Blitzkrieg - Definition and World War II

Blitzkrieg - Definition and World War II

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Blitzkrieg is a term used to describe a method of offensive warfare designed to strike a swift, focused blow at an enemy using mobile, maneuverable forces, including armored tanks and air support. Such an attack ideally leads to a quick victory, limiting the loss of soldiers and artillery. Most famously, blitzkrieg describes the successful tactics used by Nazi Germany in the early years of World War II, as German forces swept through Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France with astonishing speed and force.

Blitzkrieg Definition

Blitzkrieg, which means “lightning war” in German, had its roots in earlier military strategy, including the influential work of the 19th-century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz proposed the “concentration principle,” the idea that concentrating forces against an enemy, and making a single blow against a carefully chosen target (the Schwerpunkt, or “center of gravity”) was more effective than dispersing those forces.

In the wake of their defeat in World War I, German military leaders determined that a lack of mobile, maneuverable forces and flexible tactics had led that conflict to bog down in the attrition of trench warfare. As a result, while France focused its efforts between the wars on building up its defensive border, known as the Maginot Line, the Germans decided to prepare for a shorter conflict won through military maneuvers, rather than in the trenches.

This focus on mobile warfare was in part a response to Germany’s relatively limited military resources and manpower, as a result of the strictures imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and made clear his intention to rearm the nation, he encouraged younger commanders like Heinz Guderian, who argued for the importance of both tanks and aircraft in this mobile approach to warfare.

Uses of Blitzkrieg in World War II

German forces employed some tactics associated with blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the invasion of Poland in 1939, including combined air-ground attacks and the use of Panzer tank divisions to quickly crush the poorly equipped Polish troops. Then in April 1940, Germany invaded neutral Norway, seizing the capital, Oslo, and the country’s main ports with a series of surprise attacks.

In May 1940 came Germany’s invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France, during which the the Wehrmacht (German army) used the combined force of tanks, mobile infantry and artillery troops to drive through the Ardennes Forest and quickly penetrated the Allied defenses.

With close air support from the Luftwaffe (German air force) and the benefit of radio communications to aid in coordinating strategy, the Germans blazed through northern France and toward the English Channel, pushing the British Expeditionary Force into a pocket around Dunkirk. By the end of June, the French army had collapsed, and the nation sued for peace with Germany.

In 1941, German forces again employed blitzkrieg tactics in their invasion of the Soviet Union, expecting a short campaign like the one they had enjoyed in Western Europe the previous spring. But the strategy proved less successful against the highly organized and well-armed Soviet defenses, and by 1943 Germany had been forced into a defensive war on all fronts.

Was Blitzkrieg Truly a New Form of Warfare?

In the stunned aftermath of France’s fall, both Nazi propaganda and Western media attributed Germany’s success to the revolutionary new form of warfare known as blitzkrieg. But in reality, though the word “blitzkrieg” had been used in German military writings before World War II to describe a short conflict, as opposed to a drawn-out war of attrition, it was never officially adopted as a military doctrine.

Rather than a completely new form of warfare, the strategy Germany followed in May and June 1940 had much in common with the strategy it employed at the outset of World War I, when strategists like Alfred von Schlieffen determined Germany should aim to defeat its enemies quickly and decisively, as it was ill-suited to win a long and drawn-out conflict against larger, better-prepared forces.

But unlike in 1914-18, German forces fighting in 1939-40 had the benefit of new military technology developed or improved in the 1920s and 1930s, including tanks, motor vehicles, aircraft and radios. These new tools, combined with an emphasis on speed, mobility, focused attacks and encirclements, enabled the Wehrmacht to turn traditional military tactics into a devastatingly modern brand of warfare.

German commander Erwin Rommel, who led a Panzer division during the invasion of France, later employed blitzkrieg tactics against British forces in the deserts of North Africa in 1941-42.

After blitzkrieg failed in the Soviet invasion, however, Hitler and German military leaders distanced themselves from the concept, claiming it was an invention of their enemies; Hitler himself denied he had ever used the word.

Later Uses of Blitzkrieg

The Allies adapted blitzkrieg to their own advantage by the end of World War II, including in the Battle of Stalingrad and the European operations commanded by U.S. General George Patton in 1944. Patton had carefully studied the German campaigns against Poland and France and also favored quick, decisive action as a way to avoid more costly conflict.

