Barriers to Innovation and Operational Learning: A Case Study of Inter-service Rivalry from the Second World War


The recent Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable at the JSCSC produced a fascinating set of papers and subsequent posts on this blog. In the last of these, Stuart Griffin referenced Adam Grissom’s seminal article assessing the state of military innovation studies. Grissom identified the rapidly expanding literature as falling within four broad ‘schools’; civil-military relations, inter-service politics, intra-service politics and organizational culture. This post focuses on a case study of inter-service politics and its effects on British maritime air power in the Mediterranean in the Second World War. Grissom contends in his article that within the inter-service literature, resource scarcity is always seen a key catalyst for innovation, as services compete to innovate in order to control potential resources. Yet this particular case study represents a challenge to that concept – there was certainly competition between the RAF and Royal Navy for ownership of scarce resources, but as I have written in a chapter for this collection, it did not spur deep innovation. In fact it was more of a barrier to it, and even hindered more routine aspects of operational learning in the use of maritime air power.

When Italy declared war on Britain in June 1940, air power resources in the Mediterranean were scarce. The Royal Navy could contribute just 18 biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. RAF Middle East Command could muster fewer than 260 combat aircraft for an area stretching from Malta to Kenya to Iraq. Personnel and training facilities were equally limited and the Air Ministry had made it explicitly clear that the primary task was the defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal. Despite such scarce resources and low priority for maritime operations, the two services co-operated quite effectively at first. The commander of RAF Middle East, Arthur Longmore, had served in the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, and was sympathetic to the maritime needs for air power. He also had a good personal relationship with his naval counterpart, Admiral Andrew Cunningham. In spite of resource scarcity in the early stages of the conflict, effective inter-service co-operation, including the informal sharing of ownership in resources, brought some impressive results. The Fleet Air Arm’s (FAA) fabled strike on the Italian Navy at Taranto was enabled by RAF reconnaissance, as was the Navy’s victory at Cape Matapan the following year.

Yet in June 1941, Longmore was unceremoniously sacked by Churchill, and replaced by Arthur Tedder. Tedder was certainly not ignorant of maritime matters, having previously attended the Royal Naval Staff College, and appreciated the need for RAF aircraft to be used in maritime roles as well as over land. Nevertheless, he saw it as his duty to guard RAF ownership of air power resources in the theatre. His relationship with Cunningham was sour from the start, with Cunningham complaining that the change in leadership was ‘Replacing a first class man with a second class one’. Frustrated at the stagnating numbers of RAF aircraft allocated for maritime roles, in spite of rising numbers arriving in the theatre, Cunningham issued a call for a dedicated organization for maritime air power. This Mediterranean equivalent of Coastal Command should span the whole theatre, be under naval control and wield significant resources. Unsurprisingly, Tedder was opposed to offering anything more than support for individual operations on an ad-hoc basis. In what became a bitter debate, Tedder was backed strongly by the Air Ministry. They ultimately succeeded in persuading Churchill that a theatre-wide organization was not required. Instead, a compromise solution was implemented, with the creation of RAF No. 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group in October. Although not a theatre-wide command, it was at least an RAF organisation dedicated to maritime operations, and it combined RAF and FAA personnel to share expertise, in a similar manner to Coastal Command.

Beyond the quantitative issue, however, there was one other key difference to the Home theatre. In Spring 1941, a deal had been struck between the two services over resource ownership within Coastal Command. Essentially, the RAF retained ownership of the Command and all resources allocated to it, and had the greatest say in terms of what was allocated to it. The Navy, however, was given operational control of the units themselves, thus letting them decide how the aircraft were used on a day-to-day basis. For the British Tri-Service structure, it was an innovative approach to a problem of inter-service politics that had greatly damaged British capability and expertise in maritime air power. Although inter-service friction was certainly not eliminated, this approach fostered new levels of jointery, and Geoffrey Till has claimed that Coastal Command became a ‘model of inter-service relations’. Operational learning benefitted greatly from this approach, and improvements in reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and maritime strike roles were relatively swift.

