While England Slept

By Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

British Armor Developments: Failure in Innovation

The most significant innovation in ground combat during the interwar period was the development of armored forces. The tank had been introduced during World War I by the British and employed with tactical surprise at Cambrai in the fall of 1917. Building on this after the war, several forward-thinking Britons generated concepts for fast-paced attacks and deep armored thrusts. Their goal was to reestablish maneuver and generalship on the battlefield and avoid the bloody stalemate of the trenches.

In what Basil H. Liddell Hart called one of the supreme ironies of history, however, it was Germany, not Britain, that ultimately developed armored doctrine and tank forces. 1 Their blitzkrieg concept and Panzer divisions were the product of a serious study of war, particularly the lessons of the previous war. Conversely, the British Army made little attempt to learn anything from earlier wars and failed to develop a coherent vision of future war.

A study was commissioned by the War Office in 1932, and its assessment was highly critical of Britain's military performance. 2 The study was suppressed because of its controversial nature and its recommendations, but Britain did not spend the decade immediately after the war wrapped totally in a cocoon. A number of imaginative officers—Liddell Hart and Major General J. F. C. Fuller among them—argued for military reform. The British sponsored a number of innovative exercises with armor formations in the 1920s, and in 1927 established the Experimental Mechanized Force, a major step forward. In 1931, Brigadier Charles Broad conducted a convincing armor demonstration, maneuvering nearly 200 tanks in a dense fog on Salisbury Plain, employing radio control. It was the first major exercise in three years in Britain, whose mechanized operations and theorists were examined closely by German observers.

Unfortunately, armor innovations never found a home in the British Army. Mechanized exercises were eliminated and the experimental force disbanded in 1934, when the Army's vision narrowed to garrison duty and its perverse preoccupation with spit and polish. Officers who did argue for strong armor forces were exiled to secondary theaters. 3

British Army leaders were aware of the impact that government policy, the budget, and their myopia were having on readiness and modernization. Lord Gort, then Commander, Imperial General Staff, advised his superiors in early 1938 that "it would be murder to send our soldiers overseas to fight against a first-class power" in their present state. 4 Yet in September 1939, Britain reluctantly declared war and sent its soldiers overseas. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), composed of all five Home Divisions, was dispatched quickly to Belgium. Only two armor battalions were sent, along with some light mechanized cavalry.

The BEF usually is described as totally mechanized, but in truth it was just a motorized force—and terribly hollow. 5 The only armored division was unprepared to deploy on time. The BEF lacked command-and-control capabilities, tactical intelligence, sufficient transportation, and adequate maintenance. Antiarmor and antiaircraft weapons were obsolete. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery later called the force totally unfit to fight a modern war on the continent, noting that the Regular Army had failed to exercise with troops and conduct realistic training for years prior to the conflict. 6

Great Britain treated its Army as an ugly stepsister during the interwar period and it got what it paid for—defeat in France, Dunkirk, Singapore, Norway, Crete, and early North Africa. In the final analysis, the British Army failed to innovate in any way commensurate with changes in the strategic environment-not because of poor policy direction or fiscal shortfalls, but because its leaders had no vision. 7 Their professional culture, lack of interest in education, and low tolerance for doctrinal debate limited the development of innovative concepts.

Royal Air Force: False Innovation

One of the most critical battles of World War II was fought over England, in the summer of 1940. The overconfident Luftwaffe, fresh from its victories over the continent, attempted to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) and attain air superiority for the prospective invasion of Great Britain. Ironically, the Battle of Britain might have been lost if the RAF had been given carte blanche and had created the kind of air force that Britain's air marshals wanted.

