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date: 06 February 2023

Portal, Charles Frederick Algernon, Viscount Portal of Hungerfordfree


Portal, Charles Frederick Algernon, Viscount Portal of Hungerfordfree

  • Denis Richards

Charles Frederick Algernon Portal, Viscount Portal of Hungerford (1893–1971)

by Eric Kennington, 1940

Portal, Charles Frederick Algernon, Viscount Portal of Hungerford (1893–1971), air force officer, was born on 21 May 1893 at Eddington House, near Hungerford, Berkshire, the first child of Edward Robert Portal (1854–1953), country gentleman and former barrister, and his second wife, Ellinor Kate Hill (d. 1946), daughter of Captain Charles West Hill, governor of Winchester prison. There were already two young sons from E. R. Portal's earlier marriage, and later he had four more sons by his second wife. There were no daughters.

Ancestry and early life

The Portals were of Huguenot descent. Their long line of ancestors in southern France had flourished until Louis XIV's persecution, to avoid which two young Portal brothers fled abroad. Apparently they were shipped from Bordeaux in empty wine casks. In England the elder later established a family whose most distinguished member, until Portal of Hungerford, was the eighteenth-century silversmith and dramatist Abraham Portal. The younger founded a family which grew rich on the manufacture of banknote paper; its most distinguished member in recent times was Viscount Portal, chairman of Portal's Ltd and the initiator of prefabricated houses.

Charles Portal was reared in a leisured but unluxurious household. E. R. Portal had inherited enough from a family wine business in Northampton to give up the law at thirty and devote himself to country life. The Eddington House estate comprised 400 acres, half of which he himself farmed; but most of his time was given to shooting, fishing, riding, hunting (as master of the Craven hounds), and to his duties as landlord, JP, and major in the Berkshire yeomanry. The world in which his seven sons grew up was one of manly sport and strict attention to duty. They were taught above all to be honourable, brave, active, well mannered, and considerate. Friendly competitiveness was encouraged, any trace of boasting or ostentation abhorred. Virility and patriotism were family hallmarks, and of the six sons who reached manhood, five opted from youth for a service career. Of these the most distinguished was Admiral Sir Reginald Henry Portal (1894–1983). Only Charles Portal had no intention of entering the armed forces.

As a boy Portal (who was always known to his relatives and friends by his nickname, Peter) soon excelled at shooting, fishing, ferreting, and ball games. At fourteen he took up hawking, which long remained an enthusiasm. By sixteen he was an acknowledged expert on this, writing paid articles for The Field.

Portal's education was that of his class: governess, preparatory school, public school. The public school was Winchester, where despite the hours he spent with the hawks he kept there he did well in both work and games. In October 1912 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, as his father had done, to take a pass degree and with the intention subsequently to qualify as a barrister of the Inner Temple. Though he spent most of his time hawking, beagling, and motorcycle racing—he rode victoriously for Oxford against Cambridge in May 1914—he also passed his examinations. Had he gone into the law he would undoubtedly have made a great judge; but August 1914 dictated other courses.

Dispatch rider, air observer's pilot, 1914–1918

On 6 August 1914, hearing of a call for dispatch riders, Portal enlisted in the motorcyclist section of the Royal Engineers. Eight days later he was a corporal in France, about to begin almost incessant riding as the British expeditionary force advanced to Mons and retreated to the Marne. His tiredness became such that he once fell asleep on his machine and crashed into the back of the staff car carrying Sir Douglas Haig. But his courage and devotion to duty were quickly recognized. On 26 September he was commissioned, on 8 October he was mentioned in a dispatch of Sir John French, and by late November he was commanding all the riders in headquarters signals company, 1st corps.

Staff duties and a stable front made dispatch riding less appealing, and Portal soon applied for secondment to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as an air observer. In July 1915 he joined 3 squadron, a reconnaissance and artillery observation unit. He had two days' ground training, and on his third day—never having been in the air before—flew on reconnaissance over the enemy lines.

