The British very nearly lost the Second World War.
Not in any big single battle, but in a fight that dragged out for the length of the war.
Britain is comparatively small and can’t feed its population.
Being an island, it can’t get any supplies via road or rail, everything must come by sea.
So stop the ships bringing food and the country starves.
And that’s very nearly what the U boats did, they sank 2,779 ships, that’s 14 MILLION tons.
The British formed the cargo ships into convoys, up to 60 ships for the navy to protect.
But a convoy has to move at the speed of the slowest ship.
This sometimes meant the entire convoy travelled at about 10 mph, an easy target for U boats assembled in wolf-packs of 12 or 15.
Royal Navy destroyers stuck close to the convoy and chased a U boat when it attacked, but that was too little, too late, fighting defensively wasn’t working.
In 1941, the British were losing 50 merchant ships for each U boat sunk.
And then Captain Walker had an idea (his crew nicknamed him ‘Johnny’ after the whisky).
This is the point where he changed the game by thinking upstream.
He said: “The problem is we’ve been thinking of the convoys as the prey. They aren’t the prey, they’re the bait. The U Boats are the prey.”
Walker’s attitude was very simple – if he could sink the U Boats before they sank any ships, he wouldn’t have to defend the convoys.
So he invented the hunter-killer group.
Until that point, the prime directive of the admiralty had been: “The safe and timely arrival of the convoy.”
‘Johnny’ Walker issued a different order to his ships:
“The object is to destroy U Boats, particularly those which menace our convoys. But our main object is to kill, and all officers must fully develop the spirit of vicious offensive. No matter how many convoys we may shepherd through in safety, we shall have failed unless we slaughter U Boats. All energies must be to this end.”
He knew he’d never find U Boats by searching all over the Atlantic, but he knew the wolf-packs would be attracted to the convoys.
And he knew they’d have to form up together before they attacked.
He knew the wolf-packs would be gathering ahead of the convoys and lying in wait.
So he knew where to find the U Boats.
All he had to do was get to the wolf-pack before the convoy did.
Hit them on the surface with bombs and gunfire, and when they dived with depth charges.
Which is exactly what he did, and in just one voyage he destroyed six U Boats.
His aggressive tactics were so successful that, by the end of the war, 781 U Boats had been destroyed along with 30,000 crew.
Which eventually allowed the Allies to win the war.
All because ‘Johnny’ Walker got upstream and changed the game.
So what can we learn from history?
Well simply, that’s how the best thinking works everywhere.
As Buddha said: “Act, don’t react”.
Get upstream and change the game.
Upstream thinking in business would include: how Volkswagen beat Detroit, how Avis took on Hertz, how Hertz responded, Alfred Hitchcock versus Hollywood, Rupert Murdoch versus Fleet Street, Steve Jobs and Apple, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, Phil Knight and Nike, and many more.
We can learn a lot by studying case histories like these.
Remembering of course that case histories are always written by the winners.
And winners always have the same motto: “Don’t play the game, change the game.”