Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. © IWM (D 1417)

The question of leadership styles adopted in organisations relates to the institutions culture. This culture is shaped by the values, beliefs and assumption that underpin institutional thinking and encompasses conceptual as well as physical concerns. For the RAF this has often be shaped around three broad areas; ‘Command of the Air’ (in both conceptual and professional terms), independence and the ‘Air Force Spirit’. These areas then influence the command culture encouraged within an organisation. Without going into unnecessary detail, this is broadly split between centralised and decentralised processes. Broadly, philosophical debates over command and control tend to shift between discussions over mission versus prescriptive top-down styles, which from an air power perspective transposes onto the considerations over centralised control and decentralised execution.[1] While it has been traditionally been assumed that the British military have not done ‘mission’ command, scholarship that is more recent has begun to indicate otherwise. Indeed, the Field Service Regulations from 1909 heavily suggests that the British Army tangentially understood this concept. This filtered into Royal Flying Corps thinking and made its way in the Royal Air Force’s doctrine. However, transposing one countries idea of what ‘mission’ command is to another, is a very dangerous process. Comparative analysis is like comparing apples and pears, there are always variations. National culture, pre-service education and any number of factors influence and shape an organisations command preference as well internal factors such as ethos. Furthermore, the vernacular is underdeveloped. While the Germans may have used terms such as Auftragstaktik, the British certainly did not, and applying such language to specific national experiences is potentially unhelpful.

For the inter-war RAF, in broad terms, AP1301, the second part to the RAF’s War Manual, noted its view of decentralisation in the following terms:

Commands decide upon a suitable policy and issue the necessary orders and instructions to groups. Groups in turn decide upon the best action to take to implement the instructions passed down to them by commands and then issue appropriate orders to their wings and stations, who finally decide upon the detailed employment of the units.[2]

Thus, while a policy, therefore, control, or in leadership terms, responsibility, is decide upon at a higher level, its execution is undertaken at as low a level as possible to allow for flexibility. This decentralisation required effective leadership and skills such as the ability to influence and empower subordinates to achieve specific goals that were only attainable through effective development to nurture officers’ knowledge and the organisations capacity to engender this process. However, there is clearly a balance between how much a follower is empowered before they potentially become insubordinate. The management of this relationship is contingent on leadership styles an organisation adopts, the culture created in it, and the vision of senior leaders. From a leadership perspective, misinterpretation over the precept of decentralised execution and centralised control can lead to problems as illustrated by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s management of the so-called ‘Big Wings’ debate during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Here Dowding adhered too closely to the precept of decentralised execution and failed to lead, or control, his key subordinates, including Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, effectively.[3] This was arguably generated by Dowding’s leadership style that placed too much power in his subordinates’ hands. While this was clearly useful to those operating at the tactical level and a degree of decentralisation was important for the conduct of the battle at the operational level, Dowding should have gripped his key senior subordinates more effectively. This failure to control key subordinates then manifested itself in a debate over the preferred fighter tactics to be used to defend Britain during the battle with Leigh-Mallory preferring large concentrated fighter formations while Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park argued that small squadron sized forces were more appropriate. The appropriateness of either is outside the scope of this post but it is worth suggesting that both were probably correct given the geographical scope their respective commands in that Leigh-Mallory arguably had time to form larger formations. Indeed, Park had used large fighter formation during Operation DYNAMO, the withdrawal at Dunkirk.

The key evidence for this lack of control, or grip, emerged in 1961 when Robert Wright, then assisting Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas with his autobiography, wrote to Dowding asking for information on the debate. In his reply to Douglas, Wright stated that:

Stuffy [Dowding] would like to be involved in this as little as possible. On page 13-19 of your script there is a note about it…Stuffy tells me that in actual fact he knew nothing about this until it had reached a fairly advanced stage, when, to his great surprise, the S. of S. mentioned to him the views advanced to him by Leigh-Mallory based on the idea put forward by Bader.[4] (Emphasis added)

