Agile Leadership and Management of Change Project Lessons from Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain

Most people are very familiar with Winston Churchill but may not be familiar with his “agile” approach to project management and his skills as a project manager (PM) in the summer of 1940.

This article is an extract of three articles from a series1 that examined how Churchill planned and executed a transformation project to introduce organizational agility so that he could meet an immediate crisis, the most significant threat in five hundred years. The series described the strategies he took to overcome incredible odds and the solutions that were developed. Not only did he have to stave off an imminent enemy invasion, but he also had to move the peacetime economy to one that could support a war. This meant acting with incredible agility, repairing the military supply chain, focusing slender resources on the immediate threat, unifying a disparate economy, and directing its output into immediate military use.
Part 1 – Creating Intelligence and Knowledge“Knowledge is power” is not a recent quote; it was made in 1597 by Sir Francis Bacon, English philosopher. Knowledge has always been critical in the military, and “intelligence” has emerged as the most vital military asset. Churchill had to use the limited forces he had at his disposal in the most effective way. He could only do so with good enemy intelligence. Knowing the extent of enemy preparation and activity would provide the necessary insight to where and how the enemy was likely to strike so resources could be better targeted to meet the threat.

Figure 1: Bletchley Park Mansion

Churchill recognized the value of intelligence in battle and was shaped by his previous experiences from the First World War. At Gallipoli in 1915, the lack of reliable intelligence proved a major undoing for him, which crucified his career short term. Churchill’s plan to defeat Turkey out of the war by sending in British warships and troops failed miserably. At Gallipoli, the lack of adequate ground intelligence affected troops as they hit the beaches. They had nowhere to go and were gunned down.

As Churchill came to power in May 1940, he became aware of the secret establishment at Bletchley Park that collected and deciphered encrypted enemy communications (Enigma codes) under Stewart Menzies, the Director of Military Intelligence (MI6). The mansion when it opened in 1938 was located midway between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, an ideal source of mathematicians and logicians for code-breaking.
The first breakthrough was in July 1939 when Polish cryptographers shared with the French and British their Enigma work and results. They had broken codes through commercial Enigma machines and had also developed a mechanical method for finding the ring settings to speed up deciphering. This gave Bletchley a great boost, and Enigma was broken in January 1940. But Bletchley was still a fledgling and laborious manual operation, and it was hit and miss whether messages could be deciphered before an event happened. The time required to break the daily changing Enigma keys was greatly reduced by electro-mechanical machines.

Figure 2:
Enigma Code

The value of deciphered enemy communications emerged during the Battle of France in May 1940. German army field commanders filed daily situation reports and British commanders checked their own information against these and built up a more accurate picture. This increased confidence in the potential of this intelligence and greatly raised Bletchley’s profile in the military. Prototypes of electro-mechanical computers (Bombes) were completed, based on the Polish idea, under the leadership of Alan Turing (the father of the Turing Machine and a pioneer of computing). Results proved very promising as the operation of deciphering was dramatically sped up. If messages were decrypted in a 24-hour window, this would provide invaluable information on enemy intent and threats, and allow defensive positions to be taken prior to any enemy offensive. A staggering 150 million to one were the odds against breaking Enigma so it was unlikely it would be suspected as it was considered highly secure by the Axis.

The necessary investments were made to further automate and scale up the operation as Churchill quickly recognized Bletchley’s potential. This was done through more Bombes and the influx of skilled staff that also dramatically optimized the operation. The operation was code named “Ultra” and shrouded in secrecy. A network of listening stations (“Y” Stations) gathered raw wireless signals for processing at Bletchley. The focus at Bletchley was not just on breaking the Enigma code; but as the volume of messages increased, the focus included putting a significance or priority on key messages going to chiefs of staff and Churchill. This proved extremely valuable for the recipients. However, a new unit was set up in the operation to interpret the intelligence, known as the Shadow OKH. Information was pooled with previous messages to create an enormous bank of organized knowledge.

