'Lightning war’ doctrine
author Paul Boșcu, June 2016
Blitzkrieg literally means ‘lightning war’. This tactic describes an offensive military doctrine used by the German Army during World War II.

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Blitzkrieg literally means ‘lightning war’. This tactic describes an offensive military doctrine used by the German Army during World War II.

A blitzkrieg involves an initial bombardment. After this, motorized forces are brought to the front, and then used by the army to mount a rapid attack. Thus, by taking advantage of the element of surprise, the enemy is prevented from organizing a solid and coherent defense.

The first step was identifying the enemy’s weakest point. Bombers and motorized artillery would launch a barrage to prevent the enemy from organizing their defences. These bombardments were followed by test attacks to find the most vulnerable point of the enemy. Afterwards the actual armored attack would take place, aiming to penetrate as far as possible into the enemy’s territory. The intention was to minimize losses as much as possible, and to avoid counter offensive attack.

Once the principal force succeeded in surrounding the designated area, motorized infantry would begin operations to capture and destroy the enemy’s forces. Finally, the less mobile infantry units would have the duty of ‘mopping up’ the area.

A blitzkrieg requires speed, specialized transport vehicles, modern radio communication and a very efficient decentralized command structure. In other words, a blitzkrieg requires mechanized infantry, mobile artillery and a logistic capability that is able to support the constant advance of the tanks.

In practice, the strategy of blitzkrieg left few options available for slow defensive forces. Often they would be surrounded and then annihilated by the German infantry.

This strategy was especially efficient during invasions on the western front. It was used in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and France. The tactic was also proven very efficient in initial attacks on the eastern front against the Soviet Union.

The basic principles of blitzkrieg were, for the most part, designed by the German Army in the years following World War I. The goal was to use modern weapons and vehicles in ways which would avoid trench warfare in future conflicts.

The development of these tactics began immediately after Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Shortly after the war, a new German Army called the Reichswehr was created. A series of committees, formed by veteran officers of the barely-finished war, were commissioned to evaluate 57 military problems that had appeared during the war.

The reports from these committees formed the doctrinal standards of the German Army up to the beginning of the Second World War. The analysis of German military doctrine previous to the First World War greatly impacted these reports. An important issue was the type of warfare used. Maneuver warfare was practised on the eastern front in World War One, in contrast to trench warfare, which was carried out on the western front.

The Commander in Chief of the Reichswehr, Hans von Seeckt, did away with the German military doctrine which he described as an excessive tendency to encircle the enemy, replacing it with new methods based on speed, conferring the element of surprise. By catching the enemy off guard they would be able to obtain the best situation on the battlefield, provided that decisions could be made quickly. Mobility gave flexibility and speed.

Von Seekt wanted to create a smaller military force of professionals based on volunteers. In modern warfare, this kind of force would be much better at offensive action, while battle preparation would be quicker and easier. Also, the equipping of such a military force would cost less. This would allow the purchase of modern equipment.

This new type of operational doctrine also required a new decentralized command structure, which would allow decisions to be made closer to the operational units. This gave them a huge advantage and assured the success of the blitzkrieg.

After the initial military reforms, General Heinz Guderian took Von Seeckt’s ideas to the next level. He was a supporter of mechanized forces. Guderian predicted the tank to be the decisive war machine that would be used in future conflicts together with modern communications like the radio. In this way, the armored vehicles could organize themselves easily.

The successful operation of blitzkrieg depended on a series of well-defined attacks. The first step was to identify a focal point in which to begin an aggressive attack of the enemy, using tanks. The attack then continued with an advance into the enemy’s territory, supported by the air fleet which was vital in this kind of attack.

The main concept of the blitzkrieg consisted in the identification of a ‘Schwerpunkt’. This was a focal point for attacking the enemy, using armored vehicles. The goal was to break the enemy's lines of defence, in order to be able to operate behind them.

The tanks needed to execute a frontal attack in order to create a breach in the ranks of the opposing army. In this way, enemy lines could be penetrated. This kind of attack allowed the aggressor army to obtain numerical superiority in the immediate vicinity of the focal point, even if it was actually at a numerical disadvantage compared with the defensive army.

After the breach was made in the enemy lines, the mechanized units were able to penetrate farther in. However, instead of attacking the enemy’s flanks, they advanced in order to attack behind enemy lines. They had well-established targets. During the war, German tanks used this method to paralyze the enemy’s ability to react and organize a coherent defence.

In order to implement these ideas, a decentralized command structure was needed. Generally, a commander would not receive explicit orders from his superiors, but would know their general intentions. The manner in which these objectives would be realized was up to the commander on the battlefield. Thus, important decisions could be made quickly. The enemy would not have time to react to the constantly changing situation on the battlefield.

The last step in the operation was to destroy the remaining pockets of resistance created by crashing through the enemy lines. In those moments the enemy would suffer the greatest losses, due especially to the capture of weapons and prisoners of war. For example, during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, this tactic lead to the capture of 3.5 million Soviet prisoners.

The Blitzkrieg relied on the support of air forces above the principal attack of the ground forces. The success of the German Army was closely linked to their air force’s capacity to provide this support. In the first years of the war, the blitzkrieg was successful because the German Luftwaffe was able to offer superior air support. In the years to follow, even though the German Army continued to use the blitzkrieg, it did not have the same results. This was due to the fact that the Allies had air superiority.

