Military formations have long struggled to decrease the tension concerning the rigidity of their organisational constructions and the need for fast, definitive, imaginative leadership plus overall flexibility of activity on the battlefield.
General George Armstrong Custer’s ego, for example, blinded him to the realities of the predicament at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and it cost many men their lives in consequence. The US Cavalry of the nineteenth century appears to have been short of the organisational checks-and-balances required to halt one man’s dangerous ambitions. But excessive centralised control, bureaucracy and restraint could be just as high-risk as too little.
During Operation Mercury, the German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941, General Bernard Freyberg, the island’s commander, and his subordinates decided on an outdated static defence in the face of aggressive, highly motivated but lightly armed paratroops. It was largely thanks to Freyberg’s autocratic style of leadership and out-of-date military thinking which permitted the Germans to eventually wrestle control of the island away from its Commonwealth defenders, a numerically superior force, and impel a humiliating evacuation.
Not only did the Germans put to use every technological advantage available to them, but they also harnessed the camaraderie, or fighting spirit of the Fallschirmjaeger (paratroops), a wholly new kind of warrior. Unlike much of its adversaries at the time the German military machine counted on swift campaigns of strike and manoeuvre. By forming all available units into Kampfgruppen, or Battlegroups, a local commander had the tools, expertise and freedom of action to in cold blood make use of the tiniest weakness in the enemy line without hesitation. In contrast, Freyberg’s unit commanders exercised almost no freedom of control over the battles they fought and lost.
“You must comprehend the full objective of every enterprise, in order that if your leader be killed you can yourself fulfil it.”‘Ten Commandments of the German Parachutist’, The Fall of Crete by Alan Clark.
Typically, the British Army of the Second World War still believed in training its soldiers to simply obey orders without asking lots of questions. Officers almost never took NCOs into their confidence about operational matters, let-alone the rank and file. For this reason, when a unit’s officer was killed or badly wounded there was nobody ready to take command with sufficient operational knowledge to execute the mission.
The Germans followed a much more enlightened and pragmatic policy, where every man was required to be able to step into the shoes of his direct superior. The German Army’s system stimulated and rewarded initiative, adaptability and daring. The result was a crop of fine, resolute, gifted planners and aggressive leaders, such as Erwin Rommel, Walther Model and Kurt Student. Only later, as the war progressed, did the British and other Allied armies start to steadily adopt comparable methods.
Victory or defeat in the corporate sphere may not cost lives but can undeniably cost livelihoods. Rigid organisational structures and strong corporate cultures can often do more to shackle talent than generate it. As opposed to fast-moving, flexible organisations always ready to ruthlessly exploit a competitive advantage, many companies are prevented by their own bureaucracy and an army of timid, indeterminate middle managers. For fear of making the incorrect decision, and being incriminated, these individuals make no decisions. As a substitute they choose to constantly analyse or prevaricate. For significantly too long UK businesses have failed to cherish the importance of purchasing professional management training, management consultancy or regulatory compliance or risk management advise, learn how to better their internal communications and leadership skills.
In numerous ways the German military approach might be likened to Charles Handy’s concept of a ‘doughnut organisation’, as revealed in his book ‘The Empty Raincoat’. As a central organising principle Handy proposes a balance between ‘core’ roles, responsibilities or duties and a ‘bounded space’ where initiative, daring and imagination might be expressed, propagated or examined. The major difference between a doughnut organisation and a traditional hierarchy, no matter if commercial or military, is one of trust.
The Allied commander of Crete saw no place for discretion or freedom of action among his line officers. Exact control of troop dispositions was meant to ensure a foreseeable outcome. This proved counter-intuitive, as it simply robbed line-officers of their freedom of action; the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances on the battlefield. The German system also desired to impose a regime of strict discipline and obedience within its ranks. The Germans instilled an extreme sense of duty and loyalty to the Fatherland within its troops. Nevertheless, this was hardened with trust in a common vision, values and beliefs plus a man’s personal qualities, for example, integrity, knowledge and courage, and also his professional talents. Men were recognised, rewarded and quickly promoted for their daring, inventiveness or inspired leadership. It’s hardly amazing to learn that a number of Germany’s senior commanders during the latter stages of the war had been relatively junior officers at its outbreak.
Today we see many variations of Charles Handy’s doughnut organisation as numerous enterprises finally come down to understand that bureaucracy tends to get cumbersome, unresponsive, costly and uncompetitive. One instance of just such a transformation is the HM Treasury’s National Savings and Investments agency (NS&I).
Until the late 1990s NS&I employed a staff of over 4,000 to develop, promote, sell and service its wide range of government-backed saving and investment products such as ISAs and Premium Bonds.
“The new shape of work will centre around small organisations, most of them in the service sector, with a small core of key people and a collection of stringers or portfolio workers in the space around the core.” Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat.
Identifying itself increasingly squeezed by new web-based entrants to an already overcrowded financial services market, NS&I struck a bargain with Siemens Business Services (SBS). Siemens assumed responsibility for the bulk of NS&I sales and back office operations, excluding Post Office Counters Ltd. Over 3,500 NS&I employees, mostly sales, customer care and accounts people, transferred to SBS, securing their jobs and long term futures.