Though Germany’s quick victories in 1939 and 1940 remain the most famous examples of blitzkrieg, military historians have pointed to later blitzkrieg-inspired operations, including the combined air and ground attacks by Israel against Arab forces in Syria and Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Allied invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.


Ian Carter, “The German 'Lightning War' Strategy of the Second World War.” Imperial War Museums.
Robert T. Foley, “Blitzkrieg.” BBC.
Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend.
David T. Zabecki, ed., Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History.

The French Resistance

The French defeat was not complete, though. General Charles de Gaulle had been in London at the time of the surrender. On June 18, 1940, Charles de Gaulle made a BBC radio address. In this speech, he made the argument that France should not give up even though it had been invaded by Germany. He denounced the Vichy government. He called upon the French to keep fighting the Nazi invaders.

On 18 June 1940, at 7:00 pm, de Gaulle's voice was broadcast nationwide saying:

“The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of the French armies have formed a government. This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, has made contact with the enemy in order to stop the fighting. It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it is the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans which are causing us to retreat. It was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today.

"But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

"Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States.

"This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a worldwide war. All the mistakes, all the delays, all the suffering, do not alter the fact that there are, in the world, all the means necessary to crush our enemies one day. Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force. The fate of the world depends on it.

"I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialized workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.

"Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on the radio from London."

Many French people came to think of de Gaulle as the real leader of France. He received the backing of French colonial governments around the globe. Under de Gaulle's leadership, French freedom fighters formed a resistance group known as the Free French. These resistance fighters carried on guerrilla warfare against the occupation. They sabotaged Nazi activity in France for the rest of the war.

Blitzkrieg Tactics: Lightning Conquest of Poland

On the 1 st of September 1939, Germany launched one of the most dramatic military campaigns of the 20 th century. Troops poured across the border into Poland, smashing the defenders. In doing so, they seemed to prove the power of a new form of aggressive tactics, the blitzkrieg.

The Blitzkrieg Principle

Blitzkrieg tactics were the natural continuation of German doctrine from the late First World War and of a broader school of inter war military thinking. During the final year of the First World War, the Germans had broken the stalemate on the Western Front. This was achieved by creating hard hitting, fast moving formations of elite stormtroopers.

German Soldier Marching in Parade – 1939.

They broke into the Allied trench lines through a combination of superior equipment and elite soldiers. Rather than consolidate the gains they made, they kept moving, maintaining the momentum and leaving others to capitalize upon their success. This kept the offense moving and prevented the enemy from regrouping, leading to huge gains.

Wehrmacht Soldiers with mortar and MG 34 Machine Gun.

Between the wars, several military thinkers in both Britain and Germany explored the potential provided by tanks. Men like B. H. Liddell Hart and Heinz Guderian believed that tanks leading armored assaults could smash holes in enemy lines, leaving other forces to follow through. Here again, there seemed to be an opportunity for a hard hitting, fast moving approach to the fight.

The result was the German blitzkrieg doctrine.

Heinz Guderian.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-139-1112-17 Knobloch, Ludwig CC-BY-SA 3.0

Vulnerable Poland

German armed forces were carefully cultivated to prepare them for this form of warfare. Under Hitler, Germany invested heavily in tanks and mechanized infantry as well as the artillery and ground attack aircraft that would soften the enemy up before a breakthrough.

But the success of the blitzkrieg in Poland was as much a result of Polish vulnerability as it was of German strength.

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Western Poland included a lot of wide, flat land, ideal for a fast advance. Coming at the end of the summer, the invasion occurred while the ground was hard and dry, adding to the ease with which the German troops advanced.

The Polish armed forces, though hardy and courageous, were badly suited to facing these new German tactics.

The Polish army was predominantly made up of slow moving infantry, unable to respond to the swift strikes of the Germans. Their equipment was less modern than that of the well funded and technologically innovative Germans. Of the faster moving Polish units, many were cavalry rather than tanks, and so extremely vulnerable to modern weapons.

Polish soldiers with anti-aircraft artillery near the Warsaw Central Station in the first days of September 1939.

In the skies, the Poles were equally outmatched. Their best fighters were P.Z.L. P.11s, which had a top speed of 240mph, compared with the 350mph of the German Messerschmitt Bf109E. 842 Polish planes faced 4,700 German aircraft. The structure of the Polish armed forces meant that fighter cover was poorly coordinated so that the resources they had weren’t well deployed.

