General Heinz Guderian is best known as one of the leading practitioners of Blitzkrieg; his work in the invasion of France in 1940 is often cited as a classic example of armored warfare. In his case, however, he did not merely implement the tactics devised by others. He was one of the early champions of armored warfare in the interwar German Army, and laid much of the theoretical groundwork for the Panzer arm during Germany’s rearmament. Guderian, who served as the last Chief of the General Staff for the German Army, had also been one of the leading theorists of that army.
Guderian’s background predisposed him for such a role. Born on June 17, 1888, to a Prussian military family, he followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as a junior officer in a Jäger battalion. The Jägers were a form of light infantry, relying on speed and maneuverability to accomplish their objectives. Thus, his early training was founded on principles that would serve him later in creating the Panzer arm.
In the last years before World War I, he had been drawn into staff work, especially in conducting telegraph communications. This role, and other staff operations such as logistics, became his primary duties during the war as well. Such wartime service had two major effects on his future career. Firstly, it trained him in the use of technologies and procedures that would be vital to the task of creating and coordinating a modern mechanized force; secondly, it made him a specialist that the rump German Army of the 1920’s would need to retain.
That army took seriously its charge to defend Germany despite the numerous restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. The German General Staff, under its temporary new name of Truppenamt (Troop Office), always understood these restrictions to be equally temporary, and endeavored to keep abreast of all technological developments. Some day, they knew, they would be able to make use of those new developments, and so a considerable amount of research and development in all areas of weaponry was conducted in foreign lands at the tacit behest of the Truppenamt. Among these projects was a tank development program sited in the Soviet Union.
Even then, tanks were not yet a high priority for the German Army. While the Germans had experienced the capabilities of coordinated tank assaults in battles like Cambrai, the development of tanks had not rated highly during World War I, with only one design, the A7V, becoming operational at any scale. Half-hearted as this effort seems, it should not be surprising that tanks enjoyed little attention in the German Army after the war.
Guderian came to the subject indirectly. In 1922, he was tasked with the development of plans for motorized infantry. Essentially, the speed and flexibility of deployment by trucks was intended to serve as a force multiplier, and this project drew upon many aspects of Guderian’s prior service. By itself, this project did much to pave the way for German successes in 1939 and 1940, but it also impressed on Guderian the need for support from other mobile sources, including tanks.
During the rest of the decade, Guderian devoted much study to the use of tanks in other countries, including the work of J.F.C. Fuller, which was so influential for the Western Allies. He had no direct encounters with tanks until a visit to Sweden in 1929, but by then he had already familiarized himself with the capabilities and the tactical doctrines of tanks in other armies, and in this way he earned acceptance as the German Army’s tank expert.
In the early 1930’s, Guderian developed a working model for a mechanized battalion under the Inspectorate of Transport Troops; when a friend, Colonel (later General) Lutz assumed command of that Inspectorate, Guderian was named his chief of staff, and together they formulated the principles that would make such a unit functional. One of the key issues resolved by Guderian’s past experience was the question of maintaining command and control in a unit consisting of men inside enclosed vehicles. While it may seem self-evident today, the use of radios to enable a unit to remain in communication was an innovation at the time. When Germany went to war in 1939, every tank was able to receive orders through its own radio, and this was a novelty not shared in other armies.
The Army had endorsed the plans of Lutz and Guderian even before the Nazis came to power, but Hitler’s intentions to rearm Germany permitted the Army to do more in open fashion. Guderian, working under Lutz, remained at the center of armored development until 1935, when he was placed in command of one of the first three Panzer Divisions. Paradoxically, this gave him less direct influence over further development, not more, but he was soon given a new opportunity to place his mark on Panzer development: Lutz urged him to write a book.
The result was Achtung – Panzer! which was published in 1937. With a thoroughness characteristic of German scholarship, this work examined the history of tank development to that date and assessed its impact on the conclusion of the First World War. It paid close attention to the physical characteristics of each major tank design, with an eye toward demonstrating which characteristics should be emulated in the future. Only then did it go on to offer prescriptions for the organization and use in combat of tanks. Among his prescriptions, Guderian saw tactical surprise, concentration of forces and the intelligent use of terrain as the keys to success for a given panzer unit. He also emphasized the essential need for tanks to operate in close coordination with other forces, and predicted that it would not be long before direct combat with other tanks became a major feature of tank warfare.
In 1938, Guderian was appointed Chief of Mobile Troops. He commanded XIX Corps during the Polish Campaign, and went on to generate much attention for his part in the first offensive through the Ardennes, forcing his way across the Meuse river and separating Allied forces in France and Belgium from each other. After the fall of France, he was made a Colonel General (equivalent to four stars).
Guderian was given the Second Panzer Army in October 1941, as the Germans attempted to capitalize on their early successes in Operation Barbarossa. Guderian had been more aware than most in the German Army of the capabilities of the Soviet Red Army, and this awareness likely contributed to a more realistic view of what he could hope to accomplish. Now in the uncomfortable position of having his superiors’ expectations exceed his accomplishments, Guderian found that his straightforward way of expressing himself contributed to a stormy relationship with those superiors. Such conflicts included an argument with Hitler, and Guderian was fired on December 25.
Under duress caused by the disaster at Stalingrad, Hitler recalled Guderian, who wrung a further concession from the Führer by ensuring, for a time, some freedom of action to reform the Panzer arm, hoping to fashion his creation into a force capable of dealing with the new crises. Then, after the assassination attempt, Hitler fired the Army Chief of Staff, and he was persuaded to appoint Guderian to that role. In the long run, however, conflicts with Hitler continued to arise, and Guderian was never particularly diplomatic. After altercations in February and March, 1945, Hitler removed Guderian by ordering him on a medical leave.
In effect, this marked the end of Guderian’s career in active military service, although he had several more contributions to the intellectual legacy of the German Army and its traditional General Staff. After the German surrender, Guderian made a very positive impression on his American captors, and he was invited to participate in a project involving hundreds of German officers, documenting and assessing the activity of the German Army and its General Staff during World War II. Some of the participants seemed to hope that this could still be the basis for some kind of survival of a long and proud tradition, although in the event it was really more of a postmortem on the institution. Guderian played a significant role in all three components of the project, and he used his notes as the basis for his own memoirs, published in 1952 as Erinnerungen eines Soldaten (published in English translation as Panzer Leader).
Guderian is therefore a rare example of a single officer who performed transformative theoretical work in the creation of a military system, and then was in a position to assess the performance of that same system after its failure. In this way, he not only played an important role in the creation of Wehrmacht in World War II, but he also contributed substantially to the lessons learned from the experience of the Wehrmacht after the war.
Guderian, Heinz. Achtung – Panzer! The Development of Tank Warfare. Cassell Military, 2007
Ibid. Panzer Leader. Da Capo Press, 2001
Macksey, Kenneth. Why the Germans Lose at War: The Myth of German Military Superiority. Sterling, 2006
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
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