Blitzkrieg (German, literally Lightning war or flash war) is a popular name for an offensive, operational-level military doctrine which involves an initial bombardment followed by the employment of mobile forces attacking with speed and surprise to prevent an enemy from implementing a coherent defense. The founding principles of these types of operations were developed in the twentieth century by various nations, and adapted in the years after World War I, largely by the German Wehrmacht, to incorporate modern weapons and vehicles as a method to help avoid the stalemate of trench warfare and linear warfare in future conflicts. The first practical implementations of these concepts coupled with modern technology were instituted by the Wehrmacht in the opening theaters of World War II.
The strategy was particularly effective in the invasions of Western Europe and initial operations in the Soviet Union. These operations were dependent on surprise penetrations, general enemy unpreparedness and an inability to react swiftly enough to German offensive operations.
Definition and methods
The generally accepted definition of blitzkrieg operations include the use of maneuver rather than attrition to defeat an opponent, and describe operations using combined arms concentration of mobile assets at a focal point, armor closely supported by mobile infantry, artillery and close air support assets. These tactics required the development of specialized support vehicles, new methods of communication, new tactics, and an effective decentralized command structure. Broadly speaking, blitzkrieg operations required the development of mechanized infantry, self-propelled artillery and engineering assets that could maintain the rate of advance of fast tanks. German forces avoided direct combat in favor of interrupting an enemy's communications, decision-making, logistics and of reducing morale. In combat, blitzkrieg left little choice for the slower defending forces but to clump into defensive pockets that were encircled and then reduced by slower-moving German infantry reserves.
Once the point of attack was identified, the schwerpunkt ("focus point," literally "heavy point" or "center of gravity"), tactical bombers, and motorized artillery units struck at enemy defenses. This avoided the setup time and revealing nature of field artillery setup. These bombardments were then followed by probing attacks to reveal defensive detail and allow most effective employment of the main armored spearhead and combined arms groups. The goals were deepest possible penetration and minimal engagement, while avoiding an enemy counterattack. Once the main force broke through the designated strike area, motorized infantry would then fan out behind the armored spearhead to capture or destroy any enemy forces encircled by panzer and mechanized infantry units, and to prevent flanking attacks. Less mobile infantry were designated for "mopping up" operations or to participate in the initial breakthrough.
Etymology and modern meaning
"Blitzkrieg" is a German compound meaning "lightning war." The word did not enter official terminology of the Wehrmacht either before or during the war, even though it was already used in the military Journal Deutsche Wehr in 1935, in the context of an article on how states with insufficient food and raw materials supply can win a war. Another appearance is in 1938, in the "Militär-Wochenblatt," where Blitzkrieg is defined as a "strategic attack," carried out by operational use of tanks, air force, and airborne troops. Karl-Heinz Frieser in his book Blitzkrieg Legende, who researched the origin of the term and found the above examples, points out that the pre-war use of the term is rare and that it practically never entered official terminology throughout the war.
It was first popularized in the English-speaking world by the American newsmagazine TIME describing the 1939 German invasion of Poland. Published on September 25, 1939, well into the campaign, the account reads:
The battlefront got lost, and with it the illusion that there had ever been a battlefront. For this was no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration—Blitzkrieg, lightning war. Swift columns of tanks and armored trucks had plunged through Poland while bombs raining from the sky heralded their coming. They had sawed off communications, destroyed animal, scattered civilians, spread terror. Working sometimes 30 miles (50 km) ahead of infantry and artillery, they had broken down the Polish defenses before they had time to organize. Then, while the infantry mopped up, they had moved on, to strike again far behind what had been called the front.
Military historians have defined blitzkrieg as the employment of the concepts of maneuver and combined arms warfare developed in Germany during both the interwar period and the Second World War. Strategically, the ideal was to swiftly affect an adversary's collapse through a short campaign fought by a small, professional army. Operationally, its goal was to use indirect means, such as mobility and shock, to render an adversary's plans irrelevant or impractical. To do this, self-propelled formations of tanks; motorized infantry, engineers, artillery; and ground-attack aircraft operated as a combined-arms team. Historians have termed it a period form of the longstanding German principle of Bewegungskrieg, or movement war.
