When the First World War ended, the primary military problem was how to end the long, bloody stalemate
that typified combat
on the Western Front. Major battles like Verdun
swallowed tens of thousands of lives for a few yards of territory. No battle ever proved truly decisive. Combat was an endless grind which finally wore down Germany's will, if not the ability, to resist. The History of Warfare shows had many eras where either offense or defense enjoyed a profound advantage. World War I
marked the culmination an era of defensive dominance. Blitzkrieg
is the more common name to a series of primarily German innovations which ended that period of defensive domination. The name was coined in 1940 when German soldiers first defeated Poland and then the combined armies of England and France in a short campaign
with amazingly low casualties. These new tactics were used by Germany to carve up large slices of European Russia and annihilate whole Soviet armies. The same tactics were later used against their originators. Blitzkrieg
is a catchall term describing a force using heavily concentrated armor combined artillery and air power to create a breakthrough followed by continuous, rapid movement designed to deny the defender time
to recover and restore his lines. Speed is critical and security
is in part guaranteed by movement and air power. Attackers seek to find weak points and fight their battles primarily in the enemy rear. Speed is not merely rapid movement but rapid decision making. Winning does not stress meeting strength with strength, but rather by attaining a position where the enemy's combat power
is defeated through the destruction of those supporting units necessary to support operations. In the words of practitioner George S. Patton the idea is to "get back there among the cooks and the quartermasters. These people are not used to cordite!"
Why the Stalemate of World War I
The story of blitzkrieg really begins around the time of the American Civil War. That war marked one of those moments where the momentum swung to favor the tactical defensive, thanks in part to Eli Whitney and the industrial revolution. Before this period the average infantryman was equipped with a musket. Muskets are single-shot, long flintlock or caplock guns that can be fitted with a bayonet for close in figthing and defense. Musket barrels are smooth and have a LOT of clearance between the ball being fired and the barrel so the ball wobbles around before it leaves the barrel. The net result is a weapon which is about as accurate as a modern pistol with a six inch barrel. Meaning you can't count on hitting anybody much more distant then the other side of the room. Of course rifled weapons that could hit accurately a long way off did exist, but guns were mostly handmade before the mid-nineteenth century. Rifles required a lot of precision, which in turn meant they required an enormous amount of skill, time and therefore expense to make. They also required precisely sized bullets. Muskets were a lot easier to make in numbers and reasonably easy to supply bullets for and so they were the only weapon armies could afford for the basic infantrymen. Besides, muskets worked if you trained people to fight as a team.
The musket's inherent inaccuracy led armies to focus their training on two basic skills. First train soldiers to march because units need to move and fight as one. Marching drills allowed armies to deploy in a useful manner on the battlefield. The famous British red coat allowed British commanders to identify British troops on a very smoky battlefield. Second, armies taught firing drills which stressed rapid reloading and firing on command. Basically an infantry unit used three lines. One line fired while the other two reloaded. Battle drill stressed performing this efficiently. Muskets themselves weren't very accurate but when you pointed a hundred of them and lit them off together a certain percentage of the musket balls would hit. Essentially, each line made up an enormous shotgun.
In an age when soldiers travelled on foot the musket's short range and low accracy made it possible for an attacker to charge a defensive formation with a real possibility of success. It was still dangerous, and attackers generally took more casualties but a determined force could successfully press the attack, something Napoleon proved during his march across Europe. A force that takes punishment and keeps coming scares defenders too. The issue often came down to which side failed their morale check first.
By the beginning of the American Civil War the Industrial Revolution was well underway. Both sides began the war with troops largely equipped with muskets produced by industrial methods. By 1860 machine tooling had improved enough to make mass-production of rifles practical. Improved casting techniques increased the precision of balls and bullets, as variable ball size is one reason musket barrels were built with generous tolerances. Rifles made it possible for a lone infantryman to engage individual targets several hundred meters distant with a reasonable possibility of success.
Mass-produced rifles made it profitable for armies to train their soldiers for both speed and marksmanship. Marching a unit directly into massed, accurate rifle fire became a truly deadly business. Casualty rates skyrocketed on both sides. Soldiers quickly learned to dig immediately if they wanted to survive. By late 1862 if a Union or Confederate unit stopped earthwork construction began immediately. Within three days average troops prepared a fortified trench line with log obstacles. Charging such a trench line, if proparly manned, proved suicidal and neither side was ever able to do it with much success. Improved machine tooling made possible the replacement of shot and wad with cartridge ammunition. Cartridges made semi-automatic and automatic weapons possible, greatly increasing the infantry's firepower. The movement to repeating rifles, the development of barbed wire and especially the machine gun merely strengthened the advantages enjoyed by the defense.
