Understanding corrosion mechanisms is of importance for reducing the global cost of corrosion. While the properties of engineering components are considered at a macroscopic scale, corrosion occurs at micro or nano scale and is influenced by local microstructural variations inherent to engineering alloys. However, studying such complex microstructures that involve multiple length scales requires a multitude of advanced experimental procedures. Here, we present a method using correlated electron microscopy techniques over a range of length scales, combined with crystallographic modelling, to provide understanding of the competing mechanisms that control the waterside corrosion of zirconium alloys. We present evidence for a competition between epitaxial strain and growth stress, which depends on the orientation of the substrate leading to local variations in oxide microstructure and thus protectiveness. This leads to the possibility of tailoring substrate crystallographic textures to promote stress driven, well-oriented protective oxides, and so to improving corrosion performance.