Blitzkrieg

The German military strategy of using of fast-moving tanks, with motorized infantry and artillery supported by dive-bombers, and concentrating on one part of the enemy sector, became known as Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The strategy was first put forward by Colonel John Fuller, the chief of staff of the British Tank Corps. Fuller was disappointed with the way tanks were used during the First World War and afterwards produced Plan 1919. This included a call for long-range mass tank attacks with strong air, motorized and artillery support. These ideas were developed in more detail in his books, Reformation of War (1923) and Foundation of the Science of War (1926).

Fuller's ideas were ignored by the British Army but was studied in Germany and in 1926 leaders of the the German Army asked the government to commission the production of new tanks that would enable them to use Blitzkrieg tactics in any future conflicts.

As a result of the terms of the Versailles Treaty these new experimental tanks were called tractors. The Light Tractor weighed ten tons and carried a 37mm gun and the Heavy Tractor was a 20-tonner with two turrets, one forward with a 77mm gun, and one at the rear carrying a machine-gun.

The Versailles Treaty limited the German Army to a strength of 100,000 men and General Hans von Seeckt, as Chief of Army Command he had the difficult task of maintaining morale of the armed forces. Disliking traditional theories of mass armies and trench warfare, he remolded the army as a mobile shock force of thirty-five divisions.

In 1928 Seeckt published Thoughts of a Soldier (1928). In the book Seeckt questioned the value of huge conscript armies. He argued that it was technical science and tactical skill that would win the wars of the future. He predicted that "the whole future of warfare appears to me to lie in the employment of mobile armies, relatively small but of high quality, and rendered distinctly more effective by the addition of aircraft, and in the simultaneous mobilization of the whole forces, either to feed the attack or for home defence."

The Panzer IV Tank played an important role in Blitzkrieg.
The Panzer IV Tank played an important role in Blitzkrieg.

After Adolf Hitler obtained power in 1933, the German government was open about its tank production. In the spring of 1934 the German Army began developing the Panzer tank. Over the next few years the Panzer I, Panzer II, Panzer III and Panzer IV were produced.

During the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, it became clear that the Panzer I was insufficiently armed for battle conditions. Panzer II and Panzer III tanks were reliable but were outgunned. The outstanding performer was the Panzer IV as it had the perfect combination of speed, agility, firepower and reliability. Over the next few years it became the backbone of Blitzkrieg and over 9,000 of these tanks were produced.

However, the the successful resistance of the Red Army in the Soviet Union in 1942 showed that the Panzer IV was no longer invincible. This resulted in the production of the Panther and it eventually became the most popular tank used in Germany. The greatest exponents of Blitzkrieg were the German commanders, Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Tom Wintringham fought against the German Army during the Spanish Civil War. He wrote about German military tactics in his book New Ways of War (1940)

Blitzkrieg tactics and strategy are almost entirely developed with the idea of escaping from the trench deadlock that held

the armies between August, 1914, and March, 1918, and held them again from September, 1939, to April, 1940. We can only grasp the essence of the Blitzkrieg if we realise that it is an opposite to, a reaction against, the war of trenches that otherwise condemns armies to practical uselessness.

From October, 1914, to March, 1917, on the Western Front, position warfare became more and more rigid, immovable, and futile. To "attack" meant to lose twice or three times as many men as your opponent, with no considerable gain in ground, and no decisive effect on anything except, your own cannon-fodder. The armies were locked in solid and continuous lines of trenches, in which they were pounded and obliterated by an even heavier hail of shells.

From March, 1917, to March, 1918, position warfare was in full flower, but some of the factors that must lead to its partial decay, its change into a new shape, became apparent. One factor was the tank; another, more important, was a new method of defence - which inevitably developed into its opposite, a new tactical method for infantry advance. The defensive method was known as "elastic defence" or "defence in depth"; the second developed from it, and adopted because it was a success, was called the tactic of "infiltration in attack."

(2) General Hans von Seeckt, Thoughts of a Soldier (1928)

In this way a military mass is constituted which, though unsuited to take part in a war of movement and seek a decision in formal battle, is well able to fulfill the duty of home defence, and at the same time to provide from its best dements a continuous reinforcement of the regular, combatant army in the field.

