“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
In the Battle of Britain, the history books champion the heroics of the fighter squadrons of the RAF in defeating the German Luftwaffe. Churchill seeks to reinforce this view through his famous quote about ‘the few’, being the fighter pilots of the RAF Fighter Command. In reality, the reasons for the British victory were far more complex.
The Battle of Britain is considered to have occurred between 10th July 1940 to 31st October 1940, commencing soon after the fall of France on 25th June, 1940. The German strategy was to obtain air superiority over Britain before Operation Sealion, Hitler’s invasion of Britain. The Luftwaffe had over 2,600 attacking aircraft, bombers and fighters whilst Fighter Command had only 640 fighter aircraft, although there were over 1300 other non-fighter aircraft such as bombers, transport and reconnaissance aircraft. When the Battle ended, the Luftwaffe had lost nearly 2,000 aircraft and over 2,600 airmen, compared to the RAF, who lost over 1,000 aircraft and just over 530 airmen.
So how did the RAF succeed against such odds?
There were a number of inter-related reasons, including German fighters flying at the end of their range, the use of radar by the British, poor German intelligence, the bravery and skill of the RAF pilots, higher attrition of German pilots compared to the British, the weather, and confused and changing German strategy. The German strategy for example, changed from attacking the ports and Channel convoys, to destroying the RAF, either on the ground or in the air, and then later bombing the cities and industrial sites in southern England. Furthermore, the German Luftwaffe headed by Goring, was both autocratic and bureaucratic.
However, the prime reason is considered to have been the tactics initiated by Air Marshall Hugh Dowding. Through the use of new technology, radar and a flexible command structure called the Dowding System, which moulded together technology, ground defences and fighter aircraft, the RAF eventually repulsed the Luffwaffe. Interestingly, Blitzkreig’s initial success can be attributed to using technology and a flexible command structure. Britain was divided into four geographical areas called ‘Groups’ and then ‘Sectors’. Each ‘Sector’ had a fighter airfield with an Operations Room from where the fighters could be directed. As radar tracked the incoming Luftwaffe raids, information was sent to Group headquarters, then to the ‘Sectors’ where fighters would be scrambled and air defence stations notified, all in a short period of time. This strategy allowed the RAF to engage the enemy selectively and in a timely way. The RAF fighters did not engage German fighters unless they were escorting bombers, with Hurricane fighters attacking the German bombers and the Spitfire fighters waiting for the bombers to turn for France before attacking both fighters and bombers when they had little fuel or ammunition. It is a common misconception that the Spitfires and Hurricanes were offensive weapons. They weren’t. They were defensive interceptors, with the sole purpose to intercept bombers on the way in, and prevent them from carrying out their mission and hunting them down when they turned back to France. In reality, the bombers were the attack weapons, to attacking industrial centres, cities, shipping and ports.
What can we learn for business from the Battle of Britain?
There are potentially 3 management lessons from the Battle of Britain.
- Flexible management systems are better than authoritarian and bureaucratic systems
For example, I was able to contribute the success of our logistics business by empowering supervisors to communicate directly with their assigned customers. This not only improved customer service but developed the supervisory and management skills of the supervisor.
- Technology is only an enabler
As an example, our logistics business was created from an opportunity when a major Australian retailer changed their supply chain systems, forcing suppliers to prepare their products in a store-floor ready condition. The enabler was technology (EDI), as it allowed for a more efficient management of the supply chain.
- Engage on your own terms
Too often, business owners try to be all things to all people and do not focus on their strengths and niche and end up competing against larger and better resourced competitors. For example, in our logistics business, we targeted to great success, smaller owner operated companies who did not want to deal with large impersonal organisations.
In conclusion, as managers and business owners we can learn some valuable lessons from the Battle of Britain. Technology is only an enabler. For example, AirBnB’s software has ‘enabled’ a new source of cheaper accommodation for travelers through the letting of private rooms and apartments that were not previously considered available. Flexible management systems that are agile will beat bureaucratic organisations everytime. Kodak, who initially invented the digital camera, failed to commercialise it successfully. And finally, engaging on your own terms where you have a competitive advantage and not go head to head with your competitors is a sensible strategy. A good example of this strategy is the success of Yellowtail Wines where a small Australian family owned wine company created a new market for wine in USA and avoided head-to-head confrontation with the major industry players.
There are valuable lessons for managers in studying history……