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Blitzkrieg (German, "lightning war"; ) is "a headline word applied retrospectively to ''describe'' a military doctrine of an all-mechanized force concentrating its attack on a small section of the enemy front then, once the latter is broken, proceeding without regard to its flank."
During the interwar period, aircraft and tank technologies matured and were combined with systematic application of the German tactics of infiltration and bypassing of enemy strong points. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Western journalists adopted the term ''Blitzkrieg'' to describe this form of armored warfare.
"''Blitzkrieg''" operations worked in the German invasions of Western Europe and initial operations in the Soviet Union. These operations were dependent on surprise penetrations (e.g. the penetration of the Ardennes forest region), general enemy unpreparedness and an inability to react swiftly enough to the attacker's offensive operations.
Only later, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, would the flaws of "''blitzkrieg''" come to be realized. In France and Poland, the foot-bound infantry had been, at most, a few hours behind the armored spearheads. In the vast, open Russian steppe, delays of hours would become days. The Allies, both in the West and the Soviet Union, would realise the failings of "''Blitzkrieg''" warfare.
There has been a great deal of debate about whether "''Blitzkrieg"'' existed as a coherent military strategy. Many historians now hold the position that "''Blitzkrieg'''" was not a theory at all, and the campaigns conducted by the German military in 1939 to circa, 1942 (with the exception of ''Operation Barbarossa'') were improvised invasions put together and modified at the last moment and therefore was not a proper military strategy.
In the past "''Blitzkrieg''" has also been hailed as a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). In recent years the majority of historians have come to the conclusion it was not a new form of warfare invented by the German military, but an old method of pursuing decisive battles using new technology.
[Citino 2005, p. 311.]
What is Blitzkrieg?
Common interpretation of "Blitzkrieg"
The classic interpretation of German tactical and operational methodology in the first half of the Second World War is deemed to be that it was a new method of warfare. The word, meaning "lightning war", was associated with a deliberate strategy of quick and decisive short battles to deliver a knock out blow to an enemy state before it could fully mobilize.
To do this the economy would not be fully mobilised to avoid disruption to civilian life as much as possible. Instead "superior" armaments and communications would achieve victory on the basis of quality rather than quantity.
The method of this so-called "''Blitzkrieg'' strategy", was to use fifth columnists behind enemy lines to disrupt enemy communications which would be followed by massive air strikes to paralyze enemy movement and defenses. The next phase of the assault envisaged an attack by a fully motorised and mechanized army which would initiate deep thrusts into the defenders strategic depths with the aim of encircling the main forces and destroying them to achieve a rapid, decisive victory.
Problems with the interpretation
There is a widespread belief in the English-speaking world that during the period between the two world wars the Germans evolved a new doctrine or concept which they termed ''Blitzkrieg'', and which they put into practice with devastating effect in 1939–41. Such a view has been accepted not only by journalists and popular writers (amongst whom it originated) but by some of the most eminent academic authorities. In an essay published in 1965, the then Captain Robert O’Neill, Professor of the History of War at the Oxford University, summarized with great clarity and conciseness an interpretation which appears already to have become the orthodoxy. Writing on ''Doctrine and Training in the German Army 1919–1939'' for a Sir Basil Liddell Hart O’Neill stated:
What makes this story worth telling is the development of one idea: the ''Blitzkrieg''. The German Army had a greater grasp of the effects of technology on the battlefield, and went on to develop a new form of warfare by which its rivals when it came to the test were hopelessly outclassed.
Some historians were prepared to go even further, claiming that ''Blitzkrieg'' was not merely an operational doctrine of the German armed forces but a strategic concept on which the leadership of the ''Third Reich'' based its strategic and economic planning.
Those who made the ''Third Reich’s'' military plans and organized its war economy appear rarely, if ever, to have employed the term ''Blitzkrieg'' in official documents. The idea that the German army operated on a "''Blitzkrieg'' doctrine" was vigorously attacked in the late 1970s by Matthew Cooper. The concept of a ''Blitzkrieg'' ''Luftwaffe'' was challenged by Richard Overy in the late 1970s and by Williamson Murray in the mid-1980s. The thesis that the ''Third Reich'' went to war on the basis of "''Blitzkrieg''" economics" was attacked by Richard Overy in the 1980s and Historian George Raudzens highlighted the many, somewhat conflicting, senses in which historians have used the word. Yet not only does the notion of a German ''Blitzkrieg'' concept or doctrine survive in popular consciousness and popular literature, it persists with many professional historians. Academic monographs continue to appear which purport to explore the "evolution" or "roots" of ''Blitzkrieg'', (such as James Corum's ''The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform''), a concept taken for granted and not clearly defined.
The origins of the term Blitzkrieg are obscure. It was never used in the title of a military doctrine or handbook of the German army or air force.
It seems rarely to have been used in the German military press before 1939. Recent research conducted at the German military historical
institute at Freiburg has found only two military articles from the 1930s in which it is employed. Neither article advocates any radically new military doctrine or approach to war. Both use the term simply to mean a swift strategic knockout. The first, published in 1935, deals primarily with food(and to a lesser extent with raw material) supplies in wartime. The term ''Blitzkrieg'' is here employed with reference to Germany’s efforts to win a quick victory in the First World War and is not associated with the use of armoured or mechanized forces or with airpower. The argument is that Germany must develop self-sufficiency in food supplies because it might again prove impossible to deal a swift knockout to her enemies and a protracted total war might prove unavoidable. The second article, published in 1938, states that launching a swift strategic knockout has great attractions for Germany but appears to accept that such a knockout will be very difficult to achieve by land attack under modern conditions (especially in view of the existence of systems of fortification like the Maginot Line) unless an exceptionally high degree of surprise is achieved. The author vaguely suggests that a massive strategic air attack might hold out better prospects, but that topic is not explored in any detail.