The RAF in 1940 was not prepared for modern warfare, in large part because of the vision it pursued for two decades before the war. 8

The origins of the RAF can be traced directly to German bombings against London in June and July of 1917. The panic that ensued resulted in Parliamentary calls for action and the subsequent establishment of a study group. In 1917, this group, known as the Smuts Committee, recommended the establishment of an independent air force and an Air Ministry. Most notable in its report was the Douhetian comment that:

the day may not be far off when aerial operations, with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populace centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate. 9

This orientation became the battle cry for the RAF. The first Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, eventually became a dogmatic proponent of air power and strategic bombing. He contended that air power alone could defend Britain and that the striking power of the bomber could destroy any potential enemy's morale and national will quickly at the outset of conflict. Like modern-day proponents, he used a number of politically appealing arguments—the most notable being air power's efficiency—to convince civilian leaders that the bomber was the only way to avoid another Somme and effectively deter a knockout blow from Germany. The RAF placed an incredible amount of faith in technology, without any corresponding thought about countermeasures.

Naturally, the RAF tended to downplay the use of air power in close support of ground forces. 10 This is not surprising since the apostles of air power believed that the airplane would be the decisive weapon of the next war and would make the other services irrelevant to the final outcome, though little evidence was put forward to test this theology.

Considering that strategic bombing was the primary mission and strategic vision for the independent Air Force, it is surprising that the RAF was so poorly prepared for this task in 1940. Bomber Command was not prepared for war. England's limited industrial base had not been developed adequately, and her bomber designs were less than competitive. British bombers had limited range, plant power, bomb capacity, and effectiveness. Many planes could not find their targets and were doing little more than "killing cows." 11 The Air Staff's vociferous defense of its programs and doctrine resulted in continued investment, but little concrete improvement in operational performance.

Britain's victory in the Battle of Britain was the result of chance rather than vision. It was only Air Marshal Hugh Dowding's intrepid defense of fighter production, his adamant rejection of the two-seat Defiant, and his lonely fight to establish the air defense system that saved England in the summer of 1940. 12 Fortunately, Britain's civilian leaders overruled the Air Ministry's vision and insisted that Fighter Command be reinforced. They did so partly for the wrong reasons—Spitfires were cheaper than bombers—but in this case, poor policy begat a lucky result. Had the Air Staff gotten its way, Fighter Command would have had several hundred fewer Hurricanes and Spitfires, and England would have been defended by a larger, but inappropriate, fleet of bombers.

Despite a clear threat and the support of the civilian policymakers, the RAF failed to attain its vision. The era was one of false innovation, where doctrine was dogmatic, history was ignored, and technology was not pushed to its limits. The RAF's narrow concept of employment—not a lack of money—was the key problem of the 1930s.

Rules the Waves No More: Frustrated Innovation

At the conclusion of World War I, the Royal Navy stood atop the world in naval aviation. It had the largest fleet and the biggest naval aviation force in the world, with 3,000 planes and 55,000 officers and enlisted men. 13 In addition, the Royal Navy owned many operational and technological firsts. The first landing on a carrier deck occurred aboard HMS Furious on 3 August 1917. In 1919, the Royal Navy had the first designed aircraft carrier, the Argus, and three more were on the scaffolds in the yards. The Royal Naval Air Service developed the first catapults, the first elevators to move planes from hangar to flight deck, and the first air-delivered torpedo. This innovative trend continued with such adaptations as arresting gear and armored flight decks.

Yet, largely because of its conservative leadership, the Royal Navy could not reframe its vision that the main guns of the battleships always would be the final arbiters of sea power. The biggun monopoly retained its hold on the Admiralty, and its innovative aviation trend was curtailed prematurely. After World War I, the Admiralty spent years analyzing the battle of Jutland, but it dismissed the costly lessons of the U-boat war and underestimated the impact of aviation. 14

The RN saw great utility for the airplane, but only in ancillary roles such as reconnaissance, observation, and fire control. The use of fighters as spearheads against the enemy line was not foreseen, and thus the development of fighter aircraft to protect the fleet and dive bombers to attack the enemy was slowed. The surface fleet-dominated Admiralty optimistically assumed that antiaircraft batteries would suffice for air defense. The submarine also was wished away, its effectiveness negated by Asdic (now called sonar). The Navy asserted as late as 1937 that "the submarine would never again be able to present us with the problem we were faced with in 1917." 15 Neither these assumptions nor alternative warfighting concepts to exploit aviation were challenged rigorously or tested by exercises or experiments. 16

There was another reason for Britain's failure to adapt the airplane to its continued mastery of the seas. In 1917 Britain decided to consolidate its air power assets into a single organization—the RAF. The Admiralty made only a feeble response to this proposal, an oversight it would rue for more than two decades. The RNAS transferred about 2,500 planes and 55,000 personnel to the RAF. Later the Navy regained some operational control over a Fleet Air Arm, but the only avenue for advancement into senior ranks was through the RAF. Thus, the RN did not develop senior leaders or career paths for naval aviators.

