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He was a firm believer in spiritualism, and felt he could communicate with the dead, particularly RAF pilots.

Not that he possessed an iota of that spirit of romance that we associate with fighter aircrew, whose daring exploits led to their being treated like film stars by the public.

But during the research for my book on the Spitfire I discovered what an extraordinary, unconventional man he was and how his unorthodox mind played a key role in saving the nation.

The son of a prep school headmaster from Scotland, Dowding had been educated at Winchester public school before joining the Army in 1899.

"An awful lot of lives could have been saved and a lot more damage done [to the Luftwaffe]." Moreover Dowding, lacking charismatic authority, failed to exercise control over his group commanders, often squabbling over air strategy, while in the blackest moments of the conflict, he failed to take a grip of the battle plan, delegating all immediate tactics to his commanders lower down the chain.

After the Battle of Britain had been won, Churchill decided that Dowding must retire as head of Fighter Command, believing he was not the man to take forward the war to its next stage.

In the early Twenties, his career seemed to be going nowhere.It was almost certainly the right decision, for by then Dowding was exhausted. I saw him almost blind with fatigue," recalled one of his aides.He had done his job but in the years that followed, his unorthodox beliefs became even more pronounced.One of his fellow World War I officers, Duncan Grinnell-Milne, described the inadequate nature of Dowding's leadership: "He was efficient, strict and calm; he had a sense of duty."But he was too reserved and aloof from his juniors; he cared too much for his own job, too little for theirs.

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Those months from July until the middle of September 1940, when the men of the RAF held the nation's destiny in their hands, were a unique moment in our island history.

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