Another relatively early use of the term in a German-language work was in a book by Fritz Sternberg, a Jewish Marxist political economist who was a refugee from the ''Third Reich''. Entitled ''Die Deutsche Kriegsstärke'' (German War Strength), it was published in Paris in 1939. It had been preceded by an English-language edition of 1938 called Germany and a Lightning War. The German edition uses the term ''Blitzkrieg''. The book’s argument is that Germany is not prepared economically for a long war but might win a lightning war. It does not treat in any detail operational and tactical matters, and does not suggest that the German armed forces have evolved a radically new operational method. It offers scant clues as to how German lightning victories might be won.
In his book, ''The Blitzkrieg Legend'', German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser refered to the notion of 'Blitzkrieg' as "a world wide delusion". Frieser, in agreement with Overy, Cooper and others that reject the existence of a Blitzkrieg doctrine, argues that after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, the German Army came to the conclusion decisive battles could not be executed on a strategic level. This meant the idea of one early large scale offensive could not bring about a knockout blow. Frieser argues that the OKW had intended to avoid the decisive battle concepts of its predecessors and planned for a long all out war of attrition. It was only after the hastily improvised plan for the invasion of Western Europe in 1940 and its successful conclusion, which led the German General Staff to believe that decisive battles were not obsolete. It was only after the Battle of France German thinking reverted to the possibility of a Blitzkrieg method for the Balkan Campaign and ''Operation Barbarossa''.
Opposition to the existence of "Blitzkrieg"
The position of most academic literature regards ''Blitzkrieg'' as a myth. The notion the the ''Third Reich'' developed a ''Blitzkrieg'' strategy to achieve its total aims has been widely attacked.
Historians Shimon Naveh and Richard Overy reject the idea that "''Blitzkrieg''" was a military doctrine. Naveh states, "The striking feature of the ''Blitzkrieg'' concept is the complete absence of a coherent theory which should have served as the general cognitive basis for the actual conduct of operations". Naveh described it as an "ad hoc solution" to operational dangers, thrown together at the last moment.
Richard Overy also rejected the idea that Hitler and the Nazi regime ever intended a "''Blitzkrieg''" war. The suggestion that the German state intentionally streamlined its economy to carry out its grand strategy in a series of short campaigns in the near future was false. In fact Hitler intended to start an unlimited war, at a much later date than 1939. But the ''Third Reich's'' foreign policy had forced the Nazi state into war before it had fully prepared. Hitler's, and the ''Wehrmacht's'' planning attitudes during the 1930s do not reflect a "''Blitzkrieg''" method, but the exact opposite.
Historian J. P Harris has pointed out that the Germans never used the word "''Blitzkrieg"''. It was never used in any German military field manual, either in the Army or the Air Force. It first appeared in September 1939, by a ''Times'' newspaper reporter. Harris also rejects that German military thinking developed any kind of "''Blitzkrieg''" mentality.
In his book the ''Blitzkrieg Legend'', German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser also shares Overy's and Naveh's concerns over the myth of the "''Blitzkrieg''" economic and strategy. Moreover Frieser states that surviving German economists and members of the German General Staff have denied Germany went to war based on a ''Blitzkrieg'' strategy.
The myth of the Blitzkrieg Economic
The German armament industry did not mobilize until 1944, and this has led to some historians in the 1960s, particularly Alan Milward, to develop a theory of "''Blitzkrieg''" economics. Milward argued the German Reich could not fight a long war, so, it deliberately refrained from arming in depth to armament in breadth to enable it to win a series of quick victories. Milward alleged an economy positioned between a full war economy and a peacetime economy.
In fact this was completely contrary to Hitler's and German planners' intentions. It was their fear of the spectre of 1914 that emerged victorious in the conflict of goals between armament in breadth for a short war and armament in depth for a feared long war. The Germans were aware of the error of the First World War, and rejected the concept of orientating its economy geared to fighting only a short war. Hitler proclaimed to rely on surprise alone was "criminal", and that "we have to prepare for a long war along with surprise attack".
[Frieser 2005, p. 26.]
During the winter of 1939–40, Hitler decreased the size of the fighting manpower in order to return as many skilled workers to the factories as was possible. It was realised that the war would be decided in the factories, not a quick-decision "Panzer operation".
[Frieser 2005, p. 26.]
Throughout the 1930s Hitler had ordered rearmament program that cannot be considered limited. In November 1937 Hitler had indicated that most of the armament projects would be completed by 1943–45.
[Overy 1995, p. 195.] The rearmament of the ''Kriegsmarine'' was to have been completed in 1949, the ''Luftwaffe'' rearmament program was to have been completed in 1942 with a force capable of carrying out strategic bombing using heavy bombers. [Frieser 2005, p. 29.] The construction and training of motorised forces and a full mobilisation of the rail networks would not begin until 1943 and 1944 respectively. [Frieser 2005, p. 29.]
Hitler needed to avoid war until these projects were complete. Hitler's misjudgements in 1939 forced him into war before he was able to complete rearmament.
[Overy 1995, p. 195.]
The myth of a 'Blitzkrieg Wehrmacht'
The "Blitzkrieg method called for a young, highly skilled mechanized army. In 1939–40, 45 percent of the army was 40 years old, and 50 percent of all the soldiers had just a few weeks training.
[Frieser 2005, p. 29.] The German Army, contrary to what the "Blitzkrieg" legend suggests, was not fully motorised. The German Army could muster only 120,000 vehicles compared to the 300,000 of the French Army. The British also had an "enviable" contingent of motorised forces. [Frieser 2005, p. 29.] Thus, "the image of the German "Blitzkrieg" army is a figment of propaganda imagination". [Frieser 2005, p. 29.] During the First World War the German army used horses for logistics, 1.4 million of them, in the 1939–45 war it used 2.7 million horses. Moreover just 10 percent of the Army was motorised in 1940. [Frieser 2005, p. 29.]
