Home   Genealogy   Forums   Search   Contact
MHO Home
MHO Home
 17th Century
 18th Century
 19th Century
 American Civil War
 World War I
 World War II
 20th - 21st Century

 Write for MHO
 Search MHO
 Civil War Genealogy Database
 Privacy Policy

WWII Sections
MHO Home
 WWII Home

WWII Articles
USS North Carolina vs Bismarck
Operation Compass
Book Review: APc-48
Agent 110: An American Spymaster
Rudolf Hess/Tancred Borenius
Soviet Rifle Corps of WWII
The Morality of Okinawa
The First Class at RAF No. 31 Radio School
Operation Dragoon and Invasion of Southern France
Battle of Buna-Gona
The Silent Service and the Turkey Shoot
Published works on WWII OOB for land forces
Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
SAARF – Special Allied Airborne Recon Force
Force at la Difensa
Sabotaging Hitler’s Heavy Water
Soviet Offensive in the Arctic
The Failure of Strategic Bombing
Dutch Harbor: Unraveling of Japan’s Pacific Strategy
Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
Air Recon in WWII
Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
The Battleship USS Oregon
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
Jewish Resistance in WWII
Battle for Seaports
Banzai Attack on Attu
End of the Battle of the Java Sea
Texas National Guard in WWII
How Arnhem was Lost
Saga of Ormoc Bay
Silent Service of the Pacific
USS Wahoo
Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
Confucian Martial Culture
Operation Market Garden
Legacy of WWII Sub Veterans
Lausdell Crossroads
Kasserine Pass
Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
British Offensive Operations
Sir Winston Churchill
American Stubbornness at Rimling
The OSS in Greece
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
Breaking Seelow Heights
The Rape of Nanking
Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
Aerial Defense of East Indies
Why the Bulge Didn't Break
American Forces in WWII
Shadow Warriors
Battle of Surigao Strait
Panzer Brigades
Adolf Eichmann
Interview of a WWII Veteran
Failure and Destruction
Winter Warfare
Operation Rusty: The Gehlen-U.S. Army Connection
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
Popski's Private Army
The Soviet Formula for Success
Japan's TA Operation
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Only the Admirals were Happy
Bicycle Blitzkrieg - Singapore
Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
Thermopylae, Balaklava and Kokoda
How Hitler Could Have Won
The Battle of Midway
Waffen SS - Birth of the Elite
Nomonhan and Okinawa
Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
Breakout From the Hedgerows
Memories of D-Day
Motivation of the Einsatzgruppen
Pearl Harbor and Midway
Amphibious Assaults during WWII
The 9th SS Panzer Division
The Warsaw Uprising
Sea Lion vs. Overlord
Maginot Line
Battle of Bastogne
Battle of the Barents Sea
Anzio: The Allies' Greatest Blunder
US Army in WWII
Battle of Mers-el-Kebir
Hitler's Ultra-Secret Adlerhorst
The Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster
The 88th Infantry in Italy

Florian Waitl Articles
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
Mao and Giap On Guerrilla Warfare

Recommended Reading

The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich

Lost Victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler's Most Brilliant General

Ads by Google

MHO Recommends


The True Strategy of Blitzkrieg
The True Strategy of Blitzkrieg
by Florian Waitl


The birth of Blitzkrieg is often explained as a direct result of the horrors of static warfare experienced during World War I. The word Blitzkrieg, meaning lightning war, is most of the time simply described as the doctrine employed by the German Army in World War II. But this simple description does not do justice to the concept.

Blitzkrieg, according to many historians, was used to devastating effect in Poland in 1939, in France and the Low Countries in 1940 and in the Soviet Union in 1941; it harnessed the firepower and mobility of the German panzer divisions through aggressive leadership at both the strategic and tactical level. The different preparation phases of Blitzkrieg can be described as the planning phase, in which the Germans select the point or points of attack -- the Schwerpunkt; the reconnaissance phase, during which the plan was finalized; and the surprise phase, which includes measures to make the enemy unaware of imminent attack at the precise time and location. The next phase, the actual combat or action phase, can be divided into the roles of the Air Force and Army. The mission of the Air Force is to destroy the enemy’s air force, preferably on the ground during the first 24 hours, in order to gain air superiority and free the German Air Force to provide close air support for ground units, including interdiction of enemy supplies and communications to bring about enemy paralysis. The mission of the Army is to conduct a concentrated ground attack which follows a brief artillery bombardment, and includes Panzers, mechanized infantry and mobile artillery in an effort to force a breach in enemy defenses. Army forces pour through the breach (Schwerpunkt) and punch deep into enemy territory, using speed to maintain the advance and keep the enemy off balance. Due to the importance of speed, enemy strongpoints are bypassed until the panzer pincers gradually encircled whole enemy armies in giant pockets and then hold this perimeter until the slower moving infantry divisions are able to catch up and annihilate these pockets, bringing a quick and decisive victory.[1] These basic explanations are found in most books about the Blitzkrieg, and the term Blitzkrieg first appeared in summer 1940 and has been coupled with Panzer (tank or armor) and “combined arms” in most military languages of the world ever since.