Luftwaffe soldiers of the Jagdgeschwader 53 (JG 53) fighter wing (also known as “Ace of Spades”) resting at an airfield infront of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with an open bonnet. 1939.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-337-0036-02A / Folkerts / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The War Begins

At 0445 on the 1 st of September, the invasion began.

It was a textbook execution of Blitzkrieg. For the first hour, Luftwaffe bombers and fighters hit Polish positions, taking out air defenses, troop concentrations, and transport networks. An hour later, they were followed by the ground advance. While other troops held the line, armored formations punched through the weakened Polish forces. Infantry and mobile artillery followed up behind them.

Ju 87 Bs over Poland, Sep 1939.Photo Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-1210-502 Hoffmann, Heinrich CC-BY-SA 3.0

The speed of these advances allowed the columns to achieve their strategic objectives. Entire formations of the Polish army were isolated and then surrounded. Cut off from each other, from support, and even from commanders, they struggled to organize a fight back. Meanwhile, the Germans were in their rear, smashing supply lines, seizing cities and transport networks.

Within days, the Germans were fifty miles through the Polish lines, then a hundred miles. The speed and ferocity of Blitzkrieg were paying off.

The city of Wieluń destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing.1 Sep 1939

It’s said that in war no plan survives contact with the enemy, and so the Germans were almost as surprised as the Poles to find that their plan remained intact. They didn’t even know how many of the Poles they had managed to cut off because the dust raised by those forces was blocking the view for aerial reconnaissance.

Proof of the Principle?

On the 9 th of September, the Poles launched a counterattack at the Bzura river, hoping to make the most of German activity in the center. But the German Army Group South moved to counter this, channeling the Poles into a battle on a narrow front in which they were once again encircled.

Meanwhile, Guderian’s column was pushing hard into the east. Their capture of almost all of Brest Litovsk by the 14 th of September left the Germans securely placed in the Polish rear. Even before the Russians invaded eastern Poland on the 17 th , the outcome of the war was clear.

Battle of the Bzura- Polish cavalry in Sochaczew in 1939.

As tens of thousands of Polish servicemen fled across the border, determined to keep up the fight from abroad, the world began acknowledging the power of blitzkrieg.

Did the invasion of Poland really prove that blitzkrieg tactics were so very powerful? The Polish army was out of date compared with German fighting forces. As the rest of the war would prove, dominance in the skies was a huge part in winning a modern war. Even with other tactics, the Germans would almost certainly have won.

Wielkopolska Brygada Kawalerii, Battle of Bzura, central Poland, 1939.

Blitzkrieg triumphed again in France the following year, seeming to set the seal on its supremacy. But later efforts were less effective. When countered with modern tanks and an effective defensive line, German armored attacks could be repeatedly stopped. The Germans themselves would prove the power of defensive tactics in Normandy before launching a failed blitzkrieg style offensive in the Battle of the Bulge.

German troops advancing.

The invasion of Poland showed that, in the right circumstances, these tank tactics could work. But it also created an exaggerated image of their effectiveness, one that shaped the way the war was fought and that has colored depictions of the Second World War ever since.

Blitzkrieg (Lightning War)

In the first phase of World War II in Europe, Germany sought to avoid a long war. Germany's strategy was to defeat its opponents in a series of short campaigns. Germany quickly overran much of Europe and was victorious for more than two years by relying on a new military tactic called the "Blitzkrieg" (lightning war). Blitzkrieg tactics required the concentration of offensive weapons (such as tanks, planes, and artillery) along a narrow front. These forces would drive a breach in enemy defenses, permitting armored tank divisions to penetrate rapidly and roam freely behind enemy lines, causing shock and disorganization among the enemy defenses. German air power prevented the enemy from adequately resupplying or redeploying forces and thereby from sending reinforcements to seal breaches in the front. German forces could in turn encircle opposing troops and force surrender.

Germany successfully used the Blitzkrieg tactic against

  • Poland (attacked in September 1939)
  • Denmark (April 1940)
  • Norway (April 1940)
  • Belgium (May 1940)
  • the Netherlands (May 1940)
  • Luxembourg (May 1940)
  • France (May 1940)
  • Yugoslavia (April 1941)
  • Greece (April 1941)

Germany did not defeat Great Britain, which was protected from German ground attack by the English Channel and the Royal Navy.

