Archive for September, 2004

September 12, 2004


When a decision is made in an organizational context (as opposed to a decision by an entirely autonomous individual), additional layers of complexity and emotion come into play. The person who must make the decision is often not the person who has the information/expertise on which the decision must be based. Indeed, the information and expertise are often distributed across multiple individuals. These individuals may have their own objectives and motivations, which may differ from the objectives and motivations of the formal decision-maker, and which may conflict with each other. And the making of the decision may alter power relationships within the organization, as well as influencing the phenomena about which the decision is ostensibly being made.

The above factors are illustrated with crystalline clarity in the story of a seemingly very simple decision, which had to be made onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer sometime during the 1950s.

Don Sheppard was the newly-appointed Engineering Officer of the USS Henshaw, with responsibility for its 60,000-horsepower turbine plant. But his knowledge of propulsion equipment came entirely from study at the navy’s Engineering Officer School. Reporting to Sheppard was the “Chief,” an enlisted man with no theoretical training but with twenty years of experience in the practical operation of naval power plants. When Sheppard assumed his new duties, the Chief’s greeting “bordered on rudeness.” The man clearly believed that engineering officers might come and go, but that he, the Chief, was the one who really ran things, who was the “Prince of the Plant.”

During maneuvers off the Pacific coast, a bizarre accident resulted in the Henshaw dropping a depth charge which exploded very close to its own stern. The shockwave was enough to knock down men who were standing on deck. Sheppard asked the Chief if he thought the plant might have suffered any damage:

He furrowed his brow, glaring at me. “Damage, sir? We’d know about any major damage by now if the plant suffered. i don’t think we got any problems, sir,” he answered–patronizingly–in a civil enough tone, but barely so. Who was I, an interloper, to dare question the Prince of the Plant?

But Sheppard remembered a movie he had seen in Engineering Officer School: it suggested that a shock like the one Henshaw had just experienced might have damaged the stern tube packing and the bearings through which the drive shafts ran. He mentioned this concern to the Chief, who discounted it with considerable sarcasm. “Maybe in some of them fancy movies it happened that way, sir, but nothin’s wrong here.”

Sheppard went to see the captain, and reported his concern about the possible damage. The spring bearnings could not be easily checked with the ship underway. The decision that had to be made was this: to check and possibly replace the bearings while at anchor, or to sail with the flotilla. The flotilla was comprised of eight destroyers, and the commodore was looking forward to having them all sail into Toyko Bay together. Furthermore, if Henshaw didn’t sail with the group, they would miss the rendezvous with the refueling tanker, and would have to refuel at an upleasant place called Dutch Harbor. But if they did sail and the bearings failed, they would have to be replaced while underway–a difficult and possibly dangerous task.

Legally and formally, the decision was the captain’s. But he knew little about the propulsion plant: it is doubtful that he really understood what the spring bearnings actually were. He had to depend on the opinions of his subordinates.

He asked the advice of those assembled for the conference. The Executive Officer said “sail.” The Chief recommended, “sail.” Now the captain turned to his Engineering Officer and asked very formally: “Your opinion, Mr Sheppard?”

What a dilemma the captain was in. Here, a junior officer with six days’ experience as a chief engineer is obviously wanting to pull out of the squadron sail and check all the spring bearings in direct contradiction to a professional, well-experienced engineering chief who’d been doing the job for twenty years.

If the captain said yes to the inspection and we missed the squadron sail, he’d look bad. He’d look even worse if he suspected they might be bad and they were, and they failed at sea. in rough weather he’d still be left behind and another ship would have to be used as an escort. The commodore had his dream set on his full squadron of eight destroyers steaming proudly into Toyko Bay. It hadn’t happened in a long time.

If I said we should inspect the spring bearings and the captain agreed with me, and the bearings were bad, it would injure the chief’s pride and his position in the engineering department. A wise-ass ensign would have shown him up, thereby throwing into question his professional ability.

If I said don’t sail and the bearings checked out okay, it would reinforce the opinion that officers stick together no matter how stupid the officers’ actions might be.

If I said don’t sail before a bearings check and we sailed anyway and the bearings failed, the captain’s competence would be called into quesion by the crew. He would have been wrong, and the word gets around the fleet mighty fat.

On the other hand, if I said we should sail, thereby taking a chance of a failure and the bearings were okay, it would just show my inexperience and that I didn’t really know what was going on. After all I had been a chief engineer for only six days. There would be little harm done.

Who is the real decision-maker in this scenario? The captain has the formal authority, but little relevant knowledge, either practical or theoretical. The Chief has the practical experience, but no theoretical training, and lacks the authority of officer rank. Sheppard has formal authority for the plant, together with theoretical training, but almost no practical experience.

