The Perils of Mission Command – A Historical Perspective

Conor O’Neill

Mission command is firmly built into UK and Allied military doctrine.  It has become an article of faith that it produces better results as it “…encourages initiative and decentralized decision-making” and thus “promotes…speed of action…”.  UK doctrine argues that the British approach goes further than the Allied one, with use of the concept encouraged down to the lowest levels of command.  So, despite considerable advances in communications and information technology, there is broad consensus that, in a fast-moving battlefield, delegation of decision making, coupled with sound understanding of the broader tactical or operational context and plan, will outpace a more directive system.

The philosophy of mission command is evident in modern ideas such as Collaborative and Edge C2, developed by NATO, and cited in UK doctrine development work on the Future of Command and Control.  It has a long history, however, and it is from that that we can learn lessons about the dangers that Mission Command can expose a force to.  Eighty years after the Battle of Britain, this article will examine German operations in that campaign to highlight the potential risks of an approach which is now central to British military C2, and thus provide an insight into how to avoid them.

The German military has long been regarded as one of the earliest adopters of the principles of Mission Command, in the land environment at least.   It is visible in the concept of auftragstaktik, translated variously as mission command, mission tactics, or directive control, which was potentially evident as early as the Franco-Prussian war, when one of Moltke’s corps commanders triggered the battle of Vionville-Mars-la-Tour by exercising his initiative, with the result of cutting off France’s main army.  This evolved into freie operationen, ‘free operations’, only formally placed into German military doctrine in 1966, but visible in practice since the First World War.  It describes the empowerment of commanders to adapt the broad direction of their orders in order to react to and exploit situations as they find them, giving them a high degree of independence in how they achieve the objectives of their superiors.

The success of the Blitzkrieg of May 1940 suggests that only this level of delegation and independence of action could keep up with the pace of such mobile warfare, particularly given the communications technology available in the early stages of the war, and was thus an essential component of victory.  However, the situation at the eve of the Battle of Britain was much changed from that of even a few weeks earlier.  June arguably found Nazi Germany in a position where their tactical and operational prowess had outpaced their strategic vision.  Their defeat of the Western European powers had been swifter than they had anticipated, and raised the question of how to deal with Britain, whose army, shorn of materiel, had nonetheless escaped from the continent at Dunkirk, and whose navy possessed “…the largest operational fleet in the world…”.   Analysis of correspondence and meetings between Hitler, the OKW and the Kreigsmarine, drawn principally from Jak Mallman’s collection of the Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs 1939-1945 as well as diaries of the senior leadership over the following months, reveals the extent of strategic prevarication over the method of driving Britain out of the war, coupled with ambivalence over the option of invasion.  The strategic concept for the next phase of the war was far from clear.

On the 20th June 1940, Raeder, CINC of the Kreigsmarine, brought up the question of Britain  “Hitler, jubilant over his victory in France, paid scant attention.  He did not consider that invasion would be necessary and thought that air attacks and a naval blockade would quickly bring England [sic] to defeat.”  This view was not confined to Hitler, as after the war, Raeder was quoted in Barry Leach’s German General Staff , stating “Our mental as well as materiel preparations before the war had not been aimed at an armed conflict with England”.  Fuehrer Directive 16 on the 16th July, arguably the formal initiating directive for the seaborne attack, directed, to use the modern phrase, a ‘Be Prepared To’ task; “I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out an invasion of England.”  It also stressed that the first condition to be created was that “English [sic] Air Force must be beaten physically and morally to a point that they cannot put up any show of attacking force worth mentioning.”  Over a series of meetings through July and August, Raeder stressed that Sealion, the codename for invasion, must take priority over everything else if it is to succeed.  The fact that he continued to make this request over the weeks that follow suggests that it had not been prioritised to that degree, and several authors, including Horst Boog, argue that, even before the battle reached its climax, Hitler was starting to focus German industrial production towards a land war with the USSR.

