Air Commodore 'Daddy' Dow
Maker of airfields

'Daddy' Dow

Those who flew were dependent on those who didn't and among the many who helped to win the war from the ground was Air Commodore Alexander 'Daddy' Dow, who headed a vast, often perilous operation to build airfields at high speed, and sometimes in such remote places as the Cocos Keeling Islands.

I am grateful, as ever, to the Daily Telegraph for the details of this appreciation which appeared after the air commodore's death at the age of 91.

Following the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, Dow, a dour, meticulous Scottish engineer, masterminded the rapid expansion of airfields in Britain. As air operations spread to North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, his Airfield Construction Service (ACS) - eventually 30,000 strong - provided emergency airfields under testing conditions. The ACS toiled in extremes of climate. When reinforcement of the desert Air Force required an airferry route from Takoradi, in West Africa, to Khartoum and on to Egypt, Dow established stepping-stone landing grounds across thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain.

His units were just as successful in Iceland and the Azores, where RAF Coastal Command squadrons needed bases from which to undertake operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. For the invasion of Normandy in 1944, his construction commandos converted farmland into air bases, often within a matter of days. Dow's men were sometimes so close to the front that half of them had to mount guard to protect the others while they prepared an emergency landing strip.

Airfield team at work.

Alexander John Dow was born on July 9 1905, the son of a police chief superintendent in Aberdeen. He was educated at Robert Gordon College and its technical facility. In 1923 he joined a firm of consulting engineers in Aberdeen. After four years he went to the Federated Malay States where, as assistant engineer in the public works department, he built roads through the jungle. During 1931 he studied reinforced concrete at Purdue University, Indiana before returning to the Air Ministry as a civil engineer.

In February 1940 Oow found himself in the uniform of a pilot officer, the Air Force's lowest commissioned rank. In March, and already a wing commander (equivalent to lieutenant-colonel), he took a team to France to build airfields for the RAF. Though the name came later, this was effectively the birth of ACS.

Dow, based at Blois, on the Loire, had completed the construction of three airfields when on May 10, Germany launched its Blitzkrieg and France fell. Evacuated on the evening of June 16, the unit reckoned to have acquitted itself well.

With the Battle of Britain and the threat of invasion Dow and his team sought other locations for airfields. They selected sites which could be suitable for air operations, often landing, to the surprise of landowners, in parks and fields.

He also began to supervise the building of permanent airfields, mainly in the west and south west. The Army helped out with troops, until they were replaced by Air Force personnel. As radar defences spread, from Orkney to Cornwall, their electrical and mechanical functions were brought under ACS control.

When the war in Europe ended, Dow was posted to Air Headquarters in South East Asia and switched his attention to the needs of Tiger Force, which was preparing to invade Malaya and Singapore. After the Japanese surrender, one of Dow's wings, which had been on its way to Okinawa, was diverted to Hong Kong. The men arrived on Sept. 4 and set about rounding up 18,000 Japanese troops to help reinstate public services before turning to airfield work. Another wing restored airfields in Singapore.

In 1946 Dow was appointed chief engineer at Air Headquarters, Iraq. In 1948 he resumed civilian life as chief engineer in the directorate of works at the Air Ministry. In 1952 the RAF reclaimed him and he was posted to 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany where he met Group Officer Merible Pitter, whom he married in 1954. The next year he left the Air Force for the last time and served as a deputy director at the Ministry of Civil Aviation until 1963, when he retired to Scotland.

Dow was the founder president of the RAF Airfield Construction Officers Association, and was appointed OBE in 1946.

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