The term Blitzkrieg as defined above does not adequately convey the strategy and its objectives of World War II from a German perspective, but rather only gives the reader an understanding of German tactic used during war. Krieg, or war, suggests an overall strategic concept of war while the above definition remains at the lower tactical echelons. This means that the definition used by many for Blitzkrieg suggests the need for a different word such as Blitzoperationen (lightning operations) or Blitzfeldzuege (lightning campaigns) which would define the term more properly.[2] With this major problem identified, the question and the search for the real Blitzkrieg as used by Germany becomes the thesis of this paper. Blitzkrieg, as it will be defined in this paper, is a strategic term that had been used prior to World War I and can be traced to Germany’s politically defined wartime objectives in direct relation to the political environment in Germany since the 1890s. But what exactly is Blitzkrieg if the popular definition does not fit? In order to answer this question, the political environment in which Germany found itself prior to and following the Franco-Prussian War must be explored to make sense of the dangers Germany was facing and to define the strategy of Blitzkrieg.

Political Background

The development of two rival alliance systems in the years prior to 1914 would reveal to German military leaders the dangers of a two front war. Otto von Bismarck, the minister-president of Prussia, had been primarily responsible for combining the various German states into a unified Germany and became the country’s first chancellor in 1871. The unified Germany represented the greatest triumph of nineteenth-century nationalism and Germany became the leading military and industrial power in Europe. But during this unification process Bismarck made several enemies, most notably France, which Prussia defeated in the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-71. This conflict resulted in the elimination of French resistance to German unification and forced France to give up the Alsace and Lorraine provinces to Germany. To provide Germany with security against a possible French attempt to gain revenge and destroy Bismarck’s achievements, he set out to acquire much needed allies.[3]

Bismarck’s quest led to the formation of the Triple Alliance (Dreikoenigsbund) during the period 1879-82. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed a defensive alliance and in the event that an outside power should attack a member of the alliance, the others would be obligated to go to war. Bismarck’s quest for a stable and long-lasting peace went even further when he negotiated a separate treaty with Russia and maintained close relationships with that country. After Bismarck’s retirement in 1890, his successors allowed the Russian agreement to lapse, fearing that it conflicted with Germany’s other commitments. France instantly realized that this lapse would mark new opportunities for revenge in the long run and pursued friendly relations with Russia. Russia’s need for capital to finance its industrialization program and France’s willingness to provide the funds contributed to a defensive alliance in 1894.[4]

Britain, overcoming its tradition of “splendid isolation” made separate agreements with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907. Each of these agreements merely settled colonial issues that had caused problems in the past, but with the growing fear of Germany, Britain drew closer to both countries which eventually developed the Triple Entente, or the counter weight to the Triple Alliance. Britain’s main concern was the decision of German emperor Wilhelm II and Admiral Alfred Tirpitz to increase greatly the size of Germany’s navy in 1898. Britain, being an island nation, depended heavily on massive imports of food and raw materials and viewed Germany’s naval expansion as a threat to its naval supremacy and as a danger to its existence. Other German foreign policies such as the crises over the North African territory of Morocco in 1905 and 1911 further split the relationship between Germany and Britain. In the decade before 1914, the attention of the European powers was focused to a large extent on the Balkans in southeastern Europe, where a number of crises erupted. Austria-Hungary and Russia had long been rivals for political and economic influence in the Balkans and the emergence of nationalism among the various Balkan peoples further complicated this rivalry. The break down and start of the chain reaction that began World War I came with the assassination of Austrian Prince Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by the secret “Black Hand” Serbian nationalist society. Following the assassination, Germany pledged to support whatever the Austro-Hungarian monarchy deemed necessary, even if it meant war with Serbia’s protector, Russia. Attempting to keep the war localized in the Balkans, Germany asked Russia to cease mobilization and France to declare neutrality in case of war between Germany and Russia. Neither agreed to these demands and by August 3, 1914 Germany was at war with both powers.[5]

Rivalry and alliances plagued Europe for decades prior to World War I. Prior to the lapsed treaty with Russia in the early 1890s and the Franco-Russian entente of 1892, Germany was able to count on having to deal with only one enemy at a time and believed that it possessed an army large enough to win such a conflict. Thus Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870 all fell to the Prussian army, which resulted in the birth of a new German Empire in the heart of Europe. The political achievements of Bismarck disappeared, however, with his retirement and the long lasting peace and stability of Germany and Europe was threatened. For the first time in Germany’s history, the German General Staff was confronted with the possibility of the ultimate German nightmare, a two front war against numerous enemies strong enough to defeat Germany. The search for an answer to this problem fell to Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen who was the Chief of the General Staff. Schlieffen’s operational ideas were dominated by the strategic and geographical situation in which he found Germany found. Schlieffen’s operational ideas dominated German military thinking until 1945 and it was from these ideas that the strategic concept of Blitzkrieg grew.

Schlieffen’s idea of annihilation

Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen was born in Berlin in February 1833, the son of an army officer. At twenty, he enlisted as a one-year volunteer but was appointed “officer cadet” before his year expired. In 1863, Schlieffen was appointed to the Prussian Great General Staff (Grosser General Stab) and served as a general staff officer in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. He saw action at Munchengratz, Gitschen and Koniggratz and returned to the Great General Staff during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and saw further action at Noiseville, the sieges of Toul and Soissons, and in the winter campaign on the Loire. Schlieffen was appointed the Chief of the (now German) Great General Staff in 1891 and retired in 1906, following years of assessments of war games, devotion to theoretical writings on the practical problems faced by Germany and development of operational ideas concerning Germany’s strategic and geographical concerns.[7]