In August 1915 Portal nearly killed himself on home leave when the front fork of his motorcycle broke; his lingual artery was severed, but a passing doctor saved his life. He was back in France within six weeks. At the end of 1915 he left 3 squadron to train as a pilot, graduated flying officer RFC in April 1916, and joined 60 squadron (fighter-reconnaissance) in time for the Somme offensive. In mid-July, less than three months after he had qualified as a pilot, he was promoted temporary captain and returned to 3 squadron as a flight commander. Back on tactical reconnaissance and artillery observation, he made 326 operational flights in the next eleven months. His outstanding service during the five months of the Somme offensive resulted in a recommendation for an immediate award of the MC 'for conspicuous skill and gallantry' (gazetted 19 Jan 1917).

On 14 June 1917 Portal was promoted temporary major and given command of 16 squadron (reconnaissance and artillery observation). A month later he was appointed to the DSO, also given for his earlier work on the Somme. During the autumn his squadron was required to bomb by night behind the battle front. Its RE 8s, far from easy to fly, had not been designed to carry bombs, and there was apprehension when the order came through. Portal quenched all doubts by personal example. He took off alone by night with a 112 lb bomb slung under each wing, and then landed with the bombs still on. He paused, repeated the flight—and then repeated it again. Very soon 16 squadron was skilled in night bombing, with Portal continuing to set an example. One night in January 1918 he made five raids beyond the enemy lines; later, during the German spring offensive, when his squadron was working for the Canadian corps of the First Army, he flew over the enemy lines for three and a quarter hours one day, sending down calls for action against hostile batteries, and then during the ensuing night flew a bombing mission in driving snow.

Promotion to temporary lieutenant-colonel followed on 17 June 1918 when Portal was sent home to command 24 (training) wing at Grantham. A few weeks later he was awarded a bar to his DSO. The recommendation, emanating from the Canadian corps, stemmed from the observation that 'whenever difficult or dangerous work has had to be carried out, this officer has done it himself' (RAF Quarterly, vol. 2, article 3).

Early appointments in the RAF, 1919–1923

Portal's fighting war was now over. He had flown over 900 operational sorties and successfully registered more than 250 artillery shoots. A lieutenant-colonel with three decorations and twice mentioned in dispatches, he was still only twenty-five. Such a man was not to be lost to the new Royal Air Force, and Sir Hugh Trenchard, who had marked him out in France, made sure that he was not. At the end of July 1919 he was appointed to a permanent commission in the rank of major (shortly, squadron leader), and in the same month (22 July 1919) he married Joan Margaret (1899–1996), daughter of a leading Norfolk landowner, Sir Charles Glynne Earle Welby, fifth baronet, CB, and of Lady Welby, a sister of the marquess of Bristol. Their only son died at birth. They subsequently had two daughters.

For the next three and a half years Portal was an outstanding chief flying instructor at the newly established RAF Cadet College, Cranwell. He left in April 1922 to attend the first course at the new RAF Staff College, Andover. Posted next to operations and intelligence in the Air Ministry, he came into close contact with Trenchard, by then chief of the air staff, who initiated him into many aspects of RAF work and policy. Trenchard's high opinion of him was seen in Portal's promotion to wing commander in July 1925 and his nomination to attend the senior officers' war course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where the other students were mostly admirals.

After Greenwich came command in March 1927 of 7 squadron. It had experienced troubles before Portal took over, but his efficiency and enthusiasm soon had their effect. That summer, while based at Worthy Down, the squadron won the long-distance bomber event, entitling it to lead the bomber fly-past at the Hendon display; and in September 1927, and again in 1928, an aircraft of 7 squadron won the annual competition for bombing accuracy. The bomb-aimer—lying on his stomach—was in both years the squadron commander, Portal. Another impressive feat at this time was his disproof of an army assertion during manoeuvres that tanks moving by night could not be spotted from the air. Patrolling during an evening of blinding rain and poor visibility, he picked out an armoured force with the aid of an Aldis lamp, and was still over it when dawn came nine hours later.