If invasion was the priority option, it is odd that nowhere in Fuehrer Directive 17 from the 1st August, entitled For prosecuting air and sea war against England, is invasion described in detail, or the plan refined.  Sealion is mentioned once, and there is an oblique reference to “our own intended operations” when restricting attacks on ports, but when compared to the volume of detail on invasion plans in Directive 16, the lacunae is striking.  Goebbels wrote in his diary on the 7th August “invasion not planned.  But we shall talk about it in our propaganda, in a hidden way, to confuse the enemy.”  At a meeting with the Fuehrer on the 13th August, Raeder describes Sealion as “a last resort” to which, he reports “The Fuehrer agrees completely.”  As late as the 7th September, ten days before the decision on launching Sealion was due, working back from a Kreigsmarine assessment of the 21st September as a suitable day for invasion, he devotes a significant portion of his report to both the Fuehrer and other CINCs to alternative options for fighting Britain, including attacks on the Suez Canal and Gibraltar.  None of this conveys an impression of a focussed strategic aim or, at best, indicates one that is sufficiently vague – “her [Britain’s] final defeat” is how Directive 17 describes it –  so as not to provide clear guidance downwards.

In this context, it is unsurprising that strategic and operational direction to the Luftwaffe was equally confused.  Astonishingly, given the centrality of air power to all the options being considered, there was no Luftwaffe representative at the conference on 1st August, after which Directive 17 and amplifying direction from Keitel were issued.  Goering, its Commander-in-Chief, is widely considered not to have been a strong advocate of war with Britain, and this seems to have influenced at least his early approach to the battle, as he did not meet with his senior commanders to discuss attacks on England until the 21st July.   If the British had to be engaged, his preference was for a strategic air campaign conducted by his service, rather than a land campaign, and this is potentially more significant that the uncertainty over options described above.  Already having to resource several different ideas for how to tackle Britain at once, for their CINC, the highest ranked and best politically connected, to be pursuing an entirely different agenda was not a recipe for coherent Luftwaffe activity and, critically, it would challenge the ability of even the most adept purveyor of mission command to develop and then adapt tactical activity to service such confused high level direction.

As mission command was baked into German military thinking, however, what transpired was arguably an attempt to do just that.  Despite tasking his Fliegerkorps commanders to develop operational plans, Goering chose none of them and provided his own.  In the process of developing them, however, those commanders had to work through a mass of contradictory instructions.  They certainly had sight of Directive 16, as in a breach of its extremely limited distribution, Goering had transmitted it, by radio, to his Luftflotte HQs, but they had to set this against what their CINC told them in person, which focused more on his preference for strategic air attacks, and a Luftwaffe High Command directive from the 30th June, which omitted to describe plans for landing in England, but did include an extensive target list.  Goering’s plan was anchored geographically on London, though the city was not to be a target.  Attacks would be made on targets in a band between 150km and 100km from the city for the first five days, then between 50km and 100km for three days, before closing to within 50km of the outskirts of the capital for five days.  These areas encompassed a vast range of targets, but the Eagle Attack directive to Luftflottes 2, 3, and 5 on the 2nd August which set out the plan, only restated broad objectives and over-expansive target sets for the operation.

Each Fliegerkorps accordingly proceeded to generate separate targeting plans, reducing the ability to concentrate effort, and the lack of strategic clarity, transmitted through overly general operational direction, was translated into flawed targeting decisions from each element of the attacking force.  If the objective was gaining air superiority in support of an invasion, it made little sense for a third of attacks to be directed against non-Fighter Command targets.  If, alternatively, the aim was to subdue Britain through a strategic air campaign, neither was there a coordinated campaign against industrial capacity – factories were attacked, but targets included those producing strategic bombers, unlikely to drive Britain out of the war in the short term.  Naval dockyards were attacked, but the Royal Navy’s superiority would not be decisive until the point of invasion, by which point air superiority would have needed to have been achieved.