In brief, the whole future of warfare appears to me to lie in the employment of mobile armies, relatively small but of high quality, and rendered distinctly more effective by the addition of aircraft, and in the simultaneous mobilization of the whole forces, either to feed the attack or for home defence.

(3) Major General Sukhov was a tank commander in the Red Army who fought against the German Army during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

In their war against the Soviet Union the Germans have applied the methods of mobile attack - a method which has taken root in Fascist tactics. Hitler relied on the crushing force of his tank divisions accompanied by large numbers of motorized infantry. One hundred and seventy divisions were concentrated in the east for this purpose, of which 60 divisions were composed of mobile troops. The latter included as many as 25 tank divisions.

The fact that the Nazi mobile troops were nearly three times the number put in the field against France show that the Nazis intended to rout the Red Army with a lightning blow and achieve a rapid victory. Taking advantage of their surprise attack they gained certain territorial successes, but their calculations on crushing force and the sweeping movement of armoured groups have not been justified.

In subsequent operations the movement of these groups was completely stopped in certain directions, and in others it was retarded. During the first days of the war the Red Army used skilful manoeuvre to destroy small and large groups of German tank and motorized troops which had become cut off from their infantry units. One such group of 300 tanks was destroyed by the co-ordinated efforts of Soviet infantry and artillery. It is significant that in this complex operation the destruction of the Fascist tanks was accomplished without the participation of Soviet aircraft or tanks.

Having made a study of the enemy's tactics and knowing his vulnerable spots, the Red Army is in each case using the weapons within its reach. The 39th German Tank Corps engaged in a decisive battle was routed by a powerful blow from Soviet air and tank forces. Tanks, supported by infantry and artillery, participated in the destruction of the 20th Tank Division.

Usually the enemy pushes forward large tank units in the directions of major operations. This move is preceded by the operations of general infantry troop formations or by tank troops jointly with motorized infantry, supported by artillery and aircraft to make a breakthrough in the defence lines. Tank divisions are followed by motorized formations. Mobile groups of troops push ahead as far inland as possible, and in their sweeping movement they neither look back nor pay attention to their flanks, irrespective of whether the rest of their troops are following along.

Lately the German tank forces have adopted the following method : When the tank units which have pushed on far ahead run short of fuel they dig themselves into the ground, leaving only the gun turrets above the surface. Thus while waiting for the arrival of fuel the tanks are transformed into a kind of fortified post, and the district occupied by the tank unit becomes something of a fortified district.

(4) Hasso Manteuffel was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Heinz Guderian after the war for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1930)

Guderian favoured from the beginning the strategic use of panzer forces - a deep thrust into the enemy, without worrying about a possible threat to his own unprotected and far-extended flanks. That was why he planned to transport all supporting elements of the panzer forces (infantry, artillery and engineers) in a similar way - that is, on tracks - and why the supply services (petrol, ammunition, food) were organically incorporated with the fighting troops. This enabled them to accompany, and keep up with the tank core until fused with it - at the same tune assuring Guderian's own supplies for three to five days.

It was Guderian - and at first he alone - who introduced the tank to the Army and its use as an operative weapon. It was certainly not the General Staff. During my term in the War Ministry (in the Inspectorate of Panzer Forces) I was well acquainted with Guderian's struggle on behalf of the use of this weapon. In the best sense of the word, this new weapon bears the stamp of his personality. Its successes during the war are due to him.

In peacetime he at first stood alone when he insisted that the 'break-through' of tanks should be pressed long and deep, and at first without regard to exposed flanks. On countless journeys and in countless conferences he injected this idea - even into the actual tank commanders.

If Guderian was not always successful in carrying out his theories everywhere during the war, it was due to the struggle against the mistrust of so many elderly officers who knew nothing, or little, about tanks.

He was the creator and master-teacher of our Armoured Forces - and I lay particular stress on the word 'master'.

(5) Wilhelm von Thoma, commander of 2nd Panzer Division, claimed that there were five main reasons why German tactics were so successful at the beginning of the Second World War.

1. The concentration of all forces on the point of penetration in co-operation with bombers.

2. Exploiting the success of this movement on the roads during the night - as a result, we often gained success by surprise deep in, and behind, the enemy's front.

