WWII: The Blitzkrieg
Blitzkrieg in World War Two
Throughout the 1930s Adolph Hitler was (not so secretly) gearing his army up for another blood-soaked conflict. Because that’s just what power-crazed dictators do. As the world stood by and watched, Hitler threw Germany’s manpower into turning the German army into an unstoppable war machine.
As a corporal in the German Army during The Great War Hitler knew that to get caught up in trench warfare spelled defeat. To successfully dominate Europe Hitler would have to simultaneously knock Germany’s traditional enemies (Russia, France, and Great Britain) by fighting a war on two fronts.
Allied Propagandists had mocked Germany by calling them “Huns”—a reference to the Mongol hordes that swept across Europe in the 5th and 13th centuries. But Hitler took the insult as a compliment and began looking for a war strategy that would yield the same cut throat results as the Great Khan himself. The Nazi's Hail Mary pass was a war using lightening attacks known to history as the Blitzkrieg.
If there is any one person who deserves the credit for the extraordinary successes of the German military during the early years of the Second World War it is Guderian. As Germany's Chief of Mobile Troops, it was Guderian who led the first Blitzkrieg into Poland. Which makes sense because the guy literally wrote the book on Blitzkrieg strategy.
The Blitzkrieg Game Plan
In his paper, subsequently presented to Adolf Hitler, Achtung Panzer! Guderian discussed how modern warfare could bring mobility back to the battlefield. The use of combined arms connected by radios could allow inferior numbers to mass against a vulnerable enemy and quickly overwhelm them.
The name Blitzkrieg, or “lightening war”, was not even what the Germans called this tactic. Guderian himself admitted that "...the allies coined the term," but the name is appropriate. The way it works is just like a Hunnic attack of old. You mass your troops together and overwhelm the enemy by attacking faster than they can react. In 1939-40 the Germans brought together panzers (tanks) for armored assault, half-tracked vehicles to carry troops, artillery (particularly the devastating 88mm) for anti-aircraft defense, and dive bombing Stuka aircraft to turn enemy troops into a puddle of gore. The true genius of blitzkrieg was connecting all of these units by radio.
Blitzkrieg in Action
The first inkling that the enemy had of an impending Blitzkrieg attack might be the scream of the sirens affixed to the landing gear of the Stukas dropping a bomb in your lap. The sirens had no practical purpose other than scaring the croissant out of you. If you survived that onslaught you probably had just enough time to shake the dirt off right just in time to watch the panzers race past. One might think they were lucky at this point but they would be wrong. Next, there was the infantry coming along behind to mop up the mess, and by mess we mean your creamy nougat insides splattered on the pavement. Blitzkrieg happened so fast that before you had a chance to radio for reinforcements your reinforcements were calling you for help.
German ground commanders could call up a combined air and artillery strikes and rarely had to be kept waiting more than fifteen minutes before bombs began raining down on their target. They even had the equivalent of a Forward Air Controller (FAC) on the ground with their troops. This was a Luftwaffe (air force) officer who coordinated attacks from air to ground. Other European strategists had long been planning to fight the last war but the Germans were now fighting a new kind of war.
In September of 1940, the Wehrmacht (German army) swept into Poland and destroyed much of the Polish air force on the ground. Interestingly, the best resistance offered by the Poles was from their own recently motorized cavalry units. The German propaganda machine covered for these setbacks by falsifying accounts of Polish soldiers attacking German panzers with lances. The German army seemed unstoppable and it didn't hurt that the Red Army jumped in and attacked Poland from the east.
After World War One the French thought they were being clever by pouring three billion Francs into a massive fortification structure that stretched the entire German border. This mammoth concrete waste of time is known as the Maginot Line and proved useless against the new type of war that Hitler was planning. The Maginot Line was 450 miles of underground railroads and above-ground fortifications that were meant to halt a possible German advance against France just like that which had happened during the Great War. This wall, it was believed, would stop any direct infantry assault with bunkers, concrete machine gun nests, anti-tank and artillery turrets, and hot and cold running Perrier. But the French were bad planners. They built the wall so that the massive artillery guns faced only one way and could not be moved. Hitler would use that to his advantage when his troops goosestepped their way across France in the summer of 1940.
The French made the same classic mistake that they had made in 1914. They left the Belgian border undefended because they wrongly believed that no modern tank could possibly pass through the thickly wooded Ardennes region of North France. Had it been an unbroken line of forts and had the French covered the Belgian border and had they known that tanks can indeed drive through forests, the Germans might have been stopped. The Maginot Line would have fared very well against the unsupported infantry attacks of previous wars but not when the Wehrmacht's plan was to simply bypass the line and attack the French defenses piecemeal.