Despite the continuing war with Great Britain, German forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. At first, the German Blitzkrieg seemed to succeed. Soviet forces were driven back more than 600 miles to the gates of Moscow, with staggering losses. In December 1941, Hitler unilaterally declared war on the United States, which consequently added its tremendous economic and military power to the coalition arrayed against him. A second German offensive against the Soviet Union in 1942 brought German forces in the east to the shores of the Volga River and the city of Stalingrad. However, the Soviet Union launched a counteroffensive in November 1942, trapping and destroying an entire German army at Stalingrad.

Germany proved unable to defeat the Soviet Union, which together with Great Britain and the United States seized the initiative from Germany. Germany became embroiled in a long war, leading ultimately to its defeat in May 1945.

What type of New Technologies created a Mechanized German Army?

Mechanization was relatively slow to come to the German army, in part because of the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and because of simple poverty. Von Seeckt himself was a traditionalist and believed that exploitation of a breakthrough was a task for cavalry. Like most other militaries, the Reichswehr initially conceived of tanks as infantry support weapons—which was logical given the unreliability, slow speed, and short operational range of early tanks. [24]

Improvements in armor technology changed German minds, however. By the late ‘20s, the idea of giving armor primacy on the battlefield was beginning to take hold in the Reichswehr. Instead of subordinating tanks to infantry, and thereby limiting their tactical and operational speed, thought was given to finding ways to subordinate the other arms to tanks instead. [25]

The development of armor in Germany has long been associated with Heinz Guderian, who claimed to be the “father” of the panzers in his autobiography Achtung Panzer! Guderian was indeed an essential figure in the history of the panzer forces, but he exaggerated his role. And while there was some resistance to the use of armor in the Reichswehr, it was not as marked as he claimed. Many other commanders and theorists had a more direct role than Guderian: men like Ludwig Beck, Oswald Lutz, Ludwig Ritter von Eimannsberger, and Ernst Volckheim, among others. The German military establishment had already agreed to use tanks as their main striking force before Guderian became involved in the panzerwaffe’s growth. [26]

Tanks and mechanized forces were eminently suited to the idea of Bewegungskrieg. Armored forces provided the necessary striking force that could punch through enemy defenses. They had the mobility to exploit any breaches they created in the enemy line without losing their momentum. Thus, while armor's German adoption was not entirely seamless, it was more measured and more balanced than the theories in other countries, like Britain or France. Through studies and exercises, the Germans understood that tanks had not eliminated the need for combined arms.

Unlike the British armor theorist J. F. C. Fuller, the Germans knew that tanks needed the support of artillery, infantry, and air power to overcome enemy defenses. Instead of advocating for an all-tank army in the same way that Fuller did, the Germans created the panzer division. This was an all-arms force whose main power came from tanks, which was heavily supported by infantry, artillery, and the logistical support mounted in trucks or other tracked or semi-tracked vehicles. Motorizing or mechanizing these supporting branches gave them the mobility to keep up with the tanks, especially during long operational maneuvers. [27]

The Germans also focused on the radio—a technology that promised to solve the problem of communications. Radio was wireless, which meant that individual units no longer had to rely on vulnerable telegraphs or telephones. Now commanders could keep in close touch with their forward forces, and it was easier to reinforce success or mitigate failure. The Germans equipped almost all of their tanks with radios and widely distributed them to their units. Just as important as their practice maneuvers with tanks and infantry were their interwar radio exercises to test their communications procedures. [28]

The Germans' problems during their mechanization drive were not negligible and had an impact on their armor doctrine. The biggest problem they faced was that the German industry could not produce the desired numbers of tanks, trucks, and transporters. [29] German industry still failed even when Adolf Hitler came to power and prioritized military procurement—and nearly destroyed the Third Reich economy in the process. [30]

Guderian and Ludwig Beck, then chief of the German army, did indeed come into conflict, but not because Beck was an anti-armor traditionalist. Instead, Beck had a broader view of the situation than Guderian, who was only concerned with the panzerwaffe. Beck was worried that concentrating all of the army’s massive assets like tanks and motorization in a few panzer divisions would reduce the military's fighting ability. He wanted to allocate some tanks to the infantry divisions to give them more offensive capability. Guderian resisted this, thinking that it would dilute Germany’s armored strength. [31]

He eventually won this debate. Germany concentrated her mechanized and motorized assets into a few panzer and light divisions—the rest of the German army remained leg-mobile infantry, not much different from their World War I counterparts. This would prove problematic in the long run, but it gave the Wehrmacht an elite, concentrated fighting force of excellent hitting power, mobility, and flexibility on the eve of war. The panzer divisions would serve as spearheads for the mass army.