3. Insufficient anti-tank defence on the enemy's part, and our own superiority in the air.

4. The fact that the armoured division itself carried enough petrol for 150-200 kilometres - supplemented, if necessary, with supply of petrol to the armoured spearheads by air, dropped in containers by parachute.

5. Carrying rations sufficient for three days in the tanks, for three more days in the regimental supply column, and three more days in the divisional supply column.

(6) Tom Wintringham, New Ways of War (1940)

One thing admitted by all observers of the German attacks is that they use most of their bombers as a flying artillery. The second thing that enters into the German formula of warfare, all observers agree, is the use of heavy tanks, so powerfully armoured that they are not vulnerable to light anti-tank weapons.

The third main factor in the success of the German tactics and strategy is that they have employed and developed the tactics known as "deep infiltration." This means that their army does not attack strung but in a line, and maintaining contact all the time between its advanced units and its main forces. It does not hit like a fist, but like long probing fingers

with armoured finger-nails. Each separate claw seeks a weak spot; if it can drive through this weak spot, it does not worry about its flanks, or about continuous communications with the forces following it. It relies for safety upon surprise, upon the disorganisation of its opponents due to the fact that it has broken through to the rear of their position.

(7) Arthur Harris, Bomber Command (1947)

The Germans had won their victories in circumstances entirely different from any that we could contemplate for our own forces; they had used their air force against armies which had scarcely any air protection or air support and were very ill-provided with anti-aircraft guns, but this would not be the case if we encountered the German army in the future.

Admittedly the specialised army co-operation types of aircraft might be rather more suitable on special occasions than the general-purpose bombers and fighters we were proposing to build, but they could not by themselves gain or maintain air superiority. The German dive-bombers were a case in point. They were no doubt accurate and alarming when used against undefended troops, but they were so easily shot down by efficient anti-aircraft fire, or, of course, by any normal fighter.

(8) Colonel Korotkov of the Red Army, wrote about the German Army and its Blitzkreig tactics in the book, Strategy and Tactics of the Soviet-German War (1943)

The Soviet Command is countering the German tactic of wedges and pincers by the tactic of flank blows. It is applying the method of crushing one side of the wedge as a result of which the other side loses its force. This is vividly demonstrated in the counter-blow delivered by the Soviet forces on the German 39th Tank Corps. The Nazi corps suffered a defeat and the operation of the German 3rd Tank Group, of which this corps was a part, was deprived of its striking force.

Compared with the fighting in France in 1940, what we see here is the reverse process. French resistance weakened as the enemy advanced, whereas the resistance of Soviet troops grows continuously, and their counter-blows become more effective. The result is that the Germans suffer tremendous losses. In the fighting in the western direction alone over 20 German infantry, panzer and motorized divisions have been smashed or have suffered considerable losses up to August.

As the war develops. Soviet troops devise new and successful methods of combating the Fascist tank wedges. A brilliant example of this is provided by the defeat and complete annihilation of some 300 enemy tanks by one Soviet rifle division. Having studied the enemy's tactics, the commander of the division ordered a sham retreat on one sector of the front, boldly allowed the German tank column to advance through his lines and then surrounded and destroyed it by concentrated artillery fire.

(9) Lieutenant-General Mishulin of the Red Army fought against the German Army during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

During recent attacks the German tanks have been attempting to operate mainly in small groups: in forces ranging from a company to a battalion, and very rarely in large numbers. This allows them greater flexibility in their operations, permits them to manoeuvre and ensures the possibility of passing rapidly from one form of fighting to another.

At the same time, however, this weakens the blows of their tank troops. Only rarely now does the German Command concentrate larger forces in a frontal attack for a decisive thrust with a large number of mobile forces (several tank divisions) as was the case, for instance, in the Briansk direction.

The speed of German tanks has also slowed down. The former tactics of deep "wedges" are practically no longer practised. This is explained by the fact that German tank units now forge ahead of their infantry less resolutely than they did in the early part of the war. They prefer to operate in closer co-operation with the infantry, supported by strong artillery and mine-thrower fire and aircraft.