Since the earliest days of the Prussian General Staff, the model conflict was the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. in which a Roman army of about 79,000 men was slaughtered by the Carthaginians in an extraordinary double envelopment. Cannae is the model of an annihilating victory or Vernichtungsschlacht. The Roman army was not just destroyed but a greater part of the soldiers who made up this army were killed. Schlieffen allowed that modern conditions substituted capitulation for slaughter, but when he writes about annihilating the enemy, he has in mind a slaughter in the manner of Cannae. Germany was virtually encircled by their enemies-- Britain and France to the west, Russia to the east and later Italy to the south. These enemies also possessed larger manpower reserves, greater industrial strength, and direct access to the resources of the rest of the world which could be denied to Germany by a blockade cutting off Germany from other continents. For these reasons, a short war was the only possible way to win a war because a long conflict was almost certain to drain Germany’s resources and end her chances to win. Schlieffen’s solution to this problem was deceptively simple. Germany had to annihilate one opponent speedily so that it could then throw its weight completely against the other. He relied on the Cannae model of annihilation, simply because it guaranteed the ultimate end of military operations. An enemy army will not allow itself to be annihilated if it possesses any means of escape and the only way to deny the enemy a means of escape is through encirclement. At Cannae, Hannibal opposed the Roman army with a long thin line, weak in the centre and strong on the wings. The deepened Roman formation attacked the centre of the Carthaginian formation in the hope of a breakthrough. The Carthaginian centre retired before the onslaught and its strong wings curled forward to engage the flanks of the Roman formation. After driving off the Roman cavalry, the Carthaginian cavalry completed the envelopment by attacking the rear of the Roman infantry formation and by doing so the superior numbers of the Romans were trapped in the centre of their formation and were unable to effectively engage the Carthaginians until the troops around them were slaughtered. This strategy enabled the smaller Carthaginian army to annihilate the superior Roman army and brought about a decisive victory for Hannibal.[8]

The reason for the emphasis on annihilation is that it makes the victory decisive. An army can be destroyed in battle but if most of its soldiers are able to escape, a new army can be formed out of the survivors. This is not possible if an army is annihilated. Furthermore, the prospect of one’s slaughtered countrymen thrusts iron into the soul of the survivors and renders them less likely to renew the struggle quickly. After Cannae, the Romans avoided battle with Hannibal for years. From a similar fear, Frederick the Great was able to escape disaster at the hands of the Russians in the Seven Years War because the memory of an annihilating defeat he inflicted on them earlier in the war made them hesitant to press their advantage over him. Following the annihilating victories of Prussia against France in 1870, the French dreamed of revenge for decades but never attacked Germany. Schlieffen knew these lessons of history and were the reason Schlieffen sought an early battle won decisively. In the case of Germany and of how Schlieffen perceived the strategic nightmare Germany found itself in, his primary aim was the neutralization of a two front war through the quick defeat of the French army. Schlieffen also understood Clausewitz’s idea that war is merely an instrument of politics. The reason Germany found itself in the situation for which Schlieffen was trying to find a solution was the direct result of failed treaties and political arrangements. The idea that a commander imposes his will upon the enemy is not a military maxim but a political one. Schlieffen is by no means the father of manoeuvre warfare but he can be considered as one of the grandfathers. Schlieffen’s ideas were intended to be applied to the strategic level of war, but many of them are also applicable at the operational and tactical levels. In his later career, Schlieffen spent time inculcating the operational ideas required to make his strategy work.

Even though Schlieffen’s war games, theoretical essays and seminal “Cannae Studies” never produced the well known “Schlieffen Plan” in an operations order as one might think, it was Schlieffen’s strategic ideas which dominated German military thinking for the first part of the twentieth century.[10] His idea of strategic encirclement and surprise to deliver the decisive blow at the Schwerpunkt, coining the term Vernichtungsgedanke (concept of annihilation), further emphasized these principles. The need to destroy at first the French forces on the Western Front, followed by an offensive against the Russians in the East created several challenges. The notion of operational flexibility was lost because in order for the operation to have even a chance to be successful, a complex series of mobilization and deployment schedules bound to an inalterable timeline had to be followed. This was one of the major challenges in the Schlieffen Plan. The German military leadership could offer little flexibility to German political leaders once the decision was made to go to war. Policy became a prisoner of strategy and any kind of Ermattungskrieg (exhaustion) would not be an option.[11]

Because of these challenges, and subsequent modifications by his successors, Schlieffen’s “great wheel” through the Low Countries to encircle the French Army before it could effectively mobilize failed. According to Schlieffen’s plan, the French would be drawn into the Alsace-Lorraine by the weak opposition of a nine-division force while the enveloping right wing-- seven times larger in size than the force directly confronting the French --was supposed to sweep north through Belgium around the French fortress line, behind Paris and then press the French army against the Swiss frontier. The plan failed for several reasons. Moltke the Younger strengthened his forces in Alsace, which forced the French to keep their reserves deeper in the French interior. This reserve, along with the help of the British, would stop this door from opening all the way in the First Battle of the Marne, also referred to as the Miracle of the Marne. It destroyed the Schlieffen Plan and the hope for a quick and decisive victory over France which was needed so badly in order to avoid a two front war. Consequently, a gap opened between the two German armies and a general counterattack took place in which Moltke’s representatives ordered a withdrawal because the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was threatening the German’s first Army’s left flank. According to the original Schlieffen Plan, Paris was supposed to be enveloped from the south and west with a wide sweep, but instead Moltke attempted to envelop it from the north and west. Due to immense speed the German First Army was able to sweep 220 miles from the German-Belgian frontier to the Marne, but at the same time it exhausted itself and outran its supply and communications network. The plan failed because German troops and horse drawn transport were not up to the pace that Schlieffen envisioned for his plan to be successful. In the end, the modified Schlieffen Plan of Niederwerfungsstrategie (strategy of annihilation) had failed and the Germans were defeated in a war of Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion or attrition), the very war their generals feared most due to Allied superiority in numbers of men and material which exhausted Germany on two fronts in a stalemate of trenches.