Whilst this is only one factor in the failure of German forces to win the Battle of Britain, it seems clear that it is an important one, and one which generates an enduring lesson. Whilst Mission Command undoubtedly confers many advantages on a force, enabling commanders to exercise initiative, reacting to events as they unfold and exploiting opportunities rather than slavishly following a plan, it has a fatal vulnerability.  If there is a lack of clarity over the higher intent to which tactical, or even grand tactical actions must be adapted to support, then this approach, which prizes independent action, primarily in our example at Luftflotte and below, quickly dissolves into chaos, or at best a flurry of tactical action without long-term benefit.  This is particularly true when there is weak central direction at what we would now term the operational level of command, as was evident here.

Amidst contemporary debates about the Operational Level of war, concerns, such as Strachan’s about the Western ability to develop and execute strategy, and the evolution of Command and Control technology, we should be alive to the risks of Mission Command as well as its benefits.  In recent years, for the British Armed Forces, when executing both what have been termed ‘wars of choice’ and peacetime activity, political direction has, necessarily, changed over time, whilst the management of complex coalitions might sometimes necessitate activities designed more for the internal audience than the enemy.  In such politically charged situations, without a very detailed and current understanding of the intent of the many layers of command above them, granting broad discretion to a tactical commander might not be advisable.  There is, of course, the parallel risk that, as Multi-Domain Integration develops, higher level commanders will have access to sufficient real time tactical information that they will feel able and thus be tempted to re-centralise control.  To retain the benefits of Mission Command that our doctrine touts, it will be incumbent on operational and strategic commanders to both make their operational and strategic concepts clear, update them transparently, and set bounds within which tactical commanders have freedom to act.  It will also be essential for tactical commanders to have the humility to hand back a degree of control if they judge that they do not have sufficient visibility of the higher level picture to decide how they should act – an uncomfortable act for generations inculcated otherwise.  In an era where armed forces face the concurrent demands of speed of action, near immediate scrutiny of tactical activity, and a unsettled strategic landscape, simply demanding more strategic clarity isn’t necessarily the solution, as it might not be forthcoming.  Commanders at all levels will need to be better at managing the gaps in  such direction, which could include tempering some elements of mission command.  The lessons of eighty years ago are thus still worth recalling, even if today’s commanders should get a more sympathetic hearing than then German ones did in 1940.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official thinking or policy of the UK Ministry of Defence or any other department of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom.  Furthermore such views should not be considered as constituting an official endorsement of factual accuracy, opinion, conclusion or recommendation of the UK Ministry of Defence or any other department of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom.

Featured Image – A Tauchpanzer (deep-wading tank) being tested, 1940

One thought on “The Perils of Mission Command – A Historical Perspective

  1. ‘Mission Command’ allows subordinates to command as they see fit within their jurisdiction, but must always do so according to the senior commanders previously stated intentions and objectives.
    The problem described above has little if anything to do with mission command. Instead, the senior German commanders – Hitler and to a lesser degree Goring – had no clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish against GB, as reflected in the vague uncertain directives which they imparted to their Luftwaffe subordinates. Since Hitler and Goring failed to explain the methods by which the LW was to fight, they are solely responsible for the incoherence of German strategy during the BoB. Mission command certainly does not expect subordinates must act properly despite their superior’s unintelligible intentions.
    Another problem is the author’s belief that MC was ‘baked into’ German command philosophy. This is another myth. German commanders came in a wide variety of personalities. Some demanded strict directive command, others didn’t. What made the Germans formidable wasn’t just MC, it was their ability to react and improvise quickly under any combat conditions, usually much faster than their enemies. This went beyond MC and was evidence of their clearer understanding of the reality of combat.
    Strategically, however, the two world world war saw Germany with two different megalomaniacal authoritarian supreme leaders, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler, whose strategic direction of their wars went from poor to disastrous respectively. Yet neither would easily accept professional military advice, especially Hitler. His decision to act as Germany’s 24-7 supreme commander began immediately after the fall of France, and his debut as an ‘intuitive military genius’ was his muddled direction of the Battle of Britain. Previously, Hitler had very little to do with operations other than ordering them to occur, and then allowing the military to work it out with his eventual approval of their plans. That changed dramatically in summer of 1940, (and with the benefit of hindsight) Hitler’s self-appointed role as CinC guaranteed Germany’s defeat.


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