(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Len Deighton is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books on World War II. In his latest book, Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk, he provides a detailed account of the elements of the blitzkrieg method of warfare and its classic application by the German Army in the attack on the West in the spring of 1940. The author does not really take up the theme of the development and application of blitzkrieg until parts III and IV of the book. The first third of the volume is given over to a general survey of Adolf Hitler and the rise of National Socialism from World War I to the eve of the German campaign in the West in May, 1940. In this section of the book, Deighton offers some interesting observations on such topics as Hitler’s character, his generals, and the military campaigns against Poland and Norway at the outset of World War II.

In discussing the origins of the blitzkrieg concept of warfare, the author dispels the idea that it was of British origin. Instead, he views blitzkrieg as a development of Prussian military thought. Its earliest application can be seen in the regulations that the Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke conceived in 1869 about flank attack.

The first major ingredient of modern blitzkrieg was introduced by the German Army as a studied response to the stagnant trench warfare that characterized most of the fighting on the Western Front during World War I. Late in 1917, on the Italian front, and particularly during their great spring offensive in the West in 1918, the Germans used specially trained units to infiltrate enemy defenses. Supported by aircraft, these units sought out the artillery positions which, if overrun, would prevent the enemy from withdrawing to a new defense line. Deep penetrations of this type also cut off the command system from contact with the front-line troops.

Deighton shows how almost simultaneously, three military thinkers conceived of the possibility of combining German infiltration tactics with twentieth century military technology into a method of warfare that would enable a properly equipped army to break through established defensive positions with considerable speed. During World War I, the British had introduced the tank in an effort to break through the German lines, but it proved too slow and cumbersome to have any real impact. Major General J. F. C. Fuller, chief staff officer of the British Tank Corps, reasoned that a fast tank employing the new German infiltration tactics could, with close air support, mount an assault on enemy headquarters behind the line. Once the headquarters were knocked out, the enemy front line would collapse within a matter of hours. Fuller’s ideas were largely echoed by Captain Basil H. Liddell Hart, British military historian, who agreed that modern armies must achieve mobility by means of mechanization. Liddell Hart went on to extend the concept of penetrating to an enemy’s headquarters, to the idea of “the expanding torrent,” which spread chaos up through the military command to the enemy government itself.

After World War I, Heinz Wilhelm Guderian, a German staff officer, read the works of Fuller and Liddell Hart. Their writings enforced his own experience during the war with infiltration tactics and his new interest in tanks. In addition, Guderian had developed an appreciation during the war for the importance of radio communication between the commander and his troops at the front. Thus, in Deighton’s view, Guderian, later appointed by Hitler as Commander in Chief of the German Armored Forces, understood at an early date the significance of essential elements of blitzkrieg—infiltration tactics, the tank, and radio communications for the coordination of rapidly moving armored forces. During the 1920’s and especially during the 1930’s after Hitler came to power, Guderian wove these elements together. The author thus regards Guderian, justifiably, as the creator of blitzkrieg, the spearhead of which was the highly mobile and fast moving armored (panzer) division.

In analyzing the development of blitzkrieg, the author discusses the various mechanical vehicles, including tanks, that were used; the use of artillery; the battle group of the panzer division; and air power, in particular the role of the dive bomber. The prohibition of tank construction in Germany under the Treaty of Versailles only served to heighten interest in that weapon. More effective than outright prohibition was the dismantling of German heavy industry by the wartime Allies. Hence, during the 1920’s, the Germans, in a secret agreement with the Soviet Union, conducted tank experiments on Russian soil using Russian tanks. Once Hitler came to power and threw off the military restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, German tank production rapidly expanded. Deighton describes in some detail the various types of tanks the Germans developed and compares them with those of British and French design. During the 1930’s, the German Army provided its growing panzer forces with half-tracks. These were used to transport infantry and light and heavy howitzers, the mainstay artillery of...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)