As a result, of these initiatives:

  • Churchill took a deep personal interest in Bletchley and described it as “the goose that laid the golden egg, but didn’t cackle.”
  • To help ensure that Ultra was being used effectively Churchill introduced its systematic use across all 3 military arms. In some situations he was outraged when his commanders did not use it.
  • Elaborate security was developed to protect Ultra where special liaison units (SLUs) ensured it went to only to a few key decision makers to lower risk of discovery.
  • Secure direct lines and SLUs were set up to RAF Fighter Command (Bentley Priory) for the use of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, which gave him details of the Luftwaffe order of battle down to individual commanders in the field.
  • Ultra intelligence and knowledge could be applied to decision making in the War Cabinet and RAF Fighter Command.
  • An elaborate decoy system was set up so if actions resulted from Ultra, the Axis were fooled in to thinking that the source of intelligence came from elsewhere.
  • Ultra was the first concerted efforts to introduce mechanization and automation into the production of intelligence and knowledge management on such a scale.

Churchill took a holistic view of the U.K.’s resources in 1940, where intelligence and process integration were clearly greater than the sum of their parts. For Churchill, “knowledge” was, indeed, “power” and Bletchley Park provided priceless insights into the strategic thinking and tactical intent of the enemy. In a short time, Bletchley Park revolutionized warfare and how air wars were going to be fought from that point on.

Figure 3: Electro-mechanical Machines (Bombes)

For further information on Bletchley Park, visit

Part 2 – RAF Fighter Command This section looks at how the clever use of emerging technologies and reengineered processes could better maximize the effectiveness of pilots/fighters in an integrated air defense or sense-and-respond system.

In June 1940, Air Marshall Hugh Dowding’s organization faced major challenges, despite his best efforts, with massive losses of 500 operational fighters2 in the air battle over Flanders and France. The RAF was about 50% below its target (set in 1939) with 620 fighters (out of 1,200), the minimum thought necessary to win an air battle over the United Kingdom (U.K.). The fighters were outnumbered by a ratio of 2:1.

In 1935 when Dowding founded RAF Fighter Command, he was aware that the Air Ministry was very slow in scaling up its fighter production schedule and unlikely to reach minimum target levels required. So Dowding looked to other ways to assist his fighters in an air battle. The physical organization of Fighter Command was most significant with a geographically distributed hierarchy of stations (Group/Sector) and air fields networked to Bentley Priory, the operational headquarters. Each sector had a main fighter base with an operations room, maintenance and repair facilities, and satellite bases attached to it.

Churchill didn’t appoint Dowding but was well aware of him through his support of radar. Churchill told his Air Minister, “I think he is one of the very best men you have got…he has my full confidence.” By June 1940, with Churchill’s support, he had integrated an air defense system with 3 unique mechanisms:

  1. Sensing – an early-warning system consisting of 3 lines.
  2. Decision making – a real time environment with tools like executive dashboards, real-time event models, and processes for institutionalized decision making.
  3. Responding – a system feeding information to a hierarchy of Group/Sector operations centers beneath it capable of responding to the threat.


Bentley Priory aggregated information from 3 lines to give early warning of incoming raids:

  • The first line Bletchley Park passed top secret Ultra information decrypted Luftwaffe communications thought unbreakable. The intelligence was highly strategic giving date/time of a raid, size, plane types, and even the target. It was passed securely, through Special Liaison Unit, to handpicked individuals.
  • The second line was made up of 50 radar stations, long and short range, which picked up high-flying aircraft at 30,000 feet and 150 miles away, and low-flying aircraft. Both operated on pattern recognition and provided information on incoming raids with enemy position, direction, height, and estimated strength.
  • The third line was made up by the Observer Corps, civilian volunteers who, through binoculars from 1,000 observation posts, spotted incoming enemy aircraft, and identified and assessed their strength based on silhouette and pattern recognition. Radar provided early warning of enemy raids, but once across the coastline the Observer Corps tracked these.

Decision Making

The filter room at Bentley Priory headquarters aggregated information from the 3 lines in real time, passing it to the operations room, Figure 4. Run by the Women of the Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) it had a sophisticated real-time event model with an elegant user interface, which visually mapped the skies above the U.K. The WAAFs mapped this information into color-coded counters on a map table (of the U.K.) of both friendly and enemy aircraft. Enemy planes taking off in France were tracked and plotted in real time. Every 5 minutes the WAAFs changed the color of all the enemy counters, corresponding to the operations room’s clock, also color-coded in 5-minute increments.

