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