Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory KCB, DSO and Bar (11 July 1892 - 14 November 1944) was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force in World War II and the highest-ranking British officer to die in the war.
Early Life and Career
Trafford Leigh-Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, the son of a rector. He was the younger brother of George Leigh Mallory, the noted mountaineer. He was educated at Haileybury and Cambridge University. At Magdalene College, Cambridge he was a member of a literary club 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 war broke out.
In 1914, on the outbreak of World War I Leigh-Mallory volunteered to join the King's Liverpool Regiment of the Territorial Army as a private. He was soon commissioned and transferred to the Lancashire Fusiliers, though officer training kept him in England when his battalion embarked. In Spring 1915 Leigh-Mallory went to the front with the South Lancashire Regiment and was wounded during an attack at the Battle of Ypres. Back in England he married Doris Sawyer, with whom he was to have two children.
After recovering he joined the Royal Flying Corps in January 1916 and was accepted for pilot training. In July 1916 he was posted to No. 7 Squadron, where he flew bombing, reconnaissance and photographic missions during the Battle of the Somme. He was then transferred to No. 5 Squadron before returning to England for promotion to Squadron Commander.
Leigh-Mallory's first combat command was No. 8 Squadron, and he was appointed in November 1917. In the period after the Battle of Cambrai, No. 8 Squadron was involved in Army cooperation, directing tanks and artillery. Leigh-Mallory was noted for his energy and efficiency, although his men thought him somewhat remote and pompous.
At the Armistice Leigh-Mallory was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 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. Subsequent promotions saw him pass through RAF Staff College and commanding the School of Army Cooperation, eventually being posted to the Army Staff College, Camberley. 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 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. However, lack of senior command experience meant a spell as commander of No. 2 Flying School before serving as a staff officer overseas. He was posted to the RAF in Iraq in Christmas 1935 and was present during the coup d'etat of 1936, during which we was responsible for base security and had one point had to put down a rebellion by bluff. In December 1937 Leigh-Mallory, now a Group Captain, returned to England to be appointed commander of No. 12 Group, Fighter Command.
12 Group and The Battle of Britain
In spite of his lack of fighter experience 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."
During the Battle of Britain Leigh-Mallory quarrelled with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group. He wanted his squadrons to be closely involved in action with the Luftwaffe, but Park, who was responsible for the defence of southeast England and London, complained that 12 Group was not doing enough protect the airfields in his area. Instead, Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader had devised a massed fighter formation known as the Big Wing which they used, with mixed success, to hunt German bomber formations.
In return, 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. Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the new chief of the air staff, agreed and wanted Dowding replaced. After the Battle of Britain was over Portal removed Keith Park and Hugh Dowding from their posts. Leigh-Mallory took over from Park as commander of 11 Group. As a beneficiary of the change in command Leigh-Mallory has, probably unjustly, been accused of forming a plot to overthrow Dowding.
Fighter Command and D-Day
One of the reasons for Leigh-Mallory's appointment to command 11 Group was that he was seen as an offensively-minded leader. He soon introduced wing-sized fighter sweeps into France. When accompanied by bombers, these were known as 'Circus' operations. Leigh-Mallory came in for criticism as raids over enemy territory began to generate casualties; however, he had to climb a steep learning curve. 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 leaned none of the deception techniques such as sending in high-level fighters and sneaking the bombers in underneath.'
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 6 in close support. Losses during the raid were heavy, but not proportionately greater than had been suffered in previous months.
In November 1942, Leigh-Mallory replaced Sholto Douglas as head of Fighter Command 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 -- interested in ceding any authority or autonomy. This was, of course, exactly why a unified commander was needed and Leigh-Mallory, with his considerable experience with Army cooperation, was the prime candidate for the job. In August 1943 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces for the Normandy invasion where he drew up the air plan for Operation Overlord. He faced considerable suspicion from the Americans at first, as well as challenges to his command, such as proposals to split the strategic from the tactical air forces. Tedder, who had been appointed Deputy Supreme Commander for the invasion beneath General Eisenhower, but who had no responsibilities, succeeded in wresting some of the authority for the air plan from Leigh-Mallory.
As commander of the AOC Leigh-Mallory had the vital, if unglamorous, job of coordinating the various air arms during the Battle of Normandy; work for which the subordinate commanders would mostly take the credit. His diaires reveal his primary concern was sealing off the battlefield and restricting and disrupting the movement of German military units. 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.
Following the invasion Leigh-Mallory also had to deal with the V-1 flying bomb threat, deploying bomber units to attack the launch sites in the mission codenamed Operation Crossbow, as well as organising fighter squadrons for home defence of the British Isles.
In spite of bad weather, Leigh-Mallory's air plan succeeded in slowing the German Army and his experience at Army cooperation paid dividends. This positive approach put Leigh-Mallory at odds with many airmen who were concerned at becoming subordinated to the Army and were willing only to stretch to minimum support of the ground forces. Leigh-Mallory had to express himself forcefully to get the invasion armies the maximum air support possible. In any event 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
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, including his wife, died. The subsequent Court of Inquiry found that the accident was a consequence of bad weather and may have been avoided if Leigh-Mallory hadn't insisted the flight fly in such poor conditions. By a quirk of fate, Leigh-Mallory's replacement at SEAC was his Battle of Britain rival Air Marshal Sir Keith Park.
Leigh-Mallory has never ranked in the public imagination as one of the great captains of World War II. There are a number of reasons for this. His reputation has been hurt by partisan attacks from supporters of Dowding and Park in the post war debate over the Big Wing controversy. Some historians have cast Leigh-Mallory in the villain's role as a conniver and he has been the subject of personal attacks describing his pomposity, arrogance and ambition. This is at odds with the memories of those who worked with him, who described his loyalty, generosity, energy, organisation and openness to new ideas. Sadly, he never survived the war to defend himself or write his memoirs and so it was left to others, such as Douglas Bader, to speak for him.
A further problem with Leigh-Mallory's legacy was that he was never in the 'right' job. He commanded Fighter Command at a time when it was suffering great casualties as a result of learning new tactics and when its fighters were too short-ranged to do any real offensive work. He also commanded the D-Day air effort in a thankless, unwanted but vital role for which others took the most credit.
Hobbies and Interests
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'd 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.
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