On the next page, the two maps clearly illustrate that the original Schlieffen Plan was changed tremendously. The importance of the right wing, which was a worry of Schlieffen until his death on 4 January 1913, was not taken seriously by the new Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the younger, which resulted in the doomed effort of the German army. The younger Moltke modified Schlieffen’s plan by increasing the forces protecting the Franco-German border to eight infantry corps plus the six Ersatz divisions originally intended for the right wing armies. He further cancelled the planned transfer of two corps from the Franco-German border to reinforce the right wing as it advanced. Under Schlieffen’s original plan, the ratio had been seven to one in favor of the right wing; Moltke’s changes reduced it to a mere three to one favor of the right wing. Moltke also dropped the idea of violating Dutch neutrality in order to have more room to maneuver at the Liege Gap, thus requiring the First and Second armies to make an initial advance through a narrow funnel. Finally, he used one division from the ten divisions that Schlieffen had assigned to the Eight Army to delay the Russians in the East. During the August-September campaign, the younger Moltke further weakened the right wing armies by detaching two corps as reinforcements for the East, where the Russians had launched an unexpected early offensive.[12] Schlieffen’s warning to “Keep the right wing strong!” stayed unheard.

Seeckt and the Rebirth of an Army

Following the horrific experiences of World War I, the German High Command knew that a prolonged stalemate of trench and positional warfare could not be the answer for any future war. Hans von Seeckt, the chief of the Army Command of the German Reichswehr from 1921 to 1926, would become the father of the new German Army which was designed not on masse but mobility. In contrast to the French, Seeckt knew that only the offensive, and so the destruction of enemy forces, would bring final victory.[14] He further believed that the German experience in both 1914 and 1918 had proved that an effective regular army must in future meet three demands: first higher mobility by the fullest possible use of motor transport; secondly a logistical system strengthened by increased motorization which was capable of continuous replacement of men and material at the front; and thirdly a greater degree of independence from the civilian reserves so that the Army might mobilize more rapidly, take the initiative, and perhaps be able to strike before the enemy’s Nation in Arms could mobilize.[15]

Following the Great War, the Reichswehr created a committee of 109 members who dealt with the lessons learned from the last war. The outcome of this committee was the new “Combined Arms Leadership and Battle” report which would become the new Doctrine and Training Manual for the Reichswehr in 1921. The Reichswehr, with the help of Seeckt, moved away from earlier doctrines of mass and encirclement which were influenced by Moltke and Schlieffen and started to give a new thought to speed. Seeckt argued that speed would give more surprise and chance of exploitation if the enemy would not decide quickly. Seeckt believed that “attack alone dictates the law to the enemy” and that the most effective way is the “Umfassung (envelopment) of one or both flanks and the attack in the enemy’s rear. In this way the enemy can be destroyed”. Seeckt’s conception of the attack itself revolved around the question of the “Schwerpunkt”, or the decisive point of the battle requiring the concentration of all forces . This meant that the commander had to be constantly aware of the “Schwerpunkt” during combat and at the same time had to remain flexible enough to recognize the changing decisive point as it changed in the course of the fighting . Because of the changing “Schwerpunkt” one can also understand von Seeckt’s emphasis on “Auftragstaktik” (mission-type tactics or directive control) which is described later on in this paper.

Seeckt believed in a small elite Army of volunteers who would be capable of making decisions at the lowest level. Due to the great restrictions wrought by the Versailles Peace Treaty, the Reichswehr used many of their NCOs (non-commissioned officers) in positions which would normally be designated for officers. In fact, it was more difficult to become a NCO in the Reichswehr than it was in the Imperial Army. Many of these NCOs would become the future officers of the Wehrmacht.[18] Because of the possible change of the “Schwerpunkt” and need of making decisions at the lowest level, Seeckt introduced “Auftragstaktik”. The idea of “Auftragstaktik” is no more than to brief the entire chain of command on the goals and timeframes of an upcoming mission. This would enable combat leaders to make tactical decisions using mission orders based on their initiative and view of the current situation. By reducing reliance on higher Headquarters/ Commanders to make decisions for combat leaders, valuable time was saved and a more streamlined decision process was utilized. The commander only specified to his subordinates what to do but not how to do it. This enabled soldiers, even once their officers or NCOs had been killed in combat, to continue their mission. Seeckt wanted to ensure that the new German army, the Reichswehr, would not suffer from the same adherence to out of date orders that had doomed the Kaiser’s army at the Battle of the Marne. He believed that “From the mission and the situation arises the decision”.[19] These words would later be printed in the Combined Arms Leadership and Battle Manual of 1921 and would stay with the Reichswehr and would eventually be used by the Wehrmacht.

