Diverse Teams Management: Royal Air Force in the Desert War.

– M. J. Kirton

1. The Example

The British won the first battle (1940-41) against the Italians to secure Egypt and had occupied half of Libya when the Germans came to the Italian’s help. They proved a more dangerous enemy, having better equipment, training, and battle practice. One additional problem was that the RAF (Royal Air Force) did not fully collaborate with the other services. The change of command brought in Air Vice Marshall Coningham as Air Officer Commanding of the Desert Air Force (as it was called). Here are extracts from Holland (2006) about the key changes that were made shortly after they had arrived and begun to make an impact.

“ […] Coningham was an outstanding leader: bold, innovative, and resolute. Although he had led the DAF successfully since his arrival the previous summer, his grasp had tightened considerably since the arrival of new staff. Most significant of these was Air Commodore Tommy Elmhirst. Although the same age as Coningham, Elmhirst was shorter, less imposing, and more quietly spoken; but his large, flamboyant eyebrows and good-humoured face leant him an air of sagaciousness that was not unfounded. His background was naval – from ships he had been transferred to airships in the Royal Navy Air Service, and by the end of the war, 1914-18, found himself part of the newly formed Royal Air Force. And although an experienced pilot, by the Battle of Britain he had become a controller – a ground job – and later a bomber station commander.

He was the perfect foil for Coningham, who, whilst undoubtedly charismatic and inspired, was somewhat haphazard in his methods. Elmhirst, on the other hand, was a supremely good organizer, and it was as chief administrator that he joined Coningham at Air HQ in Gambut, east of Tobruk, in February 1942. At the time, the RAF did not have air superiority.

Within a few days, [Elmhirst] had a pretty clear idea of what was needed and set to work. The lull proved a godsend, and by May, the DAF had been completely reorganized. Gone were small piecemeal units. In their place came a group of fighters, divided into three wings with their own administrative staffs and repair units and, where possible, based on the same landing ground. This centralisation of administration enabled wing and squadron commanders to get on with the job of leading their men and also halted the fragmentation of the DAF.”

Before Coningham, the Luftwaffe, although with more and better aircraft and other equipment, also had better integration with their army’s operations. Its one weakness was that its fighters did not fully collaborate with its bombers. This was not so noticeable before the RAF improved, under Coningham. Both forces had difficulty in moving their squadrons from air base to air base as the desert land battles flowed back and forth. If the RAF could improve this element also, it would move to being a much more formidable factor in the desert war.
Holland continues: “The DAF’s new fighting unit was a wing of three squadrons, rather than just a single squadron. Elmhirst also ensured their mobility was increased by establishing plenty of reserves of fuel, ammunition, bombs, vehicles and aircraft on a number of landing grounds, all within easy reach. Mobile radar units and air controllers were established near the front line at Gazala and also at El Adem, forty miles behind the line in the east. This meant that, if need be, wings could leapfrog one another, either forward or back, at a moment’s notice.

This, in turn, meant that Coningham now had the infrastructure with which to bring his air force into shape. Training was intensive. Since most captured pilots appeared to think little of RAF shooting abilities, he insisted his pilots practise hard at ‘shadow firing’ rather than the prescribed RAF method of shooting at towed targets. Navigation was also improved and regular discussions held with bomber crews. Ground crews were also brought into line: rapid refuelling and rearming was drilled into each and every man. There were weekly conferences between Coningham and his wing commanders, in which tactics, training, and administration were discussed and analysed in detail, so that each leader knew exactly what was expected of him.

In fact, what Coningham was developing were ideas about how to win air superiority and how to support the army to the best of his ability.” In addition, he made better use of each type of aircraft he had available. While meantime “the Luftwaffe was losing its cohesion.” They made less clever use of different aircraft types; their fighters were too keen to attack British fighters, winning “ace” status instead of the bombers that were busy damaging the German and Italian armies and their supplies.“Nor was [the German] administration comparable to that established by Elmhirst. There was no system by which squadrons could rapidly move from one airfield to another; rather, their units effectively closed down when on the move [as the RAF had done before Elmhirst arrived]. Nor did [the German commander, General] Rommel enjoy the close relationship with [the Luftwaffe commander] General von Waldau that Coningham did with General Ritchie [DAF’s commander]. Luftwaffe fighter squadrons still revolved around their leading aces, and shooting down enemy fighters – considered to be tougher opponents – was seen as preferable to shooting down bombers, when it should have been the other way round. In North Africa, the Luftwaffe was becoming complacent.”

As a significant example of DAF improving efficiency, Holland quotes a revealing comparison. Whilst the Luftwaffe, in the period just before the battle of Alamein, managed to keep 50% of its strength operational despite loss, damage, moving airports, shortage of supplies, and enemy activity over their own airstrips, DAF recorded a staggering 80% – more than a big enough difference to give the British army several accumulating advantages in that critical time. Such advantages escalate until the one on the losing side has no means to recover. As the German army retreated and most of the Italians were overpowered, a retreat to Tunis was the only solution – all done under a hostile sky.