Half of the German divisions available in 1940 were combat ready,
[Frieser 2005, p. 29.] often being more poorly equipped than the British and French Armies, as well as the German Army of 1914. [Frieser 2005, p. 30.]
In the spring, 1940, the German army was semi-modern.
[Frieser 2005, p. 30.] A small number of the best equipped and "elite divisions were offset by many second and third rate divisions". [Frieser 2005, p. 30.] Apart from the few motorised and Panzer Divisions, 90 percent of the German Army was not "a "''Blitzkrieg''" army. [Frieser 2005, p. 30.]
Old methods using new technology
"''Blitzkrieg''" was not new. The Germans did not invent something called "''Blitzkrieg'' in the 1920s and 1930s.
[Citino 2005, p. 311.] Rather the German concept of wars of movement stem from the examples of Prussia and the German wars of unification. [Citino 2005, p. 311.] The attempt to repeat the success of these deliberate, quick, and lively wars in the Schlieffen plan of 1914 failed. [Citino 2005, p. 311.] The ensuing ''Stellungskrieg'' had bled the German Army white. The appearance of the aircraft and tank in the First World War, often hailed as a revolution in military affairs (RMA), offered the German military a chance to get back to the traditional war of movement as practiced by Moltke the Elder. [Citino 2005, p. 311.]
The so called "''Blitzkrieg''" campaigns of 1939 – circa, 1942, were well within that operational context.
[Citino 2005, p. 311.]
The German army at the outbreak of war had no radically new theory of war called Blitzkrieg or called anything else. In essence the operational
thinking of the German army had changed surprisingly little since the First World War, indeed since the late 19th century. Nor, for that
matter, had German strategic thinking changed. The Germans had always had a marked preference for short, decisive campaigns. It was just that they could not generaily manage to achieve short-order victories in First World War conditions. What made the difference, transforming the
stalemate of the First World War into tremendous initial operational and strategic success in the Second, was partly the employment of a relatively small number of mechanized divisions, most importantly the Panzer divisions, and the support of an exceptionally powerful air force.
Roots of German military methods
Development of German tactical methods
President Hindenburg attends a guard of honor of the Reichswehr, 1926.
Reichswehr companies marching along the Wilhelmstrasse in honour of Hindenburg's 85th birthday, October 1932
German operational theories began to evolve immediately after Germany's defeat in the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles limited any German Army to a maximum of 100,000 men, making impossible the deployment of massed troops which had characterized German strategy before the War. Although the German General Staff was also abolished by the treaty, it nevertheless continued to exist as the Truppenamt or "Troop Office", supposedly only an administrative body. Committees of veteran staff officers were formed within the Truppenamt to evaluate 57 issues of the war. Their reports led to doctrinal and training publications, which became the standard procedures by the time of the Second World War. The Reichswehr was influenced by its analysis of pre-war German military thought, in particular the infiltration tactics which at the end of the war had seen some breakthroughs in the Western Front's trench war, and the maneuver warfare which dominated the Eastern Front.
Return to Prussian and 19th Century methodology
German military history had previously been influenced by Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred von Schlieffen and von Moltke the Elder, who were proponents of maneuver, mass, and envelopment. Their concepts were employed in the successful Franco-Prussian War and the attempted “knock-out blow” of the Schlieffen Plan in WW I. Following the war, these concepts were modified by the Reichswehr in the light of First World War experience. Its Chief of Staff, Hans von Seeckt, moved doctrine away from what he argued was an excessive focus on encirclement towards one based on speed. He advocated effecting breakthroughs against the enemy's center when it was more profitable than encirclement, or where encirclement was not practical.
Under his command, a modern update of the doctrinal system called ''Bewegungskrieg'' ("maneuver warfare") and its associated leadership system called ''Auftragstaktik'' ("mission tactics"; i.e., units are assigned missions; local commanders decide how to achieve those missions) was developed, which influenced German operational planning early in the Second World War. ''Bewegungskrieg'' required a new command hierarchy that allowed military decisions to be made closer to the unit level. This allowed units to react and make effective decisions faster, which was a critical advantage and a major reason for the success of "''Blitzkrieg''".
Von Seekt and opposition
Von Seekt also rejected the notion of mass which von Schlieffen and von Moltke had advocated. While reserves had comprised up to four-tenths of German forces in pre-war campaigns, von Seeckt sought the creation of a small, professional (volunteer) military backed by a defense-oriented militia. In modern warfare, he argued, such a force was more capable of offensive action, could be readied and mobilized more quickly, and would be less expensive to equip with more modern weapons.
The German leadership had also been criticized for failing to understand the technical advances of the First World War, having given tank production the lowest priority and having conducted no studies of the machine gun prior to that war. In response, German officers attended technical schools during this period of rebuilding after the war. The infiltration tactics developed by the German Army during the First World War became the basis for later tactics. German infantry had advanced in small, decentralized groups which bypassed resistance in favour of advancing at weak points and attacking rear-area communications. This was aided by coordinated artillery and air bombardments, and followed by larger infantry forces with heavy guns, which destroyed centers of resistance. These concepts formed the basis of the Wehrmacht's tactics during the Second World War.
On Eastern Front of World War I, where combat did not bog down into trench warfare, German and Russian armies fought a war of maneuver over thousands of miles, giving the German leadership unique experience which the trench-bound Western Allies did not have. Studies of operations in the East led to the conclusion that small and coordinated forces possessed more combat worth than large, uncoordinated forces.