Figure 4: RAF Operational Center Plotting Table Gave a Real-Time View (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London)


With information less than 15 minutes old, decision makers could determine the best “response” by “vectoring” fighters to the most effective operational position and height. The response was then disseminated through the command structure of six geographically based groups. Each had a headquarters and 5 to 10 sectors stations, with smaller surrounding fighter stations/airfields. The operations centers made up the front line and had many characteristics of Bentley Priory, specifically the event-tracking and decision-making ability, but they only saw what pertained to them, whereas Bentley Priory saw the big picture.

The group operations centers responded using a ‘‘Totalisator” board (see Figure 5) from horse-racing tracks, which indicated the status of squadrons; and what sectors were in enemy contact, or disengaging to refuel and rearm on the ground. It also indicated the operational state of readiness of squadrons held in reserve that were “available” in 30 minutes, at “readiness” in 5 minutes, or at “cockpit readiness” in 2 minutes. Decision makers tracked the incoming raid and then responded, knowing what resources were in hand and how they could be deployed.

Figure 5: the Tote Board Indicated the Status of Squadrons

The operations centers were also linked by phone to the following commands:

  • The anti-aircraft command under the army, with more effective fire in day than at night as incoming bomber streams were in closer formations.
  • The barrage balloon command operated 52 squadrons to protect cities, industrial areas, and ports from low-flying dive-bombers. Balloons set at 5,000 feet forced aircraft to fly high, and putting them in range of the anti-aircraft guns.
  • The operational training units for pilots had to be aware of pilot losses, as pilot availability was a continual problem. Training took 3 months and was limited to pilots under 30. Dowding brought in Allied pilots and volunteers.
  • The searchlight units, closely linked to the anti-aircraft, were aware of friendly aircraft positions and movements to avoid friendly fire.
  • Air/sea rescue operations were directed to downed RAF pilots to be brought back to squadrons quickly and put back into the air on the same day.
  • Beaverbrook’s Civilian Repair Operation (Ministry of Aircraft Production) was a vital recovery operation and required downed fighter positions.

The whole operation, or the “Dowding System,” sensed incoming raids, sent in fighters, and directed the recovery of downed pilots and aircraft. By accurately vectoring fighters straight onto the incoming enemy aircraft, no time was wasted in searching for these. As a result, the response was extremely efficient and maximized to the point were it made up for the vastly smaller RAF fighter numbers.

Part 3 – Storey’s GateThis section looks at the command and control of the whole system. A command center at the heart of the solution was the final piece in the jigsaw.

For the British the Battle of Flanders/France was a wake-up call as agility was the new paradigm in modern warfare. An agile war is dependent on making the best decisions quickly based on the best intelligence available. This starts at a strategic level with the commander at the top passing strategic directives that are cascaded to operational leaders to make decisions and implement in the field. Churchill as a soldier knew the importance of this; thus in May 1940 when he visited the newly completed underground facility at Storey’s Gate, he recognized the value of a secure and blast-proof site. It was close to Downing Street and was designed to protect him, and the War Cabinet, from the expected air raids.

For Churchill, it was much more than a bunker (see Figure 6 below), and when he saw this he became very enthused to declare: “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” The facility was designed to provide Churchill a conducive decision-making environment so he could respond with agility. It was a principal facility of close collaboration that made overriding decisions that affected other areas. As a result, it subsequently became his new headquarters for the rest of the war.

Figure 6: Storey’s Gate Entrance to Churchill’s Bunker

The Cabinet War Room, the heart of Storey’s Gate, was used for collaboration and real-time decision making at the most senior levels. Here Churchill, embedded into the war cabinet the military arms (chiefs of staff) to take part in all cabinet meetings, held daily to deal with all issues from military planning to food rationing. This is symbolized by the seating arrangement. In the First World War, he saw how the government was unable to unite the army and navy on the same page and a lack of overall coordination. Churchill was determined to rectify this by building a close working relationship with the chiefs.

In May 1940, Churchill’s mission goals were very clear in that he needed a snapshot of the war, a macro view of battle situations, and this had to be done in real time – an executive dashboard in today’s world. The critical success factors for this were related to the use, at a tactical level, of intelligence to preserve critical resources. Operational data that was readily available included production or manufacturing output, stock levels on fuel and ammunition, and resource losses.

