Blitzkrieg

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2100

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.

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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 panzer division. Other types of vehicles included armored cars for reconnaissance and motor trucks. Despite all of this mechanization, Deighton points out that the German Army of World War II still depended on horses to provide much of its transport for men and matériel. The battle group of a panzer division generally consisted of a rifle regiment, together with engineers, signals, and an artillery batallion. If the panzer division spearheaded the blitzkrieg on land, the Stuka dive bomber played a similar role in the air and was often referred to, with some overstatement, as the artillery of the blitzkrieg.

The method of blitzkrieg, the author writes, was based on a well defined theory that had its fullest application in May 1940 when the German panzers broke through the Ardennes, crossed the Meuse, and pushed to the Channel coast where they succeeded in cutting off the British and French armies fighting in the Low Countries. Strong concentrations of tanks would advance in echelon, moving in carefully timed waves. Augmenting the armored advance against the Schwerpunkt (place of main effort) were the Luftwaffe, artillery, and an effective radio communications network between the commander and his tanks. Blitzkrieg tactics called for military operations on a much narrower front than those tactics employed in World War I. Thus, the broad scale of the twenty-eight mile-wide German infantry attack at Marne-Aisne in July, 1918, contrasted sharply with the four mile front of the blitzkrieg at Sedan in May, 1940. Even so, the blitzkrieg’s narrow front was always large enough to permit two or three attacking columns to advance side by side. These columns could then converge as pincers on strong points, though the theory demanded that these columns diverge immediately afterward to avoid congestion on the road. Speed and maintenance of momentum were essential to the success of a blitzkrieg. Also, very careful planning was necessary in order to insure that a rapidly moving armored force had adequate supplies of food, fuel, ammunition, and other necessities.

One of the central ideas that Deighton advances in his study is that, strictly speaking, the Germans employed the blitzkrieg method of warfare only in May, 1940. Despite modern weaponry used by the Germans in the Polish campaign in 1939, their methods of warfare were very conventional. Most of the German armor was distributed piecemeal to the battle. Although armored thrusts penetrated Eastern Poland, no major battles were fought there. Instead, the Germans relied on the more traditional encirclement tactics (Kesselschlacht) to defeat the Polish armed forces. Similarly, the original German battle plan for an attack on France was the same one that had failed in 1914. Pivoting from Luxembourg, the German armies would move frontally against the enemy through the Low Countries with the aim of engulfing Paris. In October, 1939, General Erich von Manstein, Chief of Staff of Army Group A, obtained a copy of “Plan Yellow” for the attack on the West. He was immediately impressed by the fact that it amounted to little more than a duplication of the plan that in 1914 had ultimately failed in the First Battle of the Marne. Consequently, he drew up his own plan which called for the main thrust to be made by concentrated armor through the Ardennes Forest and over the Meuse River to the Channel Coast. The Allies advancing to meet the simultaneous German invasion of the Low Countries would be surrounded.

In short, Manstein was able to sell his plan—embodying blitzkrieg tactics—to Hitler. When the German attack on the West began on May 10, 1940, the bulk of German armor was allocated to Army Group A, operating in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, under the command of General Karl von Rundstedt. The Manstein plan worked to perfection. In just eleven days, as the author recounts in considerable detail, German armor, under such distinguished commanders as Guderian and General Erwin Rommel, moved through the Ardennes, crossed the Meuse River, and moved up the north bank of the Somme River to Channel Coast at Abbeville. The excellent air cover provided by the Luftwaffe throughout this campaign in no small way contributed to its success. The Allied armies fighting in the Low Countries were now completely encircled with their backs to the sea. At this point, the German high command halted the panzers and so prevented them from capturing the surrounded Allied forces at Dunkirk. This decision—in part due to the need to preserve the armor for the coming battles in central France—allowed the Allies to evacuate some 350,000 men from the Dunkirk perimeter before it finally fell to the Germans on June 4. By letting the Allied army escape, the Germans earned after what Deighton calls a “flawed victory.”

Deighton holds that after the masterful German armored thrust from the Ardennes to the Channel, the blitzkrieg method was never again successfully used throughout the war. It is perhaps more accurate to state that the Germans never again enjoyed a combination of good roads, ideal tank terrain, and other advantages that they did in fighting their way through northern France. In any event, Deighton believes that the German campaign south of the Somme which resulted in the capitulation of France before the end of June had little to distinguish it from the German military methods of the nineteenth century. The army now seemed determined to prove that foot soldiers and horse-drawn artillery could also win battles. Later, in the North African desert and in the Russian steppes, the Germans found that they were never able to “get behind” the bulk of the enemy forces the way they had in France in May, 1940. Also, the enemy no longer stood as much in awe of German tanks as in the Ardennes-Meuse campaigns. They improved their own tanks, tank tactics, and antitank weaponry.

Elsewhere in the book, Deighton discusses the disposition of the French armed forces at the outset of World War II. The French, as victors in World War I, were prepared to fight that war all over again. The Germans, by contrast, as losers had to examine new methods of warfare to guarantee them the success that had eluded them earlier. As is generally known, the French assumed a defensive posture behind their vaunted Maginot Line, a strategy which helped insure their defeat in 1940.

Where their armor was concerned, the French possessed tank resources that matched those of the German in quality and quantity. In tactics and organization, however, the French armored forces were clearly inferior. The tanks were grouped in battalions which were assigned to infantry units or kept in reserve. Only in 1939 did the French Army put its first real armored division into the field. French tactics called for armor to serve as a forward protective screen for the advancing infantry. So deployed, French tanks were condemned to destruction by the rapidly moving, highly concentrated panzer divisions. In addition, the French Army possessed little radio communications equipment for its tanks and only inadequate numbers of antitank weapons.

Deighton’s Blitzkrieg is a good analysis of the development and application of a method of warfare that enabled the Germans to gain control of Western Europe within a few weeks in the spring of 1940. The chief flaws of the book lie in its somewhat muddled organization and certain statements that border on mutual contradiction. Still, the author clearly shows how blitzkrieg tactics evolved as a reaction to the slogging war of attrition that characterized the trench warfare of World War I. A series of excellent maps and tables enable the reader to form a clearer picture of the movement of armies and the various plans of attack. Numerous well-chosen illustrations and photographs also complement the book.

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