The ‘Stuffy’ man who saved England


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Lord Dowding. The course of the war in Europe was changed by this non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian who believed in reincarnation.

I live quite close to the north London borough of Stanmore. There’s an old estate there known as Bentley Priory which has been a base for the Royal Air Force since World War Two. The place is closing today as a functioning RAF base.

During the Battle of Britain, the first ever battle fought entirely in the sky, Bentley Priory was the very nerve centre of operations. Britain had invented the electronic miracle of Radar which allowed observers to know just how many enemy aircraft were approaching, from which direction and how fast. All the information from all the observation posts around the country was telephoned here, and it was from here that the various squadrons of Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft were alerted.

Chief of it all, and the brains behind what in those days was the most advanced electronic operation in the world, was Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding. When I was a child my father would explain just how grateful we should be to Lord Dowding because he had saved ‘England in its darkest hour’ so he was something of a family hero. Dowding was someone who, if he’d lived to meet a Vaishnava, would probably have joined ISKCON and risen rapidly through the ranks. He followed our ‘four regulative principles’ even though to do so amongst fighting men brought him much derision. He was consequently known as ‘Stuffy’ for not joining in the normal merry-making. His vegetarianism was seen as particularly odd.

Lord Dowding was concerned for the welfare of all the young pilots, many as young as nineteen, who were sometimes two or three times daily taking off to do battle with the enemy in the skies over England. He knew that his decisions to send them up often meant the premature end of their young lives. He thought of himself as a mother hen and the pilots as his ‘chicks.’

He began to vividly see those young pilots after their deaths. They would appear in his room at Bentley Priory. As a result he believed that the soul lived on after death.

Yet his mistake was communicating this belief to others. In addition to thinking that he was odd for his disciplined personal habits, those surrounding him began to think that he was slightly losing his mind.

Although he saved his country from invasion, and did it with very little manpower and resources; and though he took risks that others considered foolish, his reward after the War was an inferior overseas posting. He never fully got the recognition he truly deserved.

Some of Dowding’s officers from Bentley Priory were accommodated in a large local house known as Piggott’s Manor. Here they would rest, eat and sleep and talk about that days fighting up in the clouds. Many years later Piggotts Manor was purchased by a young musician who invited his friends to come and live there. His friends named the place Bhaktivedanta Manor in honour of their spiritual teacher.

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