As I continued The Last Lion Volume II Churchill remained in the “political wilderness,” seemingly alone in opposition to Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. I was struck by Churchill’s remarkably clear strategic perspective on the threat posed by Hitler and Germany, but he did have some tactical misperceptions.
Winston’s most striking tactical gaffe was a memorandum he sent to Neville Chamberlain, then prime minister, only six months before the Munich Agreement, and it sharply criticized the two fighter planes which would prove to be England’s salvation in 1940. On March 12, 1938, Churchill wrote: “We have concentrated upon the forward-firing fixed gun Fighter (Hurricane and Spitfire). The latest developments increasingly suggest that hostile aircraft can only be engaged with certainty on parallel or nearly parallel courses, hence that the turret type of equipment will be paramount.” This revealed a total failure to grasp the evolution of aerial rearmament. Churchill was thinking in terms of the Tiger Moth and other old wood-and-fabric two-gun biplanes. To send such slow, fragile aircraft against the Nazis’ Messerschmitt fighters would have meant the sacrifice of the RAF, followed by catastrophe; the Luftwaffe’s bombers, arriving in fleets, would have leveled their targets, unchallenged by a single British fighter pilot.1
I think there’s a good lesson in this. I mentioned in my takeaways from Volume I that Churchill learned to fly during the dawn of aviation, and he was secretary for war and air after WWI, so it is unsurprising his frame of reference was the Tiger Moth. He was taught to fly by some of England’s best aviators when only a handful of people worldwide had ever been in an airplane. He knew airplanes and their state of the art, but he quit flying decades earlier.2 The problem was his sense of his own expertise was frozen, while the aviation industry advanced at an incredible rate.
I think this is something to be on the lookout for. Confidence in one’s own ability isn’t the same thing as ability. The notion of the beginner’s mind is making the rounds, and it’s a good place to start. Instead of being emboldened by past ascendance, put aside preconceptions and be open to new information.