Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyperrational Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies and ghosts. Why should a pioneer of radar defense systems not have done the same?
His contemporaries, writes science historian and novelist Fisher (Hard Evidence, 1995, etc.), had trouble linking RAF commander-in-chief Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding to the curious little man who lectured on spiritualism, talked to the long-dead inhabitants of Atlantis and believed in flying saucers. “Is this Lord Dowding any relation to Sir Hugh Dowding who fought the Battle of Britain?” asked a disbelieving attendee of one such lecture; when his friend replied that Dowding’s son must have been the hero, the man added, “I wonder what a smart guy like him would think of his old man going off the rails that way.” Though unconventional, Dowding, as Fisher shows, was a careful reader of the skies, a gifted strategist of the air whose interest in “invisible rays” led to the establishment of ground-based radar defenses around southern England just in time to help ward off a Nazi invasion, and whose nimble command of the RAF, though not without its controversies, saved the day at the Battle of Britain. For instance, Fisher notes, Dowding had a much-discussed habit of hoarding his fighters, “sending them up a few at a time into overwhelming odds so that he might have a few ready for tomorrow”; his pilots may not have enjoyed those odds, but when the Luftwaffe made its last desperate attempt to clear the way for that invasion, Dowding had the wherewithal to fight them off—and the radar to indicate just where the Luftwaffe would be found on that fateful day. All the same, Dowding does not often figure in surveys of WWII history, at least in some measure because Churchill fired him not long after the great British victory and wrote him out of his History of the Second World War.
Given Dowding’s extracurricular activities, one can understand why Churchill canned him. Still, Fisher’s portrait of the dotty Dowding is a pleasure to read.