Controversy over foreign influence
During this period, all the war's major combatants developed mechanized force theories. However, the official doctrines of the Western Allies differed substantially from those of the Reichswehr. British, French, and American doctrines broadly favoured a more deliberate set-piece battle, using mechanized forces to maintain the impetus and momentum of an offensive. There was less emphasis on combined arms, deep penetration or concentration. In short, their philosophy was not too different from that which they had at the end of World War I. Although early Reichswehr periodicals contained many translated works from Allied sources, they were rarely adopted. Technical advances in foreign countries were, however, observed and used in part by the Weapons Office of the Reichswehr. Foreign doctrines are widely considered to have had little serious influence.
British theorists J.F.C. Fuller and Captain B. H. Liddell Hart have often been associated with the development of blitzkrieg, though this is a matter of controversy. In recent years historians have uncovered that Liddell Hart distorted and falsified facts to make it appear as if his ideas were adopted.
[Naveh 1997, p. 108.] After the war Liddell Hart imposed his own perceptions, after the event, claiming that the mobile tank warfare practiced by the ''Wehrmacht'' was a result of his influence. ''Blitzkrieg'' itself is not an official doctrine and historians in recent times have come to the conclusion it did not exist as such:
It was the opposite of a doctrine. Blitzkrieg consisted of an avalanche of actions that were sorted out less by design and more by success. In hindsight—and with some help from Liddell Hart—this torrent of action was squeezed into something it never was: an operational design.
By "manipulation and contrivance, Liddell Hart distorted the actual circumstances of the Blitzkrieg formation and he obscured its origins. Through his indoctrinated idealization of an ostentatious concept he reinforced the myth of ''Blitzkrieg''". By imposing, retrospectively, his own perceptions of mobile warfare upon the shallow concept of ''Blitzkrieg'', he "created a theoretical imbroglio that has taken 40 years to unravel." The early 1950s literature transformed ''Blitzkrieg'' into a historical military doctrine, which carried the signature of Liddell Hart and Heinz Guderian. The main evidence of Liddell Hart's deceit and "tendentious" report of history can be found in his letters to the German Generals Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, as well as relatives and associates of Erwin Rommel. Liddell Hart, in letters to Guderian, "imposed his own fabricated version of ''Blitzkrieg'' on the latter and compelled him to proclaim it as original formula". Historian Kenneth Macksey found Liddell Hart's original letters to Guderian, in the General's papers, requesting that Guderian give him credit for "impressing him" with his ideas of armoured warfare. When Liddell Hart was questioned about this in 1968, and the discrepancy between the English and German editions of Guderian's memoirs, "he gave a conveniently unhelpful though strictly truthful reply. ('There is nothing about the matter in my file of correspondence with Guderian himself except...that I thanked him...for what he said in that additional paragraph'.)".
During World War I, Fuller had been a staff officer attached to the newly-developed tank force, and was instrumental in planning the 1917 Battle of Cambrai, the first large-scale armoured offensive. He later developed plans for massive, independent tank operations and was subsequently studied by the German military. It is variously argued that Fuller's wartime plans and post-war writings were an inspiration, or that his readership was low and German experiences during the war received more attention. The Germans' view of themselves as the losers of the war may be linked to the senior and experienced officers' undertaking a thorough review, studying, and rewriting of all their Army doctrine and training manuals. The UK's response was much weaker.
Both Fuller and Liddell Hart were "outsiders": Liddell Hart was unable to serve as an active soldier because of ill-health, and Fuller's abrasive personality resulted in his premature retirement in 1933. Their views therefore had limited impact within the British Army's official hierarchy. The British War Office did permit the formation of an Experimental Mechanized Force on 1 May 1927, composed of tanks, lorried infantry, self propelled artillery and motorized engineers, but financial constraints prevented the experiment from being extended.
Although the British Army's lessons were mainly drawn from the infantry and artillery offensives on the Western Front in late 1918, one "sideshow" theatre had witnessed operations that involved some aspects of what would later become blitzkrieg. In Palestine, General Edmund Allenby had used cavalry to seize railway and communication centers deep in the enemy rear in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918, while aircraft disrupted enemy lines of communication and headquarters. These methods had induced "strategic paralysis" among the defending Ottoman troops and led to their rapid and complete collapse.
A comparatively less-discussed development was the recognition by Allied industrial and political figures (rather than military leaders), that maintenance of momentum required new methods and equipment. The British Ministry of Munitions under Winston Churchill was seeking in 1918 to develop mechanical means of achieving this. They planned to construct large numbers of vehicles with cross-country mobility, but the war ended before their efforts bore fruit.
French doctrine was based on the "continuous defence". During World War I, even where defensive lines appeared to have been completely broken, such as during Operation Michael or the Battle of Amiens, the defenders could move reserves to the threatened sector by rail or motorized transport faster than attackers advancing on foot could exploit a breakthrough. Under Marshal Philippe Petain, French military doctrine concentrated on perfecting the defensive methods of 1918.
Colonel Charles de Gaulle was a known advocate of concentration of armor and airplanes. His opinions were expressed in his book, ''Vers l'Armée de Métier'' (Towards the Professional Army). Like von Seeckt, he concluded that France could no longer maintain the huge armies of conscripts and reservists with which World War I had been fought, and sought to use tanks, mechanized forces and aircraft to allow a smaller number of highly trained soldiers to have greater impact in battle. His views little endeared him to the French high command, but are claimed by some to have influenced Heinz Guderian.
[[http://www.charles-de-gaulle.org/article_print.php?id_article=20 1925–1940 : un officier anticonformiste - © www.charles-de-gaulle.org]]
In 1916, General Alexei Brusilov had used infiltration tactics and surprise during the Brusilov Offensive. Later, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, one of the most prominent officers of the Red Army of the Soviet Union during the inter-war years, developed the concept of deep operations from his experiences of the Polish-Soviet War. These concepts would guide Red Army doctrine throughout World War II. Realising the limitations of infantry and cavalry, Tukhachevsky was an advocate of mechanized formations, and the large-scale industrialization required. However, scholarly opinion states that "''Blitzkrieg''" hold little in common with Soviet deep battle.