Blitzkrieg means “lightning war”. It was an innovative military technique first used by the Germans in World War Two and was a tactic based on speed and surprise. Blitzkrieg relied on a military force be based around light tank units supported by planes and infantry (foot soldiers). The tactic was based on Alfred von Schlieffen’s ‘Schlieffen Plan’ – this was a doctrine formed during WWI that focused on quick miliatry victory. It was later developed in Germany by an army officer called Heinz Guderian who looked at new technologies, namely dive bombers and light tanks, to improve the German army’s manoeuvrability.

A British view on Blitzkrieg

Guderian had written a military pamphlet called “Achtung Panzer” which got into the hands of Hitler. As a tactic it was used to devastating effect in the first years of World War Two and resulted in the British and French armies being pushed back in just a few weeks to the beaches of Dunkirk. It was also pivotal in the German army’s devastation of Russian forces when they advanced through Russia in June 1941.

Hitler had spent four years in World War One fighting a static war with neither side moving far for months on end. He was enthralled by Guderian’s plan that was based purely on speed and movement. When Guderian told Hitler that he could reach the French coast in weeks if an attack on France was ordered, fellow officers openly laughed at him. The German High Command told Hitler that his “boast” was impossible. General Busch said to Guderian, “Well, I don’t think that you’ll cross the River Meuse in the first place.” The River Meuse was considered France’s first major line of defence and it was thought of as being impossible to cross in a battle situation.

Blitzkrieg was based on speed, co-ordination and movement the major science of this approach was the ability to get large mobile forces through weak points in the enemies defences and then cause damage when behind his static lines. With large formations cut off from communication and logistics, pressure could then be put on interior defences. Its aim was to create panic amongst the civilian population. A civil population on the move can be absolute havoc for a defending army trying to get its forces to the war front. With so much focus placed on the frontline, if this could be penetrated then the ensuing doubt, confusion and rumour were sure to paralyse both the government and the defending military.

“Speed, and still more speed, and always speed was the secret……..and that demanded audacity, more audacity and always audacity.” Major General Fuller

Once a strategic target had been selected, Stuka dive bombers were sent in to ‘soften’ up the enemy, destroy all rail lines, communication centres and major rail links. This was done as the German tanks were approaching and the planes withdrew only at the last minute so that the enemy did not have time to recover their senses when the tanks attacked supported by infantry.

Most troops were moved by half-track vehicles so there was no real need for roads though these were repaired so that they could be used by the Germans at a later date. Once a target had been taken, the Germans did not stop to celebrate victory they moved on to the next target. Retreating civilians hindered any work done by the army being attacked. Those civilians fleeing the fighting were also attacked to create further mayhem.

How effective was Blitzkrieg?

In 1941, a diary kept by an unknown French soldier was found. In it are some interesting comments that help us understand why this tactic was so successful :

“The pace is too fast……it’s the co-operation between the dive-bombers and the tanks that is winning the war for Germany.”

“News that the Germans are in Amiens………this is like some ridiculous nightmare.”

All the above were written in a period of just 5 days : May 15th 1940 to May 19th 1940.

Moreover, one of the key successes of the Blitzkrieg was its use of FM radios – these enabled the forces that had broken through the lines to inform support units as to their progress and relay information on what was behind enemy lines. This superior intelligence was a crucial tool at the German’s disposal and allowed them to perform far more organised assaults on the enemy. The communication technology promoted quick, decentralised decision-making that was key to this speed focused approach.

Why were the armies of Europe caught so badly prepared by this tactic?

The Blitzkrieg was fundamentally about moving away from the tried and tested methods of modern warfare and creating a new, more effective doctrine. To that end, Hitler had given his full backing to Guderian. Ironically, he had got his idea for Blitzkrieg from two officers – one from France and one from Britain and he had copied and broadened what they had put on paper. In Britain and France, however, the cavalry regiments ruled supreme and they were adamant that the tanks would not get any influence in their armies. The High Commands of both countries were dominated by the old traditional cavalry regiments and their political pull was great. These were the type of officers despised by Hitler and he took to his Panzer officer, Guderian, over the old officers that were in the German Army (the Wehrmacht).

