Military doctrine has been defined as the fundamental principles by which military forces guide their actions in support of national objectives. But what became known popularly as blitzkrieg was not a set of fundamental principles, nor was it written down as an authoritative document. Rather, the term blitzkrieg was created for public consumption. It did appear occasionally in the military literature between 1936 and 1940, but the German writers generally used it in reference to a short war, as opposed to the drawn-out trench warfare of World War I. The term became fixed in the public mind after articles appeared in Time magazine, one on 25 September 1939 about Germany's invasion of Poland and another on 27 May 1940 about the fall of France.
Immediately following World War I, the leaders of the much reduced German army studied the causes of the defeat in 1918 and concluded that a lack of traditional mobile, maneuverable forces and tactics had resulted in the war of attrition that eventually doomed Imperial Germany on the battlefield. Unlike the French, who determined that better defenses would be the key to winning the next war and hence built the Maginot Line, the Germans concluded that the next war would be of short duration and won by maneuver warfare in the classical sense.
The German field service regulations of 1921, Führung und Gefecht der verbundenen Waffen (Command and Combat of the Combined Arms), together with the updated version of 1934, Truppenführung (Unit Command), were infantry-oriented documents that cast tank and air assets strictly in an infantry-support role. Although Truppenführung, which remained the official doctrine for the German army through 1945, emphasized traditional German thinking on mobility, it did allow for decentralization of control, and it provided considerable latitude for force structure changes. It was also not tied rigidly to specific operational concepts, to the exclusion of all others. Rather than a inflexible tactical cookbook, the manual was a philosophical treatment of the conduct of operations and leadership.
During the interwar years, the German mobility advocates enthusiastically read the works of the leading mobile warfare theorists of the time, J. F. C. Fuller, Charles de Gaulle, and Basil Liddell Hart. Younger German officers aggressively advanced the argument that a tank force could alter the outcome of battles. Many of the older officers resisted the notion that the tank could be a decisive combat arm, remembering the grave difficulties armored units experienced in World War I.
After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, he quickly made it clear he intended to rearm the nation, and he was interested in the iconoclastic ideas of the younger officers. In June 1934, Colonel Heinz Guderian became the chief of staff of the newly formed Motorized Troop Command. A little more than a year later, the Germans fielded an experimental panzer division. In October 1935, while still only a colonel, Guderian assumed command of one of the three new panzer divisions. He immediately set out to convince the traditionally infantry-oriented German General Staff to accept the concepts of armored warfare. Although Guderian received only limited support from some of his superiors, Hitler encouraged him and his aggressive concepts.
Meanwhile, the fledgling German air force also underwent important changes. Prior to the German intervention in the Spanish Civil War, most Luftwaffe officers saw airpower in the same terms as their peers in most other air forces of the period. The two most essential missions were conducting long-range strategic bombing and achieving air superiority over the battlefield; the ground-support mission was largely ignored. But the successes of German air-ground operations during the Spanish Civil War convinced a number of high-ranking Luftwaffe officers to reconsider ground support. General Ernst Udet, in charge of Luftwaffe development after 1936, pushed through the development of a dive-bomber, the Ju-87 Stuka. The aircraft was extremely accurate, very mobile, and designed specifically to support ground forces. It became the plane that added the critical air dimension to mobile operations.
The Polish Campaign of 1939 was executed in very short order and had all the outward appearances of a dazzling success of German arms. But the so-called blitzkrieg doctrine was never used in that campaign. Rather than being committed in mass, the panzer units were allocated to the various field armies. The Luftwaffe was primarily concerned with establishing air superiority and striking deep at Polish lines of communications. Tank maintenance was a severe problem, and too often, the German system of resupply was unequal to the required tasks. But in the end, Germany crushed Poland very quickly, and that success obscured the serious operational, tactical, and technical problems the Wehrmacht experienced.
Between the end of the Polish Campaign and the start of the attack in the west against France and Britain in May 1940, the German army made some significant changes. The panzer divisions were organized into corps. The number of tanks in the German army increased only slightly, but the number of tanks per division decreased, and thus, the number of panzer divisions grew. Out of necessity rather than doctrinal design, the panzer divisions became combined-arms units, with a balance between tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, and other arms. Tactical air, especially the Stuka, became an important element in the combined-arms mix because Germany was woefully short of field artillery.
The Germans did not go into France planning for a rapid and overwhelming victory. But they achieved one because of a combination of luck; better leadership and training; superior concentration of forces; and correspondingly poor French leadership, training, and tactics. At first, the Germans were stunned by their success, but they soon fell victim to their own propaganda and began to believe in the myth of blitzkrieg.
In June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, this time anticipating a rapid campaign. They did not mobilize their economy for the invasion, nor did they accumulate the necessary stockpiles or provide adequately for the long lines of communications or winter conditions. Drawing the wrong lessons from the French Campaign, they believed that their use of tactical airpower had been so successful that it more than compensated for their severe shortage of artillery. That approach may have worked against the poorly deployed French and British, but against the artillery-oriented Soviets, it was a recipe for disaster. The Germans learned quickly that the Luftwaffe could not be everywhere at the same time over the vast expanses of the eastern battlefields, especially with the onset of poor weather. The Soviets, with their abundant conventional field artillery, seldom lacked direct fire support.
The term blitzkrieg described a set of results, unique to a specific place and a specific time. The coordinated use of mobility, communications, and combined arms was not a revolution in military affairs, as it has often been portrayed, but rather a natural evolution of military doctrine that was clearly identifiable in the closing months of World War I. The myth of blitzkrieg, however, did obscure serious flaws in the German war machine, including supply, transport, maintenance, artillery, and intelligence. That circumstance proved progressively costly to the Germans as the war advanced and the Allies grew stronger and as the mechanized battlefield became increasingly lethal.
David T. Zabecki
Citino, Robert M. The Path to Blitzkrieg: Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920–1939. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999.; Corum, James. The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.; Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952.; Guderian, Heinz. Achtung—Panzer! The Development of Armoured Forces, Their Tactics and Operational Potential. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.; Zabecki, David T., and Bruce Condell, eds. On the German Art of War: "Truppenführung." Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001.