Charles Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford

Charles Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford
The Viscount Portal of Hungerford
MRAF Sir Charles Portal.jpg
Portrait photograph of Portal taken at the Air Ministry in London.
Nickname Peter
Born 21 May 1893
Hungerford, England
Died 22 April 1971
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1914–1945
Rank Marshal of the Royal Air Force
Commands held 16 Squadron
24 Wing
7 Squadron
British Forces Aden
RAF Bomber Command (1940)
Chief of the Air Staff (1940–1945)
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight of the Order of the Garter
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Order of Merit
Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Military Cross
Distinguished Service Medal (United States)

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Frederick Algernon Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford KG GCB OM DSO & Bar MC (21 May 1893 – 22 April 1971) was a senior Royal Air Force officer and an advocate of strategic bombing. He was the British Chief of the Air Staff during most of the Second World War.


Early life

Portal was born at Eddington House, Hungerford, England, the son of Edward Robert Portal and his wife Ellinor Kate (née Hill). His younger brother Admiral Sir Reginald Portal (1894–1983) joined the Royal Navy, becoming a naval aviator in the Fleet Air Arm, holding three aviation-related flag appointments between 1943 and 1951. The Portals had Huguenot origins, having arrived in England in the 17th century.[1] Charles Portal, or "Peter" as he was nicknamed, was educated at Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford where he read law. Portal had intended to become a barrister but he did not finish his degree and he left undergraduate life to enlist as a private soldier in 1914.[2]

First World War

At the beginning of First World War, Portal joined the British Army and served as a dispatch rider in the motorcycle section of the Royal Engineers on the Western Front.[3] Portal was made a corporal very soon after joining the Army and he was commissioned as a second lieutenant only weeks later.[2] Around the same time he was commended in Sir John French's first despatch of September 1914. In December 1914 Portal was given command of all riders in the 1st Corps Headquarters Signals Company.

In 1915, with the need for dispatch riders reducing, Portal transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.[2] He graduated as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in April 1916, and joined No. 60 Squadron.[3] He served first as an observer and eventually a flying officer. In June 1917 he was promoted temporary Major and given command of No. 16 Squadron,[3] and in June 1918 he was promoted to temporary Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of No. 24 Wing.[3] He earned the Distinguished Service Order in 1917, with a Bar in 1918, and the Military Cross.[4] In April 1918 he became an officer in the new Royal Air Force, following the Royal Flying Corps' merger with the Royal Naval Air Service. In July 1919 he was appointed to a permanent commission in the rank of Major (shortly afterwards Squadron Leader).[3]

Inter-war years

After the war, Portal took over No. 7 Squadron RAF[3] and concentrated on improving bombing accuracy. He was promoted Group Captain in 1931.[3] In February 1934 he was appointed commander of British forces in Aden,[3] where he tried to control the local tribesmen by air power.

In January 1935 he was promoted to air commodore and in July 1937 to air vice marshal, when he was appointed Director of Organization in the Air Ministry.[5] Just prior to outbreak of the Second World War, he was ordered to establish 30 new air bases in Britain.

Second World War

In early 1939 Portal was appointed Air Member for Personnel on the Air Council.[6] At the outbreak of the war in September he was made acting air marshal and in April 1940 commander-in-chief of Bomber Command.[3]

Portal advocated strategic area bombing against German industrial areas instead of bombing of specific factories or plants. He gave the first order to bomb Berlin on August 25, 1940. The result was that Hermann Göring ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb London instead of British airfields. The Blitz had begun. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was impressed with Portal's strategy and Portal was knighted in July 1940.[3]

In October 1940, Portal was appointed as Chief of the Air Staff with the rank of air chief marshal.[3] This ultimate appointment within the RAF advanced Portal over a number of air officers who had greater seniority. He continued in this capacity for the remainder of the war, being the youngest of the Chiefs of Staff until the arrival of Lord Mountbatten.[3]

He immediately became involved with the controversy over the Big Wing that resulted in Hugh Dowding's removal as the head of RAF Fighter Command. He concentrated on improving bomber navigation systems and bombing aids and increasing the power of the bombs themselves. He strongly supported the scientific intelligence work of R. V. Jones and others.[7] In August 1941 he received a report of the relative inefficiency of RAF daytime raids and proposed area bombing by night. To implement his directive he replaced the chief of bomber command, Air Chief Marshal Richard Peirse, with Arthur Harris.[8]

The Yalta Conference. Portal is shown standing behind Churchill.