The remaining NS&I ‘core people’ were then trusted to concentrate entirely on the development, marketing, advertising and launch of new financial products to the marketplace, or bolster existing ones. SBS received a guaranteed 10-year contract to run the NS&I call-centre plus its online and mail order businesses. Having dramatically increased its sales force almost overnight, Siemens could instantly compete for more service sector contracts. SBS also furnished NS&I with the advanced IT systems necessary for them to get closer to their customers, understand them better, explore new market opportunities, and compete better.
To deliver its product or services so they consistently surpass customer requirements, its important that a company’s brands, people, suppliers and partners are very carefully aligned and show a high level of interconnectedness. That same organisational structure must also be versatile enough to foresee and adapt to changing customer needs, new opportunities and competitive threats. An organisation’s people must be given trust, encouragement, focus and direction rather than rules, regulations or limitations. Modern-day IT, IS and CRM systems can also provide the necessary tools for quick, confident decision-making, and spreading of corporate knowledge.
The method of gathering, assessing, sharing and, most importantly, using information can not be taken too lightly. The fall of Crete clearly illustrates the point. History taught General Freyberg that only a naval blockade or amphibious assault could capture his island. That meant deploying most of his men to defend the various ports, harbours or other small anchorages that punctuated the coastline. The Germans had other ideas. German strategy relied upon surprise, speed and an extreme new form of airborne warfare. Success or failure hinged on the paratroopers immediately seizing Crete’s airfields rather than its harbours.
To secure and hold the airfields German paratroops had to be swiftly reinforced and re-supplied with food, ammunition and medical supplies while their wounded were evacuated. The landing strips would also provide a base from which to fly constant fighter and dive-bomber missions against the island’s defenders. Certainly Freyberg’s men did defend the airfields, but both he and they seem to have totally misjudged their strategic importance. It was a simple enough equation: hold the airfields and hold the island. Do this and any seaborne element of the German invasion force would then be powerless to intervene.
Nevertheless what made the loss of Crete such a bitter Allied defeat was the fact that Freyberg, his superiors and political masters knew exactly when, where and how the Germans intended to strike. Due to the code-breakers of ULTRA having deciphered most of the Luftwaffe’s Enigma radio traffic, the secret of Operation Mercury was out. Ownership of this particular knowledge itself created a dilemma for the Allies, or so argue historians and academics. By acting on intelligence gained by ULTRA the Germans may be tipped off to its existence, and adjust their codes in response. Confronted a potential intelligence blackout Allied High Command had a challenging choice to make. Ultimately, they chose to sacrifice the island as opposed to risk ULTRA.
At present, with the advantage of hindsight, it seems a highly questionable decision not to have distributed or fully exploited ULTRA-gained intelligence for the defence of Crete. So what failed? It seems that Allied planners no-longer trusted themselves to make fair-minded strategic assessments or recommendations based upon situational analysis alone. Doubt destroyed their confidence, made them uselessly cautious, and blinded them to the possibility of inflicting Germany’s first major defeat of the war. Nevertheless, the Germans knew that airborne assaults were always hazardous adventures, and something of a gamble. Crete’s garrison was a well-equipped, experienced and a numerically superior force, which really should have been quite capable of holding off an attack by lightly armed infantry.
Certainly, surprisingly little about the failure of Operation Mercury would have given the Germans cause to question the security of their Enigma codes. However, an Allied victory at this juncture of the war would have been an enormous boon, after so many defeats. Morale across Europe would have skyrocketed while the myth of German invincibility would have finally been dispelled. And this achieved just a month before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Strategically, the holding of Crete would have made the Mediterranean a far more dangerous location for German and Italian convoys, and placed greater pressures on their forces in the Middle East.
The decision to protect the ULTRA secret was one point, but the failure to apply some solid military judgement in the defence of Crete was quite another. Any Allied officer worthy of the name really should have learned some stark lessons about German strategic thinking, and the tactical deployment of Special Forces like paratroops since 1939, and planned accordingly. The Fallschirmjaeger ought to have been totally overwhelmed when at their most vulnerable: while aboard their slow and unarmed JU52 transport aircraft; during their descent; or after landing, prior to they could retrieve their weapons containers. Alternatively, despite suffering initial heavy losses, the Germans had the ability to adapt, overcome and finally win a truly stunning victory. As for the Allies, their defeat had no single or readily identifiable cause. Everything from poor communications to an inflexible command structure resulted in their eventual overthrow. Undoubtedly, the lesson to be learnt here is that if something as intangible as trust, given or withheld at crunch times, can decide the outcome of battles then take into consideration what it can possibly do for your business.
Lee Werrell Chartered FCSI
Battle Group! German Kampfgruppen Action of World War Two, by James Lucas, Arm & Armour, London, 1993
Changing Bureaucracies, William Antonio Medina, Marcel Dekker, 2001
Crete– The Battle and Resistance, Anthony Beevor, John Murray Publishers, 1991
The Empty Raincoat– Making Sense of the Future, Charles Handy, Arrow Books Ltd, 1995
The Fall of Crete, Alan Clark, cassell military paperbacks edition, 2001
The Lost Battle, Crete 1941, Callum MacDonald, MacMillan, 1993