OFTEN voted the greatest ever Briton or Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill is rightly acclaimed for his role as a wartime leader. Personally I am glad that in a poll some years ago, we Scots chose a poet, Robert Burns, as our greatest Scot ahead of warriors like King Robert the Bruce and Sir William Wallace – I think it says a lot about Scotland and its people that we chose the Bard.

Churchill was a magnificent leader in war, but his great feats were achieved on the shoulders of others – the millions who fought the Axis powers so bravely, for instance. Another was the person who did the most to win the most important battle in British history and who was the most influential Scotsman of the Second World War – Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, who died in this week of 1970.

Thanks probably to Laurence Olivier’s superb portrayal of Dowding in the film Battle of Britain (he bore a strong physical resemblance to Dowding and had his mannerisms off pat) most people think of Dowding as English, and indeed his accent was pukka Home Counties.

It is not often realised, however, that Dowding was a Scot, born and bred in Moffat. His birthplace was St Ninian’s School, a preparatory school co-founded in 1879 by his father, Arthur John Caswall Dowding, a former teacher at Fettes College in Edinburgh.

Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding was born on April 24, 1882. The Tremenheere in his name was the maiden name of his mother, Maud Caroline.

Dowding was educated at St Ninian’s – now an RAF retirement home named after him – before going on to Winchester College, one of the oldest and most famous boarding schools in the English public (private) school system. He was 15 at the time, his family having moved south shortly beforehand.

In 1899 Dowding enrolled at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and on leaving there he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant, serving in Gibraltar, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Hong Kong, and India before being promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain, in which role he served in the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Isle of Wight.

He became fascinated by aircraft, then a fledgling industry, and could see the potential of flight in war. He earned his pilot’s licence in 1913 – certificate 711 – and joined the Royal Flying Corps reserve, moving to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) proper on the outbreak of war in August 1914.

He was soon recognised for his flying skills and more importantly his ability to command. After service in France he was promoted to briefly take charge of the Wireless Experimental Establishment at Brooklands, an experience that he would put to good use much later.

Returning to France in July 1915, he commanded No 16 squadron up to and during the Battle of the Somme. His concern for his exhausted men was such that he fell out with RFC commander general Hugh Trenchard, and was sent back to Britain where he continued to be promoted, ending the war with the rank of brigadier general. His two brothers, Arthur and Kenneth, also survived active service.

From 1919, Dowding was one of the first Group Captains in the RAF, and then acquired a wide range of skills and experience in the 1920s, dealing with training, supply and, most importantly, aircraft research and development.

Promoted to Air Vice Marshal and knighted in 1933, Dowding’s greatest feat was to analyse British preparedness for war and to act accordingly. Promoted to head of the newly established Fighter Command in 1936, Dowding demanded mass production of monoplanes such as the Hurricane and Spitfire. He also immediately grasped the possibilities of radar, then being developed by a team led by his fellow Scot, Robert Watson-Watt, and devised what became known as the Dowding System, the world’s first ground-controlled aircraft interception network involving radar, observer corps and centralised control.

Dowding was due to retire in June, 1939, but with Hitler’s belligerence getting worse he was persuaded to stay on. After the outbreak of war he famously confronted Churchill, who had promised the French fighter support after Dunkirk, to argue that the RAF fighter aircraft should stay at home to deal with the expected German invasion.

Delegating wisely, Dowding took personal command of the tactics and conduct of the Battle of Britain, knowing that all the time his son Derek by his first wife Clarice – she died when Derek was just one – was fighting in the RAF. His men came to know Dowding as Stuffy because of his aloof manner, but they were as devoted to him as he was to them.

Exhausted by the pressures of command, Dowding never quite understood why Hitler and Luftwaffe commandant Hermann Goering switched their attacks to London and started night bombing, but he knew that the RAF had won.

He would often work 18 hours a day taking charge of day and night defence. “I was pretty well all in by the end of the battle,” he said when interviewed in 1968.

There were rows behind the scenes, however, over the use of “Big Wing” tactics that Dowding opposed, and he was moved from Fighter Command at the end of 1940, finally retiring in 1942.

He wrote his memoir, Twelve Legions of Angels, in 1942 but it was suppressed until after the war. Dowding developed an interest in spiritualism and with his second wife Muriel campaigned against vivisection. He died aged 87 on February 15, 1970 – 50 years ago on Saturday.