The overwhelming tactics unleashed by the Nazis at the beginning of World War Two signaled a shocking advance in the art of warfare. The allies struggled to devise defenses against the blitzkrieg of the German military. Eventually, they were able to repel the Germans. However, the nations of the world learned a great deal from the blitzkrieg. This frightening tactic would be emulated and modified in the decades to come. As the Blitzkrieg inspired fear in its opponents, it also eventually inspired overconfidence in the Germans.
Many of the nations that the Germans attacked in the first years had antiquated militaries and were ill prepared for the onslaught of the German Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. In the first years of the conflict, the Luftwaffe seemed both omnipresent and nearly invincible as it fought on fronts as distant as North Africa and Northern Russia. 1 The Allies would be forced by the Blitzkrieg to rapidly retool their militaries and their military strategies. In the mean time, the Blitzkrieg would cause devastation across Europe. War in the early 20th Century World War One served as a major turning point in the conduct of warfare.
Prior to this war, the idea of honor for ones opponent still existed to a certain degree. Many commanders frowned upon sneak attacks and civilian casualties. By 1914, the technology of weaponry had advanced significantly. It was now possible to kill large numbers of 1. Dale Brown (ed. ). The Luftwaffe. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1982. (16). soldiers easily. The tremendous number of casualties eliminated any sense of battlefield chivalry that remained. The machine gun, deadly gases, air power and more accurate and deadly shells resulted in unprecedented casualties.
Yet, neither side was gaining any substantial ground. The war settled into a deadly stalemate in which soldiers were routinely sacrificed in large numbers with little hope of gain. With the exit of the newly formed Soviet Union and the entry of the United States into the conflict it became clear that Germany would run out of manpower before the allies. The eventual peace levied a punitive price on Germany. The nation was forced to accept full blame for the war, change its form of government, pay reparations and reduce the size of its military.
Feeling the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, the Germans who would later come to power were determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. After World War One, a committee was formed to assess war issues and strategies. It was decided that strategies emphasizing maneuver and surprise would be necessary in the future. Carl von Clausewitz and other German military theoreticians had successfully used such tactics in prior wars. 2 The new German command would draw on these principles, and merge them with rapidly advancing military technology. The Germans knew that, for them, a war of attrition was unwinnable.
Yet, there were some who wanted to avenge the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. The Nazis only held a minority in the Reichstag, but Hitler managed to maneuver his way into absolute power. From the early 1930’s, the Germans violated the terms of the treaty and rebuilt 2. Larry H. Addington. The Pattern of War Since the Eighteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. their military to frightening levels. Military leaders, such as Goring and Himmler studied the theories of J. F. C. Fuller and Liddell Hart in order to craft military strategies that took advantage of cutting edge technology.
3 Shades of the future could be seen even before the end of World War One. The Germans used Blitzkrieg-like attacks in Russia and in France during 1918. By that time, however, attrition had decimated the German forces and they were ultimately unable to capitalize upon these successes. What is Blitzkrieg? Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War” was a startling advance on warfare first used comprehensively in the Nazi attack of Poland in 1939. The tactic was used extensively in the following years. The Blitzkrieg provided great success for the regime throughout Europe, in North Africa, and initially in Russia.
The term “Blitzkrieg” is now a general term used to describe a variety of military actions. In all cases, it is a well-planned, widespread attack used to decimate the enemy’s defenses swiftly. In World War Two, the Nazi blitzkriegs often consisted of a specific sequence of actions. Any definition of Blitzkrieg should include the following elements: a decentralized command structure, the avoidance of combat in favor of targeting infrastructure, the use of air support, and the use of mobile, mechanized artillery. Engineering assets must also be prevalent in order to keep the force moving quickly.
4 3. Kenneth Macksey. Guderian: Panzer General. London: Greenhill Books, 2003 4. Alexander B. Rossino. Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg Ideology and Atrocity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. The term itself came into use in the mid 1930’s, although elements of the strategy had been around for centuries. It came into widespread use after Time magazine used it to describe the German attack on Poland in 1939. First, infrastructure, communications, and the front and back line troops are attacked by air. Any air forces were to be neutralized immediately.
This is done by heavy, concentrated bombing sorties. The goal was to effectively blind the enemy and gain air superiority. Following closely behind, tank divisions break through and advance quickly. Other mechanized units follow the tanks, engaging the enemy and establishing strategic strongholds. Communication is critical for such an attack. Advances in radio technology allowed the Germans to create a seamless network in which commanders could receive, and react to, real time information from any sector of the battlefield. Meanwhile, the infantry is engaging the enemy forces.
Those forces are then unable to pull back and defend against the fast-moving mechanized forces. The enemy flanks are also attacked. Ground forces continue the process of encircling the enemy forces, while the tank units plunge ever further into enemy territory. The highly concentrated, fierce attacks often caught enemies off-guard. The mechanized units advanced at such a rate that they were able to continually out flank defenders. Often within weeks the enemy forces would be circled and cut of from reinforcements. To enhance the effectiveness of these attacks, the Germans usually did not declare war.