The blitzkrieg was a military doctrine that was implemented with success. Even so, there was a series of countermeasures and other potential limits to be taken into account. Weather conditions, overstretching of supply lines, the regrouping of the enemy, the lack of air support, and the limited production of tanks were the main obstacles in the success of the blitzkrieg.

The production of new tanks was a constant problem for the Germans. Thus, towards the end of the War many ‘divisions’ of Panzer had only a few dozen of these machines.

The main obstacles of these military tactics were the terrain and the weather conditions. It is well known that blitzkrieg on the eastern front failed due to the extreme cold during the winter. The temperatures dropped and the roads became impossible to travel on. At the same time, Allied air superiority became a difficult factor for the Germans in the second half of the War.

This strategy could be countered by a determined enemy, if it was able and willing to sacrifice some of its territories in order to save time. At that moment, it could regroup and rearm, as the Soviet forces did on the Eastern Front.

The blitzkrieg proved efficient in short campaigns against Poland and France. However, the Germans were not able to maintain this level of success in following years. The blitzkrieg itself, as a strategy, always had a tendency to cause the attacking force to overstretch its supply lines.

As the War drew to a close, Germany had problems with fuel and ammunition supplies. This was due to the constant bombardment by the British and Americans. Almost half of the Tiger Tanks lost to the United States were abandoned due to lack of fuel.

The Blitzkrieg was used by the German Army in several military operations both before and after the start of World War II.

The German Army first used armored vehicles during the Spanish Civil War, when they sent a battalion of Panzer tanks to support the nationalists of General Franco. The German Luftwaffe sent fighter planes, bombers, and transport planes to offer support to ground forces. However, the number of tanks sent to Spain was too low to allow the efficiency of this tactic to be tested on a large scale.

The true test of this doctrine took place in the battle for France. The German Panzers attacked enemy territory through the Ardennes, a forested region with rough terrain. The location was poorly defended by the French and British Armies. The armored vehicles, commanded by Guderian, Rommel, and others, advanced far ahead of the other Wehrmacht German forces. When the British came with their counter attack, Hitler ordered the halt of the advancing German tanks. This took place near the Port of Dunkirk, where the Allies succeeded in evacuating almost 330,000 troops.

On the Eastern Front, the use of tanks was crucial for both sides. During Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets were caught off guard and the Soviet Air Forces were almost completely annihilated. This allowed the German Luftwaffe to obtain air supremacy in the first week of fighting. The ground forces of the Wehrmacht encircled entire Soviet Army divisions and captured a large part of the USSR’s territory.

When winter came, the tactics used for the German advance into the country became irrelevant. The freezing cold allowed the Soviets to regroup and successfully defend Moscow. The Germans also had other strategic victories on the front. However, in the following years they did not obtain any decisive victories. Thus, the German army was defeated in crucial battles, such as those at Stalingrad and Kursk. From that point on, the Soviets set the tempo of the War. They had significant armored forces, which led in the end to the collapse of the German Wehrmacht.

A new use of blitzkrieg took place during the invasion of Poland. The battalions of German Panzers had the job of surrounding and isolating elements of the Polish army. Most of the battles fought in Poland were however carried out by the infantry and artillery. Also, most of the Luftwaffe actions were independent of the land campaign. For this reason, the battles were conventional.

The success of the Germans in Northern France left the French defence without the necessary means to fight a mobile battle. Many of the tanks they had once had were already lost, and after only 2 months of fighting the French Army fell apart. This reality was a stark contrast compared to the trench warfare waged in the First World War, where the French successfully held out for 4 years.

On the western front, at the same time as the Normandy landing of Allied troops, the German army tried to launch a counterattack using armored vehicles. Due to Allied air superiority and lack of coordination between the German units, the attack failed. Later, the Wehrmacht attacked, through the Ardennes, a sector of the American army that was poorly defended. This was the last German offensive using armored vehicles during the war. However, the American troops put up a fierce resistance. Once the weather improved, the Allies had air support again, which forced the German retreat.

After the end of the war, a series of controversies appeared concerning the origins of the blitzkrieg. Some historians believed that the Germans didn’t actually invent a new tactic during the war. They were just using new technology - tanks. They adapted the tanks to the classic principles of maneuver warfare, which the German army had practised since before the beginning of the war.

Many historians maintained that the blitzkrieg was not a military theory. They considered that the tactics used by the Germans to obtain victory, with the exception of Operation Barbarossa, were actually improvised. They were not based on a central military doctrine. The supporters of this theory conclude that the Germans did not invent a new doctrine. They just used new technology - tanks - which they adapted to the classic principles of maneuver warfare.

The concept of maneuver warfare was also used in the 19th century, during the wars for the unification of Germany, and during the Franco-Prussian war. The first European General to introduce the concept of rapid movement of armed forces was the Swedish king, Gustav Adolf. This happened during the 30-year war.

According to the supporters of this theory, the Germans did not apply a new military theory at the beginning of the Second World War. They had always preferred short, mobile campaigns. Thus, they were able to obtain decisive victories. However, the nature of the warfare during the First World War did not allow this. The use of tanks and airplanes allowed the Germans to return to the doctrine of mobility, favored in the campaigns before the First World War.

Other historians have concluded that the blitzkrieg was a doctrine applied at the level of the German High Command. The term was very rarely used in documents of the time. Even so, they consider that it was a strategic concept, around which the Third Reich planned its economic policy. This point of view also has proponents today, although it was challenged by historians during the 70s and 80s.