‘The Cinderella Service’: RAF Coastal Command, Organisational Culture and Cultural Adaptation in the Battle of the Atlantic

In May I will be delivering a paper at a conference on the Battle of Atlantic that has been organised by King’s College London, the Society for Nautical Research and Global War Studies. He is the paper abstract.

The literature on organisational culture suggests that all large organisations have assumptions, beliefs and values that underpin their views and actions. This was certainly the case for the inter-war Royal Air Force (RAF). It assumed that ‘Command of the Air’ and air superiority were the most effective means of conducting war in the future. It believed in the independence and indivisibility of air power while it valued the idea of the ‘Air Force Spirit’, which was designed to reinforce the aforementioned assumptions and beliefs through education and training. However, the experience of the Second World War brought these assumptions and beliefs into question, no more so than in the actions of RAF Coastal Command during the Battle of the Atlantic.

This paper focusses on how the RAF, and Coastal Command in particular, adapted to the rigours of war. It argues that while there were key strategic issues between the RAF and the Royal Navy over the apportionment of resources concerning the wider conduct of the war, it was at the operational level where success emerged. This was due in no small measure to the degree of cultural adaptation that developed at both command and group level within Coastal Command itself. While previous works have focussed on technological adaptation or developments in combined control, this paper re-focusses the question of Coastal Command’s effectiveness in delivering victory in the Atlantic in 1943 by examining the development of its leaders. This paper suggests that the RAF developed officers who were aware of the advantages of air power but also keenly attuned to the need to co-operate with the other services. The acceptance of operational control by the Admiralty illustrates the degree of flexibility in RAF thinking. Commanders at command and group level were crucial to the implementation of this cultural change within the organisation. This cultural adaptation had significant ramifications for operations in 1943. Their adaptability, while maintaining a belief in the RAF’s core ideals, was one of the keys to victory in the Atlantic.

In essence I am taking elements of my PhD thesis and applying it to an campaign that I do not examine in the thesis. Additionally, I am taking issue with much of the literature on military transformation that tend to focus on kit and doctrine without understanding the processes that underpin their development. The literature on Coastal Command and the Battle of the Atlantic is very much guilty of this with much discussion of developments such as the Leigh Light. However, these are human driven developments and as historians we need to under the leaders who push these changes forward and how it relates to their culture and development. Hopefully this paper will be published in due course.

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2 responses to “‘The Cinderella Service’: RAF Coastal Command, Organisational Culture and Cultural Adaptation in the Battle of the Atlantic

  1. Ross. I would be much interested to read the paper. A thought: Is there any evidence of ex-RNAS RAF officers, with long-suppressed Maritimeitus, reverting to type in Coastal Command of the period (to the undoubted common good)?

  2. Adam,

    There are several group commanders who are ex-RNAS and of course the AOC at the the outbreak of the war, Bowhill, is ex-RNAS too. They maintain a belief in air power general defined but I think there is an element of being able to understand the culture of the RN and therefore smooth over rough edges. This is where cultural adaptation comes into play.

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