Winston Churchill's Supply Chain (Part 3)

A look at how supply chain leaders adapt and overcome in difficult circumstances

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Conventional wisdom is that the concept of a demand-driven supply chain is relatively modern. Part 1 and Part 2 of this series looked at how, in May 1940, the concepts of supply chain agility, just-in-time manufacturing and zero inventories were introduced to offset a pending disaster. This was done within an incredibly short time frame to respond to the demands of a nation in crisis under the leadership of Lord Beaverbrook. This lesson-from-history article looks at the demand side of the Supply Chain, namely where the fighters were directed to: Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command.

Today's organizations are striving to move to a more effective demand-driven supply chain and the ability to respond quickly to shifts in demand. To do this, they employ a variety of business strategies and models, coupled with leading management practices, and consistently measuring performance through key indicators. Not only must it be more resilient and cost-effective, but it should also be able to respond directly to continually shifting customer needs and be able to reduce lead times.

Computer giant HP operates the IT industry's largest and most complex supply chain. HP purchases approximately $53 billion of products and materials, components and manufacturing, transport, and other services annually from approximately 7,000 suppliers globally. However, HP's supply base is heavily concentrated on a limited number of suppliers — approximately 500 suppliers make up 99 percent of the amount HP spends on product materials.

In June 1940, despite Air Marshall Hugh Dowding's best efforts, RAF Fighter Command was facing a major challenge. In the last two weeks of May 1940 the RAF sustained massive losses of close to 500 operational fighters in the air battle over Flanders and France. With 620 operational fighters the RAF was about 50 percent below its set target (in 1939) of 1,200 fighters, thought to be the minimum number to win an air battle over the United Kingdom (U.K.). The fighters were outnumbered by a ratio of 2:1, and Dowding had to very carefully manage the remaining numbers of fighters in how he deployed them in the forthcoming Battle.

Dowding's Preparation

To better understand how Dowding was able to go into an air battle against such bad odds we need to go back to July 12, 1936, to the birth of RAF Fighter Command and look at the evolution of this organization. Dowding formed his headquarters at Bentley Priory (Stanmore, Middlesex) where he was the first Commander-in-Chief. He had great determination and foresight in fighting the "old guard" of senior military chiefs and politicians who wanted to equip the new RAF with inexpensive and well-tried string-and-canvas biplanes. Fortunately, Dowding won and specified a design to British industry that could take off from a grass field. Eventually, he obtained high-performance heavily armed monoplanes, taken from R.J. Mitchell's S6b float plane that had won the final three Schneider Trophy races in 1931. In 1935 the Hurricane flew, and a few months later the prototype Spitfire was released.

Dowding wanted the aircraft to be armed with heavy wing-mounted cannons and the cockpits fitted with armor plating and bullet-proof glass to protect his pilots, forward thinking for the time. Despite strong opposition he later got these once the need was proven in battle.

Dowding was aware that the Air Ministry was very slow in scaling up its fighter production schedule and unlikely to reach the minimum target number of squadrons for many years. So he looked to other means to assist his fighters in an air battle. In 1935 he asked Watson-Watt to follow a line of research that led to the world's first operative radar network, called Chain Home, which became operational in 1937. Radar testing proved the success of the technology in providing early warning of incoming aircraft detected at ranges of 80 miles.

In 1936 the Observer Corps became part of the newly formed Fighter Command under Dowding and moved its headquarters to RAF Bentley Priory. This was a defense warning organization that provided a system for detecting, tracking and reporting aircraft over the U.K.

One of Dowding's most significant contributions was the physical organization of RAF Fighter Command. He created a geographically distributed hierarchy of stations (Group/Sector) and air fields all networked (five-years-old) to the Headquarters at Bentley Priory. Each sector had a main fighter air base with an operations room and maintenance and repair facilities and a number of other satellite fighter bases attached to it. He also insisted that concrete all-weather runways be built, and he got this wish granted with six airfields.

Despite the rise of fascism, the British were still striving for a peaceful solution. In February 1937, Dowding submitted a report to the government requesting the need for 45 fully operational fighter squadrons, 1,200 anti-aircraft guns, 5,000 searchlights, a functioning radar system, radio control of aircraft and a massive expansion of the Observer Corps. The report was ignored.