Naval leaders realized that global responsibilities and long sea lines of communication could not always be guaranteed by land-based air, but Britain still did not begin construction of any carriers from 1923 to 1935. In 1939, her operational carrier fleet was small, slow, and outdated. The 22,000-ton Ark Royal was Britain's only first-rate carrier when the war began. In addition, the aircraft operated by the RNAS were inadequate. 17 None were any match for anything flown by either the Axis or the United States.

A weak aviation element was evident in the opening weeks of the war. The first carrier sunk, HMS Courageous , was lost two weeks into the war, while inappropriately hunting submarines. The first and only carrier sunk by gunfire was the Glorious , lost withdrawing from Norway carrying fighters desperately needed for the upcoming Battle of Britain. She had no air patrol aloft when she was surprised by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau .

The battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse , sent to Singapore as a token force against Japan, were sunk by airplanes while under way. Their accompanying aircraft carrier was lost as a result of an accidental grounding. The carrier Hermes was caught in the Indian Ocean and sunk by air attack. Later, the Ark Royal was sunk and the Illustrious severely mauled in the Mediterranean.

The RN's failure to appreciate the impact of air power for coastal protection and convoy duties was evident early. Its first attempt at ASW resulted in the loss of two Skuas, knocked down by the blast of their own bombs. Both crews were captured by the U-boat they had attacked. 18 The Admiralty's failure to understand air power had a serious impact on Britain's critical imports and almost eliminated Britain from the war.

The Royal Navy's vision was flawed; it attempted to graft new technology onto the existing concept that battle involved long lines of capital ships trading salvos at long range-but its adaptation of air power ultimately was frustrated by the decision to establish the RAF. The RN's acrimonious battle over control of aviation and the Air Ministry's poor track record meeting naval aviation needs further frustrated innovative uses of the airplane. But the RN cannot blame the apostles of air power for everything. The RN wished away the submarine problem. Its initial poor performance resulted from an unwillingness to experiment and test assumptions during peacetime. It failed to heed U.S. and Japanese developments, which revealed the destructive power of massed air strikes from carrier task forces, and it was unable to develop a cadre of senior aviation officers with an interest in the opportunities afforded by air power.


Integrated Framework . The most important lesson of the interwar era is that an integrated vision that defines victory and shapes the military is both feasible and desirable. Clearly, Britain failed to establish such a joint vision. Each of the services prepared itself and its budget on different threats-the Navy on Singapore, the Army on India, and the Air Force on deterring a "bolt out of the blue" from Germany. Churchill argued that they should focus their efforts on the same danger to achieve a common policy objective. 19 Had the Committee on Imperial Defence defined a common frame of reference for joint operations, Britain's dire military position in 1939-1942 could have been far different.

Adaptability . A joint vision should remain subject to continued intellectual refinement. It should be an ever-evolving picture of future combat, threats, and technological applications that is flexible enough to adapt to changes in the international security situation. Britain's military stuck to fixed assessments for too long. Some observers think that the U.S. military today is overly oriented on refighting Desert Storm and not preparing for other relevant 21st-century threats.

Validation/Experimentation . Joint visions must be subjected continuously to the stark realism of combat. War is conducted against an opponent with a will and responses of his own. Visions must be tested through war games and field experiments, to anticipate enemy reactions and to facilitate the crucial interaction of technology with operational concepts. The British, particularly the RAF, failed to test their visions rigorously. We must encourage investigation and relentless empiricism about our joint vision.

Technology and the Human Dimension . A joint vision should not chase "silver bullets." Technology has its limits, and overreliance on any given technology becomes a vulnerability. Decisive technological advantages usually are rare and always are temporary. The British clung to strategic air power and Asdic and failed to consider limitations or potential enemy countermeasures.