In some cases, Hitler had even made non-aggression pacts with countries he later attacked. Unleashing the new war machine The Nazi war plan was the product of years of preparation. Although the Blitzkrieg is a name specifically describing actions that began in 1939, the Nazis had already experimented with the idea prior to the war. The Spanish civil war of the late 1930’s provided a proving ground, of sorts, for a new theory of war. German high command participated in the war, evaluating and honing tactics for the larger conflict to come. According to Dale M Brown in The Luftwaffe:
The eruption of that conflict in 1936 had been welcomed by Hitler and his Generals as a heaven sent opportunity for the young German air force to test its planes, train its air crews and develop new fighting techniques under modern battle conditions. 5 In 1939, the Nazi government manufactured a border dispute with neighboring Poland. The Polish army was accused of entering German territory and committing murder. Coincidentally enough, German forces were already poised at the border and ready for an offensive attack. What would occur next would come to be known as the Blitzkrieg.
Poland and the other European nations were ill-prepared for the German onslaught. German forces poured in to Poland with lightning speed, while the Luftwaffe quickly neutralized the Polish Air Force. The Blitzkrieg had achieved its first major success. Edwin P. Holt writes in Angels of Death: Goring’s Luftwaffe: The effect was terrible. In minutes the roads were scenes of devastation and carnage. It was a case of a modern war machine 5. Dale Brown (ed. ). The Luftwaffe. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1982. (19). fighting a nineteenth-century army. 6 The speed of the attack was unprecedented.
It was both physically and psychologically devastating for the Polish populace. Centers of population thought safely within the country’s interior were now reachable in a matter of days. The stunning attacks struck fear into both the civilian and military population. This, in fact, was a critical part of the Blitzkrieg plan. A population that feels utterly vulnerable is likely to submit quickly. The eyewitnesstohistory. com website provides a diary entry fro a German tank commander. He writes of the later French campaign: The people in the houses were rudely awoken by the din of our tanks,
the clatter and roar of tracks and engines. Troops lay bivouacked beside the road…Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror lay huddled in the ditches. 7 The Blitzkrieg later used against the French would be ruthlessly efficient. Historians disagree as to whether the Polish campaign was technically a Blitzkrieg, citing many of its conventional elements. It has come to be known as the beginning of Blitzkrieg none the less. It was devastatingly fast, and nearly impossible to defend against. The Polish defenders fought valiantly, but they were over matched.
Polish troops repeatedly charged the German tanks in what amounted to a suicide mission. Nazi commanders, secure in their tanks spoke arrogantly of the Polish campaign. In Tank, Patrick Wright described the Nazi’s attitude: 6. Edwin P. Hoyt. Angels of Death: Goring’s Luftwaffe. New York: Forge, 1994. (146). 7. Ibis Communications Inc. “Blitzkrieg: 1940. ” 2002. http://eyewitnesstohistory. com/pfblitzkrieg. htm . Accessed 22 December 2006. Hitler’s tank General, Heinz Guderian, claimed that the Polish Lancers took this desperate step “In ignorance of the nature of our tanks” and
suffered “tremendous losses” as a consequence. 8 After the successful campaign against the Poles, the Nazi regime turned its sights toward the other neighboring countries. Some of them, intimidated by the Blitzkrieg, fell without a fight. Others were quickly overwhelmed by the ever more efficient blitz tactics. Before the end of 1940, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium had all fallen into German hands. With military confidence at an all-time high, Hitler unleashed the blitz on Russia in 1941. In short order, German troops surrounded Moscow and Leningrad.
In the East, Hitler stood triumphantly in Paris. France had been conquered in less than two months. After the First World War, the French had constructed a system of border defenses called the Maginot Line. It was thought that this line could prevent any invasion, or at least delay it long enough for defenders to assemble. The Germans studied the line intensively and found its weak points. This illustrates the theory of schwerpunkt – a maximum concentration of integrated forces at one focal area. 9 From there, mechanized forces could get behind, and eventually encircle defenders.
Ultimately, the Maginot line could not stand up to the much-advanced German tanks and artillery. Mechanized units plunged through the line, fanned out, and quickly drove remaining French forces underground. The process would be repeated many times throughout Europe. 8. Patrick Wright. Tank: the progress of a monstrous war machine. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. (232) 9. Bryan Perrett and John Hacket. A History of Blitzkrieg. New York: Stein and Day, 1984. German forces under Gen Erwin Rommel also used Blitzkrieg tactics in North Africa. Initially, they faced little resistance.