The Reichswehr and the Red Army collaborated in war games and tests in Kazan and Lipetsk beginning in 1926. Set within the Soviet Union, these two centers were used to field test aircraft and armored vehicles up to the battalion level, as well as housing aerial and armored warfare schools through which officers were rotated. This was done in the Soviet Union, in secret, to evade the Treaty of Versailles's occupational agent, the Inter-Allied Commission.
Guderian in the Wehrmacht
Following Germany's military reforms of the 1920s, Heinz Guderian emerged as a strong proponent of mechanized forces. Within the Inspectorate of Transport Troops, Guderian and colleagues performed theoretical and field exercise work. Guderian claimed there was opposition from many officers who gave primacy to the infantry or simply doubted the usefulness of the tank. Among them, Guderian claimed, was Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (1935–38), who he alleged was skeptical that armored forces could be decisive. This claim has been disputed by later historians. For example, James Corum stated:
Guderian expressed a hearty contempt for General Ludwig Beck, chief of the General Staff from 1935 to 1938, whom he characterized as hostile to ideas of modern mechanized warfare: [Corum quoting Guderian] "He [Beck] was a paralyzing element wherever he appeared....[S]ignificantly of his way of thought was his much-boosted method of fighting which he called delaying defense". The is a crude caricature of a highly competent general who authored Army Regulation 300 (Troop Leadership) in 1933, the primary tactical manual of the German Army in World War II, and under whose direction the first three panzer divisions were created in 1935, the largest such force in the world of the time.
Another misconception, enhanced by Guderian's own account, that he was the sole creater of German tactical and operational methodology is also misleading. Between 1922 and 1928 Guderian wrote very few articles of barely more than a page or two concerning military movement. Guderian's ''Acthung! Panzer!'' (1937) relied heavily on other theorists such as Ludwig Ritter von Eimmannsberger, whose major book, ''The Tank War'' (''Der Kampfwagenkrieg'') (1934) gained a wide audience in the German Army.
[Corum 1992, p. 139.] Another theorist, Ernst Volckheim, was also used by Guderian, and wrote a huge amount on tank and combined arms tactics, and is not acknowledged by Guderian.
Guderian's leadership was supported, fostered and institutionalized by his supporters in the Reichswehr General Staff system, which worked the Army to greater and greater levels of capability through massive and systematic Movement Warfare war games in the 1930s.
Guderian argued that the tank was the decisive weapon of war. "If the tanks succeed, then victory follows", he wrote. In an article addressed to critics of tank warfare, he wrote "until our critics can produce some new and better method of making a successful land attack other than self-massacre, we shall continue to maintain our beliefs that tanks—properly employed, needless to say—are today the best means available for land attack." Addressing the faster rate at which defenders could reinforce an area than attackers could penetrate it during the First World War, Guderian wrote that "since reserve forces will now be motorized, the building up of new defensive fronts is easier than it used to be; the chances of an offensive based on the timetable of artillery and infantry co-operation are, as a result, even slighter today than they were in the last war." He continued, "We believe that by attacking with tanks we can achieve a higher rate of movement than has been hitherto obtainable, and—what is perhaps even more important—that we can keep moving once a breakthrough has been made." Guderian additionally required that tactical radios be widely used to facilitate co-ordination and command by having one installed in all tanks.
After becoming head of state in 1934, Adolf Hitler ignored the Versailles Treaty provisions. A command for armored forces was created within the German Wehrmacht; the ''Panzertruppe'', as it came to be known later. The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was re-established, and development begun on ground-attack aircraft and doctrines. Hitler was a strong supporter of this new strategy. He read Guderian's book Achtung - Panzer! and upon observing armored field exercises at Kummersdorf he remarked “That is what I want—and that is what I will have.”
Guderian's armored concept
Heinz Guderian was probably the first to fully develop and advocate the principles associated with blitzkrieg. He summarized combined-arms tactics as the way to get the mobile and motorized armored divisions to work together and support each other in order to achieve decisive success. In his book, ''Panzer Leader'', he wrote:
Guderian believed that developments in technology were required to support the theory; especially equipping armored divisions — tanks foremost, with wireless communications. Guderian insisted in 1933 to the high command that every tank in the German armored force must be equipped with radio.
Spanish Civil War
German volunteers first used armor in live field conditions during the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Armor commitment consisted of Panzer Battalion 88, a force built around three companies of PzKpfw I tanks that functioned as a training cadre for Nationalists. The Luftwaffe deployed squadrons of fighters, dive-bombers, and transports as the ''Condor Legion''. Guderian said that the tank deployment was “on too small a scale to allow accurate assessments to be made.” The true test of his “armored idea” would have to wait for the Second World War. However, the ''Luftwaffe'' also provided volunteers to Spain to test both tactics and aircraft in combat, including the first combat use of the ''Stuka''.
During the war, the ''Condor Legion'' undertook the bombing of Guernica which had a tremendous psychological effect on the populations of Europe. The results were exaggerated, and the Western Allies concluded that the "city-busting" techniques were now a part of the German way in war. The targets of the German aircraft were actually the rail lines and bridges. But lacking the ability to hit them with accuracy (only three or four Ju 87s saw action in Spain), a method of carpet bombing was chosen resulting in heavy civilian casualties.
Methods of operations
The Germans referred to a ''Schwerpunkt'' (focal point and also known as ''Schwerpunktprinzip'' or concentration principle) in the planning of operations; it was a center of gravity towards which was made the point of maximum effort, in an attempt to seek a decisive action. Ground, mechanized and tactical air forces were concentrated at this point of maximum effort whenever possible. By local success at the ''Schwerpunkt'', a small force achieved a breakthrough and gained advantages by fighting in the enemy's rear. It is summarized by Guderian as “Nicht kleckern, klotzen!” (Don't fiddle, smash!).