The Battle of Britain was fought between two complex, adaptive systems that changed tactics, technology, and strategy in response to the actions and reactions of their adversary. The lesson here is that the human element of warfare cannot be eliminated. A joint vision that forgets this enduring Clausewitzian theme is doomed to failure.

1 B. H. Liddell Hart, "The Inter-War Years 1919-1939," in History of the British Army, ed. Peter Young and J. P. Lawford. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970), p. 249.

2 Harold R. Winton, To Change An Army: General Sir Hon Burnett-Stuart and British Armored Doctrine, 1927-1938 (Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press, 1988), pp. 130-31.

3 Major General Percy Hobart was counseled for his subversive views and posted to Egypt. Brian Bond and Martin Alexander, "Liddell Hart and De Gaulle: The Doctrines of Limited Liability and Mobile Defense," in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 612.

4 N. H. Gibbs, History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy, vol. I (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1976), p. 605.

5 This assessment was drawn from Williamson Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,  1984), pp. 50-92; Brian Bond and Williamson Murray, "The British Armed Forces, 1918-39," in Military Effectiveness, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, vol. 2 (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), pp. 98-130; Williamson Murray, "Armored Warfare, The British, French and German experiences," in Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 6-29; Williamson Murray, "The Collapse of Empire: British Strategy, 1919-1945," in The Making of Strategy, ed. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

6 Montgomery quote cited by Brian Bond, "The Army Between the Two World Wars," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army, ed. David Chandler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 278.

7 Most historians are quick to blame the Army's failings on penurious defense spending. However, it is still both fair and more accurate to attribute Britain's failure of vision to its military leadership because its culture paid little heed to its professional obligations to view warfare objectively and to prepare itself for warfare as it existed and not as they wished it to be. See Brian Bond, British Military Policy Between the Two World Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

8 This section relies extensively on Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984); N. H. Gibbs, History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1976), pp. 531-600; Richards, Royal Air Force 1939-1945, The Fight at Odds, vol. I (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1953); and R. J. Overy, The Air War 1939-1945 (New York: Stein and Day, 1980).

9 Quoted from Gibbs, History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy, vol. 1.

10 The Air Staff's priorities are best captured in the following advice offered in a strategic assessment: "As a principle the bombing squadrons should be as numerous as possible and the fighters as few as popular opinion and the necessity for defending vital objectives will permit." Air Staff Memorandum No. 11A, March 1924. Cited in Williamson Murray, "The Prewar Development of British and American Doctrine and Airpower," The Strategy for Defeat, p. 325.

11 Brian Bond and Williamson Murray, "The British Armed Forces, 1918-39," in Military Effectiveness, vol. 2, ed. Brian Bond and Williamson Murray (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), p. 113.

13 Geoffrey Till, "Retrenchment, Rethinking, Revival, 1919-1939," in The Oxford  Illustrated History  of the Royal Navy, ed. J. R. Hill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 319.

14 The official historian for this period, Captain S. Roskill, RN, referred to the "dominance of the big gun" as the most powerful school of thought in the Royal Navy. See his The War At Sea 1939-1945, The Offensive, vol. 3 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), p. 396. In regard to aviation's introduction in the Royal Navy, see Geoffrey Till, Airpower and the Royal Navy, 1914-1945, A Historical Survey (London: McDonald and Jane's, 1979).

15 Len Deighton, Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War ll (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 21.

16 Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism, 1919-1929, vol. I (New York: Walker, 1968), pp. 248-49.

17 The British official naval history refers to Royal Navy aircraft as "distinctly inferior." Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, pp. 58-59.

18 Most of this operational history is drawn from Roskill, The War at Sea, vol 1.

19 Gibbs, Grand Strategy, pp. 774-75.

Colonel Hoffman was commissioned into the Marine Corps in 1978. He served on active duty until 1986 in a variety of positions, including tours in the 2d and 3d Marine Divisions. He currently is employed by the Marine Corps as an historical analyst specializing in national security studies. Colonel Hoffman is the author of Decisive Force: The New American Way of War (Praeger, 1996). 



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