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In military history, Blitzkrieg, from the German for "lightning war", describes a military tactic introduced by the German army at the beginning of World War II. The term was coined by Western newspapermen in 1939 to convey the speed and destructiveness of the three week German campaign against Poland.

The key to Blitzkrieg was to organize the troops into mobile forces with excellent communications and command, able to keep the momentum up while the battle unfolded. The basic concept was to concentrate all available forces at a single spot in front of the enemy lines, and then break a hole in it with artillery and infantry. Once the hole was opened, tanks could rush through and strike hundreds of miles to the rear. This allowed the attacking force to fight against lightly armed logistics units, starving the enemy of information and supplies. In this way even a small force could destroy a much larger one through confusion, avoiding direct combat as much as possible. In a perfect development the enemy would be retreating to the rear to set up new defensive lines, which the attacking force would have already passed. Increasing confusion and desperation among the defender's chain of command would render it competely ineffective.

Blitzkrieg was a fast and open style of warfare, heavily reliant on new technologies. First aircraft were used as long-range artillery to destroy enemy strongholds, attack troop concentrations, and spread panic. Then combined arms forces of tanks and motorized infantry coordinated by two-way radio destroyed tactical targets before moving on, deep into enemy territory. A key difference to previous tactical models was the devolution of command. Fairly junior officers in the field were encouraged to use their own initiative, rather than rely on a centralised command structure.



The idea of using rapid movement to keep an enemy off-balance is almost as old as war itself. However for the majority of history armies were limited in speed to that of the marching soldier, about equal for everyone involved. This meant that it was possible for opposing armies to simply march around each other as long as they wished, with supply conditions often deciding where and when the battle would finally be fought. Perhaps the most famous example of this ended with the Battle of Agincourt, prior to which Henry V of England avoided combat while marching to Calais to resupply, allowing him to pick the battlefield.

Napoleon's introduction of logistics changed the nature of warfare considerably. Now the invading army was not under the same sort of timing pressure to bring the opposition to battle as soon as possible. This allowed his forces to attack where and when they wanted, often giving him the advantage of terrain. It also allowed him to form much larger armies because they were no longer straining the local economies directly.

But things didn't really change until the introduction of various forms of mechanized transport, starting with trains. Now the opposing armies were no longer limited in speed, and a war of maneuver became a real possibility. Some train-borne maneuvering took place during the War Between the States in the 1860s, but the sizes of the armies involved meant the system could provide only limited support.

In the Franco-Prussian War the Prussian army, knowing that the French could field larger forces, devised a war plan that relied on speed. If, on declaration of war, they could mobilise, invade and seize Paris fast enough, then they would be victorious before the vast French army could form and retaliate. This tactic was used to devastating effect in 1871, when the Prussian forces were able to defeat two large French forces before they were able to join in the field.

Given the success they had in 1870s, it's not surprising that the German battle plan for what would become World War I was based on similar concepts. However technology had changed considerably in the four decades, with the machine gun and considerably more powerful artillery swinging the balance of power desicively to the defense. While all combatants were desperate to get the front moving again, this proved difficult. The introduction of the tank in a series of increasingly successful operations pointed the way out of trench warfare, but the war ended before the British plans to field thousands of them could be put into place.

Birth of the Blitzkrieg

After the war all of the combatants studied the results and developed their new plans. the United Kingdom and France, the winners, made plans that were similar to those in World War I. Tank units would be used to punch holes in the enemy lines, through which the mass of infantry could move forward. The general concept remained the same as in WWI, there would be some sort of front line that the tanks would be used to breach, followed up with a new front developing at some other point.

But there were a few who saw an entirely different style of warfare developing. Instead of "infantry and tanks" there would be "mechanized units", entire divisions provided with their own high-speed transport. Let loose in battle, there would never be a front-line for the tanks to penetrate; these units would be hundreds of miles away before any sort of defense could form.

The main proponents of this concept were J.F.C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell Hart of the British Army. Liddell Hart developed the concepts further, calling it the "indirect approach". In this concept the mechanized forces would attack at a point of least resistance, which they could pick because they would be able to move to any point of their choosing at high speed. The force would then be gathered into a single point, punch through the defenses, and then run into the rear areas. The enemy commanders would never really know where the next attack would come from, and would be thrown off-balance. In order to support this sort of warfare, Liddell Hart advocated the creation of units with plenty of trucks, armored cars, and light high-speed tanks known as "cruisers".

Paradoxically Liddell Hart's concepts were not well developed in England, who felt fairly secure after Germany's defeat, while German planners seized upon them as a way for their numerically smaller armies to have a chance in the battlefield. Heinz Guderian translated Fuller and Liddell Hart's works into German, and advocated the concepts to an increasingly interested German General Staff. He also added two key requirements: the widespread use of tactical radios so widely separated units could coordinate, and the training of commanders who would act quickly in the field. Without these components the units would be slowed by their need to communicate to higher level command in the rear, who would likely be overloaded in battle or at least had an incomplete picture of the situation on the ground.

The basic concepts were tested during the Spanish Civil War. While not known for its quick movement, German commanders nevertheless were able to work out potential problems in the chain of command and communications. One issue that became clear was that the terrain often imposed "choke points" where a well-situated strongpoint would stop the movement of the mechanized forces. Normally artillery would be used to deal with fixed emplacements, but artillery moves so slowly that the momentum would be lost.

