Key Point: Yes, Berlin has some brilliant commanders and some good weapons. But a lot of other things had to go right for Nazi Germany to have its initial successes.
When over 1.5 million German soldiers poured over the Polish border on September 1, 1939 in an Operation codenamed Fall Weiss (“Case White”), they kicked off not only the bloodiest conflict in human history, but also a terrifying new form of fast-paced mechanized warfare popularly known as the Blitzkrieg or “Lightning War.”
This article first appeared in September 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.
However, the officers of the Wehrmacht never really used the term “Blitzkrieg,” which was popularized by the British press. Indeed, the Wehrmacht did not think of itself as practicing a new form of warfare, but rather practicing an old-fashioned war of maneuver using new means.
Enter the Tank
In World War I, newly-developed tanks had helped break the defensive stalemate imposed by artillery and machineguns. Post-war Russia, America, and Germany experimented with new ways to employ armor. However, while young officers like Charles de Gaulle and Patton theorized about the tank’s transformative potential, the old guard in France, the United Kingdom and the United States remained skeptical that the still-unreliable vehicles would radically change warfare.
After all, most tanks could be easily penetrated by cheaper anti-tank guns. Those with heavier armor were often cripplingly slow and unreliable. Thus, armored vehicles were primarily regarded as enhancing existing infantry and cavalry formations. But this analysis proved short-sighted.
German military theorists in the nineteenth-century emphasized massing forces to achieve local superiority at a single schwerpunkt (“main target” or “center of gravity”). Once the enemy position was ruptured, troops would pour through the breach, cutting off lines of communication for neighboring enemy units and encircling those that failed to extricate themselves.
Mechanization didn’t change this strategy so much as greatly enhance its effectiveness, because armored vehicles could mass and advance more rapidly than infantry or cavalry, and overrun or bypass small delaying forces once the more formidable (and fairly static) anti-tank defense at the frontline had been overwhelmed.
At the urging of the pioneering strategist Heinz Guderian, the Wehrmacht concentrated its tanks into its first three Panzer Divisions in 1935, each with organic artillery, engineering and infantry assigned to support the tanks rather than the other way around.
This contrasted with the French, British and Polish armies, which did field a few tank brigades or divisions, but still spread most of their tanks out in small units tied to slow-moving infantry divisions.
Germany also invested in what by 1939 was the world’s most powerful air arm. The Luftwaffe proved a potent force multiplier for mechanized units. Air power could be rapidly concentrated to key battlefronts and priority targets such as artillery and tank concentrations. It could also serve as “flying artillery” for armored units which had outrun their towed artillery support.
Furthermore, aircraft could disrupt and slow down the movements of opposing formations behind frontline, hampering the speed of enemy responses.
This high tempo of operations paralyzed enemy command-and-control, and starved frontline units of necessary fuel and ammunition, leaving the enemy continually off-balance. The ensuing demoralization, panic and confusion often caused theoretically still-effective formations to evaporate.
However, most historians agreed the Blitzkrieg’s disruptive effects were not planned for, but instead arose as natural consequences of the Wehrmacht’s disposition and force structure.
A Technological Edge?
However, the Wehrmacht’s mechanization is frequently exaggerated. Throughout World War II, a large proportion of the German military relied on horse-drawn carriages. In 1939, the Wehrmacht infantry had only 230 Hanomag half-track armored personnel carriers, and even truck-born units were considered “elite.”
Of the roughly 2,500 German tanks committed to the campaign in six Panzer divisions and five Light divisions, 2,100 were small Panzer Is armed only with machineguns and Panzer IIs with 20-millimeter cannons. Artillery and anti-tank rifles could easily penetrate their 5 to 15 millimeters of armor.
That meant only 17 percent were Panzer III and IV tanks and Czech Panzer 35(t) and 38(ts) with more capable guns and a modest 15-30 millimeters of armor. Compared to French Soviet and British contemporaries, the most consistent technical advantage in early-war German Panzers lay in their fleet-wide radio communications.