[Frieser 2005, pp. 156–157.]
To achieve a breakout, armoured forces would attack the enemy's defensive line directly, supported by motorized infantry, artillery fire and aerial bombardment in order to create a breach in the enemy's line. Through this breach the tanks and motorised units could break through without the traditional encumbrance of the slow logistics of infantry on foot.
In this, the opening phase of an operation, air forces sought to gain superiority over enemy air forces by attacking aircraft on the ground, bombing their airfields, and seeking to destroy them in air to air combat.
The principle of ''Schwerpunkt'' enabled the attacker to win numerical superiority at the point of the main effort, which in turn gave the attacker tactical and operational superiority even though the attacker may be numerically and strategically inferior along the entire front.
Having achieved a breakthrough into the enemy's rear areas, German forces attempted to paralyze the enemy's ability to react. Moving faster than enemy forces, mobile forces exploited weaknesses and acted before opposing forces could formulate a response.
Central to this is the decision cycle. Every decision made by German or opposing forces required time to gather information, make a decision, disseminate orders to subordinates, and then implement this decision through action. Through superior mobility and faster decision-making cycles, mobile forces could take action on a situation sooner than the forces opposing them.
Directive control was a fast and flexible method of command. Rather than receiving an explicit order, a commander would be told of his superior's intent and the role which his unit was to fill in this concept. The exact method of execution was then a matter for the low-level commander to determine as best fit the situation. Staff burden was reduced at the top and spread among commands more knowledgeable about their own situation. In addition, the encouragement of initiative at all levels aided implementation. As a result, significant decisions could be effected quickly and either verbally or with written orders a few pages in length.
An operation's final phase, the "Cauldron Battle" (German, ''Kesselschlacht'', literally ‘kettle battle’), was a concentric attack on encircled forces earlier bypassed by the ''Schwerpunkt'' attack(s). It was here that most losses were inflicted upon the enemy, primarily through the capture of prisoners and weapons. During the initial phases of Barbarossa, massive encirclements netted nearly 4,000,000 Soviet prisoners, along with masses of equipment, in these "Cauldron Battles".
Use of Air Power
James Corum states a prevalent myth about the ''Luftwaffe'' and its ''Blitzkrieg'' operations is that it had a doctrine of terror bombing, in which civilians were deliberately targeted in order to break the will or aid the collapse of an enemy.
[Corum, James. ''The Luftwaffe: The Operational Air War, 1918–1940''. University of Kansas Press. 2007. ISBN 0-7006-0836-2] After the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and of Rotterdam in 1940, it was commonly assumed that terror bombing was a part of ''Luftwaffe'' doctrine. During the interwar period the ''Luftwaffe'' leadership rejected the concept of terror bombing, and confined the air arms use to battlefield support of interdiction operations.
General Walther Wever compiled a doctrine known as ''The Conduct of the Aerial War''. In this document, which the ''Luftwaffe'' adopted, the ''Luftwaffe'' rejected Giulio Douhet's theory of terror bombing. Terror bombing was deemed to be "counter-productive", increasing rather than destroying the enemies will to resist. Such bombing campaigns were regarded as diversion from the ''Luftwaffe's'' main operations; destruction of the enemy armed forces. The bombings of Guernica, Rotterdam and Warsaw were tactical missions in support of military operations and were not intended as strategic terror attacks.
J.P. Harris states that most Luftwaffe leaders from Goering through the general staff believed as did their counterparts in Britain and the United States that strategic bombing was the chief mission of the air force and that given such a role, the Luftwaffe would win the next war and that:
The Luftwaffe did end up with an air force consisting mainly of relatively short-range aircraft, but this does not prove that the German air force was solely interested in ’tactical’ bombing. It happened because the German aircraft industry lacked the experience to build a long-range bomber fleet quickly, and because Hitler was insistent on the very rapid creation of a numerically large force. It is also significant that Germany’s position in the centre of Europe to a large extent obviated the need to make a clear distinction between bombers suitable only for ’tactical’ and those necessary for strategic purposes in the early stages of a likely future war.
Limitations and countermeasures
The concepts associated with the term ''blitzkrieg'' – deep penetrations by armour, large encirclements, and combined arms attacks – were largely dependent upon terrain and weather conditions. Where the ability for rapid movement across “tank country” was not possible, armored penetrations were often avoided or resulted in failure. Terrain would ideally be flat, firm, unobstructed by natural barriers or fortifications, and interspersed with roads and railways. If it was instead hilly, wooded, marshy, or urban, armour would be vulnerable to infantry in close-quarters combat and unable to break out at full speed. Additionally, units could be halted by mud (thawing along the Eastern Front regularly slowed both sides) or extreme snow. Armour, motorised and aerial support was also naturally dependent on weather.
It should however be noted that the disadvantages of such terrain could be nullified if surprise was achieved over the enemy by an attack through such terrain. During the Battle of France, the German blitzkrieg-style attack on France went through the Ardennes. There is little doubt that the hilly, heavily-wooded Ardennes could have been relatively easily defended by the Allies, even against the bulk of the German armored units. However, precisely because the French thought the Ardennes as unsuitable for massive troop movement, particularly for tanks, they were left with only light defences which were quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht. The Germans quickly advanced through the forest, knocking down the trees the French thought would impede this tactic.