In 1929 Portal was chosen to attend the recently founded Imperial Defence College, after which he toured the RAF stations in India. On his return in 1931 he was promoted group captain and again appointed to the air staff. This time he was deputy director of plans, a post which brought him into close contact with the other services. His main concerns were with Singapore (where he pleaded for aircraft as opposed to more heavy guns), with the 'air versus gun' controversy as it also related to other bases and the home ports, with questions of future RAF equipment, and with briefs for the British representatives at the disarmament conference. In this work he made a reputation for the speed at which he could produce a concise and convincing paper, and for his skill and fair-mindedness as a negotiator.

Major appointments in the RAF, 1934–1939

In February 1934 Portal received his first big command—over the British forces in Aden. There he brilliantly justified the decision to make the Air Ministry responsible for the defence of the settlement and the tribal protectorate. Soon after he arrived Quteibi tribesmen in the protectorate plundered some passing caravans, and order had to be restored. When the tribe refused to pay a fine and hand over the culprits Portal took action, not by punitive bombing, but by instituting an air blockade which, by threatening attack, kept the Quteibis from their fields and villages. After two months' incessant patrolling by his aircraft the tribesmen gave in, agreed to terms, and returned to good behaviour. This classic, and almost bloodless, demonstration of 'air control' over unadministered territory brought Portal further prestige and, on 1 January 1935, promotion to air commodore.

In the quieter months which then preceded the Abyssinian crisis Portal took up one of the Aden pastimes—sailing. Characteristically he won his first race and headed the table of successes in his first season. On one occasion he beat a naval commander first in his own yacht, and then, when they changed boats, in the commander's.

By the later summer of 1935 Mussolini's designs on Abyssinia were clear, and Portal was at full stretch preparing to repel any attack on Aden and receive reinforcements. With the arrival of these the post of commander, British forces in Aden, was upgraded, and Portal returned home—to a place on the directing staff of the Imperial Defence College. There he preached inter-service collaboration rather than any purely 'air' doctrine, and made friendships in the other services which stood him in good stead later.

Portal left the Imperial Defence College in July 1937 on promotion to air vice-marshal and appointment as director of organization in the Air Ministry. The RAF was then amid expansion schemes to counter the danger from Hitler's Germany. To determine and meet the service's rapidly shifting requirements for organization, accommodation, equipment, and trained manpower was a vast and vital task to which Portal now sacrificed all leisure interests. Among the developments which owed much to his work were the creation of maintenance command, the organization of the London balloon barrage and balloon command, progress with camouflage, the provision of high-octane fuel, and the framing of mobilization procedures and administrative plans to support operational projects. The development of the reserve forces and the creation of special units for operational flying training (previously done in the squadrons) were other achievements. The most difficult task of all was finding and developing, with the Airfields Board and the directorate of works, all the airfields and depot sites needed under the successive expansion schemes. During Portal's eighteen months at organization over thirty new main airfield stations were in fact begun or completed and many satellite sites acquired—work without which victory in the battle of Britain would hardly have been possible. It was recognized by his appointment as CB in the new year honours of 1939.

On 1 February 1939 Portal became air member for personnel. This gave him a seat on the Air Council and responsibility for providing the RAF with its totals of skilled officers and men. To match requirements exactly when these were constantly changing was a formidable task, and when war came in September the RAF still had grave deficiencies in many trades. Had it not been for Portal, however, these would have been much worse. He insisted, for instance, that problems of manning should be considered before expansion schemes were adopted, not afterwards; he recruited air gunners, instead of wastefully using volunteer ground tradesmen in this role; he helped to create a new technical branch of officers; to make women more readily available for work on operational stations, he helped to free the women's RAF companies from the Auxiliary Territorial Service and create instead the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Above all he played a major part, when war came, in initiating two vital elements in the expansion of aircrew training. The first was a big new initial training organization to deal solely with aircrew training which could be done on the ground. The second, in which he was concerned from the earlier pre-war proposals, was the Commonwealth air training scheme approved in December 1939, and subsequently augmented. This scheme ensured, throughout the rest of the war, aircrew training facilities in safe areas and a wonderful flow of well-trained crews.

