Sir Keith Park - Airborne Tactics and Agility

02 November 2009

I was pleased to attend a recent presentation [opens in new window] that referred to Sir Keith Park, a senior Royal Air Force commander in the Second World War and drawing parallels with the tactics he used to that of modern business techniques. Keith Park commanded 11 Group Fighter Command which encompassed the squadrons in the south-east of Britain saw the greatest action during the Battle of Britain.

The conventional military airborne strategy at the time was to fly many squadrons in formation - the so called "Big Wing" approach. The theory was that this approach provided mutual protection though sheer numbers. Park believed this approach to be flawed, as a Big Wing took valuable time to assemble and once it had done so, the enemy bombers would have often done their worst. In addition, even when a Big Wing was formed, it proved difficult to manoeuvre in response to any change in course from the enemy craft.

Park preferred to engage the enemy in smaller numbers, often using single squadrons, each engaging the enemy in turn. The advantage to using smaller numbers was that they could attain formation rapidly and could easily be redeployed to adapt to changing circumstances in mid-flight.

Notably, Park altered his tactics to counter the main weakness to his approach, namely lack of strength in numbers. His primary aim was to harry and breakup large enemy bomber formations, causing them to return to home without dropping payload. This ran counter to the popular strategy of primarily aiming to engage enemy fighters in one-on-one dogfights; indeed, he suggested that squadrons made of purely fighters be ignored, especially when outnumbered. In retrospect, Park's approach is regarded as the best in the circumstances that required a quick response. This was necessary as his squadrons were located geographically closest to the enemy, giving him little time to organise.

There are parallels here with the type of approach used in successfully delivering business goals. Park's approach seems to fall into the category of agile techniques, using small, responsive teams; whereas the "Big Wing" could be considered to be analogous to larger, less-flexible, plan-driven processes.

On 4th November 2009, a new statue of Sir Keith Park will be unveiled to begin a six-month residency on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; in addition, a permanent statue will be unveiled in Waterloo Place in 2010.

"If ever any one man won the battle of Britain, [Park] did. I don’t believe it is recognised how much this one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world." Lord Tedder, Marshal of the RAF, 1947.

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