Blitzkreig: Brilliant Strategy, or Happy Accident?

“Even the most casual student of the Second World War is familiar with Blitzkrieg. This “lightning war” was the German secret weapon, a new and dramatic method of waging war. Combing tanks and other mechanized forces with a powerful air force, and employed with breathtaking speed, and blitzkrieg was able to overwhelm almost all of Europe, in an incredibly short period of time. And blitzkrieg nearly overwhelmed the largest and most powerful nation on the planet, the Soviet Union. Blitzkrieg ran out of steam in front of Moscow, worn away by fierce Soviet resistance and “general winter”. From that point on, blitzkrieg would be gradually overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of its foes, falling to the combined power of the USSR, USA, and UK.

Or so goes the commonly accepted view. But is this in fact the truth? Was there a secret German “blitzkrieg” that enabled them to win the early stages of the war, only to be overwhelmed by the mass of its enemies? Or was blitzkrieg merely an excuse of the Allies for their failure to match the Germans in terms of mobile warfare theory and execution?”


The Germans did indeed recognize the concept of Blitzkrieg.  It was originally part of WWI strategy and was essentially just mobile warfare designed to put an end to trench warfare.[1]  In 1935 it appeared in a military periodical and was defined as a way for countries lacking in raw materials to finish a war quickly by using all their military forces to force a decision immediately.  In 1938 it was called a strategic surprise attack with the same end in mind.[2]  All propaganda that was to follow, whether it was based in reality or myth, took the idea of Blitzkrieg from these early criteria.  However, one of the great weaknesses of the Third Reich was Hitler’s general lack of strategy, and thus thorough study reveals a lack of full Blitzkrieg strategy.  Hitler understood clearly that he had to hurry; he dreaded another world war, knowing full well that Germany lacked the resources and fearing that the German people would not tolerate the privations of another long war.  Gerhard Weinberg gives three main reasons for Hitler’s hurry.  Fear of his own mortality, awareness of Germany’s material shortcomings, and the small lead in armaments pushed him to try to have his ccartoononquests of Lebensraum complete before the Western powers were able to aptly fight back.[3] It was this need to hurry that led him to pick off the European countries one-by-one in what appears to be a series of stunning Blitzkriegs.  Freiser reveals that this series of quick victories – particularly France – was not an intentional Blitz at all but made to appear as such in German and Allied propaganda.

Freiser offers many definitions of Blitzkrieg: to “finish a war quickly and suddenly by trying to force a decision right at the very beginning through the ruthless employment of their total fighting strength… a strategic surprise attack… concentrated employment of armor and air forces… objective is to defeat the enemy quickly in a decision seeking operation… put an end to rigid front lines involved in positional warfare and to return to mobile warfare… synonym for the modern operational war of maneuver… overwhelming the enemies, one after the other, in a series of individual, successive campaigns that would last only a short time… isolate the particular opponent and thus localize the conflict… the indispensable prerequisite for a Blitzkrieg, in other words, a strategic first-strike capacity, was to be created by at least a temporary armament lead over the enemy who was to be attacked by surprise… overrun the enemy after exploiting the element of surprise, by using fast, mechanized forces with air support.”[4] We shall keep these definitions in mind when we examine Poland and France.