General von Seeckt didn’t only focus on developing and improving tactics but also worked on disguising development of new tactics in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. Another facet of his work included improving diplomatic relationships between the Soviet Union and Germany. Due to the stringent conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to work on its tank development, as well as aircraft design, by cooperating with the Red Army. A three year agreement was signed by both parties which gave Germany the chance to develop and test tanks at the German-Soviet tank school at Kazan on Soviet soil. The German High Command believed that the experimentation with a small number of tanks would be the easiest and least detectable way to foster tank development, at least until it would become politically feasible for Germany to manufacture and rearm its military.[20] This agreement nearly fell apart when it was exposed by the Manchester Guardian, along with the delivery of some illegal artillery shells to Germany by the Soviet Union. Due to these reasons, the Reichswehr continued to rely on mock-ups; bicycles with fake wooden tanks built around them; for testing armor doctrine . Even though these kinds of exercises might seem dubious, they became the backbone of the Reichswehr/ Wehrmacht and would mark the birth of the tactic that would be called Blitzkrieg. Field exercises compromising trucks, dummy tanks, wooden artillery and antitank guns would continue in this fashion while at the same time plans for medium tanks were developed by Krupp and Rheinmetall. Due to the time consuming process of developing a medium tank, increased attention was given to light tanks which resulted in the Pzkw. I (Panzerkampfwagen). The tank was also designated as Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper or industrial tractor in 1932 because of the still imposed weapons limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. By July 1934, the mass production of this light tank began and was followed by Hitler’s declaration of rearmament in March 1935. This declaration signified the rebirth of the German army and what had been done in secret could now be done in the open.[22] Even though the new German army was called Wehrmacht instead of the Reichswehr, no radical break in training, doctrine or military education took place and one can see that the purpose of the Reichswehr was the schooling of future Wehrmacht officers as well as the development of combined arms tactics or Blitzkrieg.

The first great Wehrmacht maneuvers were conducted in 1936; where close to 50,000 soldiers took part in an impressive combined arms maneuver which was observed with great interest and praise by several British observers. The tactics employed in these maneuvers would give the British a taste of what lay before them once war was declared. Even though a regiment of actual Pzkw I’s took part in this maneuver, German as well as British officers would still be uncertain about armor having a permanent and major role in future wars due to the question of mechanization. If these tanks would be deployed in the eastern theater of operations as was discussed by several officers, the question of these machines being successful on muddy plains was doubtful.[23]

In September 1937, another large scale maneuver took place in which more than 160,000 soldiers, 25,000 horses, over 21,000 vehicles, 830 tanks and 54 aircraft participated. It was in this maneuver that the panzer division made its reputation by showing the maturity of German military doctrine. During these maneuvers the cooperation between panzer units and aircraft was proven which would later play such an important part in German military tactics.

During the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, panzers showed their speed during the march to Vienna. The 2nd Panzer Division had to travel about 420 miles while the SS- Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had to travel about 600 miles-- all in about forty-eight hours. Even though a large number of tanks broke down during this march, it symbolized the first great panzer drive in history and proved that the tank would become one of the most important arms in the Blitzkrieg tactic. But this wasn’t the only outcome. The deficiencies that were realized during this maneuver ranged from lack of fuel due to no supply formations being mobilized, to poor maintenance of the tanks. These problems received major attention in the following years and had been improved by the time German panzer divisions were rolling towards Poland and France under combat conditions.[24]

Hitler’s Strategy

Hitler came to power in 1933, a time period during which Germany’s international position was extremely weakened. One of Germany’s problems, identified early by Hitler as well as many other German political and military leaders before him, was the fact that Germany was stuck in the middle of Europe and could not live forever encircled. It had to gain land. Hitler’s idea of the Drang nach Osten (drive towards the East) which was part of his arguments in his 1924 book Mein Kampf would soon become reality. In October 1933, Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations and from the disarmament conference that the League had convened. He blamed France for this decision due France’s unwillingness to cut their forces. In January 1934, he signed a treaty with Poland, disrupting the arrangements France had been trying to make with Poland and the smaller Eastern European states through the “Little Entente”. Hitler openly denounced the military clauses of the Versailles treaty in March 1935, and announced his plans to triple the army and to build an air force. By offering Britain negotiations on a naval treaty, the British, French and Italian meeting at Stresa responding to Hitler’s earlier announcement disrupted any hope of a coordinated response. Hitler furthermore used the events in Ethiopia in March 1936, to move his troops into the Rhineland, which has been demilitarized by the Locarno Pact. Once again France was blamed, but by hinting that he might return to the League of Nations after the other states in Europe would accept his views about the revisions of the Versailles treaty, no actions by the European nations against Hitler’s advances were made.[25]

Following Hitler’s intervention on the side of the fascists and the testing of new equipment on the civilian population of Spain in the war against a left wing democratically elected popular front movement, the expansion into the small neighboring countries of Germany was the next goal of Hitler. In 1938, a plebiscite was called for in Austria but before the people could decide if Austria should reunite with Germany, German troops marched into Vienna ending Austrian independence. Hitler continued this aggressive strategy of expansion by pressuring Czechoslovakia into giving up the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938 without any major objections from the other European countries. Britain merely asked for the promise of Hitler to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia alone, a promise that was broken in March 1939 when German troops rolled into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The area of the Sudetenland was militarily important because it included the Bohemian massif, the natural line of defense for Czechoslovakia and the logical place for Czechs to start their defenses against a potential German attack. Shocked by Hitler’s further expansion into Czechoslovakia, Britain and France tried to deter Hitler by issuing a guarantee to defend Poland but by signing a treaty with Stalin in August 1939, Hitler was able to do what he wanted in the west of Poland which also included a secret protocol for another partition of Poland.[26] The time of brilliant diplomatic coups was over and Hitler’s war machine sprang into action on September 1, 1939 which ended in the destruction of Poland. These annexations can be seen more in detail on the map below which demonstrates the actual Drang nach Osten.