The Hawker Typhoon posed a serious threat to German armour and motor vehicles during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
Allied air superiority became a significant hindrance to German operations during the later years of the war. Early German successes enjoyed air superiority with unencumbered movement of ground forces, close air support, and aerial reconnaissance. However, the Western Allies' air-to-ground aircraft were so greatly feared out of proportion to their actual tactical success, that following the lead up to Operation Overlord German vehicle crews showed reluctance to move en masse during daylight. Indeed, the final German blitzkrieg operation in the west, Operation Wacht am Rhein, was planned to take place during poor weather which grounded Allied aircraft. Under these conditions, it was difficult for German commanders to employ the “armored idea” to its envisioned potential.
''Blitzkrieg'' is very vulnerable to an enemy that puts a great emphasis on anti-tank warfare and on anti-aircraft weaponry, especially if the side employing blitzkrieg is unprepared.
During the Battle of France in 1940, De Gaulle's 4th Armour Division and elements of the British 1st Army Tank Brigade in the British Expeditionary Force both made probing attacks on the German flank, actually pushing into the rear of the advancing armored columns at times. This may have been a reason for Hitler to call a halt to the German advance. Those attacks combined with Maxime Weygand's Hedgehog tactic would become the major basis for responding to blitzkrieg attacks in the future: deployment in depth, permitting enemy forces to bypass defensive concentrations, reliance on anti-tank guns, strong force employment on the flanks of the enemy attack, followed by counter-attacks at the base to destroy the enemy advance in detail. Holding the flanks or “shoulders” of a penetration was essential to channeling the enemy attack, and artillery, properly employed at the shoulders, could take a heavy toll of attackers. While Allied forces in 1940 lacked the experience to successfully develop these strategies, resulting in France's capitulation with heavy losses, they characterized later Allied operations. For example, at the Battle of Kursk the Red Army employed a combination of defense in great depth, extensive minefields, and tenacious defense of breakthrough shoulders. In this way they depleted German combat power even as German forces advanced.
In August 1944 at Mortain, stout defense and counterattacks against the German flanks by the US and Canadian armies closed the Falaise pocket. In the Ardennes, a combination of hedgehog defense at Bastogne, St Vith and other locations, and a counterattack by the US 3rd Army were employed.
Although effective in quick campaigns against Poland and France, mobile operations could not be sustained by Germany in later years. Strategies based on maneuver have the inherent danger of the attacking force overextending its supply lines, and can be defeated by a determined foe who is willing and able to sacrifice territory for time in which to regroup and rearm, as the Soviets did on the Eastern Front (as opposed to, for example, the Dutch who had no territory to sacrifice). Tank and vehicle production was a constant problem for Germany; indeed, late in the war many panzer "divisions" had no more than a few dozen tanks. As the end of the war approached, Germany also experienced critical shortages in fuel and ammunition stocks as a result of Anglo-American strategic bombing and blockade. Although production of ''Luftwaffe'' fighter aircraft continued, they would be unable to fly for lack of fuel. What fuel there was went to panzer divisions, and even then they were not able to operate normally. Of those Tiger tanks lost against the United States Army, nearly half of them were abandoned for lack of fuel.
Operations in history
Despite the term ''blitzkrieg'' being coined by journalists during the Invasion of Poland of 1939, historians generally hold that German operations during it were more consistent with more traditional methods. The Wehrmacht's strategy was more inline with ''Vernichtungsgedanken,'' or a focus on envelopment to create pockets in broad-front annihilation. Panzer forces were deployed among the three German concentrations without strong emphasis on independent use, being used to create or destroy close pockets of Polish forces and seize operational-depth terrain in support of the largely un-motorized infantry which followed.
The understanding of operations in Poland has shifted considerably since the Second World War. Many early postwar histories incorrectly attribute German victory to “enormous development in military technique which occurred between 1918 and 1940”, incorrectly citing that “Germany, who translated (British inter-war) theories into action...called the result Blitzkrieg.” More recent histories identify German operations in Poland as relatively cautious and traditional. Matthew Cooper wrote that
He went on to say that the use of tanks “left much to be desired...Fear of enemy action against the flanks of the advance, fear which was to prove so disastrous to German prospects in the west in 1940 and in the Soviet Union in 1941, was present from the beginning of the war.”
[Cooper, Matthew. ''The German Army 1939–1945: Its Political and Military Failure''] John Ellis further asserted that “...there is considerable justice in Matthew Cooper's assertion that the panzer divisions were not given the kind of ''strategic'' mission that was to characterize authentic armored ''blitzkrieg'', and were almost always closely subordinated to the various mass infantry armies.”
In fact, “Whilst Western accounts of the September campaign have stressed the shock value of the panzers and Stuka attacks, they have tended to underestimate the punishing effect of German artillery on Polish units. Mobile and available in significant quantity, artillery shattered as many units as any other branch of the Wehrmacht.”
As Karl-Heinz Frieser points out, the ''Wehrmacht'' may have been only a few short weeks away from total disaster in Poland. Frieser states the German army and air force had spent most of its ammunition stocks and could not have fought much longer than they did.
Western Europe, 1940
The German invasion of France, with subsidiary attacks on Belgium and the Netherlands, consisted of two phases, Operation Yellow (''Fall Gelb'') and Operation Red (''Fall Rot''). Yellow opened with a feint conducted against the Netherlands and Belgium by two armored corps and paratroopers. The Germans had massed the bulk of their armored force in Panzer Group von Kleist, which attacked through the comparatively unguarded sector of the Ardennes and achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Sedan with air support.
The group raced to the coast of the English Channel at Abbeville, thus isolating the British Expeditionary Force, Belgian Army, and some divisions of the French Army in northern France. The armored and motorized units under Guderian and Rommel initially advanced far beyond the following divisions, and indeed far in excess of that with which German high command was initially comfortable. When the German motorized forces were met with a counterattack at Arras, British tanks with heavy armour (Matilda I & IIs) created a brief panic in the German High Command. The armored and motorized forces were halted, by Hitler, outside the port city of Dunkirk, which was being used to evacuate the Allied forces. Hermann Göring had promised the Luftwaffe would complete the destruction of the encircled armies, but aerial operations did not prevent the evacuation of the majority of Allied troops (which the British named Operation Dynamo); some 330,000 French and British were saved.
