Blitzkrieg Your Way to Business Success
The Fall of France
In just 6 weeks between May 10th and June 25th 1940 the German Wehrmacht swept through France and the Low Countries smashing the Allied armies. Advancing through the seemingly impenetrable Ardennes, German highly mobile armoured forces pushed the Allies back to the Channel coast. The now famed rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and remnants of the French army from the beaches of Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) was in every respect a defeat. Next, German forces simply side-stepped the formidable line of static defences called the Maginot Line and defeated the remaining French forces. Paris fell unopposed on June 14th.
How was it that a numerically superior force with a thousand more tanks could be defeated by the Germans? The principle architect of that stunning victory was General Erich Von Manstein. He knew that original strategic thinking has the power to disrupt the status quo. That the right motivation and application of new technologies can help you beat the biggest opponent.
Wireless and Combined Arms Operations
The Germans concentrated their panzer forces at the point of attack, used surprise and ruthlessly exploited every tactical advantage the moment it presented itself. The Allies squandered their advantage in tanks, deploying them in “penny packets” as infantry support. German tactics relied on combined arms operations, whereby tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower worked together. Allied forces were largely uncoordinated. Radio communications proved pivotal, allowing German field commanders to improvise and respond quickly to the constantly changing situations of battle. In clutch situations, the ability to call down Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers at a moment’s notice often proved tactically decisive.
In contrast, the Allies mostly lacked wireless communications and the combined arms ethos. Instead, they fought strategically and tactically much the same way their fathers had done during World War One.
Another advantage the Germans enjoyed was the military doctrine of Auftragstaktik or mission-focused tactics. German field officers were expected to use their initiative to achieve their objectives. They would also be given control of the necessary supporting arms to get the job done. The Allied command and control systems were rigid, overly bureaucratic and denied field commanders any freedom of action.
Although the Battle of France was a stunning German victory, it was also a close run thing. Luck favoured the brave. The Allies and Nazis approached the fighting with two very different outlooks. The Germans approached the conflict with a mind-set of “methodical opportunism” according to French historian Marc Bloch. The Allies wilfully deceived themselves of German intentions and actions, making defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A year later the Germans would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and stun the world. Between May 20th and June 1st 1941 the German Luftwaffe would make military history by invading the Greek island of Crete from the air. Operation Mercury was the very first large-scale use of elite paratroopers (Fallschirmjager) and air-landed troops, and another strategic game-changer.
The Germans seriously under estimated the Allied forces stationed on Crete. However, lack of adequate radio communications placed the numerically superior force at a strategic disadvantage once again. Unlike a year earlier, the Allies now had a terrific technological advantage over their German adversaries. The world’s first electronic computers were developed by the British to break the German Enigma codes. By 1943 Alan Turing's code-breaking machines and his team of cryptographers were cracking around 84,000 Enigma encoded messages every month. Even though the Allies were able to gain invaluable strategic insights into the German’s military intentions about Crete they failed to interpret the data correctly, and drew the wrong conclusions. Instead of defending the island’s airfields at all costs or making them unserviceable, the Allies dispersed their forces. They placed far too much emphasis on defending Crete’s harbours against amphibious assault.
Technology Proves Decisive
Having suffered heavy casualties on the first day, the Germans were able to wrestle the strategic initiative back from the Allies. Once again, propitious use of radio communications, close air support and the Fallschirmjager’s esprit de corps turned a near disaster into a stunning military victory. Paratroopers are basically light infantry and lack fire support, which is a distinct tactical weakness. To redress the firepower balance, the Fallschirmjager on Crete used a new piece of technology ideal for airborne forces. The 75mm recoilless rifle gave lightly armed paratroopers the artillery and anti-tank support they desperately needed. The recoilless rifle offered the same firepower as conventional artillery with a slightly reduced range but at a fraction of the weight, making it ideal for air transport. The 75mm was found to be so useful during the invasion of Crete that a larger 105mm version was also developed.
Approach and Outlook
Products of a totalitarian state, the Fallshirmjager displayed audacity, initiative and adaptability, overcoming every challenge to win. In contrast, Allied troops of the western democracies found themselves paralysed by a bureaucratic system of command that actively discouraged freedom of action. However, overconfidence coupled with poor intelligence, sloppy logistics and weak internal security would hurt the Germans badly as the war progressed.
Interestingly, the victors and vanquished drew very different conclusions from the invasion of Crete. The Germans ceased large-scale airborne operations, regarding them as too costly. The Fallschirmjager were relegated to a standard infantry role. The Allies saw things completely differently and immediately rushed to form their own elite airborne forces.
A Bridge Too Far
Fast-forward to September 1944 and Operation Market Garden. The strategic objective of Market Garden was to encircle the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr. The plan required an airborne carpet of 41,600 troops dropped across the Netherlands, capturing key bridges, jump the Rhine at Arnhem and end the war by Christmas. Unfortunately, the operation proved a costly Allied disaster immortalised in Cornelius Ryan’s book and subsequent film A Bridge Too Far.