Most likely, the true decision-maker is Sheppard. From the dynamics of the situation, I suspect that the captain would have done whatever he advised.

“Sail, Captain, I think they’ll be okay,” I answered, as the ship whispered to me that I was wrong.

As the ship whispered to him that he was wrong.

Henshaw sailed with the flotilla, and almost immediately came the report that Number 3 spring bearing was running hot. The starboard engine was stopped, and sailors began the arduous task of replacing the bearing. This involved sliding jacks under the shaft and lifting it up a few centimeters, then sliding out the 80-pound bearing and sliding a new one in. This had to be done as the ship pitched and rolled, while standing in icy bilge water. The task wasn’t complete when the report came that another bearing had failed–this time, the Number 2 bearing on the port engine. That engine had to be stopped also, and Henshaw was taken in tow by another ship of the flotilla. Sheppard pitched in with the work, and had his hand badly cut by protuding metal slivers. Others were hurt more seriously; one man had his right hand badly injured when Number 2 bearing broke loose, smashing his hand against the bearing foundation.

Glassy eyed from the painkillers…Smallwood held onto the throttle board, trying to keep his attention on the gauges. His head nodded. Chief Maclin sent him to his bunk. “I’m sorry, Smallwood,” he said, helping him up the ladder. “Goddamn, I’m really sorry.”

Chief Maclin turned to me, wiping a tear from his eyes, and without word or expression offered his greasy, bloody hand.

After everything was under control, the captain called Sheppard to his cabin for a debriefing on what had happened. First, he critized himself for the mishap that had led to the initial proble, the accident with the depth charge. Second, he criticized himself for not listening more seriously to Sheppard’s initial concerns about the bearings. But he also had something else to say:

“And third, Don, you, you’re a direct contributor.” My face dropped. I thought I was a hero. “If you thought you wre right–and you did think you were right–you should have put up more opposition, not roll over dead because of the obvious resistance of the three of us. I think, Don, that’s the greatest lesson for you to learn in this whole thing.”

The kind of political anaysis that Sheppard conducted before making his recommendation–what will be the effect of this alternative on my relationship with the Chief?..what will be the effect on the Chief’s image with his own subordinates?–is made every day by people in organizations, and must be made, given the realities of organizational life.

But while considering the political dynamics–don’t forget to listen to the ship.

(This story is from Bluewater Sailor, by Don Sheppard.)


September 11, 2004


The Heroism of Noor Inayat Khan

60 years ago today, a woman named Noor Inayat Khat was executed at the Dachau concentration camp. The name is not something one would expect among a roster of concentration camp inmates in 1944. She was not Jewish, nor indeed European. Although she had been in France at the time of the German invasion of 1940, she had escaped with her family to England, and could have remained there safely for the duration of the war. Why was she in Dachau?

Her story is one that deserves to be better known.

Noor (the name means “light of womanhood”) was the child of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Sufi movement, and his American wife. She was a descendent of Tippu Sultan, a prince who had been one of the most effective enemies of British rule in India. Strangely, she was born in Moscow, where certain members of the Czar’s court were interested in Sufiism. After the Revolution, the family moved to a suburb of Paris. Noor is remembered as gentle, shy, musical, dreamy, and poetic. She was noted for her kindness to animals, and it was to her that neighborhood children often brought an injured kitten or puppy. She attended the Sorbonne and became a writer of children’s books and stories; she broadcast some of her stories on the radio. (Her book, Twenty Jataka Tales, is still in print.)

As World War II approached, Noor and her brother Vilayat both decided that the urgencies of the situation overrode the pacifist principles of Sufiism. She studied nursing, against the wishes of her then-fiance, with the intent of assisting the wounded in the coming war. But the collapse of the French Army took place more quickly than anyone had expected, and she escaped to England with her family. There, she enlisted in the Royal Air Force and became a radio operator, skilled in the high-speed transmission and reception of Morse code.

Wanting to contribute at a higher level, she applied for a commission. The interviewing officer asked her about her views on Indian independence, and she became very vehement on the subject–saying, in essence, that she would be loyal to the British Empire while the war against under Hitler was underway, but that afterwards she would work for Indian independence. She left the interview feeling that she had lost her temper and ruined her chances.

She never found out if she would have gotten the RAF commission or not, because she was presented with another opportunity to serve. She was contacted by the secret organization Special Operations Executive, which supported resistance operations in France and other occupied countries, and asked to come in for an interview. SOE badly needed radio operators, who were sent into occupied Europe by parachute and light aircraft. The job was, of course, a very dangerous one: the Geneva Convention afforded no protection to secret agents.

