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Winston Churchill's Decision-Making Environment, Part 2

  Article published in DM Direct Newsletter
May 19, 2006 Issue
  By Mark Kozak-Holland

My first lesson-from-history article looked at how in May 1940, within Winston Churchill's administration, a real-time decision-making environment was created. It provided tools like executive dashboards and real-time event models, and processes for institutionalized decision-making and competitive intelligence analysis.

This second lesson-from-history article examines this decision-making environment at Bentley Priory more closely, how it was at the center of an integrated air defense system, and part of an overall sense-and-respond system used by RAF Fighter Command.

In May 1940, Churchill, faced with an imminent invasion, ran a project that integrated four areas at different levels of development and maturity. These areas were Storey's Gate, Bletchley Park, Bentley Priory and the supply chain for fighter production run by Whitehall:

  • Bletchley Park collected and deciphered encrypted enemy communications. This provided proactive intelligence on the enemy's intentions and the overall order of battle.
  • Whitehall revolutionized the fighter supply chain and turned it into a demand-driven model, driven by and synchronized closely to Bentley Priory.
  • Bentley Priory was the operational headquarters of RAF Fighter Command and at the center of a real-time decision-making environment developed by its leader Air Marshall Hugh Dowding. Its operations center was linked to an early-warning system and fed information to a hierarchy of Group/Sector operations centers beneath it.
  • The command centre or headquarters of the whole operation was run from Storey's Gate where the map room tracked key performance indicators, e.g., from the fighter supply chain, as well as estimates of enemy fighter production. The command center presided over and issued orders to the other commands.

Collectively these four integrated areas gave Churchill a solution to respond with to an enemy threat.

Figure 1: Churchill's Four Integrated Areas Sensing

Bentley Priory aggregated information from the following sources 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. The Luftwaffe thought its encrypted communications were unbreakable. 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. With a degree of accuracy, radar information provided enemy position, direction, height, and estimated strength. Radar crews operating both in the low and high-level stations aggregated this information. 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 of by the observer corps. It consisted of civilian volunteers who spotted incoming enemy aircraft through binoculars. They identified and assessed the enemy aircraft strength from 1,000 observation posts, based on the recognition of silhouettes and patterns. The corps 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 ninety percent of United Kingdom's (UK) coastline.

Figure 2: Coastline Covered by Radar Stations and Observer Corps


The filter room at Bentley Priory headquarters was the communications hub that aggregated all this disparate information collected from the early warning system. Occasionally there were other sources that passed new information to Bentley Priory namely, other operations centers and pilots. All this information was integrated in real time and passed directly into the operations room.

Figure 3: Operations Room at Bentley Priory, Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London

The Bentley Priory operations room was to have one of the most sophisticated real-time event models in the entire solution, specifically with an elegant user-interface. The purpose of the model was to map a visual representation of the skies above the UK. It was run by the Women of the Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs). The map table used counters to show the location of friendly and enemy aircraft on a scaled map of the UK. The WAAFs would receive information from the filter room through headsets. As enemy planes took off in France, they were tracked and plotted onto this real-time model, reflecting every change. The counters on the glass-covered table were color-coded:

  • A red F on white background was for friendly aircraft,
  • A black X on yellow meant unidentified, and
  • A black H on yellow was for hostile (representing enemy formations) aircraft.

The WAAFs changed the color of all the enemy counters every five minutes from yellow to red, and then to blue. These colors corresponded to the operations room's clock, which was also color-coded (yellow, red and blue) in five-minute increments. This gave a real-time snapshot of a raid in progress, and how it was evolving.

Figure 4: Bentley Prior's Real-Time Event Model

When two stations gave positions of the same aircraft, greater reliance was placed on the accuracy. As new reports were received, a colored arrow for each raid was changed. The situation was updated so that all the information on the table was no older than fifteen minutes. As a result, the model provided a snapshot of real-time events, giving the decision-makers the information they needed to manage the movement of fighters. They could position and group fighters at the required operational heights to be most effective.