In the air, the Luftwaffe possessed a more decisive technical lead in its Messerschmitt Bf-109E fighter, which had a top speed of 354 miles per hour, compared to Poland’s PZL P.11 fighters that could barely exceed 240 mph.
Nonetheless, Germany already had the deck stacked ridiculously in its favor against Poland, benefitting not only from far greater population and industrial capacity, but with troops encircling Poland from the South, West and Northeast (in East Prussia). Furthermore, Poland lay on a plain with few natural obstacles that could seriously impede a German attack, while Warsaw’s best allies—France and the UK—had no land corridor to come to Warsaw’s aid.
To add insult to overwhelming injury, the Soviet Union swooped in vulture-like to invade eastern Poland on September 17.
The Poles fatally spread out their divisions in a forward defense of the border rather than concentrating them densely in the heartland. This made it easier for Panzers to penetrate their lines and cut of supply and communication lines. The spread-out Polish infantry lacked the mobility to extricate themselves, and units that were not encircled and destroyed suffered heavy losses retreating.
The air campaign was initially less one-sided than Berlin subsequently claimed. The Luftwaffe correctly prioritized knocking out Polish air bases—but the Polish aviation units had dispersed to secret bases prior to the commencement of hostilities. The PAF managed to eek out a superior air-to-air kill ratio versus faster Luftwaffe aircraft, and even slowed the advance of Panzer columns on a few occasions. But after a week of effective resistance, their bases were overrun, or located and bombed to oblivion.
At the river Bzura on September 9, bypassed Polish forces with tank support launched an initially successful counteroffensive. But Panzer Divisions and Luftwaffe units rapidly massed to reverse the tide, resulting in a devastating Polish defeat.
Germany’s victory over Poland was over-determined by numerous factors. However, the success of mechanized units informed the Wehrmacht’s maneuver-oriented strategy in the Battle of France eight months later.
This campaign involved a one-two punch: elite Allied forces were lured to the rescue of Belgium and Holland by the initial German attack in May—and then cut off from France by a second offensive that blazed through the “uncrossable” Ardennes forest to the Channel ports.
Again, air power played a critical role in supporting Panzers that had rolled ahead of their artillery, and the destabilizing and demoralizing effects of the German advance led to a rapid collapse in the Allied will to fight.
From then on “Blitzkrieg”-style mechanized campaigns were frequently attempted by all belligerents, leading to the devastating initial Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Soviet Bagration offensive of 1944 that wiped out 28 German divisions, and the U.S. breakout from Normandy (Operation Cobra).
However, the armies that survived their early encounters with the Blitzkrieg evolved tactics to counter it. Infantry and artillery were trained to continue resisting even when bypassed by armored units on their flanks. This constrained the penetration achieved by enemy armor until counter-attacking forces—led by tanks, naturally—could come to their rescue. A famous example is the stubborn American defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
A complementary method defense-in-depth: preventing armored formations from exploiting breakthroughs by bogging them down with additional hardened defensive positions behind the frontline. At the epic 1943 Battle of Kursk in 1943, nearly 3,000 Panzers faced six concentric belts of fortifications, minefields and anti-tank obstacles defended by the Red Army. In eleven grueling days, the Panzers advanced roughly 20 miles before foundering before the third belt.
While “Blitzkrieg” is a useful shorthand for the revolution in mechanized warfare, it should not be misinterpreted as suggesting the Blitzkrieg arose from a doctrinal “master plan,” or that the victories were due to superior German technology.
Instead, the Blitzkrieg arose organically from the interaction of new technologies, German force structure, and the vulnerabilities of unprepared foes. Once the Blitzkrieg’s impact was observed, both Nazi Germany and the Allies sought to replicate them more intentionally. However, both also developed tactics and technology that curtailed its effectiveness throughout the course of the war.
Perhaps the most unsettling lesson of Blitzkrieg today is that the disruptive effects of new technologies on old paradigms of warfare are likely to arise organically and unpredictably in conflict, rather than be completely “figured out” in advance.
For now, we can only dimly forecast how technologies ranging from cyber and information warfare to artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, space-based sensors, and drone swarms will transform future wars. The discovery of their actual potential may well surprise both sides in a conflict.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.