In 1940, Britain and France still had a World War One mentality. What tanks they had were poor compared to the German Panzers. British and French tactics were outdated and Britain still had the mentality that as an island they were safe as our navy would protect us. Nazi Germany, if it was to fulfill Hitler’s wishes, had to have a modern military tactic if it was to conquer Europe and give to Germany the ‘living space’ that Hitler deemed was necessary for the Third Reich.

It was used to devastating effect in Poland, western Europe where the Allies were pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk and in the attack on Russia – Operation Barbarossa.

How Hitler's Blitzkrieg Tactic Shocked the Allies in WWII

Starting with Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler's military machine pulled off a string of stunning victories at the start of World War II, perhaps none as shocking as Germany's utter trouncing of France in 1940.

"France is basically defeated in the first 10 days of the war," says Robert Kirchubel, a military historian with Purdue University's FORCES initiative and author of "Atlas of the Blitzkrieg: 1939-1941." "This is a country that had lasted four years against Germany a generation ago in World War I. Now it's all over in a little less than two weeks."

The reason for Hitler's spectacular early success in WWII was a brazen new style of warfare known as Blitzkrieg, a combination of the German words for "lightning" (blitz) and "war" (krieg) coined by Western journalists who were floored by the speed and ferocity of the Nazi attack.

"The Blitzkrieg shocked the world," says Kirchubel, "that an enemy army could be defeated so quickly and that nobody seemingly had a counter for it."

Painful Lessons from World War I

Nearly 2 million German soldiers were killed during World War I, primarily as casualties of an agonizingly slow style of fighting known as trench warfare. In the first battles of WWI, all sides suffered such devastating losses from artillery, machine guns and other modern weapons that they resorted to digging long trenches in the battlefield for protection. The mud-filled, rat-infested trenches became the closest thing to hell on earth for these soldiers.

One of the longest and deadliest examples of trench warfare was the 141-day Battle of the Somme, in which the British, French and German armies suffered more than a million combined casualties.

Every nation that fought in WWI vowed to never fight in another miserable trench, but they each had different ideas for how to achieve it, says Kirchubel. During the interwar years, the British invested heavily in aircraft technology, planning to fly over trenches and bomb the enemy at home. The French decided to build a more permanent and fortified version of a trench known as the Maginot Line, a series of 58 underground fortresses constructed along the French-German border in the 1930s.

The German military took a different tack.

"The Germans said, 'We're going to blast through the trench with this new technique,'" Kirchubel says.

What's a Blitzkrieg Attack?

The philosophy of Blitzkrieg is to hit the enemy hard where it's the weakest and attack with three components of the military at once: armored tanks, infantry and air bombardment.

"With Blitzkrieg, your armor would always be the spearhead — the tanks would always be at the front." says Martin King, an Emmy-winning military historian and author of several excellent books on WWII. "The infantry would come up behind, normally in half-trucks and trucks. As soon as the armor engaged, the Stukas and the Messerschmitts (German bombers and fighter planes) would come in flying low and basically decimate the opponents."

Kirchubel says that Blitzkrieg was inspired by old-school Prussian ideas of indirect warfare — not fighting the opponent "strength against strength," but exploiting weaknesses instead. To compare warfare to a boxing match, Blitzkrieg is the one-two punch that quickly knocks your opponent to the mat, not a drawn-out, 12-round decision.

"Blitzkrieg was fast, it was furious, it was accurate and it did the job," says King.

A key component of Blitzkrieg was a flexible command-and-control structure within the German army. Early in the war, Hitler had full faith in his generals, especially Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, so the Fuhrer didn't have to personally authorize every attack plan. In turn, those generals delegated authority in battle to lower-ranking field officers so they could quickly react to changing conditions on the ground.

German tanks, which were inferior in many ways to the French Renault tanks, came with one important technological upgrade — a two-way radio. Tank commanders not only received orders, but passed critical battlefield info back up the chain of command.


It’s akin to a blitzkrieg of fast and furious digital action, forcing one’s eyes to dart around the frame in sync with Amy’s conduct.

This mood only began to change after the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland drew Britain into the Second World War.

Fueled by atrocity and a blitzkrieg of gains in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has enjoyed a meteoric climb to notoriety.

Unfortunately, in Western and especially U.S. media, there has been a recent blitzkrieg of Putin-as-Hitler comparisons.

Obama and Hitler use the ‘ blitzkrieg ’ method to overwhelm their enemies.

Or, in Professor Gates' case, I can't decide whether to politely ask you to leave my house, or threaten to blitzkrieg your career.

