World War business – they'd learned none of the deception techniques such as sending in high-level fighters and sneaking the bombers in underneath." Keeping 75 squadrons of fighters, many to conduct ineffective offensive operations from Britain during 1941, was also questionable while Malta and Singapore were only defended by older, obsolete types of aircraft. Ironically the RAF's best commanders and air-warfare tacticians were in the Mediterranean area around this time achieving greater success over Malta and North Africa than their counterparts back home.

In 1942, Leigh-Mallory was appointed as the air commander for the Dieppe Raid which took place in August, during which Fighter Command operated 50 squadrons in close cover and six in close support. Losses during the ill-fated raid were again heavy, partly because of the superiority of the new German fighter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, over RAF's Spitfire Mark Vs.[citation needed]

In November 1942, Leigh-Mallory replaced Sholto Douglas as head of Fighter Command[5] and was promoted to Air Marshal. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in January 1943 and following a tour of air and army headquarters in Africa began lobbying for a unified command of the Allied air forces for the forthcoming invasion of Europe. There was considerable resistance to such a post with none of the vested air force interests - including Arthur Tedder, Arthur Harris at Bomber Command, and Carl Spaatz of the US Army Air Force - appearing interested in ceding any authority or autonomy. This was, of course, exactly why a unified commander was needed and Leigh-Mallory, with his experience with Army cooperation, was a candidate for the job. In August 1943, Leigh-Mallory was appointed Commander-in-chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force for the Normandy invasion[5] where he drew up the air plan for Operation Overlord (although Tedder succeeded in wresting some of the authority for the air plan from Leigh-Mallory).[citation needed]

Another point of view in this matter is that because of the close working relationship between Eisenhower and Tedder during their previous campaigns, Eisenhower preferred Tedder over Leigh-Mallory. After Leigh-Mallory's assignment as Air Commander, South East Asia, Tedder was effectively in command of all the Allied air assets operating on the continent up to the end of the war in Europe.[citation needed]

Leigh-Mallory at a squadron briefing in France in September 1944.

Leigh-Mallory then had the vital job of coordinating the various air arms during the Battle of Normandy, work for which the subordinate commanders would mostly take the credit. His diaries reveal his primary concern was sealing off the battlefield and restricting and disrupting the movement of German military units.[citation needed]

Because many of these "interdiction" bombing missions took place against transport nodes, such as towns and villages, Leigh-Mallory came under political pressure to limit the effects of attacks on French civilians. He resisted, insisting that sacrifices were unfortunate but necessary if the air plan was to have any effect. His air plan succeeded in greatly slowing the mobilisation of the German Army and his experience at Army cooperation paid dividends. General Bernard Montgomery was pleased with the air support and told the War Office: "We must definitely keep Leigh-Mallory as Air Commander-in-Chief. He is the only airman who is out to win the land battle and has no jealous reactions."

Death and legacy[edit]

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 and his wife were killed en route to Burma when Avro York MW126,[1] in which they were flying, crashed in the French Alps, killing all on board.[4] A 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 aircrew.[4] His replacement at SEAC was his Battle of Britain rival Air Marshal Sir Keith Park.

He and his wife are buried, alongside 10 aircrew, in Le Rivier d'Allemont, a short distance below the site of the air crash. To mark the 60th anniversary of the accident and Leigh-Mallory's death, the local commune opened a small museum near the crash site, dedicated to Leigh-Mallory.

Criticisms[edit]

The political intrigues within the Air Ministry, particularly the activities of Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas, led to the replacement of Dowding and Park on 25 November 1940, two months after the British victory. Leigh-Mallory replaced Keith Park at No. 11 Group, and Sholto Douglas replaced Dowding at Fighter Command.[8] When the official history of the Battle of Britain was published, Dowding's name was not mentioned, leading Churchill to minute Sinclair: "This is not a good story... The jealousies and cliquism which have led to the committing of this offence are a discredit to the Air Ministry."[9]

Hobbies and interests[edit]

Leigh-Mallory was a keen sailor. After one of his children survived a serious illness he also became interested in faith healing and spiritualism. In one anecdote, he suggested he had seen the ghost of Mrs Emily Langton Massingberd, the women's rights campaigner, at Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire. When the Hall was threatened with demolition during the Second World War to make way for an airfield, Leigh-Mallory intervened to save it. It is now in the hands of the National Trust.

Rank promotions[edit]

Honours[edit]

References[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • Deighton, Len. Battle of Britain. London: Michael Joseph, 1980. ISBN 0-7181-3441-9.
  • Gilbert, Martin. Finest Hour. London: Heinemann, 1983. ISBN 978-0-434-29187-8.
  • Korda, Michael. With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-112535-5.
  • Regan, Geoffrey. The Guinness Book of Flying Blunders. London: Guinness Books, 1996. ISBN 0-85112-607-3.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
J H S Tyssen
Air Officer Commanding No. 12 Group
1937–1940
Succeeded by
R E Saul
Preceded by
K R Park
Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group
1940–1942
Succeeded by
H W L Saunders
Preceded by
Sir Sholto Douglas
Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command
1942–1943
Succeeded by
Sir Roderic Hill
New title
Formed in preparation for the invasion of Normandy
Commander-in-Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force
1943–1944
Invasion concluded