Air officer commander-in-chief, Bomber Command, 1940

Portal was promoted temporary air marshal at the outbreak of war and remained at personnel. But a summons to a major operational post was bound to come and on 4 April 1940 he was appointed to Bomber Command. He had been there less than a week when the Germans invaded Norway. Once the enemy was established there it became Portal's task to attack German ships and German-occupied Norwegian airfields. But attack on warships only confirmed that the British bombers of the time could not operate safely by day without fighter escort; and not much could be achieved by trying to attack airfields at night or under cloud cover across the width of the North Sea—as Portal vainly pointed out to the air staff. His bombers obtained successes by laying mines on the German sea routes, but in general his force of some 240 aircraft was far too small, and too distant, to have any effect on the campaign.

On 10 May 1940 Portal's tasks changed abruptly when the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries. He was now required to use his ‘medium’ bombers—the Blenheims—against the advancing columns and their communications. This was at once revealed as suicidal work, and only Portal's rapid insistence on fighter cover saved the Blenheims from annihilation. Any delays imposed on the invaders were of the slightest—though in the Dunkirk period even slight delays had value. Little more success was achieved by Portal's 'heavy' bombers of the time—the Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens. These were required to operate by night against the invaders' communications and—after much Anglo-French controversy—against oil plants, marshalling yards, and aircraft factories in Germany. Attack on German industrial targets was an extension of the war strongly urged by Portal. His small forces, inadequately equipped for accurate navigation and bombing on moonless nights, did little damage—much less than was thought at the time—but at least they suffered few losses, and they carried the war to the enemy's homeland.

Portal's reputation in no way suffered from the allied failures in Norway and France, and his firm leadership was recognized by his appointment in July 1940 as KCB. In the weeks which followed, Sir Charles Portal—as he now became known—commended himself greatly to the prime minister by the energy he put into preparations to resist a German invasion and by the effective use of his force against enemy invasion ports and barge concentrations. His desire for offensive action against objectives in Germany, and his stimulation of research into better methods of navigation, also appealed to Winston Churchill, as did his readiness to attack targets in Berlin immediately after the first German bombs fell on London. These attacks on Berlin in fact did negligible damage, but they had a profound effect on the battle of Britain then raging. They were high among the factors which caused Hitler to direct the Luftwaffe prematurely against London, and so took the weight of its attack from Fighter Command's vital sector stations.

While stimulating technical improvements to make the British night bombing more effective, Portal now also began to press for the selection of targets which would be easier to find and hit. Thus far the targets had been precise ones, for both military and humanitarian reasons. He urged that German industrial areas, rather than particular plants or factories, should be his prime objective. This was not yet the official policy; but on 4 October 1940 he left Bomber Command to succeed, three weeks later, Sir Cyril Newall as chief of the air staff. In a matter of weeks 'area bombing' was initiated, and Bomber Command began its long assault on the German industrial towns.

Chief of the air staff, October 1940 to December 1945

Promoted acting air chief marshal on his new appointment, Portal had now risen to be head of his service. The 'accepted star of the Royal Air Force', as Churchill described him (W. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, 1949, 19), he drove himself relentlessly throughout the rest of the war. His leadership was never remotely challenged; and he survived strains in dealing with the prime minister which seriously impaired the health or temper of more than one of his colleagues.

Internal struggles

As chief of the air staff Portal fought his war almost entirely in Whitehall and at the great Anglo-American conferences. He concerned himself not with the day-to-day supervision of the RAF but, in essence, with the settling of strategic plans, priorities, and allocations. This he did both on the RAF level and, in conjunction with the prime minister and his fellow chiefs of staff, on the inter-service and later inter-allied levels. The work of determining first British, and then Anglo-American, higher strategy and military policy was particularly arduous. At the end of the war Portal reckoned that he had attended nearly 2000 chiefs of staff meetings, 'each taking 1½ to 2 hours or more, and needing perhaps 3 or 4 hours of reading beforehand' (Portal, speech at Winchester College, 1945).