The brainchild of Field Marshal Montgomery, a vain, charismatic, egotistical man, Operation Market Garden was a hurriedly planned enterprise that left much to be desired. Driven by Monty’s ego, a dangerous corporate mentality seems to have gripped his staff. Impartiality, common sense and informed decision-making were simply abandoned. Warnings from the Dutch resistance supported by Ultra intercepts (Alan Turing’s code-breakers at Bletchley Park) suggested that elements of the feared 2nd SS Panzer Corps were moving into the Arnhem area for refitting.
Psychological conditions such as confirmation bias and the backfire effect look to have been running rabid among Market Gardens planners. Casualties of confirmation bias place more weight and significance on information that confirms their beliefs while dismissing anything that challenges their preconceived ideas. More bizarrely, the backfire effect is a condition whereby the subject’s beliefs are reinforced by every piece of contrary data. The subject goes through a charade of critical analysis, whereby they rubbish anything that doesn’t support their views. After this spectacular exercise in self-deception the subject’s original beliefs are even more entrenched than before. Groupthink can create a very toxic environment where bad decisions go unchallenged, dissent is silenced, and a delusion of invulnerability persists.
Bad Decision Making
In the planning and execution of Operation Market Garden one bad decision was heaped on another. Everything from the highway chosen as the main line of advance to bad intelligence contributed to the disaster that befell 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. The breakdown in radio communications is often cited as a principle reason things went so badly wrong for the airborne forces. However, corporate or groupthink was clearly a contributory factor. When the radios failed Major-General Roy Urquhart went off on a futile search for his subordinates, only making a confused situation worse. In reality, a perfectly acceptable alternative to the failed military radio network was available to the British, they just couldn’t see it.
While military myopia gripped the British, the Dutch resistance used the civilian telephone network and a series of runners to gather accurate intelligence and communicate effectively across the battlespace. Of course, offers to help the floundering Allies from the Dutch resistance were rudely rejected. Tragically, four crucial days would pass before it finally occurred to John Frost, commander of the 2nd Parachute Battalion at the Arnhem bridge, to pick up a public telephone and call his Divisional HQ. By the time he did, it was already too late. Operation Market Garden would cost the lives of two thousand Allied troops and another seven thousand captured.
No Long War Strategy
As we have seen, a combination of the right strategy, tactics, technology and mind-set can disrupt the best laid plans of a larger, better equipped adversary. However, the infamous Blitzkrieg or lightning war was supposed to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion. When Germany failed to defeat Great Britain and then decided to invade the Soviet Union a whole new strategy was required, but was never forthcoming. Instead, Allied manpower, industrial might and technical innovation started to tip the balance. Albeit a little slowly and painfully, the Allies adapted, evolved and learned how to win. Perhaps more importantly they started to believe they could win.
Just as a dangerous group mentality evolved during the planning of Operation Market Garden, starting with Field Marshal Montgomery, so the Germans had a similar but bigger problem. As a totalitarian state the Third Reich revolved entirely around the obsessive, neurotic personality of Adolf Hitler. Certainly, the Hitler cult of personality brought radical social and economic change to a beleaguered German nation during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it also transformed a highly educated, free-thinking population into submissive automatons. Even when it was clear that the war was lost the German people marched in step towards oblivion.
To beat the competition demands a collective effort from everyone across your business. It shouldn’t be a dictatorship. There must always be room for dissent, criticism and initiative. Business leaders must learn to enlist the support and loyalty of the entire workforce. They must inspire, not compel. Groupthink is a dangerous condition. It can blind you to emerging threats and changing market conditions until it’s too late.
Lessons of History
The business lessons to be learned from the Battle of France, the capture of Crete and disaster of Operation Market Garden are straightforward enough. Always set clear, ambitious, achievable goals. Do your research and test your assumptions. Don’t let confirmation bias trick you into making bad decisions. If an idea stinks, drop it and move on. Next, assuming your ideas have been validated by the research, develop a clear plan of attack and communicate it to everyone. In mature, crowded markets where there’s lots of competition an economy pricing strategy might seem like a good move, but it usually means a race to the bottom where the margins are tiny. Instead, try and leverage your brand to differentiate yourself and add value.
In terms of your organisational structure, don’t be like the Allies: a collection of sow-moving, rigid bureaucracies that robbed the individual of all initiative. Instead, you need a little Auftragstaktik. Encourage your people to be adaptable and seize the advantage. Provide them with the right tools and technologies so they can communicate, collaborate and compete effectively.
As every CIO already knows, if you don’t equip your people with the right tools for the job they will simply find them elsewhere. How many of your employees regularly share corporate data via consumer apps, third party Cloud solutions or personal devices without your knowledge? Believe me, it’s a lot more than you think. This leaves your business vulnerable to data breaches, cyber-attacks, hefty regulatory penalties, negative PR and reputational risk.
Start-ups and small businesses simply don’t have the resources to tackle the dominant players in a market directly, but then, you don’t have to. Use intelligence and data to find vulnerabilities and gaps in the market. Concentrate all your efforts at the point of attack and exploit any weaknesses you find. Use technology, branding and an audacious plan to completely disrupt your market the way Uber and Airbnb have done. And remember, like General George S. Patton once said: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”