Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Fighting Power as the Arbiter of Leadership Effectiveness

[Cross posted at Birmingham “On War”]

In an era of fourth generation warfare where the achievement of strategic end-goals lay squarely at the feet of politicians, the application of fighting power as a militaries core warfighting capability is being increasingly questioned with a concentration on Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Peacekeeping Support Operations (PSO). For example, Colonel Gian Gentile has lamented on the death of the US Armor Corps as the US Army moves to an infantry-centric force grounded in population centric COIN.[1] This has left it, in Gentile’s opinion, unable to produce effective fighting power. This raises the important question of how fighting power is defined and how it affects of the study of leadership.

In order to analyse the effectiveness of a leader there must be some framework in order to conceptualise the outputs of effective leadership noted above. Ultimately, the indicator for effective leadership must be the key arbiter of war; victory. While there are many other factors that impact on the planning and conduct of war from the grand strategic to the tactical level it is the leaders who wield this power and apply it to what Clausewitz described as being the ultimate objective of war, ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.’[2] Historically victory has been achieved through the production of fighting power at the various levels of war, which can be defined as the generation and application of force and strength in the battle space to achieve victory, thus compelling the enemy to do our will. However, this opens the question of how victory is achieved, and as Stephen Biddle has written, ‘Why do the winners win and the losers lose?’[3] Biddle has argued that victory is brought about by the mastery of modern small arms tactics and doctrine.[4] However, this view has been challenged and this author argues that the key marker for victory comes from the human element of war, in particular the role of the commander.[5] Bad commanders do not achieve victory in battle and war. While ‘Great Captains’ are hard to find a good commander, who is able to master the elements of leadership, command and management, will, invariably, in modern warfare achieve victory. Indeed, the argument made by Martin van Creveld that the German Army was able to generate more fighting power than the US Army may have some merit at the tactical and operational levels but it ignores the problems of strategic leadership in the German State and Army that ultimately crippled and dislocated its ability to produce fighting power.[6] In addition, it ignores the strategic context in which the German Army was operating, which distorts his view of fighting power to the abandon of factors such as the application of the US military-industrial complex to modern war.

Current British Defence Doctrine considers fighting power to consist of three key components; conceptual, physical and moral.[7] Each of these has a reciprocal relationship to each other. The conceptual component consists of the principles of war, doctrine and development; the thought process.[8] The physical component consists of issues such as manpower, equipment, logistic and training; the means to fight, or combat power.[9] However, it is the third element, the moral component, that is, arguably, the most important element in defining an armies ability to fight and as Alan Howley has written, ‘It is axiomatic in a military population that fighting power requires appropriate leadership.’[10] Leadership forms an integral part of the moral component, which forms the core of delivering fighting power. Linked to leadership as part of the moral component is moral cohesion, which can be split further into morale and unit cohesion, and motivation. Given that victory is dependent on the application of the physical and the conceptual components of fighting power it is not unreasonable to assert that it is a leader’s application of these elements that is decisive in the production of fighting power. Even van Creveld concedes that leadership, ‘perhaps more than any other, decides the outcome of wars.’[11] Even historically the importance of the leader in war is exemplified by the opening quote from AP 1300’s chapter on leadership that success in war depends more on the moral than the physical.[12] A leader’s ability to inspire subordinates, thus generating morale and motivation, is important in producing the elements of fighting power. This of course raises important question about Leigh-Mallory. For example, the ability of a leader to enunciate the development and production of military doctrine to subordinates will influence its ability to fight. For example, was Leigh-Mallory, as a senior operational level leader for Normandy, able to communicate the strategic directives given to him by Eisenhower, and how was he able to translate this into operational decisions in the lead up to OVERLORD, thus linking the moral to the conceptual component. Similarly, the impact of leadership on training and readiness is important to understand, for example, how Leigh-Mallory prepared No. 12 Group in the lead up to the outbreak of war. Questions need to be answered about how ready was his command for the rigours of war, and how did his preparations fair when the test of battle arrived in the summer of 1940, thus, in this case linking the moral to the physical component. The need to master the moral component of war is of vital importance and impacts on the other components’ of war in a reciprocal manner that defines the effectiveness of any military leader by taking into account their ability to lead, manage and command forces in war.