In the late 1930s a solution was found in the form of the dive bomber, whose accuracy allowed it to be used as a sort of flying artillery. Systems for tight coordination between ground and air communications were worked out, allowing commanders on the field to quickly call in support.

Use in World War II

By the late 1930s The Germans had re-organized their Army to include a number of elite Panzergruppen, divisions consisting almost entirely of tanks, infantry in half-tracks (precursors to modern armored personal carriers) and trucks to supply them. To this they added Junkers Ju 87, also called Stuka, to complement artillery and allow for "breakthrough" attacks even far behind the lines. Most divisions were, however, still infantry divisions with horses and carriages.

The theory was first put to use by Guderian's XIX Army Corps against Poland, where it proved effective although mechanization of the troops at the time was seriously limited (many German troops were on foot, and supplied by horse). The speed of this operation relied as much on the presense of radio communications and on-the-spot command as it did on the Panzergruppen.

It demonstrated its true worth in 1940 against France, when a small force of panzers attacked at the least expected spot, in the Ardennes, broke through the thin defensive lines and rushed to the coast before the defending forces could organize any sort of counterattack. When they turned south into France itself the French forces were continually ordered to form new lines along rivers, arriving to find the German forces had already passed them.

Blitzkrieg was crucial for both sides on the Eastern Front. Both the German successes in Russia from 1941-2 and the subsequent Russian victory depended on the application of increasingly sophisticated combined arms units. The Battle of Stalingrad shows both the good and bad points of the concept. The battle opened with a German attack in an unexpected location, sending the defending Soviet forces reeling back over hundreds of kilometers in a matter of days. The movement ended when Hitler became increasingly interested in capturing Stalingrad itself, allowing the Soviet forces to regroup and counterattack.

Germany tried another Blitzkrieg offensive against the western forces during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, but by this time the allied planners had their counterstrategy well developed. With the opening of the battle forces were rushed to hem in the Germans, not in front where their heaviest concentration of forces was placed, but at the sides. In attempting to avoid direct combat, the armored spearhead was squeezed into an ever-smaller front, and eventually stopped entirely when they were squeezed onto a single road.

The term Blitzkrieg is mainly used to describe German tactics in the first part of the European war, however the general tactic was certainly not unique to them, and was used whenever the opportunity presented itself, notably by the forces under the command of General Patton in the exploitation of the breakout from Normandy during Operation Cobra, and (in modified form) by the Japanese in their rapid advance during 1941 and 1942 (where sea transport, light artillery, and hard marching largely substituted for the tank and the truck).

Problems with Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg is not without its disadvantages; there is a danger of the attacking force overextending its supply lines, and the strategy as a whole can be defeated by a determined foe who is willing to sacrifice territory for time in which to regroup and rearm. In addition, the defending army can maintain strong points which the attacking army must either eliminate thereby disrupting its momentum or bypass which creates the possiblity that the defender will use them to encircle the attacker. Once the attack loses momentum, the war becomes one of attrition in which the mobility and surprise involved with blitzkrieg are no longer useful.

The limits of blitzkrieg were seen in Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Although the German attack took huge areas of Russia, the overall strategic effect was more limited. The Red Army was able to regroup far to the rear, and eventually defeat the German forces for the first time in the Battle of Moscow. In the following summer of 1942, when Germany launched another Blitzkrieg offensive in southern Russia against Stalingrad and the Caucasus, the Soviets again lost tremendous amounts of territory, just to counter-attack again when they stopped in front of the city.

As the war progressed, Allied armies began using blitzkrieg tactics of their own against Germany. Many operations in the Western Desert and on the Eastern Front relied on massive concentrations of firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. These tactics were also decisive in the Normandy operations after Operation Overlord, which resulted in a massive encirclement of Germany military strength in France.


The possibility of a massive Soviet tank attack on Western Europe using blitzkrieg tactics was the focus of NATO planning in the Cold War. The difficulty was that the standard tactic of trading space for time would have lead to Western Europe being overrun. The solution in the 1950s was a rapid escalation to nuclear war. In the 1960s, the existence of Mutual Assured Destruction made this untenable, and the focus of defense was changed to air land doctrine.

The military doctrine of Rapid Dominance or shock and awe is considered by some a modern successor to blitzkrieg. Like blitzkrieg, rapid dominance emphasizes high amounts of communication and rapid strikes using combined arms to create confusion in the enemy. Unlike blitzkrieg, rapid dominance relies heavily on air power, large amounts of central coordination, and focuses on destroying the enemy's command and control structures rather than its supply lines.

Further reading

  • The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform, James S. Corum, University Press of Kansas, 1994
  • Blitzkrieg: From the rise of Hitler to the fall of Dunkirk, Len Deighton, 1981
  • The Blitzkrieg Myth : How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II, John Mosier, HarperCollins, 2003
  • Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade with L.A. "Bud" Edney, Fred M. Franks, Charles A. Horner, Jonathan T. Howe, and Keith Brendley, NDU Press Book, 1996 available online at (Look under publications for html version)

See also

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:09:59
Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:47:11