Portal's first battle was for the retention of Coastal Command. In the autumn of 1940 A. V. Alexander and Lord Beaverbrook led a campaign for its transfer to the Admiralty. In Portal's view the shipping protection problem of that time arose not from faulty organization but from the general shortage of aircraft, and he worked out a compromise with the chief of naval staff, Sir A. Dudley Pound, by which Coastal Command would be strengthened and formally placed under the Admiralty's 'operational control'. (It already was so in practice, but the phrase was a guarantee.) Thanks to this, Alexander and Beaverbrook were worsted.

Later, in 1942, Portal had to fight a similar battle against Sir Alan Brooke, who was demanding a very large and virtually separate air force for army support. Together with naval demands at the time, it would have absorbed almost the entire British output of operational aircraft. Again Portal succeeded in satisfying the demand in another way—by demonstrating, through the forces of Sir Arthur Tedder in north Africa, that where the army was actively engaged it could by that time rely on a powerful RAF presence and constantly improving techniques of air support. In resisting such demands Portal preserved both his own service and the principle of centralized higher control of air power to avoid waste of resources and give maximum flexibility of application. This in itself was a notable contribution to victory.

Portal's other internal battles included several with the prime minister, none of which diminished their mutual liking and respect. Apart from those on strategic issues, the most serious was that over the position of Tedder in the Middle East in the autumn of 1941. Churchill had had little confidence in Tedder's appointment, and was moving towards dismissing him. Portal, convinced of Tedder's outstanding abilities, skilfully averted this by sending out his able and devoted vice-chief of air staff, Sir Wilfrid Freeman, who was also an admirer of Tedder, on a mission of inquiry, and by concerting with the secretary of state for air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, a joint resignation should the prime minister insist on having his way.

Strategic conceptions and achievements

Portal's contributions to the higher strategy and direction of the war were mostly made within the framework of written exchanges with the prime minister (two or three times a week) and meetings with his fellow chiefs of staff, American as well as British. On a few detailed issues his views did not prevail, but in general they did. They were extremely consistent. He steadfastly upheld the basic strategy which he had agreed with his fellow British chiefs of staff, and which he later helped to persuade the Americans to accept—the strategy which brought victory. The essentials of this were the primacy of the war in Europe and north Africa over the war in the Far East; the building up of US armaments and forces and the maintenance of sea communications; and the waging of a bombing offensive against Germany to the point where her capacity to resist invasion by the allied armies would be fatally weakened. This strategy Portal helped to defend successfully against all attempts to change it, or weaken it by diversions. He overcame Churchill's periodic waverings about the bombing offensive and, in conjunction with Brooke, frustrated the prime minister's proposals for invasions of Norway and Sumatra. He firmly resisted the American Admiral King's inclination in 1942–3 to switch the greater effort to the Pacific. He and Brooke also played a major part in convincing the Americans that the return to France would have to wait until 1944.

It was naturally, however, in the bombing offensive against Germany that Portal's most distinctive contribution lay. After the fall of France the war cabinet and the chiefs of staff, knowing that years must elapse before the British army could return to the continent, pinned their faith on a bombing offensive as the only immediate means, with a blockade, of putting direct pressure on the Germans. On becoming chief of the air staff in October 1940 Portal had to make this strategy work; and his first contribution, as indicated above, was for reasons of practicality to introduce night attack on industrial areas instead of precise targets. During 1941, however, it became apparent that much of the British bombing was still ineffective. This crisis Portal met by stimulating the efforts to produce new night navigational and bombing aids and more powerful bombs, and by advocating incendiary attack by selected crews before the arrival of the main bomber stream. He also appointed to Bomber Command a man whose experience, abilities, and character fitted him exceptionally well for the task in hand—Sir Arthur Harris.