Overall, Yellow succeeded beyond what most people had expected, despite the claim that the Allies had 4,000 armored vehicles and the Germans 2,200, and the Allied tanks were often superior in armour and caliber of cannon. It left the French armies much reduced in strength (although not demoralized), and without much of their own armour and heavy equipment. Operation Red then began with a triple-pronged panzer attack. The XV Panzer Corps attacked towards Brest, XIV Panzer Corps attacked east of Paris, towards Lyon, and Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps completed the encirclement of the Maginot Line. The defending forces were hard pressed to organize any sort of counter-attack. The French forces were continually ordered to form new lines along rivers, often arriving to find the German forces had already passed them.
Ultimately, the French army and nation collapsed after barely two months of mobile operations, in contrast to the four years of trench warfare of the First World War. The French president of the Ministerial Council, Reynaud, attributed the collapse in a speech on 21 May 1940:
The truth is that our classic conception of the conduct of war has come up against a new conception. At the basis of this...there is not only the massive use of heavy armored divisions or cooperation between them and airplanes, but the creation of disorder in the enemy's rear by means of parachute raids.
In actual fact, the new technologies had simply been applied to the older strategies of ''vernichtungsgedanke'' and since "the once-mighty and confident Allied armies (found) themselves torn asunder in a matter of days, brushed contemptuously aside by a German Army, which, six years previously, had been only 100,000 men strong and denied all modern instruments of offence such as tanks and heavy artillery..." the governments of those nations were eager to find a reason for it. According to Matthew Cooper, the "Blitzkrieg Myth" was more palatable for public consumption than the notion that they had simply been outfought.
Soviet Union: the Eastern Front: 1941–44
After 1941–42, armored formations were increasingly used as a mobile reserve against Allied breakthroughs. The black arrows depict armored counter-attacks.
Use of armored forces was crucial for both sides on the Eastern Front. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, involved a number of breakthroughs and encirclements by motorized forces. Its stated goal was “to destroy the Russian forces deployed in the West and to prevent their escape into the wide-open spaces of Russia.” This was generally achieved by four panzer armies which encircled surprised and disorganized Soviet forces, followed by marching infantry which completed the encirclement and defeated the trapped forces. The first year of the Eastern Front offensive can generally be considered to have had the last successful major mobile operations.
After Germany's failure to destroy the Soviets before the winter of 1941, the strategic failure above the German tactical superiority became apparent. Although the German invasion successfully conquered large areas of Soviet territory, the overall strategic effects were more limited. The Red Army was able to regroup far to the rear of the main battle line, and eventually defeat the German forces for the first time in the Battle of Moscow.
[Frieser 2005, p. 351.]
In the summer of 1942, when Germany launched another offensive in the southern USSR against Stalingrad and the Caucasus, the Soviets again lost tremendous amounts of territory, only to counter-attack once more during winter. German gains were ultimately limited by Hitler diverting forces from the attack on Stalingrad itself and seeking to pursue a drive to the Caucasus oilfields simultaneously as opposed to subsequently as the original plan had envisaged. Even so, the ''Wehrmacht'' was becoming overstretched. By winning operationally, strategically it could not keep up the momentum as the superiority of the Soviet Union's industrial base and economy began to take effect.
[Frieser 2005, p. 351.]
In the summer of 1943 the ''Wehrmacht'' launched another combined forces offensive operation - ''Zitadelle'' (Citadel) - against the Soviet salient at Kursk. Soviet defensive tactics were by now hugely improved, particularly in terms of artillery and effective use of air support. All the same the Battle of Kursk was marked by the Soviet switch to offence and the use of the revived doctrine of deep operations. For the first time the ''Blitzkrieg'' was defeated in summer and the opposing forces were able to mount their own, successful, counter operation.
By the summer of 1944 the reversal of fortune was complete and Operation Bagration saw Soviet forces inflict crushing defeats on Germany through the aggressive use of armour, infantry and air power in combined strategic assault, known as deep operations.
Western Front, 1944–45
As the war progressed, Allied armies began using combined arms formations and deep penetration strategies that Germany had used in the opening years of the war. Many Allied operations in the Western Desert and on the Eastern Front relied on massive concentrations of firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armored units. These artillery-based tactics were also decisive in Western Front operations after Operation Overlord and both the British Commonwealth and American armies developed flexible and powerful systems for utilizing artillery support. What the Soviets lacked in flexibility, they made up for in number of multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortar tubes. The Germans never achieved the kind of fire concentrations their enemies were capable of by 1944.
After the Allied landings at Normandy, Germany made attempts to overwhelm the landing force with armored attacks, but these failed for lack of co-ordination and Allied air superiority. The most notable attempt to use deep penetration operations in Normandy was at Mortain, which exacerbated the German position in the already-forming Falaise Pocket and assisted in the ultimate destruction of German forces in Normandy. The Mortain counter-attack was effectively destroyed by U.S. 12th Army Group with little effect on its own offensive operations.
Germany's last offensive on its Western front, Operation Wacht am Rhein, was an offensive launched towards the vital port of Antwerp in December 1944. Launched in poor weather against a thinly-held Allied sector, it achieved surprise and initial success as Allied air power was stymied by cloud cover. However, stubborn pockets of defence in key locations throughout the Ardennes, the lack of serviceable roads, and poor German logistics planning caused delays. Allied forces deployed to the flanks of the German penetration, and as soon as the skies cleared, Allied aircraft were again able to attack motorized columns. The stubborn defense by US units and German weakness led to a defeat for the Germans.