The interviewer was SOE’s principal recruiter, the writer Selwyn Jepson. He was immediately impressed with her, but was reluctant to accept her for the job…telling her that she might be of more value to humanity if she survived the war and continued writing her children’s books. She indignantly rejected the suggestion. Jepson: “..with rather more of the bleak distress which I never failed to feel at this point in these interviews, I agreed to take her on.”

Noor was sent to an SOE training school. The curriculum included shooting, hand-to-hand combat, practice sabotage missions, and mock interrogations. While the waa no question about Noor’s technical proficiency in communications, concerns were raised concerning her overall fitness for the role of a secret agent: particularly her dreamy and absent-minded nature and her striking and easily-recognizable appearance. The training organization recommended that she be removed from the program, but was overridden by Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE “F” section, who believed in her capabilities. (“F” section was responsible for operations in occupied France.)

Noor had not learned parachuting, so her route to France would be via Lysander airplane. These planes were slow, single-engine craft which had the ability to take off and land in small fields. In mid-May 1943, an attempt was made, but the reception committee was not on the ground at the destination field, so the plane had to return to England.

On June 16–the next period with approropriate moonlight–Noor went again to the airfield in Tangmere. She was accompanied by Vera Atkins, the Intelligence Officer of SOE “F” section. At the field, Noor admired a silver bird pin that Atkins was wearing. Atkins took it off and handed it to her: “I want you to have it,” she said.

The plane landed without incident in a moonlit meadow near Angers. Noor and the two other passengers (both women) got out, and several people got in. The plane took off for England again. The three agents headed in different directions. Noor, as instructed, made her way to Paris. There she hooked up with the group for which she was to serve as communicator, an organization called PROSPER after the code name of its leader.

Very soon after Noor’s arrival, PROSPER was broken by the Germans, and a large number of arrests were made–Noor herself escaped only by a fluke. She and her radio now represented a vital communications link for the remaining resistance groups in Paris, and she was constantly on the move. She had many narrow escapes–on one occasion, she was putting up her transmitting antenna (a long wire) when a German soldier asked her what she was doing. She told him it was a clothesline, and he courteously helped her put it up. On another occasion, a German insisted that she open up the suitcase which contained her radio equipment. “It’s a movie projector,” she told him. “See all the little lights?” (referring to the vacuum tubes) Fortunately, the German evidently knew nothing about either electronics or film equipment.

Her luck did not last, however. In October 1943, she was betrayed and was arrested by the Gestapo. On her first night in captivity, she escaped, but was soon recaptured. She was offered better treatment if she would promise not to attempt escape again, but refused to make such a promise. She was interrogated for five weeks and evidently was not tortured, although the psychological pressure on her was very great. Finally, concluding that they would get nothing out of her, the Gestapo sent her to the civil prison at Pforzheim in Germany. The warden was told that she was a very dangerous prisoner who was to be kept chained night and day.

Some time in September 1944, a teleprinter message from Berlin arrived at the local Gestap office in Pforzheim. It directed that Noor, along with three other female agents being held in the prison, be taken to a “convenient” concentration camp and executed.

It’s reported that the women, not knowing where they were going but glad to be out of the prison, enjoyed their ride on the train.

At Dachau, they were locked up separately overnight. There is some evidence that Noor was brutally beaten–not for interrogation purposes at this point, but out of pure sadism. In the morning, they were led to the execution ground and were all shot.

After the war, the British government awarded Noor the George Cross, its highest civilian award for bravery. She was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

As popular writers and historians have studied the activities of SOE, disturbing questions have been raised about the fate of the PROSPER group to which Noor was assigned. Some have alleged that PROSPER was deliberately betrayed to the Germans by the British govenment as part of a higher-level disinformation plan. Others believe that the PROSPER debacle was the result of infighting between SOE and the traditional British intelligence services. It has been determined that there was a double agent in SOE France, and, after the war, some British officials seemed strangely reluctant to see him prosecuted. While the conspiracy theories seem unlikely to me, it does seem likely that PROSPER’s demise was influenced by Churchill’s decision to sharply increase the pace of SOE/resistance operations in order to deceive the Germans into thinking that invasion was coming sooner than it actually was. Many SOE records have been lost, and we shall probably never know the whole truth.

Selwyn Jepson, the man who recruited Noor into SOE, never forgot her. “…not only in the dark hours of solitude, but at unexpected moments of daytime activity, it is as though a shutter opens in a familiar wall which I know has no shutter in it, and she is there, briefly, the light filling my eyes. She does not haunt me, as do some of the others…she is simply with me, now and again, for a little moment.”

More information on Noor (including a wonderful picture) here, and on other female SOE agents here.

The Selwyn Jepson quotes are from the book Madeline, by Jean Overton Fuller. (“Madeline” was Noor’s SOE code name, taken, I believe, from the title of one of her stories.)