Soldiers saw what was happening but other technological developments led generals to believe the offense could be bolstered. Artillery had moved from bore to breech-loading guns whose size, range, rate of fire and accuracy had dramatically improved. Shell quality kept pace, and there were many advances in fusing. Generals believed they could blast a hole in the trench lines with their big guns. But these same advances in gunnery worked for the defense as well. It was easier to control and prepare defensive fire then to adjust offensive fire to changing battle conditions.
The firepower provided by automatic weapons and rifles removed the cavalry as an offensive force on the battlefield. The power and speed of horses had made the cavalry charge a decisive arm in combat for many years. The rifle and the machine gun turned cavalry charges into a dramatic mass suicide pact. Cavalry remained useful for scouting, but once the Race to the Sea had been completed there were no open lands left to scout. Once an often decisive leg of battle, the horse cavalry had been rendered impotent. This meant no army could maneuver faster then it could march.
What we have here is a failure to communicate
Karl von Clausewitz once wrote "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Once battle is joined events take on a life of their own. Successful commanders adjust quickly to opportunities as they present themselves. But in order to adjust on the fly a commander has to be able to see the opportunity and and get a message back to those units who can act to support the attack. In World War I there was no efficient way to communicate. During the Great War it was impossible for senior commanders to order reinforcements or change the artillery fire plan once the fighting began. Runners were slow, and even slower crossing the a series of muddy craters left by the artillery. Flags disappeared in the smoke. Once runners passed friendly lines a telegraph line might be available. Or it might not. The big guns were so good that in order to maintain any form of communcations with a World War I headquarters it was necessary to bury the wire at least six feet (two meters) deep. Often that wasn't enough! Wires were lost routinely. It proved impossible to string new wires across a hot battlefield. Once again the defense benefitted as it is easier to prepare fire plans for defense then offense and to adjust fire supporting a known geographic situation.
Simply put, the conditions for attackers in the First World War were probably the most difficult in history. Even when troops did succeed in breaking through enemy lines there was no way to quickly get a timely message back to follow-on forces to exploit the breakthrough. Artillery could not be adjusted the way defensive fires could. Dueling artillery turned the battlefield into a muddy moonscape the attackers had to cross. The defender could reinforce on flat, firm ground and using existing roads. Thus defenders always moved faster. Those conditions more then military incompetence led to the stalemate on the Western Front. As the front was small enough to form a continuous battle line the situation left few possibilities for maneuver, one important difference from the American Civil War.
By the end of the war technology had produced three items that would later prove important in breaking the stalemate, the tank, radio and the airplane. All remained very primitive at the time, which led to mistakes in interpreting the lessons of that war.
Looking for a new tactics
Any war as long, bloody and destructive as the First World War naturally affects the survivors. And the soldiers who planned the next war were survivors. All had buried friends in that terrible war. The question became what to do next? Some grew nostalgic for simpler days for soldiers are people and prone to human frailty. The general in charge of the US cavalry in 1939 was interested in tanks, but "not at the expense of even one horse". Soldiers loved their horses, and many soldiers wanted to head back to "real soldiering". As General Sir John Hackett once put it, "We joined up to ride and later found we'd joined the Army." Others struck a more modern tone. There were lots of ideas and debates in military journals and officers clubs across the world. Englishmen Basil Liddell-Hart and J.F.C Fuller had seen into the future and wrote extensively and convincingly on the ways armies would have to change in order to succeed on the future battlefield. Fuller became the British Army's biggest tank booster, and Liddell-Hart's book Strategy embraced the indirect attack where you strove to fight in the enemy's rear areas. In Soviet Russia Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky argued for the "deep battle" using fast mechanized forces. Their arguments were debated and found converts and contributors in all armies. But military equipment is very expensive. Politicians are often reluctant to fund such things, particularly so after a war so hideous as to be named "the war to end all wars". Armies are also conservative by nature for the very good reason that so many miltary lessons are written in blood. The world fell into economic depression, starving nations for funds. The victors of World War I experimented with new techniques but never fully embraced them.
Germany was not one of the happy victors. While the French desire for reparations and German disarmament were understanble in light of the fact that most of the Western Front lay on French soil, the Treaty of Versailles left a bitter taste in the German mouth. Germans felt humiliated. The restrictions Versailles placed upon the German military forced the Wehrmacht to do more then just think outside the box. Versailles forced the Germans actually prepare to fight in new ways.