"Blitzkrieg" has since been corrupted to express multiple meanings, in popular usage. From its original military definition, "blitzkrieg" may be applied to any military operation emphasizing the surprise, speed, or concentration stressed in accounts of the Invasion of Poland. During the war, the Luftwaffe terror bombings of London came to be known as The Blitz. Similarly, blitz has come to describe the "blitz" (rush) tactic of American football, and the blitz form of chess in which players are allotted very little time. Blitz or blitzkrieg is used in many other non-military contexts.
Blitzkrieg's immediate development began with Germany's defeat in the First World War. Shortly after the war, the new Reichswehr created committees, within the Truppenamt, of veteran officers to evaluate 57 issues of the war. The reports of these committees formed doctrinal and training publications which were the standards by the time of the Second World War. The Reichswehr was influenced by its analysis of pre-war German military thought, in particular its infiltration tactics of the war, and the maneuver warfare which dominated the Eastern Front.
German military history had been influenced heavily 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 attempted "knock-out blow" of the Schlieffen Plan. Following the war, these concepts were modified by the Reichswehr in the light of WWI 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. Speed gives surprise, surprise allows exploitation if decisions can be reached quickly and mobility gives flexibility and speed.
Von Seeckt 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" and its associated tactical system called "Auftragstaktik" was developed which resulted in the popularly known blitzkrieg effect. He additionally 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, faster to ready, and less expensive to equip with more modern weapons. The Reichswehr was forced to adopt a small and professional army quite aside from any German plans, for the Treaty of Versailles limited it to 100,000 men.
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 is a critical advantage and a major reason for the success of Blitzkrieg.
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.
Infiltration tactics invented 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 favor 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, 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.
During this period, all the war's major combatants developed mechanized force theories. The official doctrines of the Western Allies differed substantially from those of the Reichswehr. British, French, and American doctrines broadly favored a more prepared 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 outset of World War I. Early Reichswehr periodicals contained many translated works, though they were often not adopted. Technical advances in foreign countries were, however, observed and used in-part by the Weapons Office. Foreign doctrines are widely considered to have had little serious influence.
Col. Charles de Gaulle, in France, was a known advocate of concentration of armor and airplanes. His opinions were expressed in his book, "Vers l'Armee de Metier" ("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.
British theorists J.F.C. Fuller and debatably Captain B. H. Liddell Hart have often been associated with blitzkrieg's development, though this is a matter of controversy. The British War Office did permit an Experimental Mechanized Force, formed on May 1, 1927, that was wholly motorized including self propelled artillery and motorized engineers.
It is argued that Guderian, a critical figure in blitzkrieg's conception, drew some of his inspiration from Liddell Hart. This was based on a paragraph in the English edition of Guderian's autobiography in which he credits Liddell Hart. In opposition, it is argued that Liddell Hart, as editor of the autobiography's English edition, wrote that paragraph himself or, more broadly, that his influence on Guderian was not as significant as held. The paragraph is missing in other language versions. Fuller's influence is clearly recognized by Guderian. During the war, he developed plans for massive, independent tank operations and was subsequently studied by the German leadership. 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 fact that the German's saw themselves latterly as losers may be linked to the root and branch review, learn and rewrite of all Army doctrine and training manuals by senior and experienced officers, the UK's response was much weaker.
What is clear is the practical implementation of this doctrine in a wide and successful range of scenarios by Guderian and other Germans during the war. From early combined-arms river crossings and penetration exploitations during the advance in France in 1940 to massive sweeping advances in Russia in 1941, Guderian showed a mastery and innovation that inspired many others. This 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.
The Reichswehr and Red Army collaborated in war games and tests in Kazan and Lipetsk beginning in 1926. During this period, the Red Army was developing the theory of Deep operations, which would guide Red Army doctrine throughout World War II. 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.