In 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Douglas, then an Air Marshal, was Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (DCAS) with responsibility for overseeing air operations and home defence and he played a key role in the debate over fighter tactics and night defence that led to Dowding’s removal in November 1940. Douglas had also previously been Assistant Chief of the Air Staff with a purview over the development of air tactics. Thus, by the time he wrote his autobiography, Douglas clearly had a stake in the subject as well as defending his reputation.[5] Indeed, as John Ray notes, ‘Douglas was the winner’ out of the ‘Big Wings’ controversy as he returned to an operational command while Dowding and Park were sidelined.[6] However, the issue of vested interest is one that has influenced many people writing on this key episode during the battle. For example, Wright, who, as a Squadron Leader, served as Dowding’s Personal Assistant during the battle, and then as Douglas’ when the latter became AOC-in-C Fighter Command, clearly felt an affinity for the former when he criticised both the latter and Leigh-Mallory in his 1969 hagiographic work, Dowding and the Battle of Britain. Indeed, Wright went as far as to distance himself from what Douglas had published in 1963.[7] Nonetheless, it is clear that in 1961, some twenty years after the battle, Dowding admitted that he lost control, or grip, of his key subordinates and was unable to manage the relationship between them and act as the link between them and the Air Ministry when the debate escalated. This was something that Wright admitted to but rather than dig deeper at this apparent personal failing he accepted Dowding’s further admission that had he known more he would have removed Leigh-Mallory.[8] However, given that Dowding, during his tenure at Fighter Command, had replaced two commanders at No. 11 Group, AVM Ernest Gossage and AVM William Welsh, it is unlikely he would have survived the removal of a third. In creating a culture of empowerment, Dowding lost control and sowed the seeds of his own removal.

Is there some contemporary relevance to this episode? Yes, in an era of the so-called ‘strategic corporal’, empowerment of subordinates and the recognition that we operate in a complex environment is important as we seek to deal with ambiguous challenges. A term coined by General Charles Krulak of the US Marine Corps, the ‘strategic corporal’ is the idea that in the modern operating environment the lowest ranking soldier’s action can have strategic or political implications. It also holds that those lower down the command chain, which operate at the interface of a rapidly changing and complex operating environment, are the most appropriate people to make decisions. Furthermore, the recent announcement that the British Army is looking to cut the number of senior officers significantly increases the importance of empowering and preparing junior officers for greater responsibilities. Ironically, this in itself is the responsibility of effective senior leaders who set the vision necessary for the organisation and develop the processes needed to prepare those under their command. It is a challenging problem and one that requires a fine line in the leadership development of nurtured personnel. Indeed, a mix of training, education and experience is required to prepare such officers. Of increasing importance, is effective leadership education in order to inculcate nurtured officers with an understanding of the culture, ethos and values that are held to be important. However, this has to go beyond just the basic development of skills based knowledge to that which develops organisational capacity for the Services. In a rapidly changing geo-strategic environment, it is something that has to be done as early as possible for officers who take on increasing responsibility in their careers. In my opinion, the Professional Military Education system is vital to this and needs to ensure that it is not only developing leaders for the here and now but for the future. This was something that was recognised by the inter-war British military. In particular, the RAF officer who passed through Staff College were actively nurtured as it was recognised that these officers, who had been inculcated in the culture, ethos and values of the Service, would go on to lead the RAF and provide organisational capacity. Providing such opportunities will empower current leaders and help them to prepare those under their command as well as develop and agile military capable of responding to change. Ultimately, if we cannot afford the kit, then we have to develop the personnel to cope with those challenges.

[1] On the debate over command and control of air forces see: Air Commodore Stuart Peach, ‘The Airmen’s Dilemma: To Command or Control?’ in Peter Gray (ed.), Air Power 21: Challenges for the New Century (London: The Stationary Office, 2000), pp. 123-152.

[2] AP1301, 1939, Chap. I, Para. 5.

[3] See: Group Captain Peter Gray, ‘Dowding as Commander, Leader and Manager’ in Gray and Cox (eds.), Air Power Leadership, pp. 199-209; Stephen Bungay, ‘Command or Control?: Leadership in the Battle of Britain’ in John Jupp and Keith Grint (eds.), Air Force Leadership: Beyond Command (Sleaford: Royal Air Force Leadership Centre, 2005), pp. 115-28.

[4] Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, Personal Papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, Letter from Robert Wright to Douglas, 28 March 1961.

[5] For Douglas’ sanitised version of events, see: Douglas, Years of Command, p. 78-79.

[6] John Ray, The Battle of Britain: New Perspectives – Behind the Scenes of the Great Air War (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), p. 175. Ray’s work was based on his 1992 PhD Thesis, ‘Dowding should go’: Changes in Leadership, Strategy and Tactics at Fighter Command, July to December 1940, with Special Reference to the Big Wing Controversy’, (PhD Thesis, University of Kent, 1992).

[7] Robert Wright, Dowding and the Battle of Britain (London: Macdonald, 1969), pp. 212-5. The American edition of Wright’s book had an even more hagiographic title, The Man Who Won the Battle of Britain (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969).

[8] Wright, Dowding, p. 250.


3 thoughts on “Dowding, Command Culture and the Challenge of Empowerment

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