However, while it is important to note the role leadership plays in the generation of fighting power, external factors cannot be ignored and issues such as strategic context must be consider as an external factor that influenced victory in the Second World War. For example, it has been argued that allied victory in the Normandy Campaign came about because of overwhelming allied superiority in firepower rather than the effective application of fighting power.[13] However, this has come into question and the question of how a leader manages the firepower at their disposal is perhaps more pertinent to a discussion of leadership and fighting power than previous simplistic assertions. Indeed, one of the key elements of Leigh-Mallory’s command competence in the planning for Normandy must be how effectively did he manage the team at AEAF and how that impacted on the production of fighting power. Another key issue that must be kept in mind in the production of fighting power is the problems of leadership in a coalition context. As General Sir Michael Jackson has noted when several nations operate together in an alliance it raises problems of friction as each has a different language, doctrine, training and culture.[14] Each of these factors poses a real issue for the commander in charge, and for Leigh-Mallory, this raised obvious questions of how to work effectively with the Americans, who by this stage of the war were providing the majority of the combat power for future operations. In addition, Leigh-Mallory operated at the cusp of the operational-strategic level and had to interface with numerous groups with varied interests from not only within his own service but also within members of the United Nations. This understanding of cross-cultural issues was perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Eisenhower; Leigh-Mallory’s superior in the Normandy campaign.[15] Another pertinent issue for Leigh-Mallory in the sphere of coalition command is the issue of small nations and their accountability to their national government. For Commonwealth nations, the 1931 Statute of Westminster complicated this situation, and as Paul Dickson has illustrated the senior level, this issue complicated command decisions and it influenced fighting power.[16]

Finally, in considering the issue of fighting power, it is worth returning to the narrative of a given person or event, and this thesis will, through the use of a 360-degree appraisal methodology seeks to re-appraise the narrative surrounding Leigh-Mallory’s command competency. In returning to the sources and considering, the nature and context of these sources it seeks to open up new views of how we conceptualise our views of effectiveness and particularly that of Leigh-Mallory. Overall, we can define the links between leadership and fighting power as:

Effective leadership produces fighting power through the application of the moral component of war to the physical and conceptual components, which can lead to victory in battle.


[1] Gian Gentile, ‘The Death of the Amor Corps’, Small War Journal (April 2010) – http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-death-of-the-armor-corps

[2] Clausewitz, On War, p. 75

[3] Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) p. 1

[4] Biddle, Military Power, passim

[5] For a thought provoking challenge to Biddle’s argument, see the roundtable in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3 (2005). See; Elliot Cohen, ‘Stephen Biddle on Military Power’, Lawrence Freedman, ‘A Theory of Battle or a Theory of War?’, Michael Horovitz and Stephen Rosen, ‘Evolution or Revolution’, Martin van Creveld, ‘Less than Meets the Eye’, and Biddle’s own reply, ‘Military Power: A Reply’

[6] Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939-1945 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1983) passim. Creveld views fighting power through the prism of national character, doctrine, command principles, organisation, morale and leadership.

[7] British Defence Doctrine, p. 4-1

[8] Anon, The Application of Force: An Introduction to Army Doctrine and the Conduct of Military Operations (London: The Stationary Office, 2002) p. 27; Anon, British Defence Doctrine, pp. 4-3-4-5

[9] Anon, Application of Force, p. 27; Anon, British Defence Doctrine, pp. 4-8-4-10

[10] Alan Howley, ‘People not Personnel: The Human Dimension of Fighting Power’ in Hew Strachan (Ed.) The British Army, Manpower and Society into the Twenty-First Century (London: Frank Cass, 2000)m p. 213

[11] Van Creveld, Fighting Power, p. 127

[12] AP 1300 – War Manual

[13] Ellis, Brute Force

[14] Michael Jackson, ‘The Realities of Multi-National Command: An Informal Commentary’ in Gary Sheffield and Geoffrey Till (Eds.) Challenges of High Command in the Twentieth Century (Camberley: Strategic Combat Studies Institute, 2000) pp. 86-91

[15] Kerry Irish, ‘Cross-Cultural Leadership: Dwight D. Eisenhower’ in Harry Laver and Jeffrey Matthews (Eds.) The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008) pp. 93-124

[16] Paul Dickson, ‘Colonials and Coalitions: Canadian-British Command Relations between Normandy and the Scheldt’ in Brian Farrell (Ed.) Leadership and Responsibility in the Second World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Vogel (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004) pp. 235-273. The problems of the relationship between Montgomery and General Henry Crerar have been analysed in Hart, Colossal Cracks, pp. 147-173

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