The U.K. only began to seriously rearm after the Munich Crisis (1938) as the threat of war loomed. Even with the substantial increase in expenditure the RAF lagged badly behind Axis in the number of fighters. Production of fighters, in the hands of the Air Ministry, was woefully low and late (Part 2). By August 1939 Dowding had a fighter force of 34 squadrons when 52 squadrons were needed. Dowding was so concerned that he wrote to the Under Secretary of State for Air, Harold Balfour, and voiced his considerable misgivings as to Fighter Commands' ability to defend the U.K., conditional on supporting a defensive position in France.

Dowding's Losses

On May 10, 1940, the war in the West erupted. By May 13 the War Cabinet had agreed to send over an extra 32 Hurricanes and pilots to France, taken from different units across the U.K. By the next day the situation was even worse: The Axis broke through the French defensive lines. By nightfall the French were asking for 10 more fighter squadrons. Dowding tried to stop further fighters from going over to France because he thought the cause there was lost and sending more fighters would only deplete an already low Home Defense. Perturbed by mounting losses he wrote a letter to the Air Ministry (May 16, 1940). This letter challenged Churchill over sending more fighter squadrons to France, after Churchill had personally promised these to the French Prime Minister Reynaud.

"I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons. I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defence of this country, and will assure me that when the level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country."

Dowding's was an uncomfortable truth that if France's survival depended on the RAF, there would have to be a sacrifice in the defense of the U.K. Dowding recognized when to cut losses. Churchill took the letter very seriously, and this created a dilemma because of his promise. In the end, squadrons were sent but only operated in France during the day, returning to England at night. While this action further strained the Allied relationship, it did show Dowding's incredible conviction to cause and his willingness to stand up for it.

Dowding's Preparation for Battle

By June 1940 an integrated air defense system was almost ready with Bentley Priory, the operational headquarters, at the center. Developed by Dowding, it had three unique mechanisms:

  • Sensing — an early-warning system consisting of three lines.
  • Decision Making — a real-time environment with tools like executive dashboards and real-time event models and processes for institutionalized decision making.
  • Responding — a system feeding information to a hierarchy of Group/Sector operations centers beneath it capable of responding to the threat. ("Decision Making" and "Responding" will be discussed in the final article in this series.)


Bentley Priory aggregated information from the following lines that provided early-warning of incoming raids.

The first line of the early warning system was Bletchley Park, which passed top-secret Ultra information to Bentley Priory. This top-grade intelligence would normally be of a highly strategic nature: the date and time of a raid, its size, the type of planes and possibly the target. It would be passed to Bentley Priory in a very secure fashion, not directly to the operations room, but to a few handpicked individuals through a Special Liaison Unit.

The second line of the early warning system was made up of 50 radar stations. There were two types of complementary radar stations: long- and short-range. The former could pick up high-flying enemy aircraft at 30,000 feet and up to 150 miles away. The latter had a shorter range, but could pick up low-flying enemy aircraft. Both operated on pattern recognition and provided information on incoming raids. Radar information provided with a degree of accuracy enemy position, direction, height and estimated strength. This information was aggregated by radar crews operating both in the low and high-level stations. The aggregated information was phoned directly to a radar operation's command rooms or headquarters. This had a filter room where sightings and detection information could be aggregated, analyzed and organized. The information was then passed by telephone onto the filter room at Bentley Priory for further processing.

The third line of the early warning system was made up by the Observer Corps. It consisted of civilian volunteers, who through binoculars spotted incoming enemy aircraft. They identified and assessed the enemy aircraft strength from 1,000 observation posts, based on the recognition of silhouettes and patterns. Radar was able to provide warning of enemy aircraft approaching the coast, but once they had crossed the coastline the Observer Corps provided the only means of tracking them, and could only track aircraft detected by the radar stations. Observer corps information was aggregated by the Observer Corps headquarters, which in turn was passed by telephone onto the filter room at Bentley Priory for further processing.

Together, the radar stations and observer corps covered nearly 90 percent of United Kingdom's (U.K.) coastline.


In today's world, what can we take away from this lesson-from-history? Dowding made the right investment early on and thoroughly trained his minimal forces, but his preparation was ultimately put jeopardy as the Allied forces collapsed in France. He conserved his resources against strong political pressure to disperse and misuse them, and showed incredible conviction to cause.

Part 4 will look at the completion of real-time event models and institutionalized decision-making, known as the "Dowding System," that helped turn the course of Battle of Britain. With a sophisticated early-warning system it was the first time information had been used on such a scale. The tracking of wastage and the ability to direct Beaverbrook's Civilian Repair Operation was an important part of the recovery operation and the Fighter Supply Chain.

Check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 4.