The entry of the Americans into the war gave Portal the chance to concert, with General Arnold, the Anglo-American day and night air offensive which ultimately brought decisive results. During 1942, however, the American bombers, purely a daylight force, were unable successfully to penetrate Germany, and voices were raised—especially Churchill's—urging them to go over to attack by night. But Portal, who after the early operations himself felt uneasy, was more aware than Churchill of the difficulties of conversion, and threw all his weight behind the American air leaders in their desire to persist with daylight operations. He helped to still Churchill's criticisms; and eventually long-range fighters, especially the Mustangs backed by Portal, supplied the cover which enabled the Americans to win their daylight battle over Germany. Throughout it was obvious to Portal that a day-and-night offensive, if it could be achieved, would be vastly more effective than one solely by night: the strain on the defences, the choice of targets, the moral and material effects would be immeasurably greater.

Until the immediate bombing campaign in preparation for the allied landings in Normandy, Portal was the designated agent of the combined chiefs of staff for the superior control of the strategic air forces of both countries. With the approach of the invasion, ‘direction’ of these was vested in General Eisenhower—an arrangement which Portal accepted because in practice it would be exercised by Tedder, Eisenhower's deputy. With the establishment and advance of the allied armies, control reverted in November 1944 to Portal in conjunction with Arnold—working in practice through their deputies.

During the winter months of 1944–5 the primary target systems chosen met strong opposition from Harris. With the development of night navigation and bombing aids Portal was convinced that Bomber Command could now operate effectively against precise targets, notably oil plants, which became the first priority. Harris, distrustful from past experience of 'panacea' targets, would have preferred, for reasons both of effect and operational safety, to complete as his primary task the destruction of his listed German industrial towns. Portal's patience in dealing with Harris was criticized in the British official history, but he was convinced that Harris, while arguing against his orders, had no intention of disobeying them. In point of fact area attacks continued until almost the last month of the war, but attack on more precise targets took precedence when operational conditions permitted.

The strategic air offensive has come under strong criticism since the war, particularly from humanitarians and naval historians. There is no doubt, however, that though its course was long, arduous, and bloody, it finally worked. The Germans were forced to put an enormous effort into defending their homeland; their production suffered and their communications were disrupted; their air force became almost purely defensive and was finally withering away for lack of fuel. Exactly as the chiefs of staff had hoped, Germany's capacity to resist an armed invasion was fatally weakened. Once the possibility of a return to the continent dawned in 1942, this was always Portal's main intention. In promoting the bombing offensive he did not, like Harris, believe that it could virtually win the war without a serious invasion. If the Germans surrendered before the invasion so much the better; but essentially his concept was first to make the invasion possible, and then to speed, by both tactical and strategic operations, the advance of the allied armies.

The close involvement of Portal with the strategic air offensive did not mean that he ignored the needs of the army and the navy for direct air support. As supplies of aircraft increased and technical developments were pressed forward, the U-boats were duly mastered and the allied armies fought under an overwhelming allied air superiority. Portal was essentially a co-operator: he was determined that the ground and maritime forces should have adequate air support, but equally determined not to sacrifice to this end the embryonic strategic air offensive with all its wide potentialities. It is not only as a proponent of that offensive but also as a great all-round airman and clear-brained strategist co-operating in the closest way with his colleagues at the head of the other British and American services that Portal qualifies as one of the prime architects of the allied victory.

The opinions entertained of Portal's ability by his wartime colleagues were extraordinarily high. Harris summed up his lifelong admiration in the words 'anything you could do, Peter Portal could do better' (private information). Churchill remarked to Lord Moran, 'Portal has everything' (C. M. Wilson, Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survival, 1940–1965, 1966, 677). Eisenhower, while president, told Lord Plowden that he regarded Portal as the greatest British war leader, 'greater even than Churchill' (private information). Lord Ismay told an enquirer that in his opinion Portal was the best of the wartime military leaders 'quite easily' (private information).