The shortcomings of Blitzkrieg ironically rest in its strengths.

History Facts: Nazi Germany Created "Blitzkrieg" By Accident

Germany’s victory over Poland was over-determined by numerous factors. However, the success of mechanized units informed the Wehrmacht’s maneuver-oriented strategy in the Battle of France eight months later.

Here's What You Need To Remember: While “Blitzkrieg” is a useful shorthand for the revolution in mechanized warfare, it should not be misinterpreted as suggesting the Blitzkrieg arose from a doctrinal “master plan,” or that the victories were due to superior German technology. Instead, the Blitzkrieg arose organically from the interaction of new technologies, German force structure, and the vulnerabilities of unprepared foes.

When over 1.5 million German soldiers poured over the Polish border on September 1, 1939 in an Operation codenamed Fall Weiss (“Case White”), they kicked off not only the bloodiest conflict in human history, but also a terrifying new form of fast-paced mechanized warfare popularly known as the Blitzkrieg or “Lightning War.”

However, the officers of the Wehrmacht never really used the term “Blitzkrieg,” which was popularized by the British press. Indeed, the Wehrmacht did not think of itself as practicing a new form of warfare, but rather practicing an old-fashioned war of maneuver using new means.

Enter the Tank

In World War I, newly-developed tanks had helped break the defensive stalemate imposed by artillery and machineguns. Post-war Russia, America, and Germany experimented with new ways to employ armor. However, while young officers like Charles de Gaulle and Patton theorized about the tank’s transformative potential, the old guard in France, the United Kingdom and the United States remained skeptical that the still-unreliable vehicles would radically change warfare.

After all, most tanks could be easily penetrated by cheaper anti-tank guns. Those with heavier armor were often cripplingly slow and unreliable. Thus, armored vehicles were primarily regarded as enhancing existing infantry and cavalry formations. But this analysis proved short-sighted.

German military theorists in the nineteenth-century emphasized massing forces to achieve local superiority at a single schwerpunkt (“main target” or “center of gravity”). Once the enemy position was ruptured, troops would pour through the breach, cutting off lines of communication for neighboring enemy units and encircling those that failed to extricate themselves.

Mechanization didn’t change this strategy so much as greatly enhance its effectiveness, because armored vehicles could mass and advance more rapidly than infantry or cavalry, and overrun or bypass small delaying forces once the more formidable (and fairly static) anti-tank defense at the frontline had been overwhelmed.

At the urging of the pioneering strategist Heinz Guderian, the Wehrmacht concentrated its tanks into its first three Panzer Divisions in 1935, each with organic artillery, engineering and infantry assigned to support the tanks rather than the other way around.

This contrasted with the French, British and Polish armies, which did field a few tank brigades or divisions, but still spread most of their tanks out in small units tied to slow-moving infantry divisions.

Germany also invested in what by 1939 was the world’s most powerful air arm. The Luftwaffe proved a potent force multiplier for mechanized units. Air power could be rapidly concentrated to key battlefronts and priority targets such as artillery and tank concentrations. It could also serve as “flying artillery” for armored units which had outrun their towed artillery support.

Furthermore, aircraft could disrupt and slow down the movements of opposing formations behind frontline, hampering the speed of enemy responses.

This high tempo of operations paralyzed enemy command-and-control, and starved frontline units of necessary fuel and ammunition, leaving the enemy continually off-balance. The ensuing demoralization, panic and confusion often caused theoretically still-effective formations to evaporate.

However, most historians agreed the Blitzkrieg’s disruptive effects were not planned for, but instead arose as natural consequences of the Wehrmacht’s disposition and force structure.

A Technological Edge?

However, the Wehrmacht’s mechanization is frequently exaggerated. Throughout World War II, a large proportion of the German military relied on horse-drawn carriages. In 1939, the Wehrmacht infantry had only 230 Hanomag half-track armored personnel carriers, and even truck-born units were considered “elite.”

Of the roughly 2,500 German tanks committed to the campaign in six Panzer divisions and five Light divisions, 2,100 were small Panzer Is armed only with machineguns and Panzer IIs with 20-millimeter cannons. Artillery and anti-tank rifles could easily penetrate their 5 to 15 millimeters of armor.

That meant only 17 percent were Panzer III and IV tanks and Czech Panzer 35(t) and 38(ts) with more capable guns and a modest 15-30 millimeters of armor. Compared to French Soviet and British contemporaries, the most consistent technical advantage in early-war German Panzers lay in their fleet-wide radio communications.