Deception was often a part of the North African version of Blitzkrieg. Tanks and the Luftwaffe were still the spearheads of the attack, but Rommel also used the natural elements to his advantage. From The War in the Desert by Richard Collier: Behind them [the tanks] groaned trucks whose drivers were doing their best to obey Rommel’s order: “Rear vehicles to raise dust – Nothing but dust. ” 10 Small deceptions such as this allowed the Germans to stretch their forces farther than otherwise possible. The Germans streaked across the desert, acquiring strategic positions and valuable natural resources.
The allies had seen the devastating Blitzkrieg in Europe and now they faced a foe of unknown strength in Africa. That was how the Germans wanted it. From The War in the Desert: It was becoming increasingly clear that the enemy believed us to be far stronger than we actually were, Rommel said, “A belief that was essential to maintain. 11 In addition, the bombing of London is commonly referred to as “the Blitz”. From the perspective of those being bombed, this is understandable. Militarily, however, these attacks did not meet the technical definition of Blitzkrieg.
Still, the whistle of the dive- bombing German Stukas provided the intimidation that could have made a later invasion easier. 10. Richard Collier. The War in the Desert. Alex. , VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. (64). 11. Richard Collier. The War in the Desert. Alex. , VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. (65). A key aspect of Blitzkrieg is the integration of all branches of the military in a well-coordinated attack. Air power was still relatively new to the battlefield. It had existed in WWI. Initially, balloons had been used for reconnaissance and occasional bombing. Later in the war, fighter aircraft were developed to the point of effectiveness.
Strategy, however, was in its infancy. Using air power in concert with the army was rare and often ineffective. The Nazi’s were innovative in using the rapidly developing flight technology to its best advantage. If air power was important to the success of the blitzkrieg, the tank was critical. The mobility, firepower and defenses of the tank were substantially better than their WWI counterparts, due mainly to the innovation of the Germans. In World War One the tank was still relatively new. It showed potential as an offensive weapon, but it had many problems as well.
WWI tanks frequently got stuck, broke down or were sabotaged. Some were very lightly armored. By the end of the war, the Germans had realized that the tank was ineffective in a stalemate situation. However, it showed great promise in swift, mobile attacks. Some of Germany’s potential foes also realized the military potential of mechanized warfare. British generals, including Sir Basil Liddell, were simultaneously developing the strategy of mechanized warfare. George Parada writes: They all postulated that tanks could not only seize ground by brute strength, but could also be the central factor in a new strategy of warfare….
All of them found the tank to be the ultimate weapon. 12 Speed was the central aspect to the Blitzkrieg. The Nazi’s had to cut off 12. George Parada. “The Concept of Blitzkrieg: Achtung Panzer. ” 1996. http://www. achtungpanzer. com/blitz. htm . Accessed 23 December 2006. reinforcements and prevent enemy troops from regrouping to be successful. All of the actions of the Blitzkrieg were aimed toward those ends. Technological advances allowed for that speed. If the first wave of potential defenders could not be completely destroyed, at the logistics and communication that support those defenders could be interrupted.
Further reinforcements would then have a difficult time catching up to the speedy German attack. The differences in military hardware between WWI and WWII are stark. Aircraft, for example, had become many times faster and more deadly. Tanks, also, were far more powerful and mobile than in the First World War. The changes in strategy that created the Blitzkrieg soon followed. From the eyewitnesstohistory. com website: This was a new kind of warfare integrating tanks, air power, artillery and motorized infantry into a steel juggernaut emphasizing speedy movement and maximization of battlefield opportunities. 13
The end of the Blitz? The success of the Blitzkrieg was reliant on many factors. For years, the Germans had been planning out every detail of their actions. One critical element, however, was beyond their control. The lack of enemy preparedness was as important as anything the Germans did in the attacks. As the war dragged on, German resources waned and the preparedness of the Allies increased. The blitz proved to be devastatingly effective against Germany’s European neighbors. Most were overrun within weeks. The blitz had its limitations, though. When the Nazi’s attacked the Soviet Union success appeared imminent.
Russia is a massive 13. Ibis Communications Inc. “Blitzkrieg: 1940. ” 2002. http://eyewitnesstohistory. com/pfblitzkrieg. htm . Accessed 22 December 2006. landmass with a vast amount of resources and often severe weather conditions. These forces would spread the German military too thin, and eventually turn it back. In the West, the English Channel provided a natural barrier against the Germans. The same fast, well-coordinated and overwhelming attacks that had brought great success in Europe were simply not possible against Great Britain. Germany was never able to gain air superiority over England and never launched an invasion.
By 1944 the Blitzkrieg attacks had run their course. The Soviets had outlasted the Germans on the Eastern front. In the east, the Americans had joined Allied forces for the successful D-Day invasion. On the defensive, Germany was no longer able to mount massive blitz attacks. During their retreat, they were able to perform one final coordinated attack, at the Ardennes in France. The Blitzkrieg was undoubtedly effective in the early going. The stealth and speed of the attacks allowed the Germans to quickly conquer territories that might not have been possible with conventional tactics.