Hitler’s Drang nach Osten wasn’t conducted for the pure search of living space but it also had economical reasons. Hitler had not carried out a sweeping reorganization of the German economy; in reality, much of German industry still concentrated on the production of consumer goods. He believed that Germany could have both military success and many of the comforts of peacetime life which is why he had chosen a policy of rearmament “in breadth”. A long war was not anticipated which is why an intense mobilization of the economy “in depth” would not take place, but at the same time he was able to provide the armed forces with sufficient material to win his Blitzoperationnen. A plan to make Germany as self-sufficient as possible was established in 1936 but the Four-Year Plan had only indifferent success. The German industry was not expanded while the proposed limited self sufficiency bore disappointing results as well. Hitler had hoped to make Germany independent in materials that the nation could produce which would enable Germany to conserve foreign currency reserves for the purchase of food and raw materials that the Germans could not produce domestically. Hitler’s Four-Year Plan also emphasized production of synthetic materials and Goering even projected that by 1939, 100 percent of its oil need and half of its rubber would be produced in Germany.[28] In all actuality, by 1939, it accounted for only 20 percent of Germany’s oil and less than 15 percent of its rubber. Two-thirds of Germany’s total raw materials still came from foreign countries while 20 percent of Germany’s food had to be imported. With the failed Four-Year Plan, the above named annexations became of significant importance. The absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland guaranteed a good pool of manpower for both industry and the armed forces by increasing Germany’s population to 80 million. The Russo-German economic agreement of August 1939 guaranteed a steady flow of food, oil, and other raw materials into Germany until the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. The annexation of Czechoslovakia brought even more booty to Germany and it can be easily seen that these annexations were much needed in order to support Hitler’s later Blitzoperationnen. A good example of the much needed annexation is the importance of Czechoslovakia and its addition to the German tank divisions which would become the backbone of the German panzer forces. The Czechoslovakian built Pz.Kpfw.35 (t) and Pz.Kpfw.38 (t) tanks were used extensively in the following Blitzoperationnen, in fact, they were utilized in such great numbers that without them the success of the Blitzoperationnen was doubtful if not even impossible. In order to support this claim one can look at the organization and strength of the various Panzer Divisions and their tanks utilized, from which point it becomes clear that the above statement is in fact true. The below graphs show the immense utilization of the Czechoslovakian tanks and prove the above mentioned statement without a doubt.

During the Polish Campaign, the 1st Light Division had an overall of 226 tanks in its division of which 120 were the Czechoslovakian built PzKpf.35 (t). The 3rd Light Division consisted of 80 tanks of which 57 were the above named Czechoslovakian model.[29]

The French campaign of 1940 shows similar findings. The 6th Panzer Division for example consisted of 223 tanks, 132 of them were the Czechoslovakian built PzKpf.35 (t).[30] The 7th Panzer Division had 225 tanks in their inventory, of which 99 tanks were the Czechoslovakian Pz.Kpfw.38 (t) while the 8th Panzer Division consisted of 212 tanks, 131 of them the Czechoslovakian built Pz.Kpfw.38 (t). The Russian Campaign of 1941 utilized even more Czechoslovakian built tanks as can be seen from the graph below which demonstrates the point that Germany needed to annex other countries before being able to go to war in 1939. The use of the booty of previous conquered countries, both through military force or through political arrangements, was always needed and utilized in order to continue to the next chapter of German expansion. A further discussion can be found in General Heinz Guderian’s book Panzer Leader, in which he lists in detail the type and armament of the Panzer divisions used during the various Blitzoperationnen. [31]

By August 1939, there were hardly enough Mark 3 and 4 tanks –the only real tanks the Germans had – to equip one armored division. The German high command had organized six armored divisions, four light divisions and several independent tank units, far more units than the army had tanks, even pressing all the 1,445 obsolescent Mark 1 machine-gun carriers into service. This desperate situation gave rise to the obsolete Czechoslovakian tanks or the PzKpf.35 (t) which was used in such great numbers during the war. From October 1939 to May 1940, Germany produced only 479 tanks, a number barely sufficient to offset its losses in the Polish campaign. By 1940, the newly developed Czechoslovakian Pz.Kpfw.38 (t) was developed and the Germans had 238 of these vehicles in service in order to make up the production shortfalls of the Mark 3. During the France campaign, more Czech tanks were in service in the Wehrmacht than there were Mark 3s. Even as late as July 1, 1943, there were 763 of those Pz.Kpfw.38(t) tanks still in service in the Wehrmacht which shows once again the immense importance of the utilization of annexed territory by Germany.[33]

Blitzkrieg in the West

May 10, 1940 was the start date of the German offensive with the goal of not only capturing France but the Low Countries as well. The offensive started by the deployment of Army Group C to the Franco-German border. Heavy siege artillery instead of tanks was used by Army Group C due to the mission of only maintaining its positions and not advancing into France . During the winter of 1939, the offensive plans had shifted from the “OKH Plan” which was about as much of a frontal assault as any in the history of the Prussian-German army to the more advanced plan by General Erich von Manstein. Most of the panzer divisions originally destined for the thrust through northern Belgium were shifted to Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A. This was done because the French expected the German offensive in the Liege area and were ready to rush the bulk of their first class Infantry and mechanized divisions, as well as the British Expeditionary Force, into the Liege area, similarly to World War I.[35] The French knew of the “OKH Plan” of 1939 due to the emergency landing of a German staff plane at Mechelen-sur-Meuse in Belgium. This plane carried crucial planning documents such as the instructions for the operations of Luftflotte II that clearly indicated a German advance on the right wing, as well as a general evaluation of the military situation which ended up in Belgium hands and was later turned over to the French. At the end, Hitler postponed the operation no less than twenty nine times before the panzers would start rolling against France. The final plan, Fall Gelb: Case Yellow, was constructed by General Erich von Manstein who believed that the “OKH Plan” was essentially an imitation of the famous Schlieffen Plan of 1914. In fact, Manstein stated that he “found it humiliating, to say the least, that our generation could do nothing better than repeat an old recipe… What could possibly be achieved by turning up a war plan our opponents had already rehearsed with us once before?”[37] On behalf of his Commander, Manstein drew up an alternate plan that essentially reversed the roles of Bock and Rundstedt.[38]