The Air Ministry were much less willing for a similar compromise over operational control in 201 Group. They argued forcefully that it could not be ceded in an overseas theatre as it had been in Coastal Command. It would mean handing control entirely to the naval commander in the theatre, who would not be able to take the development of the war as a whole into account, as the Admiralty could back in London. Churchill sided with them, and the RAF retained operational control within the group, so long as the aircraft were used for maritime purposes. In this case, inter-service politics had not driven innovation due to the competition for resources, it had stymied it. It also appears to have hampered more routine aspects of operational learning in the use of maritime air power.

The Group was allocated more aircraft, and did bring about operational improvements and increased jointery. Yet as I have noted, these were slow. In the maritime strike role, for instance, RAF capabilities certainly improved, but operational research demonstrated that they were routinely outperformed in this task by the FAA. This was in spite of their operating much older biplane aircraft, which were much less technically advanced than the RAF machines. It was a similar story for ASW, and a small force of Axis U-boats were able to inflict major losses on the Mediterranean Fleet from late 1941 onwards. Air cover for the various major convoys to Malta over 1941-42 was also of inconsistent quality. Cunningham complained that the Group was not fulfilling its remit, or being allocated enough resources, but little changed until fortunes in the theatre as a whole started to improve.

The joint Anglo-American landings in North-west Africa, the relief of Malta, and the withdrawal of a significant proportion of German air power to the eastern front all provided an easier environment for the successful use of maritime air power. Sinkings from maritime strike operations rapidly increased, the U-boat threat was curtailed and the air support offered to the various amphibious landings over 1943-44 was considered ‘excellent’. The Navy even got its cherished theatre-wide maritime air command, the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force, in December 1943, although this was more than 18 months after they first asked for it, and after the Mediterranean theatre had been relegated to a comparative backwater.

The story of British maritime air power in the Mediterranean is one wracked by inter-service politics and the competition for scarce resources. This did not lead to anything more than a very limited from of innovation, however. Therefore, this case study represents a challenge to the trend within the inter-service school identified by Grissom. The RAF did not strive to innovate and develop new capabilities to gain/maintain ownership of resources, as the model contends. Instead they fought, in a largely successful manner, to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

Image: British aircraft carrier Ark Royal with a flight of “Swordfish” overhead, circa 1939. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1977, via wikimedia commons.

One thought on “Barriers to Innovation and Operational Learning: A Case Study of Inter-service Rivalry from the Second World War

  1. Interesting to compare role of Adm Moffett and the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) in exploiting the potential of carrier borne aviation in the US. Whereas the relative lack of innovation in the UK was caused primarily by interservice rivalry, BuAer was able to act as an integrating structure that brought together aviation and maritime innovations.

    Moffett was by no means the sole individual responsible for the extraordinary success of American naval aviation. However, at a critical point in the evolution of naval aviation during the interwar years, he was a key node in an extended network of serving and retired Navy Officers, Industrialists and Politicians that placed the USN well ahead of its rivals and peers.

    Moffett’s contribution was to institutionalize the revolutionary capabilities presented by the aircraft carrier throughout the US defense establishment. He did this by embodying effective authoritative leadership and employing ‘almost fanatical zeal’ in building and leveraging a network of sponsors that overcame bureaucratic inertia and service rivalry through persistence and incremental implementation.

    Of course he was perhaps fortunate not to have to compete with a separate Air Force branch or Air Ministry as was the case in the UK but he did have to head off Gen Billy Mitchell. His example shows the key role individuals can play in driving forward change using authoritative leadership that mobilizes people toward a common vision. Sadly for the UK there was no equivalent individual.

    Moffett acted as a catalyst of change who brought together a network of talented and likeminded individuals united in their desire to exploit the potential in carrier based aviation. Moffett’s success as an innovator can be measured in two ways; in spite of his death in 1933, carrier innovation thrived, and in the unparalleled success of USN carriers in WWII.

    The contrast with the subsequent piecemeal implementation of mostly American built carriers in the Royal Navy during WWII is confirmatory evidence of what can happen to organizations that fail to successfully innovate and succumb to bureaucratic inertia. The primary implication for military professionals today is that the most sustainable form of innovation in peacetime is evidence based evolutionary development, incrementally applied by a community of interest led by authoritative leaders. Creating the conditions for such communities of interest is a challenge for leaders at all levels.


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