During the war Portal had received several honours in addition to his knighthood. He was appointed to the order of Polonia Restituta (1st class), made GCB (June 1942), and appointed to the order of St Olaf (grand cross) and to the Czechoslovakian order of the White Lion. In January 1944 he was promoted marshal of the Royal Air Force. At the end of the war a spate of further honours descended upon him. In August 1945, on the recommendation of the departing prime minister, he received a barony, under the title of Baron Portal of Hungerford; and in the new year honours of 1946 he became Viscount Portal of Hungerford and was at the same time admitted to the Order of Merit. Later in 1946 he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur (grand cross) and Croix de Guerre with palm, the Distinguished Service Medal (by the president of the USA), and the grand cross of the order of George I (by the king of the Hellenes); and in December, George VI appointed him a knight of the Garter. In 1947 he was made knight grand cross of the order of the Netherlands Lion and in 1948 Belgium honoured him with the order of Crown with palm and Croix de Guerre 1940. In 1941 Portal had been made an honorary student of Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1945–7 further honours came in the form of the freedom of the City of London and honorary doctorates from eight universities. In 1951 he was also appointed deputy lieutenant in the county of Sussex.

Atomic energy, 1946–1951

Once the war was over Portal determined to lay down his office, and he did so at the end of 1945. His intention was to relax, to establish a family home, and to take up a City directorship or two. But he had retired only a few days when the prime minister, C. R. Attlee, pressed him to accept another important post. The government had decided to develop the uses of atomic energy, and Attlee wanted Portal to head the organization to be responsible for producing fissile material.

Portal had no wish at all to do this, but he was one of the few leading figures in the country conversant with the broader aspects of the wartime atomic energy developments. Moreover, almost his last action on the chiefs of staff committee had been to recommend the creation of a British nuclear deterrent force and the building of two atomic piles for the production of plutonium. In these circumstances his patriotism overcame his longing for a rest, and in March 1946 he became controller of production in the highly secret atomic energy directorate of the Ministry of Supply. This was an untidy assignment, for the production organization had yet to be created, and its purposes were still undefined, but the necessary research would mostly have to emanate from the ministry's atomic energy research establishment at Harwell, which was functioning separately under John Cockcroft, and was not to be within Portal's province. Fortunately Portal and Cockcroft got on well; and in January 1950 the organizational structure was tidied up when Portal was appointed controller of atomic energy and given superior direction over all branches of the atomic energy organization, including Harwell.

The official history of British atomic energy takes the view that Portal was not a very effective head of the atomic energy project except in preserving priorities at the government level and in dealing with the chiefs of staff. Undoubtedly the main work lay in the research achievements of Cockcroft's teams at Harwell; the creation of a production organization by Christopher Hinton and his teams (resulting in the uranium factory at Risley, the graphite piles at Windscale, and the diffusion plant at Capenhurst); and the development under W. G. Penney of the weapons establishments at Fort Halstead and Aldermaston, culminating in the fabrication of the British atomic bomb. These were astonishing achievements in the short space of six years, and though they emanated mainly from the genius of his subordinates it would seem only logical to accord Portal, as co-ordinator generalissimo, some share of the credit. It was Portal, too, who precipitated the government's decision that the bomb should actually be made. When he was appointed the decision went only as far as producing fissile material; but in January 1947 Portal, knowing his views coincided with those of the chiefs of staff, asked for a definite decision that the appropriate research should be undertaken and atomic weapons developed. He got it by showing how this could be done economically, and in the utmost secrecy, by a small specially created organization within the Ministry of Supply headed by Penney and responsible to himself.


With the production of the bomb a certainty Portal felt free to resign in August 1951. Firmly declining Churchill's invitation to become minister of defence if the Conservatives won the forthcoming general election, he added instead to his directorates. He was already on the board of Barclays Bank DCO, Barclays Bank Ltd, Commercial Union Assurance, and the Ford Motor Company Ltd, and was later to take on directorships of Portals Ltd and the Whitbread Investment Trust. In October 1951 he became a director of the British Aluminium Co. Ltd, and in 1953 its chairman. This involved him in 1958 in a battle—one of the few in his life which he did not win—to resist a take-over bid from the American-backed Tube Investments Ltd. Much greater success attended his subsequent work as director and for a time (1959–64) chairman of the British Match Corporation, and as chairman, from its inception in 1960 until 1969, of the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).