Freiser discounts Poland as a Blitzkrieg because he feels it was only a preliminary stage, because armor was not fully deployed, and there were no air-born troops present.[5]  However, as he insists that France was not a Blitz because it was not planned as such, I must argue that Poland was indeed a Blitz for the same reasons.  According to Weinberg, “It was the intention of the Germans to combine surprise coups to seize special objectives at or before the moment of attack with a  sudden overwhelming attack on two fronts carried forward by the mass of the German army and supported by most of the German air force.”[6] The plan was to march on Warsaw, where they would encircle the main Polish Army and crush them.  These plans fit the very definition of Blitzkrieg as presented by Freiser in the first chapter.  While the surprise coups failed, the Germans were still spectacularly successful.  Also fitting Freiser’s definitions of Blitzkrieg are Hitler’s numerous attempts, successful or failed, to isolate Poland politically from her allies and neighbors.  Furthermore, Poland satisfies the requirements stated in Chapter One of using “fast, mechanized forces with air power for support.”[7]  Freiser essentially argues that the tanks don’t count because they were only deployed on a tactical and not an operational level and discounts air power because there were no air-born troops.  The Luftwaffe, however, was present and in force, and after clearing the skies of the few Polish planes they encountered provided support for the ground troops.  Speed was of necessity in Poland.  Even if one discounts the “catch-up” theory, there is the fact that the Germans only had bombs and ammunition for two weeks of fighting.[8]  They had to hit hard and fast to make Poland capitulate, and that’s precisely what they did, starting on September 1st when the Luftwaffe destroyed 75% of the Polish town of Weilun.  The Polish army collapsed in just eighteen days.

Poland was a success for five main reasons.  One, the 1934 Non-Aggression Pact lulled them into a sense of security, allowing them to prepare for danger only from the East.  When the Pact was cancelled in 1939, combined with German demands for the Polish corridor, it became clear that Germany represented a real threat.  However, there was not much time for the Polish army to make the necessary changes.  Second, Poland lacked modern military weapons, and third, they could not decide what precisely to d3320737efend against the Germans.  Concentrations of Polish forces at any point would leave the rest of the country vulnerable, and they could not decide between guarding industrial or population centers.  Fourth, Poland feared that total mobilization of their forces too early would damage their fragile economy as they pulled skilled labor from the factories and sent them to the front to wait for a German attack.  With such consideration in mind, they procrastinated until the last minute and were caught mid-way through mobilization.[9] Finally, aid from Poland’s so-called allies was minimal, and she was left to fact the Germans, and then the Soviets, essentially on her own.

The Germans did not waste the months in between.  Now confronted with a major war – precisely what Hitler hoped to avoid – changes needed to be made.  One of the reasons why Freiser does not believe Hitler’s 1940 strategy can be called a Blitz is because Germany did not have a Blitzkrieg economy, which requires all resources to be turned towards war production.  The German economy was not fully mobilized and rationing was not in place, especially not in 1939.  One of the reasons for this was that Hitler did not actually expect a war in ‘39; what plans he had were aimed at having war – if necessary – with the Western sea powers only in 1944.  1939 and his gathering of Lebensraum was only a step in his preparations for this. He did not expect war to be declared over the question of Poland, a point which Freiser illustrates with his description of the “ghost scene” when the Germans received the declarations of war from France and England.[10]  However, once he discovered that he had a war on his hands he moved to remedy the production shortage.  Between October of 1939 and May 1940, artillery production increased five-fold and the Panzers were modified and altered to make them more suitable to the tough French army.[11]  But never did the German economy reach full mobilization.

Freiser maintains that what happened in France the following spring was not a Blitzkrieg because it was not planned that way.  This is an excellent point that bears consideration.  The Germans were pleased with their success in Poland but did not believe that it could be used as a guide for how to approach France.[12]  Instead, they prepared for a long war of attrition during which the Wehrmacht would slowly build and strengthen their army in order to wear the French down.  This plan was due in part to the technical might of the French army and the vivid memory of the First World War, when the French simply dug in and refused to surrender.  This also probably had something to do with the supposed inferiority of the Polish people vs the racial superiority of the French, who were Aryan cousins.  Naturally the inferior Slavics to the East would collapse, but the racially and technically equal French would put up a longer fight.  However, what Hitler failed to understand was how war-weary France truly was.  While he counted on the European aversion to war to protect him while he snatched up bits of his precious Living Space, he did not consider the effect this would have on French fighting, which would prove to be rather half-hearted.  What actually happened in France was far from the long war of attrition which everyone so feared.  The country capitulated in about a month, sending the bulk of their air force to safety in Africa and evacuating many of their troops at Dunkirk.  Instead of the long, drawn out war which the Wehrmacht had planned, something which one could fairly call “Accidental Blitzkrieg” occurred, which was excellent for propaganda and gave the Allies the perfect excuse for their failure.

