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The Story of Billy Mitchell — Chris Elles

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Alan Kay

Innovation within a military environment demands much of its aspiring innovators. It demands audacity, agility, conviction, diplomacy, flexibility, friction, passion, teamwork, tenacity, and vision to name a few of the often unspoken and high costs to successfully achieve it.

This is a story about Major General William “Billy” Mitchell and his innovator’s journey through the trough of sorrow.

In 1916, US Army signals officer Billy Mitchell undertook pilot training with the Curtiss Flying School as he was too old and senior in rank for aviation training as prescribed in law. The considerable personal cost to then Major Billy Mitchell was roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. Aviation was in its infancy with less than 15 years since the first powered flights of Richard Pearse and the Wright Brothers. At this time, the industrial scale slaughter of WWI had already been raging for two years and seen technological disruption of the sea domain in the form of German U-Boat submarines. They not only disrupted trade between the then neutral United States with European Allies, but a single German U-Boat (U-21) was successful in disrupting 18 obsolete Pre-dreadnaught era battleships from providing close support to the Gallipoli Campaign by sinking two of them. It is an early modern era example of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). By war’s end, 11 million tons of shipping was destroyed by Axis submarines.

But it was the emergence of the air domain that saw the greatest technological revolution. Airplanes and airships were initially used as observation and surveillance platforms but then quickly adapted to provide air dominance (close air support and even strategic bombing). While Billy Mitchell was in transit to France to observe the conflict, the United States declared war on Germany. Mitchell quickly set up an Aviation Section within Army from which he collaborated extensively with British and French aviation commanders. This allowed him to inform the soon to arrive American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Preparing for US AEF air operations provided him with vital experience that he used to plan and lead one of the first ever coordinated air and land domain offensives. By war’s end, he was in command of all US AEF air combat units as acting Brigadier, Chief of Air Service, US Army.

HMS Ark Royal in 1939 [Image credit: Wikipedia]
HMS Ark Royal in 1939 [Image credit: Wikipedia]

Unlike most who believed that WWI was the war to end wars, Mitchell fervently believed the new air domain would play an overwhelmingly critical factor in future conflict. He believed floating air bases would be essential in the defence of the country, a view which clashed severely with the US Navy who had disestablished their own Naval Aeronautics immediately following the war. Mitchell passionately urged the development of naval aviation due to the growing obsolescence of the existing naval surface combatant fleet. He assured the navy that he could develop the capability to destroy battleships from the air, however, his vision and domain expertise was denounced by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and future US President, Franklin Roosevelt.

Despite the strong public criticism of Mitchell and his vision of future air conflict, he tenaciously persisted. Mitchell relentlessly pushed for military aviation innovations such as superchargers, aerial torpedoes, and bomb sights while shamelessly promoting regular breakthroughs in aviation speed, altitude, and distance records. This aggressive approach often came at the high cost of damaging relationships with his superiors. He instigated a series of joint Army-Navy exercises called Project B, to test the ability of Army planes to sink Navy battleships. These tests infuriated the Navy due to their highly politicised and public nature.

The strict rules of engagement for the test included inspections in between individual bombs dropped on captured or surrendered German warships used as targets, as well a limit on the maximum weight of bombs dropped. In clear violation of these rules, the German battleship Ostfriesland was quickly and decisively sunk by a flight of four aerial bombers carrying far heavier bombs then was allowed. While it was an overwhelming success that gained Mitchell many kudos from the public, his approach earned him significant internal criticism.

Bombing Ostfriesland [Image credit: Naval History & Heritage Command]
Bombing Ostfriesland [Image credit: Naval History & Heritage Command]

Mitchell was inevitably charged with insubordination for unrelated public comments he made against the military after several fatal aviation accidents. Convicted but lightly punished, Mitchell retired immediately following his court martial and continued to try and shape developments in the fast evolving air domain in the interwar years, albeit in a position of greatly reduced capacity to influence. He died in 1936.

In April of 1942, a mere four months after the surprise Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, which Mitchell predicted, a US joint services force punched deep across the Japanese dominated Pacific Ocean. This was at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, who had clashed so harshly with Mitchell’s vision two decades earlier when Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Unexpectedly detected by the Japanese Imperial Navy, 300km and 10 hours short of the scheduled H-Hour, the force immediately launched all sixteen Army B25 medium bombers off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. It was an audacious and unprecedented joint services raid, led by a former aide of Mitchell’s, achieving a massive propaganda blow against the Axis and a much needed morale victory at a time when the Allies were entirely on the back foot in the global fight.

A B25 taking off from USS Hornet for the Doolittle Raid [Image credit: Wikipedia]
A B25 taking off from USS Hornet for the Doolittle Raid [Image credit: Wikipedia]

The land based B25 bomber had just entered service mere months before the US entered the war and the raid itself is worthy of its own tactical innovation story. It was the only US combat aircraft named in memory of a person, – aptly named the B25 Mitchell. The air domain, as envisioned by Major General (posthumously reinstated) William “Billy” Mitchell two decades prior, was ultimately dominated by the Allies and played a decisive factor in WWII victory. This was largely due to the trail he blazed two decades earlier, setting the innovation narrative in the air domain at the cost of burning his career to a cinder.

By their nature, innovation stories demand a “lessons learned” – Be audacious and tenacious. Convey your conviction, display your passion, and share your innovation vision. But always remember it’s possible to be both absolutely right, while also being completely wrong. Diplomacy and EQ are your best tools to mitigate this risk. Build bridges towards those with opposing viewpoints. Extinguish friction points using diplomacy and flexibility. Build a network of allies with peers and mentors who can support you when you are wrong… And you will be wrong. Because if you’re not wrong sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough to innovate. Don’t be like Billy Mitchell and burn your career through insubordination, a lack of diplomacy, and a lack of team work with peers and mentors. Be like Billy Mitchell because we must be ready for the next H-Hour. If history is anything to go by, it will arrive early and unexpectedly.

This article originally appeared on The Cove, an online professional development network for the Australian Army.

Chris Elles is a member of the New Zealand Army (Reserve) who is focused on developing innovative training. He is currently serving as a Company Weapons Sergeant in 2/4 RNZIR and as a member of the Aumangea Assessment Program Training Team. He is also a small business entrepreneur and an alumnus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.


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