As effective as it was, the Blitzkrieg could not counteract one maxim of conventional warfare – The side with the most resources will eventually win. The Germans simply could not match the resources the Allies could muster. The element of surprise was also gone by 1943. In the face of overwhelming force, the Blitzkrieg was neutralized. Pointing toward the future The Blitzkrieg advanced warfare to shocking levels. At least in the early going the Germans were successful in avoiding long wars of attrition. The Blitzkrieg also provided an intimidating image in which civilians were often in the crosshairs of the war machine.
From Tank by Patrick Wright: …the image converts the opening weeks of the Second World War into a collision between eras; petrol against muscle, faceless mechanized power against personal valour. 14 It was a rude awakening to a new era of warfare. Killing was now impersonal in many cases. It could now be done from great distances in any conditions. Te days of two armies warring endlessly along a well-defined front were over. The Germans cannot be given all of the credit for developing what would become the Blitzkrieg. Mobile warfare had, in fact, been around for centuries.
German commander Guderian and others gave credit to British theoreticians Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, although the extent of their influence is still a matter of debate. 15 During the late 1920’s the British had created an experimental force to test the effects of fully mechanized warfare. Fuller created new battle plans emphasizing the role of the modern tank. The Germans studied these actions closely, and improved upon them. Germany had also emerged as an industrial and scientific power. This was critical in the development of their new military.
The advances in machinery in the early twentieth century allowed for unprecedented military speed. The Germans learned well from their World War One experience. Other nations were also developing Blitzkrieg-like tactics before WWII. The Germans, however, were the first to use the new strategy in a comprehensive way. In a world still war weary and suffering an economic depression, the Blitzkrieg achieved maximum shock value. 14. Patrick Wright. Tank: the progress of a monstrous war machine. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. (232). 15. Kenneth Macksey. Guderian: Panzer General. London: Greenhill Books, 2003.
Anything successful is bound to be copied. The Allies were not oblivious to the new German tactics. The innovative German tactics would now be used against them. George Parada describes the process of adaptation: At the same time [the] potential of Blitzkrieg and related tactics was fully appreciated by the Allies, who implemented its tactics on both fronts…George Patton used Blitzkrieg and mobile warfare tactics in his European operations of 1944. 16 Echoes of the German blitz can be seen in modern warfare. The “shock and awe” campaign of the United States military against the Iraqi regime is one such example.
It was a well-prepared and widespread attack on a vast number of pre-designated targets. Unlike the German attacks, this was not initially an invasion. The advances in air and missile technology allowed for this. The Iraqi regime, unlike the European nations in WWII, had plenty of warning that the attack would occur. The goals of the blitz and the “shock and awe” campaign remain the same, however. The attacks were designed to target military assets and the infrastructure that supports them. At the same time, the attackers want to intimidate and overwhelm their foes.
The ultimate goal is to avoid a bloody stalemate such as that in World War One. Today, weaponry has advanced to the point where the element of surprise is no longer necessary for a major power. Guerrilla wars are also far more prevalent today. These types of wars limit the effectiveness of Blitzkrieg-type attacks. In short, the Blitzkrieg has greatly influenced attack strategy. However, the strategy is not as invincible as it once was. 16. Parada, George. “The Concept of Blitzkrieg: Achtung Panzer. ” 1996. http://www. achtungpanzer. com/blitz. htm . Accessed 23 December 2006. Notes 1. Dale Brown (ed. ). The Luftwaffe.
Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1982. (16). 2. Larry H. Addington. The Pattern of War Since the Eighteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. 3. Kenneth Macksey. Guderian: Panzer General. London: Greenhill Books, 2003 4. Alexander B. Rossino. Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg Ideology and Atrocity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. 5. Dale Brown (ed. ). The Luftwaffe. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1982. (19). 6. Edwin P. Hoyt. Angels of Death: Goring’s Luftwaffe. New York: Forge, 1994. (146). 7. Ibis Communications Inc. “Blitzkrieg: 1940. ” 2002. http://eyewitnesstohistory.
com/pfblitzkrieg. htm . Accessed 22 December 2006. 8. Patrick Wright. Tank: the progress of a monstrous war machine. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. (232) 9. Bryan Perrett and John Hacket. A History of Blitzkrieg. New York: Stein and Day, 1984. 10. Richard Collier. The War in the Desert. Alex. , VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. (64). 11. Richard Collier. The War in the Desert. Alex. , VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. (65). 12. George Parada. “The Concept of Blitzkrieg: Achtung Panzer. ” 1996. http://www. achtungpanzer. com/blitz. htm . Accessed 23 December 2006. 13. Ibis Communications Inc. “Blitzkrieg : 1940. ” 2002.
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