Portal accompanied Churchill to all the conferences and made a good impression on Americans. In January 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, the Combined Chiefs of Staff selected him to coordinate the bomber forces of both the United States and Britain in a combined bomber offensive over Germany. The forces were transferred to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower for the duration of Operation Overlord; but when their control reverted to the Combined Chiefs, Portal still advocated area bombing of German cities instead of specific targets.[9]

In June 1944 Portal was promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force and in February 1945 he was one of the senior commanders present at the Yalta Conference. In early 1944 Portal's view of strategic bombing changed; he felt that bombers could also play a more auxiliary role in the allied offensive. (Much of what is known about Portal's thinking is based on memoranda he wrote.) He argued for the new approach on the basis of the huge increase in the size of the bomber force, which would carry out not just precision bombing but also indiscriminate area bombing by night of all German cities with populations exceeding 100,000. Portal thought that the resulting damage to the German war effort and civilian morale would lead to victory within six months. A second memorandum in 1945 made a similar argument.[9]

In March 1945 Churchill gave the final order to stop Portal's strategy of area bombing, after the firestorm of Dresden a few weeks earlier. Churchill subsequently distanced himself from the bombing writing that "the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied Bombing".[10]


In 1945, after the war's end, Portal retired from the RAF and on 17 September 1945 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Portal of Hungerford, of Hungerford in the County of Berkshire, with remainder, failing male issue of his own, to his daughters and their male heirs.[11] On 28 January 1946 he was further honoured when he was made Viscount Portal of Hungerford, of Hungerford in the County of Berkshire, with normal remainder to his heirs male.[12][13] From 1946 to 1951 he was Controller of Production (Atomic Energy) at the Ministry of Supply.[14]

He was elected Chairman of British Aluminium and in 1958/9 he fought in the City of London's "Aluminium War" against a hostile takeover bid by Sir Ivan Stedeford, Chairman & CEO of Tube Investments. T.I. along with its ally Reynolds Metals of the US, won the takeover battle, and in the process, rewrote the way the City of London conducted its business in relation to shareholders and investors. Stedeford replaced Portal as Chairman of British Aluminium. In 1960 Portal was elected chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation.[15]


Lord Portal of Hungerford married Joan Margaret Welby, daughter of Sir Charles Glynne Earle Welby, 5th Baronet, in 1919. They had two daughters, Rosemary Ann (1923–1990) and Mavis Elizabeth Alouette. A son died at birth in 1921. Lord Portal of Hungerford died at West Ashling House on 22 April 1971, aged 77. The viscountcy died with him while he was succeeded in the barony according to the special remainder by his eldest daughter, Rosemary, 2nd Baroness Portal of Hungerford. The barony became extinct on her death in 1990.

Honours and awards



  1. ^ Richards 1978, pp. 6–11.
  2. ^ a b c Probert, p. 23
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation - Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Portal
  4. ^ Burke's Peerage.
  5. ^ London Gazette: no. 34432. p. 5561. September 3, 1937. Retrieved 2009-01-25.
  6. ^ London Gazette: no. 34594. p. 689. January 31, 1939. Retrieved 2009-01-17.
  7. ^ R. V. Jones (1978) Most Secret War
  8. ^ Probert, p. 25
  9. ^ a b Portal expands bombing operations
  10. ^ British Bombing Strategy in World War Two BBC
  11. ^ London Gazette: no. 37305. p. 5026. 12 October 1945.
  12. ^ London Gazette: no. 37461. p. 864. 8 February 1946.
  13. ^ Burke's Peerage.
  14. ^ "Development of Atomic Energy in Britain." Nature 157, February 2, 1946, pp. 128–128. Retrieved: March 8, 2009.
  15. ^ Probert, p. 26


External links

Military offices
Preceded by
O T Boyd
Officer Commanding Aden Command
Air Officer Commanding from 1 January 1935

Succeeded by
E L Gossage
Preceded by
W L Welsh
Director of Organisation
1 September 1937 – 1 February 1939
Succeeded by
D G Donald
Preceded by
Sir William Mitchell
Air Member for Personnel
Succeeded by
Sir Leslie Gossage
Preceded by
Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt
Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command
Succeeded by
Sir Richard Peirse
Preceded by
Sir Cyril Newall
Chief of the Air Staff
Succeeded by
Sir Arthur Tedder
Government offices
New office Controller of Production (Atomic Energy)
Controller Atomic Energy from 1950

Succeeded by
Sir Frederick Morgan
Business positions
Preceded by
Chairman of British Aluminium
Succeeded by
Sir Ivan Stedeford
New title
Corporation formed
Chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation
Succeeded by
Sir George Edwards
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Portal of Hungerford
Baron Portal of Hungerford
Succeeded by
Rosemary Ann Portal

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