535824133Hitler’s success in France was due to a great many factors.  Foremost was the Allies’ general mismanagement of the fighting there.  Take, for example,  General Blumentritt’s “Triple Miracle.”  War-weariness and vivid memories of the trenches of yesteryear discouraged the French from becoming too involved.  They refused to dedicate all their resources to the battle, committing only a quarter of their air force to the fight while begging the British to pull the fat from the fire.  The British were also torn on their priorities in regards to the fight in France, and this dilemma prevented them from entering all their resources into the fray, as well.  England contributed 30% of the RAF over the objections of Air Marshall Hugh Dowding.  Dowding insisted that as many planes as possible were needed for the imminent defense of England, and he did not have the requisite number of squadrons to achieve this end and could not afford to lose any to France.[13]  Churchill hoped to defeat the Nazis across the Channel, but his actions lacked the strength of his convictions.  While it could be theorized that full English mobilization in France may have ended the war in the spring of 1940, Dowding’s insistence at holding back forces to protect England would save the island in the months to come.  As far as American aid, Americans, too, were reluctant to become involved in another European war, preferring to follow the isolationist doctrines of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe.  Positive that both France and England would fall, they held back on aid until the Battle of Britain proved that England was a worthy investment of resources. Technology beyond Panzers and Stukas also played a role in the German victory.  The radios which they were equipped with made the delivery of orders instant, while France had very few radios at all and those they did have often didn’t work.  Most of their orders were delivered by mouth.  Another factor that benefited the Germans was the use of the interim between Poland and France.  Poland had been a learning curve for the Germans, who took advantage of the months between invasions to put the experience they had gained into practice and to prepare for war.  French officers, however, did nothing while they waited for “Ze Germans.”[14]

What made the German Blitz unique was, in my opinion, largely timing.  Blitzkrieg – real or propaganda – only worked during the first part of the war because the enemies which the Germans fought were either unequal to the task, such as Poland, or unwilling to fight, like France.  England was the first opponent which the Germans faced who had the will to truly dig in her heels and throw all her resources into resistance.  When faced with actual opposition the German War Machine ground to a halt and the blitzkrieg stalled out.  In frustration, Hitler hastened his plans for the invasion of Russia and turned East instead.  The Allies were unable to replicate similar successes later in the war because unlike Hitler, they did not face an unprepared opponent nor did they face a country so wearied by war that surrender was preferable to attrition.  War was in full swing by the time America entered.  The time for Blitz had passed.

We also could not replicate the “shock and awe”of the early Blitzkrieg, because much of that was tied in to the use of new technologies.   A Messerschmidt, new and intimidating in 1939 when so many others were still relying on bi-planes, was a shiny and impressive new toy.  New technologies contribute to escalation, and other nations caught up out of necessity, building to meet the enemy.  The technology ceased to be new and exciting and became commonplace.  Shell-shock also could have played a role in this.  It was not until the  summer of 1945 when America hit Japan with some new “shock and awe” that could certainly be described as a blitzkrieg.  In short, Hitler’s Blitz of 1940 could not be replicated because circumstances had changed.  His Blitz had been waged against unprepared and untried nations using new technologies; it was successful on account of the naiveté of its targets.  By the summer of 1940, this naiveté had vanished.

–E.L. Akin

Works Cited

[1] Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend (Maryland: Naval Institute Press) 2005, pg 7.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World At Arms (New York: Cambridge University Press) 2005, pg 45.

[4] Freiser, 4-8.

[5] Freiser, 19

[6] Weinberg, 48.

[7] Freiser, 8.

[8] Freiser, 21.

[9] Weinberg, 49.

[10] Freiser, 12

[11] Freiser, 21.

[12] Freiser, 19

[13] David Fischer, A Summer Bright and Terrible, (where? Counterpoint Press), 2005, pg 120.

[14] Freiser, 24.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s