BAC was a difficult assignment undertaken, like atomic energy, only from patriotic motives. The corporation involved the association, but not amalgamation, of three of the largest manufacturers of airframes. The marriage was virtually dictated by the government, which promised a rational division of orders for new enterprises. A national figure was needed as impartial non-executive chairman, and Portal reluctantly agreed to serve. In the event, he much enjoyed the work and his happy relationship with the deputy chairman and managing director, Sir George Edwards. He and Edwards lost two or three battles to retain projects which governments decided to cancel—notably the TSR 2—but Concorde was preserved and thirty years later was still an unparalleled supersonic airliner. In addition several other successful aircraft including the Jaguar strike/trainer were developed. Though he incurred some criticism for displaying less interest in guided missiles than in aircraft, Portal was able to retain the goodwill of the various components of the corporation, to achieve an increasing degree of integration, and to report satisfactory profits—no mean feat for the aircraft industry. No one could have appreciated his contribution more than his collaborator Sir George Edwards, who more than once proclaimed that for their courage, determination, and ability to get the most out of those close to them, he had three great heroes: Nelson, Brunel, and Portal.

Personal characteristics

Otherwise, Portal's main interests after the war were in voluntary work and in reconstructing an elegant house at West Ashling, near Chichester, and tending its gardens. The charitable causes with which he was closely associated were the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF Escaping Society, the King Edward VII Hospital at Midhurst, the Nuffield Trust for the Forces of the Crown, and the Dominion Students Hall Trust (providing accommodation in London for overseas students). He remained an active sportsman—fishing, shooting, and deerstalking in particular—and was president of the MCC in 1958–9. He spoke very infrequently in the House of Lords, where he sat on the cross-benches.

In appearance, Portal was tall and dark, with a large beaked nose and deep facial lines. In his sixties he lost much of his hair and his angular look. His main characteristics were intelligence, integrity, self-control, courage, great powers of endurance, a strong sense of discipline and duty, modesty, a quiet charm of manner, fundamental simplicity, and a deep inner reserve. This last quality was sometimes misunderstood, or resented, by subordinates who expected to be on more intimate terms with their chief. Portal's charm, wit, and sense of fun were not always displayed. They emerged most readily when he had people to convince or entertain, speeches to make, or a few hours to spend with genuine friends. After some months' illness from cancer, stoically borne, Portal died at West Ashling House on 22 April 1971. His ashes were buried near by in Funtington churchyard, to be followed in later years by those of his family. As a special privilege in 1945 a remainder of the barony had been granted through the daughters, and that title was inherited by the elder, Rosemary Ann (1923–1990).


  • Christ Church Oxf., Portal MSS
  • TNA: PRO, air ministry and cabinet MSS
  • D. Richards, Portal of Hungerford (1977)
  • M. Gowing and L. Arnold, Independence and deterrence: Britain and atomic energy, 1945–1952, 2 vols. (1974)
  • West Ashling House, near Chichester, Portal MSS
  • D. Richards, The hardest victory: RAF bomber command in the Second World War (1994)
  • G. Tweedale, ‘Portal, Charles Frederick Algernon 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford’, DBB
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)



  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage
  • BFINA, propaganda film footage
  • IWM FVA, ‘Polish awards to British’, Pathé, 1941, RMY 92–3 [Portal receives the order of Polonia Restituta from President Raczkiewicz]
  • IWM FVA, actuality footage
  • IWM FVA, documentary footage
  • IWM FVA, news footage



  • W. Rothenstein, sanguine drawing, 1939, IWM
  • E. Kennington, pastel drawing, 1940, IWM [see illus.]
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1941, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1941–52, NPG
  • O. Birley, oils, 1942, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon
  • Y. Karsh, bromide print, 1943, NPG
  • group portraits, photographs, 1943–5, Hult. Arch.
  • A. E. Cooper, oils, 1945, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon
  • O. Birley, oils, 1948, Christ Church Oxf.
  • W. Bird, photograph, 1965, NPG
  • O. Nemon, bronze statue, 1975, new Thames embankment, London
  • J. Epstein, bronze head, IWM
  • A. John, oils, NMG Wales

Wealth at Death

£85,438: probate, 20 May 1971, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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