In the air, the Luftwaffe possessed a more decisive technical lead in its Messerschmitt Bf-109E fighter, which had a top speed of 354 miles per hour, compared to Poland’s PZL P.11 fighters that could barely exceed 240 mph.

Nonetheless, Germany already had the deck stacked ridiculously in its favor against Poland, benefitting not only from far greater population and industrial capacity, but with troops encircling Poland from the South, West and Northeast (in East Prussia). Furthermore, Poland lay on a plain with few natural obstacles that could seriously impede a German attack, while Warsaw’s best allies—France and the UK—had no land corridor to come to Warsaw’s aid.

To add insult to overwhelming injury, the Soviet Union swooped in vulture-like to invade eastern Poland on September 17.

The Poles fatally spread out their divisions in a forward defense of the border rather than concentrating them densely in the heartland. This made it easier for Panzers to penetrate their lines and cut of supply and communication lines. The spread-out Polish infantry lacked the mobility to extricate themselves, and units that were not encircled and destroyed suffered heavy losses retreating.

The air campaign was initially less one-sided than Berlin subsequently claimed. The Luftwaffe correctly prioritized knocking out Polish air bases—but the Polish aviation units had dispersed to secret bases prior to the commencement of hostilities. The PAF managed to eek out a superior air-to-air kill ratio versus faster Luftwaffe aircraft, and even slowed the advance of Panzer columns on a few occasions. But after a week of effective resistance, their bases were overrun, or located and bombed to oblivion.

At the river Bzura on September 9, bypassed Polish forces with tank support launched an initially successful counteroffensive. But Panzer Divisions and Luftwaffe units rapidly massed to reverse the tide, resulting in a devastating Polish defeat.

Germany’s victory over Poland was over-determined by numerous factors. However, the success of mechanized units informed the Wehrmacht’s maneuver-oriented strategy in the Battle of France eight months later.

This campaign involved a one-two punch: elite Allied forces were lured to the rescue of Belgium and Holland by the initial German attack in May—and then cut off from France by a second offensive that blazed through the “uncrossable” Ardennes forest to the Channel ports.

Again, air power played a critical role in supporting Panzers that had rolled ahead of their artillery, and the destabilizing and demoralizing effects of the German advance led to a rapid collapse in the Allied will to fight.

From then on “Blitzkrieg”-style mechanized campaigns were frequently attempted by all belligerents, leading to the devastating initial Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Soviet Bagration offensive of 1944 that wiped out 28 German divisions, and the U.S. breakout from Normandy (Operation Cobra).

However, the armies that survived their early encounters with the Blitzkrieg evolved tactics to counter it. Infantry and artillery were trained to continue resisting even when bypassed by armored units on their flanks. This constrained the penetration achieved by enemy armor until counter-attacking forces—led by tanks, naturally—could come to their rescue. A famous example is the stubborn American defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

A complementary method defense-in-depth: preventing armored formations from exploiting breakthroughs by bogging them down with additional hardened defensive positions behind the frontline. At the epic 1943 Battle of Kursk in 1943, nearly 3,000 Panzers faced six concentric belts of fortifications, minefields and anti-tank obstacles defended by the Red Army. In eleven grueling days, the Panzers advanced roughly 20 miles before foundering before the third belt.

While “Blitzkrieg” is a useful shorthand for the revolution in mechanized warfare, it should not be misinterpreted as suggesting the Blitzkrieg arose from a doctrinal “master plan,” or that the victories were due to superior German technology.

Instead, the Blitzkrieg arose organically from the interaction of new technologies, German force structure, and the vulnerabilities of unprepared foes. Once the Blitzkrieg’s impact was observed, both Nazi Germany and the Allies sought to replicate them more intentionally. However, both also developed tactics and technology that curtailed its effectiveness throughout the course of the war.

Perhaps the most unsettling lesson of Blitzkrieg today is that the disruptive effects of new technologies on old paradigms of warfare are likely to arise organically and unpredictably in conflict, rather than be completely “figured out” in advance.

For now, we can only dimly forecast how technologies ranging from cyber and information warfare to artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, space-based sensors, and drone swarms will transform future wars. The discovery of their actual potential may well surprise both sides in a conflict.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared in September 2019.

Watch the video: Blitzkrieg!: World War Two in 20 Minutes - demo playthrough (September 2022).

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