Von Rundstedt’s Army Group A mission was to attack through the heavily wooded and supposedly impassable Ardennes in southern Belgium as can be seen in the map below.

Bock’s Army Group B at the same time created the main diversion with its three panzer divisions that were available to them. While one of Army Group B’s divisions spearheaded the assault on the Netherlands in order to secure the right flank, the other two divisions attacked through northern Belgium so that the French were convinced the main thrust would come through Belgium, committing its main forces to the north. The entire plan was named Operation Sichelschnitt or sickle stroke and the big picture of the idea is portrayed on the map below.[40]

By 12 May the French and British forces responded just as Germany had planned, and on 13 May the German armored spearheads began to emerge from the Ardennes, seizing bridgeheads across the Meuse River. The German armored spearheads broke through the French lines and began their race to the sea which cut the Allied armies in half by 20 May. Once the British Expeditionary Force and a major portion of the French Army was pinned against the English Channel, the pocket around the port of Dunkirk began to shrink and finally by 4 June, following the evacuation of over 300,000 troops to Britain, German forces succeeded in eradicating the Dunkirk pocket completely. In the meantime an attempted defensive position along the Somme and Aisne was smashed, and by 14 June Paris had fallen to the Germans. The fate of France was sealed by the signing of the armistice on 22 June 1940 and France would be partly under the German as well as Vichy control until after Allied forces landed in Normandy on 6 June, 1944.[42]

The danger of a two front war was avoided with the lightning attack and conquest of France in 1940 which furthermore resulted in the gain of raw materials such as ore as well as military equipment that was extremely needed for future Blitzoperationnen. In order to understand the thesis, that Blitzkrieg is a strategic term that needs to be redefined, a closer look at the different levels of Blitzkrieg is helpful.

The Levels of Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg can be separated into three levels. First, at the tactical level, the aggressive use of “combined arms” is usually described as Blitzkrieg, but that will be described as Blitzoperationen in this paper. Next is the operational level, in which higher commands plan and conduct campaigns which are aimed at creating the conditions to achieve strategic objectives. This includes not only movement and manoeuvre (Aufmarsch), but also a speedy mobilization of troops and equipment. Lastly, there is the strategic level which is the responsibility of the highest command and where cooperation among political, economic, and military agencies work together to accomplish political wartime objectives,[45] which is the true Blitzkrieg strategy of Germany as used since the Schlieffen Plan and before.

According to Clausewitz, there are three factors which form the basis for an offensive action. They are surprise, speed and superiority in material or firepower. These three factors are the same basic concepts that make Blitzoperationen successful. Surprise can take three forms: strategic, technical and tactical. Strategic surprise is gained by the concentration of forces and by movement towards action (Aufmarsch) carried out in such a way that the attacker strikes on a certain front with a force considerably larger than that of the defense. Technical surprise derives from the use in battle of an unknown weapon or means of movement; and tactical surprise derives normally from the combination of technical surprise and the use of new tactics that are more suitable than the old for the new weapons and material. Speed, the second factor in successful attack, is the necessary complement to surprise. Because surprise can only gain temporary success, speed is needed to further exploit the success. Speed usually depends on preliminary planning and the co-operation between units which results in the enemy’s inability to develop effective counter measures to defeat the attacker’s initiative. These two factors come together in movement and manoeuvre at the tactical level of war. The third factor, superiority in firepower and material is necessary because without superiority, movement is difficult or ceases. Therefore, firepower is considered to be the driving force behind manoeuvre.[46] All these factors were improved by technical advances not only in weapon systems such as tanks and airplanes, but also through advances in communication between combat units. The best example of these three factors working together to produce successful Blitzoperationen is the German break through in the Ardennes forest in May 1940 where the tactical ability of modernized German forces multiplied these three factors.

But Blitzoperationen operate only on the tactical level of war, and the other levels of a redefined Blitzkrieg must be taken into consideration. The next level, the operational level includes the conduct of movement and the mobilization and transportation of troops and equipment, which also was greatly improved during World War II. The extension of Germany’s street and railroad network, the extension of the lines of communication and the building of airfields gave higher command echelons new and improved ways to plan and conduct the combat operations. Once again it was the advances in technology which made these improved manouvres (Aufmarsch) possible.[47]

The last level of a redefined Blitzkrieg is the strategic level at which co-operation between the political, economic and military agencies define the political wartime objectives. This is very much Clausewitzian because nations go to war because no agreement can be found politically. One of the best examples to illustrate this point is the earlier mentioned discussion about Bismarck’s successors and the lapse of agreements with other nations which eventually resulted in the military situation Germany found itself prior to World War I. As one can see from the above breakdown of Blitzkrieg into its three levels, there is more to Blitzkrieg than just the tactical level to which most historians are drawn to.