Some precursors of Blitzkrieg style were used in the First World War–most notably by General Alexei Brusilov in Russia's Brusilov Offensive of 1916 and Britain's General Allenby in the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918. Both relied on achieving surprise; Brusilov by merely omitting the usual clumsy preparations, Allenby by laboriously painting a false intelligence picture for the enemy commanders. Brusilov pioneered the use of infiltration by small groups of specially-picked infantry to dislocate enemy artillery and headquarters; the Germans themselves used a variation of such tactics in their 1918 Spring Offensive. Allenby used cavalry to seize railway and communication centers deep in the enemy rear, unhinging the entire defense, while aircraft disrupted enemy lines of communication and thwarted counter-moves.
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. Realizing that armies based on horsed transport and relying on telephones for communications were not able to maintain an advance faster than the defenders could move reserves to a threatened sector and construct new defensive lines, 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.
Guderian into 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. There was opposition from many officers who gave primacy to the infantry or simply doubted the usefulness of the tank. Among them was Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck (1935–38), who skeptical that armored forces could be decisive. Nonetheless, the panzer divisions were established during his tenure.
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, or 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."
Heinz Guderian probably was the first who fully developed and advocated the principle of blitzkrieg. He summarized the tactics of blitzkrieg 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 this year of 1929 I became convinced that Tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance, My historical studies; the exercises carried out in England and our own experience with mock-ups had persuaded me that the tanks would never be able to produce their full effect until weapons on whose support they must inevitably rely were brought up to their standard of speed and of cross country performance. In such formation of all arms, the tanks must play primary role, the other weapons beings subordinated to the requirements of the armor. It would be wrong to include tanks in infantry divisions: What was needed were armored divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to fight with full effect.
Guderian believed that certain development in technology must be developed in conjunction with Blitzkrieg to support the entire theory; especially in communications with which the armored divisions, and tanks especially should be equipped (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 commitments 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 called the tank deployment "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 German Air Force also provided volunteers to Spain to test both tactics and aircraft in combat, including the first combat use of the Stuka.
Methods of operations
Blitzkrieg sought decisive actions at all times. To this end, the theory of a schwerpunkt (focal point) developed; it was the point of maximum effort. Ground, mechanised and Luftwaffe forces were used only 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 tickle, smash!")
To achieve a breakout, armored forces would attack the enemy's defensive line directly, supported by their own infantry (Panzergrenadiers), artillery fire and aerial bombardment in order to create a breach in the enemy's line. Through this breach the tanks could break through without the traditional encumbrance of the slow logistics of a pure infantry regiment. The breaching force never lost time by "stabilizing its flanks" or by regrouping; rather it continued the assault in towards the interior of the enemies lines, sometimes diagonally across them. This point of breakout has been labeled a "hinge," but only because a change in direction of the defender's lines is naturally weak and therefore a natural target for blitzkrieg assault.
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.
A final element was the use of airborne forces beyond the enemy lines in order to disrupt enemy activities and take important positions (such as Eben Emael). While the taking of the position does not constitute part of blitzkrieg, the disruptive effect this can cause in combination with earlier elements would fit well.
Having achieved a breakthrough into the enemy's rear areas, German forces attempted to paralyze the enemy's decision making and implementation process. Moving faster than enemy forces, mobile forces exploited weaknesses and acted before opposing forces could formulate a response. Guderian wrote that "Success must be exploited without respite and with every ounce of strength, even by night. The defeated enemy must be given no peace."
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 Kesselschlacht (literally translated as "cauldron battle"), was a concentric attack on an encircled force. It was here that most losses were inflicted upon the enemy, primarily through the capture of prisoners and weapons.
Effect on civilians
Blitzkrieg tactics often affected civilians in a way perceived by some to be negative—sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not. Whereas more traditional conflict resulted in a well-defined, slow moving front line, giving civilians time to be evacuated to safety, the new approach did not provide for this luxury. Furthermore, in the total war doctrine, civilians were explicitly targeted (as in the German bombing of London or the Allied bombing of Dresden), in an effort to break the morale of the citizenry of a country in order to frustrate attempts at production, and ultimately support for the cause over which the war was fought.
Operations in history
Despite the fact that the term blitzkrieg was coined 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 in line 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 Luftwaffe gained air superiority by a combination of superior technology and numbers.
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
…(t)hroughout [the Polish Campaign], the employment of the mechanized units revealed the idea that they were intended solely to ease the advance and to support the activities of the infantry…. Thus, any strategic exploitation of the armored idea was still-born. The paralysis of command and the breakdown of morale were not made the ultimate aim of the … German ground and air forces, and were only incidental by-products of the traditional maneuvers of rapid encirclement and of the supporting activities of the flying artillery of the Luftwaffe, both of which had has their purpose the physical destruction of the enemy troops. Such was the Vernichtungsgedanke of the Polish campaign.
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." 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."
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 Sedan with air support.
The group raced to the coast of the English Channel at Abbéville, 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 armor (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 his 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 almost anyone's wildest dreams, despite the claim that the Allies had 4,000 armored vehicles and the Germans 2,200, and the Allied tanks were often superior in armor and caliber of cannon. It left the French armies much reduced in strength (although not demoralized), and without much of their own armor 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 blitzkrieg operations, in contrast to the four years of trench warfare of the First World War.
North Africa, 1940-43
When Italy entered the war in 1940, a large Italian force faced the British Western Desert Force under Richard O'Connor on the frontier between Egypt and Libya. The British force included a substantial mechanized contingent, the Mobile Force (Egypt). The concepts of operations of the Mobile Force had been worked out by its former commander, Percy Hobart, a comparatively little-known theorist of armored operations. The British Commander in Chief in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, had been a staff officer under Allenby in Palestine and had extensively analyzed his operations.
In Operation Compass, launched in December 1940, O'Connor's forces effectively destroyed the Italian armies in Libya. The British mobile force several times outflanked and isolated the Italian front line troops, and ultimately drove across the desert to intercept and capture the retreating Italians at Beda Fomm. At this point, British forces were diverted to campaigns in Greece and elsewhere, being replaced by comparatively inexperienced units, and German armored forces under Erwin Rommel landed in Africa to reinforce the Italians. Rommel improvised a Blitzkrieg riposte which destroyed many British armored formations and drove the remaining forces back into Egypt, except for the besieged fortress of Tobruk.
From this point onwards, pure blitzkrieg operations played less part. The resulting battles in the open desert terrain have been compared to naval encounters, rather than land battles. The great distances involved imposed logistical limitations on movements, and made it difficult to seize any objective which would cripple the enemy's ability to resist.
The large British armored force which mounted Operation Crusader, the final attempt to relieve Tobruk in late 1941, had a vague mission which amounted to seeking out and destroying Rommel's armored forces. Rommel, having temporarily knocked out many British armored formations, did launch an armored raid into the British rear areas in an attempt to induce a strategic collapse among his opponents but this did not occur and he was forced to withdraw. Once again, British forces were diverted from the Middle East (on Japan's entry into the war), and once again the German Afrika Korps mounted a small-scale blitzkrieg counter-attack which recovered most of the ground lost in Crusader. Rommel's subsequent attack against the British rear at the Battle of Gazala failed, and nearly left his forces stranded and isolated. In the event, Rommel was able to restore his position, capture Tobruk and advance far into Egypt as a result of British failures at a tactical, rather than strategic level. Supply problems and stiff resistance at the El Alamein position, the last defensive line before Alexandria and the Nile, halted Rommel's forces. Rommel's last attempted blitzkrieg operation in Egypt, the Battle of Alam el Halfa, failed because the Allies had plenty of warning of his intentions through ULTRA decryption of German signals, and even "canalized" his advance into a head-on attack against dug-in British forces.
Most of the subsequent Allied offensives were set-piece battles, with little attempt at pursuit. Rommel had one final opportunity to use Blitzkrieg methods in Tunisia, when a spoiling attack launched at Kasserine resulted in the collapse of the American front. Denied reinforcements to exploit the opening, the Germans rejected the option to advance deep into the Allied rear. The Americans were reinforced and were able to rally, and subsequent German attacks were indecisive. The North African campaign ended with a final Allied set-piece attack which broke through the lines in front of Tunis.
Soviet Union: The Eastern Front: 1941–42
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 blitzkrieg 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.
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 instead of subsequently as the original plan had envisaged.
Western Front, 1944–45
As the war progressed, Allied armies began using combined arms formations and deep penetration strategies that Germany had attempted to use 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 response times or 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.
The Allied offensive in central France, spearheaded by armored units from George S. Patton's Third Army, used breakthrough and penetration techniques that were essentially identical to Guderian's prewar "armored idea." Patton acknowledged that he had read both Guderian and Rommel before the war, and his tactics shared the traditional cavalry emphasis on speed and attack. A phrase commonly used in his units was "haul ass and bypass."
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 defense 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 Allied aircraft were again able to attack motorized columns. However, the stubborn defense of U.S. units and German weakness led to a defeat for the Germans.
The terrain and logistical infrastructure in the areas of Asia in which Japanese forces were engaged presented far fewer opportunities for wide-ranging mechanized operations, but a few battles were noted for fast-moving attacks which resulted in the dislocation of the defenses.
In the Battle of Malaya in early 1942, Japanese forces with air superiority and spearheaded by a tank regiment, rapidly drove British Commonwealth forces back down the length of the peninsula, aided by outflanking operations launched from the sea. The rapid Japanese offensive into Burma spearheaded by tanks and motorised forces in the same year also caused the Allied defense to collapse, although disunity of Allied command was also a factor.
In the Battle of Central Burma in 1945, the British Fourteenth Army (enjoying air supremacy) launched an armored and mechanised offensive which captured the major communication center of Meiktila behind the Japanese lines by surprise. There was no strategic collapse, but the attempted Japanese counter-attack was made at a strategic and tactical disadvantage. The Japanese were forced to break off the battle and withdraw from most of Burma.
In Operation August Storm, the Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the Russians made their major attack via a route the Japanese had thought impossible for armored forces to traverse. The Russians very rapidly overran vast areas, and surrounded most Japanese forces in besieged towns. The Japanese were thinly stretched in static garrisons, and had very few resources with which to counter the Russian attacks.
Countermeasures and limitations
The concepts associated with the term "Blitzkrieg"—deep penetrations by armor, 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, armor would be vulnerable to infantry in close-quarters combat and unable to break out at full speed. Additionally, units could be halted by thawing mud or extreme snow. Artillery observation 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 Bitzkrieg-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 defenses 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.
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 was very effective against static defense doctrines that most countries developed in the aftermath of the First World War. Early attempts to defeat the blitzkrieg can be dated to the Invasion of Poland in 1939, where Polish general Stanisław Maczek, commander of 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, prepared a detailed report of blitzkrieg tactics and effectiveness with possible precautions for the French military based on his experiences. However, the French staff disregarded this report (it was captured, unopened, by the German army). Later, Maczek would become one of the most successful Allied armored forces commanders in the war.
During the Battle of France in 1940, De Gaulle's 4th Armor 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 (See Battle of Arras (1940)). 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 by the U.S. and Canadian armies closed the Falaise Gap. In the Ardennes, a combination of hedgehog defense at Bastogne, St Vith and other locations, and a counterattack by the U.S. 3rd Army were employed.
The U.S. doctrine of massing high-speed tank destroyers was not generally employed in combat because few massed German armor attacks occurred by 1944.
Although effective in quick campaigns against Poland and France, blitzkrieg could not be sustained by Germany in later years. Blitzkrieg strategy has the inherent danger of the attacking force overextending its supply lines, and the strategy as a whole 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). 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. 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.
Blitzkrieg's widest influence was within the Western Allied leadership of the war, some of whom drew inspiration from the Wehrmacht's approach. United States General George S. Patton emphasized fast pursuit, the use of an armored spearhead to effect a breakthrough, then cut off and disrupt enemy forces prior to their flight. In his comments of the time, he credited Guderian and Rommel's work, notably Infantry Attacks, for this insight. He also put into practice the idea attributed to cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, "Get there fastest with the mostest" (Get there fastest, with the most forces).
Blitzkrieg also has had some influence on subsequent militaries and doctrines. The Israel Defense Forces may have been influenced by blitzkrieg in creating a military of flexible armored spearheads and close air support. The 1990s' United States theorists of "Shock and awe" claim blitzkrieg as a subset of strategies which they term "rapid dominance."