The initial architect of the German tactical development was General Hans von Seeckt. Like many soldiers Von Seeckt began by recognizing he faced a nearly impossible problem operating within the Treaty. Versailles limited the size of the German army to 100,000 men with limited artillery and forbade the Germans both tanks and aircraft. Under those restrictions the least of Germany's neighbors could defeat it easily in a conventional battle. Germany simply could not afford to stand pat and 'slug it out'. First the Germans made a very careful systematic study of how battles were fought during World War I. Through a series of exercises, schools and commentaries Von Seeckt began to teach the German Army to think differently about how to fight. Maneuver warfare stresses mobility and tactical flexibility. Time is more important then space. Movement can preserve defenders from the brunt of enemy strength and create opportunities for counterattack. Maneuver warfare places great demands on small unit commanders. Officers and NCOs must be able to act with little or no guidance from above yet work as a team with the rest of the force. Commanders had to be taught to train their junior officers to that standard and then to trust they could handle the additional responsibility.
Versailles also helped the Wehrmacht keep the people needed to realize to employ new tactical thinking. The small size of the German Army meant that only the best of its officer corps and NCOs could be retained out of what was already a very good army. New recruits had to enlist for twelve years, officers for fifteen. The intent was to prevent the Germans from building up a reserve but the restriction ensured the army enjoyed a great continuity while it adapted to new tactics. Economic depression gave many incentive to make that commitment, particularly as the Wehrmacht paid well compared to other armies. The result was a force where many common soldiers attained a non-commissioned officer in competence. The German system also promoted officers directly out of the enlisted ranks also helped by ensuring that even junior officers where of high quaility. It freed German NCOs to train their men without the need to train junior officers. Junior officers do most of the leading in war, so Von Seeckt's army could count on a high standard of competence. In addition, because the Germans expected they would fight both tanks and aircraft they were assumed and simulated in all exercises. German officers were taught to lead from the front and make quick adjustments based on the tactical situation. They were allowed to make mistakes in training and thus to learn from them.
The result was a small army trained to an extraordinary standard on the very sort of tactics mechanized warfare made possible. Units were organized less around formal unit lines but on specific mission parameters with a practical orientation known as auftragstaktik. German forces and commanders were trained for flexibility. The long enlistments were intended to limit the number of reserves Germany might call up in the event of mobilization but it also ensured an army very well prepared for expansion if and when growth became a practical option.
While the Germans were building a tactically sophisticated army technological improvements made possible the weapons needed to exploit their new tactics. World War I tanks choked their crews with smoke and deafened them with noise when they ran at all. More modern tanks represented a quantum leap over their WWI ancestors. Fast, relatively reliable and ergonomically sound, the Panzer Mark IV of 1939 was a completely different beast from the original rhombus-shaped British tanks that shocked the Wehrmacht in 1917. Armored personnel carriers were developed to carry soldiers across the broken ground. Artillery fire direction and sighting were improved. Airplanes had tripled in speed and could now carry loads rated by the ton. Most importantly, developments in electronics led to a revolution in radio communications. Radio had existed during the First World War, but the sets of the day were expensive, bulky and power-hungry, so much so they could only practically be installed in rear bases and on warships. Early radio sets also relied on telegraphy to overcome poor signal-to-noise ratios. Telegraphy requires skilled operators, which limited them to headquarters units. By the late 1930s radio sets had undergone a quantum leap in quality, cost-reduction, and size. Radios were now common in most homes, and small two-way sets could be mounted in trucks, tanks, aircraft and other vehicles. Short range sets could even be made man-portable. Signal-to-noise ratios improved enough to make voice communication practical. That cut the training burden enough to allow even small units to carry a radio. The Germans installed at least one radio set in every tank while the Allies did not.
The revolution in radio technology made possible a revolution in tactical communications. True radio signals could be intercepted, and possibly located but these disadvantages were more then overcome by the ability of commanders to maneuver units in real time across vast distances. Units at the front could now contact headquarters and request reinforcements in the event of unexpected opportunity or counterattack. Tactical aircraft scouting ahead could report their findings to ground commanders who could then directly request air support for the units moving ahead. All of this could happen in real time. All other nations noted and took advantage of the new radios, but the Wehrmacht integrated radios even more deeply. This meant the the Germans reacted more quickly then any other army of the time.