The discussion shows that Blitzkrieg is not the simple tactic that many historians make it out to be. Blitzkrieg was created out of necessity and is about annihilation of the enemy. It has been a strategy that influenced the German General Staff since the 1890s because of the fear of a two front war. A quick decision or victory was necessary in the West in order to be able to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. In order to win decisively, annihilation of the enemy was necessary and the only complete way to annihilate the enemy is through encirclement. The strategy was formed prior to the use of these tactics of World War II, and can be traced back to the decades leading to World War I. It was the propaganda machines of different countries which termed this strategy’s tactics as the infamous Blitzkrieg in today’s history books. In conclusion, Blitzkrieg was the strategy used by Germany ever since the 1890s and was a direct result from the geopolitical position of Germany. General Heinz Guderian wrote in his book Panzer Leader, that “the German nation is no more warlike than the other nations of Europe but it lives in the middle of the house and therefore in its long and varied history has seldom managed to avoid involvement in its neighbors’ conflicts. As a result of this both its statesmen and its military leaders have repeatedly been confronted with difficult, if not actually insoluble problems. In view of its limited resources Germany has always striven for a rapid end to any conflict and has of necessity done its best to avoid long wars of attrition and the danger of intervention by third parties.[48] One of the military leaders Guderian is referring to in the above statement is Schlieffen and his idea of annihilation of the enemy as was described earlier. The geography of Germany was the cause for Bismarck’s statesmanship, Schlieffen’s attempted military solution, and Hitler’s drive to the East or Drang nach Osten.

According to Clausewitz, “War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means”,[49] meaning war is fundamentally political in character and that war must serve policy. Strategic success which is the attainment of political aims and the protection of national interests is what matters most in any war. Germany’s strategy came into existence out of the geopolitical environment of Europe. It was a question of national survival and economics which guided German political and military leaders throughout the late 19th and 20th century. Prussia and later Germany’s leaders recognized that wars had to be “Kurtz and vives” (short and lively) due to being crammed into an unfortunately tight spot in the heart of the continent, ringed by enemies and potential enemies and without the resources nor the manpower to win long, drawn-out wars of attrition. The need for a way to fight short, sharp wars which ended rapidly in a decisive battlefield victory leaving the enemy too weak or too frightened to consider a second round would become the means of Germany to guarantee its national interests and survival. Leaders assessed the strategic landscape of Europe and determined ever since the birth of Prussia and later Germany, that the only way to fight successfully is by striking the enemy with a sharp and possible annihilating blow as rapidly as possible through the use of movement of large units which was referred to as Bewegungskrieg (war of movement)[50] This was the solution in the operational level but the overall Blitzkrieg strategy was formulated with the co-operation between the political, economic and military agencies that defined the political wartime objectives.

At the end, Blitzkrieg was the endeavor to strengthen Germany’s economy, military and political status in the world by using Blitzoperationnen which were conducted to overwhelm the enemies, one after the other, in a series of individual, successive campaigns that would only last a short time. By isolating a particular opponent and thus localizing the conflict, it would be possible to avoid the risk of a long, drawn out, multi-front war of attrition which clearly defines the foreign policy objective of Germany’s strategy. These Blitzoperationnen were further more conducted to strengthen Germany’s economy, military power and its need for raw materials which were all requirements that had to be satisfied before the next Blitzoperation against another enemy could be conducted. By conducting only localized, short and decisive campaigns, the civilian population stayed motivated and the wars would not become a strain on the endurance of the people as well as the existing economy which meant that a war economy and its restrictions on the civilian population was not put into effect. Germany’s economy had to be mobilized to some extent, especially in the beginning of the Blitzkrieg due to the indispensable prerequisite of a strategic first-strike capacity, but with the successful taking of other countries, the wartime mobilization in the homeland was downgraded tremendously due to the foreign economies which were used extensively in the following Blitzoperationnen.[51] Another aspect of the strategy was the use of political means to gain new territory whenever possible. By finding weak points in the collective security of Europe and using economical and political infiltration tactics, new territories can be won without any rifle fire. These territories fall into the economical war machine and strengthen the overall machine in support of the next Blitzoperation.

The Germans evolved a certain pattern of war making from their culture and traditions, and especially their geographic position. This “German Way of War” is Blitzkrieg as it has been described by the author of this paper and its purpose is to maintain the survival and security of Germany; gain political, militarily and territorial power; and increase its economic stability. All these purposes are in direct relation to the geography of Germany which explains the reasons for the similarities between the two World Wars. At the end, the only difference is the means with which nations fight one another, but the national strategy stays the same.
* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2008 Florian Waitl.

Written by Florian Waitl. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Florian Waitl at:

About the author:
Florian L. Waitl, co-founder of Human Dimension Leadership Consulting (HDLC), is a military historian and leadership development specialist. He received his Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University and has an extensive background in military history, leadership development, team building, and lessons learned programs. He facilitated leadership seminars at dozens of universities and at various prestigious military leadership institutions such as the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC), the U.S. Army Engineer School, the British Land Warfare Centre, and the German Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr. To read more about Florian’s accomplishments, connect with him on LinkedIn at

HDLC is a leadership consulting company headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri that develops and delivers customized experiential leadership training conveying the lessons of the past to today's leaders. HDLC’s unique and highly effective methodology is designed to improve business operations. Florian and his team translate the military leadership observed on the battlefield into relevant leadership concepts and practices which can be applied by today's business leader. For more information visit

Published online: 06/21/2008.
© 2018, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: