Blitzkrieg is one of the most recognizable terms to come from the Second World War. In everyday use, however, it has lost its connection to any recognizable military realities; it has become little more than a shorthand term used to explain why World War II was different from previous wars. There are, in fact, two possible meanings to the word: it can describe the practice of the German Army between 1939 and 1941, or it can be used to define a broader style of fighting that remains relevant for military planners today.
A clear understanding is necessary if any useful conclusions are to be drawn. John Mosier attempted to debunk the entire concept of Blitzkrieg in his book The Blitzkrieg Myth. Unfortunately, he characterized Blitzkrieg as a slavish devotion to the work of two interwar military theorists, J.F.C. Fuller and Giulio Douhet. Fuller’s ideas, which revolved around the use of tanks as an independent force on the battlefield, certainly influenced German military thinking, but they were never adopted wholesale; indeed, one of the keys to German success with tanks was the degree to which they were used in relation to the infantry and to tactical air support. Douhet’s theories, which concerned strategic bombing, were largely ignored by the Germans, and in fact only the British and American forces applied them to any substantial degree. This was not Blitzkrieg.
Blitzkrieg was not a term used by German military forces; it was, rather, a term that Hitler used in 1935 for political purposes. In its original context, it had little or nothing to do with German tactical doctrine, but instead, was meant to conjure up the threat of overwhelming force. When the German Army rolled into action several years later, journalists took up the term, and used it to describe (and partially to explain) the astonishing successes that the Germans enjoyed until the failure of the attack on Moscow in December, 1941. It took on the mystique of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
German military planners, on the other hand, would have characterized their tactical doctrine as Bewegungskrieg, or “war of movement.” This was the overriding principle that governed German thinking since the creation of the German Empire in 1871, and before that, it served the Kingdom of Prussia since the time of Frederick the Great. The Prussian, and subsequently German, military establishment had always needed to contend with a strategic situation in which its country could be surrounded by hostile forces that outnumbered it substantially. Their political masters tried to prevent such coalitions, but from time to time the military was faced with that challenge.
The German answer to this problem has been to field a force that was capable of moving much more rapidly than any of its enemies. Large bodies of men and supply tend to move slowly, and if a smaller, more nimble force can meet its opponents piecemeal, it is possible to defeat a larger enemy in the course of a larger campaign. Formulating the best way to accomplish this was the chief concern of the German General Staff for its entire history.
From the days of Graf Moltke the Elder, the best way to accomplish this was always held to be the creation of a Kesselschlacht, or an encirclement. If a larger enemy force can be cut off from supply and reinforcement, and trapped in an unfavorable position, it can be destroyed or forced to surrender. German planning revolved around means to create such a position. Under the leadership of Graf von Schlieffen, the pursuit of Kesselschlacht assumed a new imperative. To Schlieffen, the standard of comparison was Hannibal’s victory at the battle of Cannae. During World War I, the Germans came close to this in the battle of Tannenberg. While this success blunted the Russian invasion, it failed to knock Russia out of the war, and by the end of 1914, the Germans were faced with positional warfare.
The Germans adapted to this circumstance somewhat more quickly than the Western Allies, conserving their forces in 1915 and 1917 and making the best use of their defensive positions. German commanders never abandoned their belief in the power of Bewegungskrieg, however, and after World War I ended, the General Staff looked for ways to use new technologies more effectively in an effort to reassert their traditional doctrine.
Used correctly, tanks and planes offered substantial opportunities to do this. These elements, however, were denied to Germany by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. During the 1920s, Chief of Staff Hans von Seeckt pushed this thinking forward by secretly working with the Soviets, deep in Soviet territory. Germany produced some primitive tanks there, and tested them in coordination with infantry. In doing so, they produced a corpus of training techniques that would be adopted on a larger scale whenever the Versailles Treaty was abrogated.
This was only accomplished after the Nazis assumed power. As Germany rearmed, it was able to build the tools that would be able to put those training techniques into practice: fast-moving tanks capable of serving in the roles formerly filled by the cavalry and tactical bombers capable of acting in the role of artillery, which moves too slowly to keep up with rapid development. Reliable radio communication was absolutely necessary. Practical experience in the Spanish Civil War bore out many of the theories while also testing the usefulness of new weapons like the Stuka dive-bomber.
As practiced by the Germans from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the Battle of Moscow in 1941, Blitzkrieg involved tight cooperation among armored, infantry and air forces, allowing mechanized elements to break through narrow sections of the front, usually with substantial air support, and encircle local enemy forces. Successful Blitzkrieg campaigns were always accomplished with some form of strategic surprise. In the cases of the invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union, this was done by attacking a country with which Germany had been at peace until the attack commenced, but even in the attacks in the west in 1940, Germany was able to strike with surprise. Months of halfhearted fighting before the May 10 attacks in France and the Low Countries gave the illusion of a static front, and possibly, of German unwillingness to risk the renewal of trench warfare in the west. The use of the Ardennes Forest to screen German armored attacks and strike beyond the heavily fortified zone of the Maginot Line, contributed to the surprise that the German attack engendered.
After the end of 1941, the Germans had few opportunities to create the kind of surprise that Blitzkrieg requires, although they made a game effort in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge. In that case, however, the battle fell short of Blitzkrieg status mainly because of Allied air dominance.
There was another army in World War II that practiced a form of Blitzkrieg: the Soviet Army. Like the Germans, the Soviets developed their rapid offensive doctrine during the 1920’s; Mikhail Tukhachevskii was its primary planner. Called Deep Penetration Theory, this system relied on tightly-coordinated combined arms action on a colossal level. Unlike the Germans, the Soviets could count on outnumbering nearly any foe; thus, there was no effort to encircle pockets of enemy resistance, but instead, to overwhelm entire fronts and to take advantage of any breakthrough that resulted. In practice, the Soviets used their form of Blitzkrieg to great effect against the Japanese, first in Mongolia in 1939, and then across a massive front in mainland Asia in 1945.
While the specific circumstances of World War II are not likely to be repeated directly, military planners everywhere have drawn lessons from Blitzkrieg and found ways to apply them in future conflicts. The fundamentals are obvious: the use of mobile mechanical units and coordinated air support are required, as is the element of surprise. It should also be noted that Blitzkrieg is strictly an attack form. There are, however, additional points that must be considered. Units need to be deployed in such a way that they enjoy numerical superiority at the decisive point, even if the enemy has a larger force. The plan must proceed in a way that draws the enemy out of its own concentrations. As weak points emerge, the attacker must penetrate the enemy line and use this hole to funnel mobile forces into the enemy’s rear. Once forces have been committed into rear-echelon action, they must maintain a brisk pace and a high level of coordination in order to shut down the enemy’s ability to resist. Taken together, these principles define Blitzkrieg.
Citino, Robert M. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich. University Press of Kansas, 2008
Johnson, Rob et al. How to Win on the Battlefield: 25 Key Tactics to Outwit, Outflank and Outfight the Enemy. Thames & Hudson, 2010
Mosier, John. The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II. HarperCollins, 2004
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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