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Barriers to Innovation and Operational Learning: A Case Study of Inter-Service Rivalry from the Seco

The 2015 Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable at the Joint Services Command and Staff College 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 organisational 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 to control potential resources. Yet this particular case study represents a challenge to that concept – there was certainly competition between the Royal Air Force (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, Air Chief Marshal 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. Despite 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.

A Bristol Beaufighter of No. 201 Group heads away from a 2,500-ton German troop transport of the CITTA DI AGRIGENTO class after dropping a bomb close to the ship's port quarter during an attack south-east of Kos in the Dodecanese. (Source: © IWM (C 3904))

In June 1941, Longmore was unceremoniously sacked by Churchill, and replaced by Air Marshal 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, despite rising numbers arriving in the theatre, Cunningham issued a call for a dedicated organisation 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 organisation 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 regarding 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.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East (left), studies photographs taken during operations by No. 252 Squadron RAF being shown to him by the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander P H Bragg at Idku, Egypt, during Tedder's extended visit to the Western Desert Air Force and No. 201 Group units prior to the Alamein offensive. Air Vice-Marshal L H Slatter, Air Officer Commanding No. 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group RAF, looks on at right. (Source: © IWM (CM 3747))

The Group was allocated more aircraft, and did bring about operational improvements and increased jointery. 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 despite 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 was 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 form 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.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

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