Charles Portal was described by Winston Churchill as the “accepted star” of the Royal Air Force. Charles Portal was to become Marshal of the RAF in 1944.
Portal was born in Hungerford on May 21st 1893. He went to Christ’s College, Oxford, and when World War One broke out he joined the British Army. Portal joined the Royal Engineers and by the end of 1914, he was given the command of the motorbike riders in the 1st Corps Headquarters Signal Company. In 1915, Portal transferred to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and became a pilot after initially training to be an observer. Portal distinguished himself in the air to such an extent that by the time the war ended, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Military Cross and had attained the rank lieutenant colonel. In total, Portal flew in over 900 missions ranging from reconnaissance to directing artillery fire and night time bombing.
After the war, Portal joined the newly formed Royal Air Force. His main aim from a technical point of view was to create better bombing accuracy so that the risks that pilots took when they flew had definite end results. In 1927, he was given command of No 7 Squadron. In 1934, Portal was appointed the commander of British forces in Aden. In January 1935, while in Aden, he was promoted to Air Commodore and, after joining the Imperial Defence College, was promoted to Air Vice Marshal.
As many became convinced that war was all but inevitable, Portal was tasked with creating thirty new air bases in Britain. When war broke out he was promoted to Air Marshal. In April 1940, Portal was given the command of Bomber Command. On August 25th, Portal gave the order for Bomber Command to start attacks on German cities.
These attacks were meant to show the Nazi government the power of the RAF. Though little damage was done in the initial raids they did directly impact the way the Battle of Britain was being fought. Fighter Command was struggling to contain the attacks by the Luftwaffe on its air bases. The attacks by Bomber Command led to a change in targets for the Luftwaffe with London now the main target in revenge for the bombing raids on Germany. This gave Fighter Command the time it needed to recover and go on to win the Battle of Britain.
In July 1940, Portal was knighted and in October 1940, he was promoted to Air Chief Marshal and became Chief of the Air Staff.
Together with ‘Bomber’ Harris, Portal developed the tactic that became known as ‘area bombing’. Portal believed that mass night time bombing of German cities would sufficiently undermine the civil population’s morale that it would turn on the government and force it into surrender. Hence the raids on Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden and others. This bombing campaign remains a contentious issue. Also Bomber Command itself suffered major casualties with over 57,000 men killed.
In January 1943, Portal accompanied Churchill to the Casablanca meeting. It was at this meeting that the Combined Chiefs of Staff selected Portal to coordinate the bomber forces of Britain and America in a combined offensive over Germany. This force was under the command of Eisenhower for D-Day in 1944. Once D-Day had been successful, command of this force reverted back to Portal, now Marshal of the RAF (promoted in January 1944).
Portal was told by Churchill to bring area bombing to an end in March 1945. Churchill believed that with the war coming to an end, the Allies would take over a wasteland.
In August 1945, Portal was made a baron (Baron Portal of Hungerford) and a year later a viscount (Viscount Portal of Hungerford). After leaving the RAF, Portal took on a number of positions, such as Controller of Atomic Energy. He never wrote his memoirs and died on April 22nd, 1971.