Figure 5: Diagram of Bentley Priory Operations


This information was then disseminated through the command structure, which divided up the country into four geographically based groups. Each group had a station and commanding air officer, and was further divided into sectors (5 to 10) with stations (headquarters) and surrounding, smaller fighter stations/airfields. The individual group and sector operations centers had many of the characteristics of Bentley Priory, with an event-tracking and decision-making environment, and were expected to have the most activity. Bentley Priory at the center saw the overall picture of events, whereas group levels saw only what pertained to them.

The group operations centers had a second user-interface model: the tote board. Named after the horseracing tracks ''Totalisator" board, it had dozens of electric lights that ran the full length of a wall. These indicated which squadrons in what sectors were in contact with the enemy, and those disengaging to refuel and rearm. It also indicated the operational state of readiness of squadrons held in reserve that were "available" in 30 minutes, at "readiness" in five minutes, or at "cockpit readiness" in two minutes to engage in immediate battle, as well as what was in the air. This provided the decision-makers within the elevated gantry a means to track the incoming raid and then respond, through the tote model, by determining what resources were available and how they could be deployed. The sector-level operations centers made the final decision, which went out to the individual squadrons and pilots. The operations centers were also linked by telephone to the following commands that responded to incoming raids:

  • The anti-aircraft command, under the army, was divided nationally into seven divisions, but linked to fighter command groups. Its primary role was to protect the aircraft manufacturing industry and support fighter command. Anti-aircraft fire was more effective in daylight than at night, as the incoming bomber streams were in closer formations. At night, the aircraft were very widely spaced, with a 1:50 chance of a hit.
  • The searchlight units were closely linked to the anti-aircraft command and cooperated closely together. Both had to be well aligned to the operational centers and aware of aircraft positions and movement in the skies to avoid firing on Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters by mistake.
  • The barrage balloon command operated 52 squadrons across the country, creating a barrage of huge balloons that protected towns and cities, as well as targets like industrial areas and ports. Strung by heavy cables they protected everything at ground level from the threat of low-flying dive-bombers. Set at heights of up to 5,000 feet, they would force aircraft to fly high, limiting their accuracy and bringing them within range of the anti-aircraft guns.
  • The operational training units were responsible for pilot training and closely linked to Bentley Priory. These units had to be aware of pilot losses because the number of available pilots was a continual problem for Dowding. Pilot training took three months and was limited to pilots under 30. Dowding brought Allied pilots into the RAF squadrons, as well as volunteers from the Commonwealth and countries under Axis occupation.
  • Air-sea rescue operations were directed to downed RAF pilots. Pilots were brought back to squadrons quickly and could be in the air the same day.
  • The civilian repair operation (CRO) was an important recovery operation that was part of the fighter supply chain.

Figure 6: Chain of Commands at Bentley Priory

In today's world, what can we take away from this lesson from history? Dowding's use of real-time event models and institutionalized decision-making known as the "Dowding System" helped turn the course of battle of Britain. With a sophisticated early warning system, it was the first time that information had been used on such a scale. My next article will look at how the system was completed and made operational in several months. In considering your environment today, here are some questions to think about:

  • Do feedback loops in your information supply chain (early-warning system) help your organization adjust to changing situations?
  • Are your decision-support systems institutionalized, and are your employees using these consistently for decision-making?

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Best Practices/Benchmarking, Business Intelligence (BI) and Project Management/Tool Selection.

Mark Kozak-Holland is a senior business architect with HP Services and regularly writes and speaks on the subject of emerging technologies and lessons from history. Kozak-Holland's latest book in the lessons-from-history series is titled Churchill's Adaptive Enterprise: Lessons for Business Today  (http://www.mmpubs.com/churchill/). It draws parallels between events in World War II and today's business challenges. Mark can be contacted via his site www.lessons-from-history.com or mark.kozak-holl@sympatico.ca.

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