Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Frederick Algernon Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford 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.
Charles Portal was born 21 May 1893 in Hungerford, England, the son of Edward Robert Portal and his wife Ellinor Kate (née Hill). The Portals had Huguenot origins, having arrived in England in the 17th century. Charles Portal, or "Peter" as he was nicknamed, was educated at Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford, although he did not finish his degree as he left undergraduate life to enlist as a private soldier in 1914.
At the beginning of World War I, Portal joined the British Army and served as a dispatch rider in the motorcycle section of the Royal Engineers on the Western Front. 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 Portal transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, serving first as an observer and eventually a flying officer. He reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel and earned the Military Cross. 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.
After the war, he took over No. 7 Squadron RAF and concentrated on improving bombing accuracy. In 1934 he was appointed commander of British forces in Aden, 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. Just prior to outbreak of the Second World War, he was ordered to establish 30 new air bases in Britain.
In early 1939 Portal was appointed Air Member for Personnel on the Air Council. At the outbreak of the war in September he was made acting air marshal and in April 1940 commander-in-chief of Bomber Command.
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 25 August 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.
In October 1940, Portal was appointed as Chief of the Air Staff with the rank of air chief marshal and became involved with the controversy over the Big Wing that resulted in Hugh Dowding's removal as the head of Fighter Command. He concentrated on improving bomber navigation systems and bombing aids and increasing the power of the bombs themselves.
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.
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.
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 should play a more auxiliary role in Allied offensive. In this he disagreed with Sir Arthur Harris, an advocate of heavy strategic bombing, who forced Portal to back down. In March 1945 Churchill gave the final order to stop 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".
In 1945, after the war's end, Portal retired from the RAF and in August was created Baron Portal of Hungerford, of Hungerford in the County of Berks, and a year later Viscount Portal of Hungerford, with the same territorial designation. From 1946 to 1951 he was Controller of Production (Atomic Energy) at the Ministry of Supply.
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.
Lord Portal of Hungerford died on 22 April 1971, aged 77. His Viscountcy became extinct, but his Barony, which had been created with a special remainder, passed to his daughter Rosemary.