Last but not least we cannot understate the importance of the truck. Modern armies consume huge quantities of fuel, food, ammunition, spare parts and other items without which an army quickly stops moving. The railroad represented a logistical revolution when it was developed as trains could supply previously unimaginable quantities of supplies to armies on the move. Yet trains could not do the job for a fast moving army. Trains are tied to their fixed tracks, and everyone knew that one of the first thing an army does on defense is tear up the tracks leading into its territories. Plus trains need a station of some sort where supplies can be unloaded before they can be sent into the field. Trucks existed during the Great War but they were primitive as tanks and airplanes were during their era, with very poor performance once off hard-surfaced roads. Improvements in both trucks and tires made it possible to support armies advancing into enemy territory. Without the truck, mechanized warfare would not have moved very far.
Of course much of the German training using new equipment was confined to theory. Then in 1933 Adolf Hitler took power. Bitterly angry after Versailles and dreaming of empire, Hitler was fascinated with all new technologies. He shrugged off Versailles. Soon the German Army grew while combing its exceptional standard of training with the latest technology. Germany used the Spanish Civil War as a training exercise, ironing out problems in its tanks (too light, too few men in the turret) while develping the superb Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. The tiny German Army quickly became a large, modern striking force.
This does not mean Germany fielded a fully mechanized army. German industry was not up to that task. That honor would ultimately belong to the American Army which helped bring them down. Even with Hitler's support there was not the time, funds or fuel to fully mechanize. To the end of the war most Wehrmacht divisions were infantry. Horse-drawn transport remained common. Even in 1940, most German divisions were assigned farriers and specialized troops trained to care for their beloved horses. Skill in horsemanship was very much an expected skill among German officers.
But what the Germans could do was concentrate their armor as J.F.C. Fuller had proposed. The Germans went beyond Fuller by focussing everything; artillery, infantry and air power on supporting the armored spearheads. Hitler appointed the visionary Heinz Guderian as Inspector of the Armored troops. Guderian was blunt, acidic in his personality and made many enemies but his drive and perfectionism made him the perfect leader to hone this new fighting force. Guderian realized tanks alone weren't enough. All combat arms were expected to work with and support the tanks. Panzer divisions concentrated tank forces while Panzer Grenadier units rode halftracks and other vehicles into combat. The Germans provided self-propelled artillery to support these fast moving units and then tested their tactics in a realistic set of exercises. They learned it was best to keep their armor together like a great fist while relying on mobility and air power for flank security. They perfected the combined arms tactics they experimented with in World War I.
They did a better job then anyone in integrating air power with land power. The Luftwaffe had been designed from the ground up for the tactical support of the Army. They had a superb fighter, in the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a superb dive bomber in the Junkers Ju87 Stuka. Before smart bombs dive bombing was the only way to drop bombs accurately enough to consistently hit small, mobile targets like the tank. They understood the psychological impact of the bombing on soldiers who were on the receiving end. The Stuka was equipped with siren designed to create panic on the ground. The siren worked, terrifying green troops. In 1940 the Luftwaffe was a superb weapon for close air support.
The use of combined arms with a stress on rapid movement had begun late in World War I. In late 1917 the Germans began experimenting with stormtrooper tactics to overcome the stalemate and slaughter of trench warfare. The created units of picked soldiers, used moving artillery barrage and close air-support from the Luftwaffe with some success in battle. But without armor the practice proved expensive in picked soldiers, and without radios the artillery and air power could not be combined well. By 1939 all the tools were in place were to fully employ the tactics initiated during the Great War.
But the reputation of Blitzkrieg was not born on an exercise field, but rather in the rapid fall of France in 1940 followed by the Panzers' race across Russia in 1941. But it is important to consider the differences between the German Army and the forces it would later face in battle. First of all, the Germans had a head start on re-armament and effectively used the Spanish Civil War as a laboratory to test their tactics and equipment. All sides sent observers, but only the Germans and Russians actually contested the issue. The Germans did a better job of incorporating this experience into their training and equipment while Stalin gutted his officer corps. Most importantly, in 1940 nobody had much experience fighting tanks.
Second, the Germans enjoyed a visionary in the prime role of building their new army, and greater support among the troops for the newer tactics as they had been trained for maneuver their whole career. The Russians had their visionary in Tukachevsky, only Stalin had him purged out of fear of a too-independent Army. Had Stalin chosen differently, the Red Army might have been more then prepared to face the Germans in 1941. Certainly the Germans were in no way prepared for the T34 tank. The Brits had Fuller, and they listened to him, but never allowed him the sort of power and influence Guderian enjoyed, never utilized exercises as well to test tactics and they never had a Hitler on top pushing for the new methods. The French had DeGaulle and Leclerc (Leclerc in particular would prove very effective leading a French Armored division in 1944-5) and they had lots of good tanks. But their top leadership was quite old and focused on the defensive. The French dispersed their armor in packets rather then combining it into a powerful striking force.