It may also be argued that Napoleon Bonaparte used some form of blitzkrieg tactic when conquering Europe a century prior to the invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler.
Beginning in the 1970s, the interpretation of Blitzkrieg, particularly with respect to the Second World War, has undergone a shift in the historical community. John Ellis described the shift:
Our perception of land operations in the Second World War has … been distorted by an excessive emphasis upon the hardware employed. The main focus of attention has been the tank and the formations that employed it, most notably the (German) panzer divisions. Despite the fact that only 40 of the 520 German divisions that saw combat were panzer divisions (there were also an extra 24 motorized/panzergrenadier divisions), the history of German operations has consistently almost exclusively been written largely in terms of blitzkrieg and has concentrated almost exclusively upon the exploits of the mechanized formations. Even more misleadingly, this presentation of ground combat as a largely armored confrontation has been extended to cover Allied operations, so that in the popular imagination the exploits of the British and Commonwealth Armies, with only 11 armored divisions out of 73 (that saw combat), and of the Americans in Europe, with only 16 out of 59, are typified by tanks sweeping around the Western Desert or trying to keep up with Patton in the race through Sicily and across northern France. Of course, these armored forces did play a somewhat more important role in operations than the simple proportions might indicate, but it still has to be stressed that they in no way dominated the battlefield or precipitated the evolution of completely new modes of warfare.
Ellis, as well as Zaloga in his study of the Polish Campaign in 1939, points to the effective use of other arms such as artillery and aerial firepower as equally important to the success of German (and later, Allied) operations. Panzer operations in Russia failed to provide decisive results; Leningrad never fell despite an entire Panzer Group being assigned to take it, nor did Moscow. In 1942, panzer formations overstretched at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, and what successes did take place—such as Manstein at Kharkov or Krivoi Rog—were of local significance only.
- K.H. Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West.
- Time, Blitzkrieger. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
- James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 37.
- Corum, op. cit., 23.
- Corum, op. cit., 7.
- Corum, Edwards, and House.
- The Roots of Blitzkrieg, (James Corum, 1992), 39.
- Roger Edwards, Panzer: A Revolution in Warfare, 1939-1945 (London: Brockhampton Press, 1998), 23.
- Winston Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918, Vol. 2 (Odhams Press).
- Panzer Leader, 39-46.
- Heinz Guderian (trans.) and Constantine Fitzgibbon, Panzer Leader (New York: De Capo Press, 2002), 46.
- Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader, 13.
- Panzer Leader, 20.
- Edwards, op. cit., 145.
- Edwards, op. cit., 25.
- Barrie Pitt, The Second World War (BPC Publishing 1966).
- Matthew Cooper, The German Army 1939-1945: Its Political and Military Failure (1976).
- Cooper, Ibid.
- John Ellis, Brute Force (Viking Penguin, 1990).
- Steven Zaloga and Majej, The Polish Campaign 1939 (Hippocrene Books, 1985).
- Panzer Leader, 94.
- Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 (New York: Quill, 1965), 78.
- Richard Simpkin, Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare (London: Brassey's, 2000), 34
- Charles Winchester, The Demodernization of the German Army in World War 2 (Osprey Publishing).
- Jonathan M. House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (U.S. Army Command General Staff College, 1984).
- John Ellis, Brute Force (1990).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Chrisp, Peter. Blitzkrieg! 1990.
- Condell, Bruce, and David T. Zabecki (eds.). On the German Art of War: Truppenführung (Literal Trans: "Troop Leading"). Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2001.
- Corum, James S. The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform. University Press of Kansas, 1994.
- Deighton, Len. Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. 1981.
- Edwards, Roger. Panzer: A Revolution in Warfare, 1939-1945. London: Brockhampton Press, 1998.
- Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. New York: Da Capo Press, 2001. ISBN 0306811014
- House, Jonathan M. Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. U.S. Army Command General Staff College, 1984.
- Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Trans. Anthony G. Powell. Presidio, 1994.
- Mosier, John. The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II. HarperCollins, 2003.
- Sinesi, Michael P. Modern Bewegungskrieg. German Battle Doctrine, 1920-1940. Thesis submitted to Columbian School of Arts and Sciences of The George Washington University, May 2001.
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