Storey’s Gate had to track the changing world and events for rapid, complex decision making, and for a real-time view at the highest (strategic) level. It needed meaningful real-time indicators that were varied and included fighter indicators from Bentley Priory and the Air Ministry such as the availability of fighters and stockpiles of fuel as well as the supply-chain performance and manufacturing for fighter production from Whitehall, and the enemy order of battle indicators from Bletchley Park and other theatres of war (see Figure 7 below).

Figure 7: Sources of Operational Data for Key Performance Indicators at Storey’s Gate

The Map Room displayed the indicators through real-time maps. The Map Room was effectively a real-time executive dashboard used for decision making. It had to present different types of indicators and content; the former was of particular importance. Indicators were carefully selected to provide early warning of a challenging situation or a specific event, based on trigger thresholds, so that timely, proactive decisions could be made (e.g., the availability of fighters and pilots was critical in battle situations). The pilot losses were by far the more critical.

The maps displaying the indicators had to be incisive and intuitive so visitors could rapidly absorb and grasp these to understand decisions and their repercussions. The indicators had to be presented to the right person for decision making in a timely manner.

Aside from indicators, other content/information that was also available from within Storey’s Gate took many forms, including extracts from minutes and papers of top-level conferences, letters from the Foreign Office, and situation reports. This enhanced the primary information and helped fill in the blanks.

An executive dashboard drives qualitative improvements, reports performance against goals, establishes priorities, identifies ways to improve performance, highlights flaws in the operation, and ensures sustainability.

In the Map Room, Churchill linked the military chain of hierarchy into this command center. Decisions from the Cabinet War Rooms were transferred immediately to the chain of command. Churchill incorporated the (armed forces) military structures into Storey’s Gate, and forced them to share some resources/expertise.

Figure 8: Map Room’s Underlying Chains of Command

With the Map Room Churchill could readily follow events from all theatres of battle and have a big picture view so he could respond accordingly. Churchill was so pleased with the Map Room that his architects created a traveling map room inside his personal railway carriage. As Churchill traveled across the U.K. visiting military installations, the traveling map room of lead indicators provided him a real-time pulse by which he could read the war, understand battle situations, and determine short-term needs. He could then communicate with the respective commanders, and influence them in the control and performance of the supply chain and production. These lead indicators recognized events like changes in battle fronts that had a direct impact on the supply chain.

The Map Room supported the Cabinet War Room by tracking events, analysis and real-time information. It cascaded actions to a vast network of linked commands. It processed real-time information for decision making and provided a real-time view of all war theatres.

ConclusionStorey’s Gate was the overall command center for the whole operation, managing the big picture and tightly integrated to Bletchley Park, Bentley Priory and the fighter supply chain. From here, they could follow the air battle, closely monitor the supply chain, and keep track of events from other battlefronts. Based on accurate and timely information and intelligence, Churchill and his organization were better able to understand what was going on in the broader picture of the war. They were better able to leverage all the resources at their disposal, select the best tactics and also determine the most promising strategies and projects.

Figure 9: Holistic View of Churchill’s Solution

Storey’s Gate became the principal facility for conducting the war, and the center of the British War Machine.

For further information on Storey’s Gate, visit

End Notes:

  1. PM WORLD TODAY (parts 19, 20, 21)
  2. A total of 1,029 aircraft and more than 1,500 personnel

Share this post

Mark Kozak-Holland

Mark Kozak-Holland

Mark Kozak-Holland’s latest book in the Lessons-From-History series is titled Agile Leadership and Management of Change: Project Lessons from Winston Churchill and Battle of Britain. It draws parallels from this event in World War II to today's business challenges. His previous books include Project Lessons from the Great Escape (Stalag Luft III), Titanic Lessons for IT Projects, and Avoiding Titanic Disasters: Project Lessons for IT Executives.  Mark is a Senior Business Architect with HP Services and regularly writes and speaks (presentations and workshops) on the subject of emerging technologies and lessons that can be learned from historical projects. He can be contacted via his website at or via email

scroll to top
We use technologies such as cookies to understand how you use our site and to provide a better user experience. This includes personalizing content, using analytics and improving site operations. We may share your information about your use of our site with third parties in accordance with our Privacy Policy. You can change your cookie settings as described here at any time, but parts of our site may not function correctly without them. By continuing to use our site, you agree that we can save cookies on your device, unless you have disabled cookies.
I Accept