Third by 1940 Germans soldiers had experienced combat first-hand while their opponents had not. The campaigns against Poland and Czechoslovakia had blooded the Wehrmacht. Inferior leaders had been replaced and many problems were identified and put right. Plus the head start the Germans got on re-armament meant their equipment was more fully developed. For example, the Brits were working in the Spitfire and the French had just recieved their first Dewoitaine D.520 fighters. The French fighter had real potential but all new fighter aircraft have their share of teething troubles and the D.520 was no exception. By contrast the most common German fighter, the bf109, was in its fourth major revision. The Allies had their good equipment, such as the British Matilda Infantry tank and the French Somua, but overall the Germans were ahead on their development cycles.
Finally, the Germans enjoyed a bit of luck. The Poles had chosen to defend at their border which made them more vulnerable to the envelopment style tactics the Germans preferred. In the west the initial attack plan followed the general lines of the Schlieffen Plan employed at the start of World War I. The reason for this was the flatter terrain of Holland and Belgium made maneuvering much easier, with more possible avenues of attack. Allied generals drew the same conclusions about the terrain, and pushed their best troops forward into Belgium for the same reasons. Then a German courier aircraft containing a copy of the operational orders for the offensive went down behind Allied lines. The Allies weren't sure if the orders they found were a plant, but Germany reacted as if the Schrodinger's cat had escaped his box alive.
The brilliant General Erich von Manstein suggested what became known as the 'Sickle Cut'. A large force was kept in the North to distract the Allies. With all eyes pointed North Manstein sent the main attack through the Ardennes forest into Belgium and Luxembourg and into the flank of the French and British armies. The Ardennes forest hid the German divisions during the pre-invasion buildup and the location avoided both the Maginot Line and the cream of French and British forces. The Allies had pushed north in Belgium expecting a repeat of World War I, as the Germans first planned. The French had troops opposite the Ardennes but they were B divisions, considered much weaker then the forces assigned to the North. French B divisions were composed mostly of inexperienced draftees trained in outdated tactics which left them completely unprepared for the massive, armor-intensive attack they received. The French Char B proved a tough opponent, but they were so widely dispersed the Germans never had to face French armor in numbers. French troops had minimal training in anti-tank tactics and many panicked when their machine guns proved ineffective against German armor-- a mistake veteran troops would not make. German armor quickly broke through French lines. Once through the Germans kept moving relying on speed and the Luftwaffe overhead to keep their flanks secure. They bypassed strongpoints and drove directly into the Allied rear, Cut off from their supplies and with Paris taken the best the Allies could do is hope to get as many soldiers as possible off the continent. Goering's ego, the RAF and Royal Navy made that possible at Dunkirk.
Germany found the Soviet armies in even worse shape. While the Russians had lots of men, some excellent equipment (notably the great T34) and a few competent generals the Stalinist purges had torn the heart out of the Red Army. Stalin had years earlier ordered Tukhachevsky shot and ruthlessly removed all traces of initiative from the Soviet Army. Most of its leaders were in place for political rather then military reasons. Given the wide spaces and relatively flat, open terrain of European Russia a plodding army was exactly the wrong sort of force to face the Germans. Their preparations were made worse by Stalin's complete inability to deal with the reality of invasion, both before and immediately after the invasion. With Stalin in panic, the Soviet Army failed to react quickly to the German attack. Only Colonel Mud and General Winter saved the Soviet Union from annihilation.
But hang on they did. Combat is a brutal but effective teacher. By 1942 the rude lesson had been learned and responses were coming. Hold the shoulders of any penetration to keep it from spreading. Channel the attack where you want it to go then counterattack into the enemy flanks. Those tactics helped the US Army beat the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. By 1943 the era of blitzkrieg was largely over. Soldiers had learned to keep their positions and trust their guns when facing armored attack. Anti-tank defenses were developed in depth, as at the Battle of Kursk. Mobile anti-tank guns and effective man-portable weapons such as the panzerfaust and bazooka saturated the battlefield. The Allies had all learned to copy the German techniques and added their own wrinkles. If there was a last hurrah it probably came after D-Day after Operation Cobra. Near St. Lo the U.S. Army blew a hole in German lines and forced a desperate pursuit until the Allies were stopped by logistical problems, a characteristic of all rapid advances. Like the Germans, each U.S. Army was led by a tactical air wing. Like Guderian, Patton often used speed and air cover to protect his flanks on the theory that if you keep doing unto others you can keep them too busy to do unto you. Still the defense had caught up with the offense by 1942, and balance had been restored to the battlefield. The basic strategy of the indirect attack remains valid, only now soldiers understand better how to cope.