On paper the Allies looked like they were ready for anything that Germany could throw at them. France and the British (BEF) had 144 Divisions against Germany’s 141. The Allied had double the number of big guns and over 1000 more tanks. But, the Luftwaffe had twice the number of attack aircraft. The French units had to wait to be attacked and even then communication was inefficient. More radios may have actually hastened the surrender, who knows? The Germans, attacking through the Low Countries and the "impassable Ardennes" simply rode their tanks through the trees driving a wedge between the Allied (France and Britain) armies and the city of Paris. The Allies were completely prepared for the German tanks and infantry units that just popped out of the forest and there was little that they could do to slow the German advance. Defeatism set in and plans were set in motion to evacuate allied personnel back to England. France fell. And (in 1940) Hitler looked unstoppable. “Run Away, Run Away!”
After his quick wins over Poland and France, Hitler got cocky. Classic Hitler. After the fall of France, Hitler launched the Battle of Britain-- a three month bomb dropping fest of England’s major cities and industrial centers. But, the British held on like a pet bulldog to its favorite squeaky toy and Hitler's aspirations for a quick British surrender never materialized.
Hitler, having lost the Battle of Britain, decided it was time to take on his true enemy, the USSR. He launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June of 1941. Blitzkrieg again appeared to be successful all the way up to the gates of Moscow. Then the forward momentum of the German army stopped.
Supply problems coupled with diversionary offensives in the Caucasus lessened the Wermacht's ability to crush through the defenses of Moscow.
How Hitler Failed
Hitler was now in control of much of Europe by 1940. Great Britain, standing alone and nearly unarmed was ripe for the picking. Spain had become Fascist and was a nominal ally of Hitler. Switzerland produced chocolate, a hideout for the vonn Trapp family and just liked to stay neutral. Even Comrade Stalin was a "friend." The quotes are for those of you who have read Mein Kampf and knew all along what was going to happen. Hitler really telegraphed that one. So the big question is how did Germany lose the war if the tactics were so superior to anything the rest of the world had to offer? Simple. They stopped using Blitzkrieg and the Allies perfected it.
For Blitzkrieg to have worked in the Soviet Union the German planners should have allocated two months worth of supplies. The weather did not cooperate. "General Winter" stuck early and hard. German troops were stuck in a defensive position against a numerically superior enemy on his own home turf. And the fact that Soviet pilots would dump aircraft fuel on their engine cowlings and then light it to warm up their planes really says a lot about their ability to deal with the cold. It wasn't Stalingrad that stopped the Germans, it was stopping that stopped the Germans. They simply could not continue the attack into the massive expanse of Soviet Russia. Their next movement was Blitzkrieg in reverse as the Germans were forced to retreat back into previously conquered territory full of currently angry partisans.
The other fault in Blitzkrieg was that the German army still relied on millions of horses. Horses have proven their worth in conflicts since the Assyrians strapped a few onto their war chariots and even into the modern conflicts against terrorism in Afghanistan where horses became the reliable method of movement for American Special Forces. Horses are quieter than Blackhawks but require tons of bulky food versus gas and are less bullet worthy than a Jeep. The Americans loaded all of their soldiers into Jeeps, trucks and half-tracks. We dropped them from C-47s. We towed our artillery behind our vehicles. Our Deuce-and-a -Half trucks carried supplies everywhere. Our soldiers went to battle rested, fed and well supplied. By the time American troops landed at Normandy in 1944 we had basically gained air superiority over the battlefield. Blitzkrieg cannot work if you do not control the air.
The last best chance for victory or in reality a better negotiated peace came in the form of the Battle of the Bulge in December and January of 1944-45. American air superiority was mitigated by cloudy weather and poor visibility. Our attack planes and bombers were grounded. German panzer units thrust against allied forces waiting for Germany to surrender. It might have succeeded had the Germans not run out of fuel for their panzers, had the 101st Airborne Division not been available, and had the skies not cleared. As it was Germany faced the disheartening trifecta of sitting in petrol-starved tanks while being pounded with bazookas from the Screaming Eagles and watching bombs rain down on them from the sky.
In modern combat the theory of Blitzkrieg, or combined arms, is still the main method of conducting offensive warfare. Attila would be proud.
German mobile infantry make their way through the densley wooded Ardennes Forest in Belgium.
Paris in the Spring is a magical time...unless Hitler shows up and ruins everything.
German Wermacht burn a Swedish village