Again, as with the examples in Appendix 5 (Kirton, 2003), and the snippets of history showing the style difference between Wellington and Napoleon and the collaboration between Hindenburg and Ludendorff (p.242), style – especially when level is about the same – can play a very significant role in team problem solving.

2. The Wider Impact

There are not many teams, in this world, at this time, that work in isolation as if on desert islands. What impact can such successfully collaborating teams have on others in their “environment”? One must suppose some, but the wider the environment, the lesser the impact. However, at times, this impact may be noticeable. This example could be one.

One can begin by reviewing the core. Elmhirst seemed consistently (as expected) more adaptive than Coningham. Yet, fortunately, he had wide experience – first of the navy, from ships to airships to aircraft, then from fighters to bombers in the RAF. Later, he specialised in administration. Coningham also had wide experience and a flair for both seeing strategic scope and need, but also managing others of all kinds so as to make them feel a part of the team. They both admired and appreciated each other’s advantages. This is well known and is further referenced in Holland (2006), from which we have a selection of text. Below is a revealing example of the management of diversity, of joint solved problems, of each other, and of others in their team.

Coningham came to the Desert Air Force (DAF) that too often seemed to be fighting a parallel war, with the army and navy as allies. Coningham at once aimed at a joint war with closely collaborating elements, first bringing in a clearer joint aim for bombers and fighters – the bomber’s job was to destroy the enemy’s power in time and place determined by the land battle, and meantime, destroy the enemy’s supply system. The fighters even collaborate in these aims, whilst being primarily concerned to protect the bombers. Thus, internal cohesion was better formed. In addition, the link with the army was now tight. At the same time, more distant attack of the enemy supply system was coordinated with protection for the fleet, when needed, to aid its efforts towards the same end. There emerged a better collaborating force than that of the previously much more experienced German force. Coningham had infused a sense of purpose and determination to win. His capacity to inspire a large diverse team was also apparent in his close effective relationship with General Alexander [the new DAF commander] and Admiral Cunningham, both men of the same broad view, wide experience, and charismatic (somewhat innovative) leadership that managed even the most difficult of able subordinates, like General Montgomery.

Coningham, like Alexander, needed to deal with a diversity of national groups. At first, there were those of the Commonwealth – mainly Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. Then others joined, such as the Poles, increasingly also the French Resistance, and finally the Americans, in growing force. The latter were a developing, crucial element that gradually took over the leadership of the Western allies. But at first, although in growing numbers, they were inexperienced and poorly armed – they needed to be transformed as they emerged as the prime fighting force. Elmhirst played his role in integrating new US equipment whilst supplying British equipment when needed. But it was the training that mattered. Coningham played a significant leadership role, and the diverse force began to operate as a single, increasingly skilled command. More important, it became increasingly successful and confident.

Meantime, this expertise was being passed on to the less experienced, less cohesive British forces, which, with the larger American force, had invaded western North Africa. This invasion, when linked up with the eastern command, would lead in turn to the battle for Tunis. American potential power had placed them in command, but as yet, without the best equipment or any serious fighting experience. Their leader, General Eisenhower, despite formidable potential, had not as yet lead a large operating force or been in any senior fighting command. Yet he had to lead and cope with allies who had much of such experience. He did have, however, both wide experience in administration (as Elmhirst), but at a more senior level and with the same knack for getting elements to work together smoothly. He was assisted by one more like him, his countryman, General Bradley, and two who were not so like him in cognitive style or vital experience – both Britons: Alexander (his deputy) and Coningham. Between them, they managed the more senior and much more difficult members of the top team, i.e., the arrogant General Patton and the even more arrogant – if that is possible – General Montgomery. Fortunately, under Eisenhower’s genius, it worked well enough to destroy a huge German force in the fall of Tunis. But a key element was the passing of critical skill from the British dominated eastern force that won the first great battle of Alamein to the final joint army African success, the fall of Tunis.

Fascinatingly, at about the same time (1943), the Russians won an equally stunning victory at Stalingrad, followed by that of Kursk – the latter the first major crushing victory over an entire German tank command. That leaves us to finish this very grand story. Up until Alamein and Tunis, Stalingrad and Kursk, the allies were mainly concerned with survival. By these victories, in Churchill’s wording, the allies had reached the end of the beginning. Following this uniting experience, with new skill and close accord came another western pair of triumphs – the invasion of Italy, followed in 1944 by the invasion of France, under the now confident, experienced commander, Eisenhower. With other victories by the Russians at this same time, we reach the beginning of the end.

So, the diverse team leadership of Coningham and Elmhirst was critical in its sphere, but also helped start a significant turn of events that must have been mirrored by many more such local successes in the management of diversity. Each of these must have contributed their share of success, each also helping to mitigate the failures of other less successful teams. As collaborating individuals add up to more than the sum of the team’s parts, the same principle operates with the collaboration of teams.

Reference: J. Holland (2006). Together We Stand – North Africa 1942-1943: Turning Tide in the West. HarperCollins Publishers. Particularly for section 1, pp. 51-53, but also for section 2, additionally: pp. 149-150, 174-175 and 403-404.

April 2009