The successful German tactic of rapidly advancing armored forces and massive air support
10 minutes read.
In German, Blitzkrieg means lightning war (Blitz-Krieg). Blitzkrieg was named so because it included surprise attacks, "Lighting fast" rapid advances into enemy territory, with coordinated massive air attacks, which struck and shocked the enemy as if it was struck by lightning.
The German military in World War 2 achieved most of its great victories with the Blitzkrieg tactic.
The development of Blitzkrieg
World War 1 (1914-18) was a long static trench war in which artillery and machine guns made mobile ground warfare almost impossible, suicidal, for both infantry and Cavalry. The element of fire, from the machine guns and artillery, totally neutralized the element of maneuver, at least for the vulnerable infantry and Cavalry. But during the war, two new revolutionary weapon systems were invented and saw initial combat use, the armored tank, and the combat aircraft.
Relative to the infantry and Cavalry, both were almost invulnerable to machine gun and artillery fire.
In addition to that, their growth potential as powerful motorized vehicles was about to revolutionize warfare.
After the war, various military establishments gave various levels of attention to further study and developing these new powerful weapons, and to the new possibilities of combining their potential with other weapons. In maritime powers the aircraft was integrated with large ships to create the aircraft carrier, which thanks to its much greater strike range totally outclassed the big guns battleships which dominated the seas for centuries. In Russia, with its vast distances, a gigantic force of paratroopers was established to give infantry a whole new mobility, and a huge fleet of light fast tanks was established to give the military new mobility over the vast land. In Britain, well armored "Infantry tanks" were developed to provide the infantry with mobile fire support, and lighter "Cruiser tanks" were developed to replace the obsolete Cavalry.
Other armies, like in France and Poland, remained conservatively stuck in the previous war. France spent its defense budget on building a mighty line of super-trenches, the Maginot line, with huge fortifications, underground bunkers and tunnels, and heavy but totally stationary artillery. The Polish army's main mobile force remained the obsolete Cavalry. Both spent much too little budget and thought on their air forces.
The German military, bound by severe post-war limitations, was practically forced to develop the most efficient new tactics, which naturally involved using tanks and aircraft for mobile ground warfare.
It also learned from and improved over the ideas of British military theoreticians, mainly Basil Liddell-Hart, which openly published their new ideas about fast and deep armor advancement as the future combat tactic.
Very early in the 1920s, General von Seeckt, the head of the German military, wrote that the future of warfare will be in operating smaller but highly mobile high quality forces which would be made even more efficient by support from aircraft. In 1929, a German infantry officer, Heinz Guderian, was assigned to the common German-Russian tank school in Kazan, which was established to allow the Germans to bypass the post-war limitations by training in operating tanks in Russia.
Guderian read the British books about the new principles of tank warfare, and while in Britain Liddell-Hart's ideas were given little military attention, Guderian practically developed them over several years and demonstrated them to his superiors in military exercises and war games.
There were two factors which helped Guderian's tactical ideas become dominant in the German military more than in any other military.
The 1st factor was that after the defeat in World War 1 there were enough open minds in the German higher ranks ready to examine new ideas.
The 2nd factor was that while so many countries conveniently believed in pacifism after the bloodshed of World War 1, Germany's new leader since 1933, Adolf Hitler, intended to go to a major war again, and as soon as possible,
and he pushed the German military back in full shape, ignoring the peace treaty's limitations and spending a huge portion of the budget on re-armament.
Hitler needed the right tool for his grand war plans, something that would make his future war very different from World War 1, and will fully exploit the German advantages in military professionalism and industry.
Although he was just a Corporal in World War 1, Hitler had good and creative military perception, both tactical and technical, and so when he observed a combined exercise of tanks and motorized infantry led by Guderian shortly after he came to power, he immediately understood that he found his military tool. He said "That's what I need, That's what I want to have".
With Hitler's strong support, the tiny German tank and motorized forces began to rapidly expand, and tank development and production was strongly boosted. Guderian himself was rapidly promoted to be the commander of one of the new "Panzer" (armor) divisions, in 1938 he became the commander of the 1st German Panzer Corps, and later that year he became the "Chief of mobile forces", with direct access to Hitler. With his spirit and training, and with large amounts of new modern Blitzkrieg weapons, the German military was getting ready to implement Blitzkrieg in the battle field.
The elements and weapons of Blitzkrieg
The elements of Blitzkrieg directly obey all the principles of war. That's what made it so successful.
- Armor concentrations - the dense concentration of strong firepower, the high mobility, and the survivability of rapidly advancing large groups of tanks were far more than anything seen before it in any ground battlefield in history. It made Cavalry totally obsolete, and made infantry quite helpless in an open battlefield unless they were massively equipped with efficient anti-tank weapons which were developed only in response to Blitzkrieg and really matured only near the end of World War 2. The German tank units were highly trained. Many of them were considered elite units and provided the best soldiers and commanders. The German tanks were the first really efficient battle tanks. In addition to tanks, there were mechanized infantry units which allowed the infantry to advance together with the tanks, providing them better protection from enemy infantry and anti-tank units where they were more vulnerable to it. When infantry fighting vehicles were not available, the infantry used to simply ride over the tanks.
- Massive precise air support - the effective precision destructiveness made possible by precise aerial bombardment left common artillery far behind. Artillery was also too slow to follow the rapidly advancing tank groups. So in addition to ordinary artillery, the German military was aided by a very large number of Stuka dive bombers which could quickly and efficiently destroy the enemy obstacles in the tanks path (artillery units, fortifications, infantry concentrations, bridges, convoys, etc).
Paratroopers were another type of air support, which could be used were key targets had to be quickly captured, not destroyed. One of their common tasks in Blitzkrieg was capturing key bridges, in order to prevent the enemy from destroying them, and allow the advancing tanks to reach them and rapidly cross without delay.
- Radio - while the French High Command in 1940 was not even equipped with radio, it was radio communications in each tank each aircraft and each unit which allowed the German commanders to control their forces so effectively, and to utilize their air support so destructively and efficiently. Radio allowed German Blitzkrieg commanders to rapidly advance with their forces, see the battlefield with their eyes, not just on the map, and achieve much greater control of the situation and much better use their forces. Radio also enabled the German senior commanders to efficiently control huge mobile forces, more than ever before in history, allowing large scale cooperation and effective unity of command.
- Flexibility - the German armor commander didn't have to follow a particular road or path. Their tactical freedom, provided by their superior mobility and quick response air support, allowed them to rapidly advance along the path of least resistance, much like water do in a flood, or to produce one, with the superior firepower of their tank guns and air support. This also allowed them to press on with little casualties, allowing them to maintain their thrust and effectiveness and advance further.
- Initiative and surprise - the sheer speed and power of rapidly advancing forces and heavy bombardment in its territory, especially when it comes without warning, can easily shock every enemy. Persisting with that is even more devastating, and that's what the Germans did. They rapidly encircled massive enemy forces, cut supply lines, and made other large units collapse and lose their morale.
- Simplicity - there was nothing complex in Blitzkrieg. It was a simple tactic made possible thanks to revolutionary modern weapons which made this type of warfare possible - the tank, the aircraft, and the radio. As with many other weapons and tactics, it could be greatly intensified with quality, and indeed with Cavalry-spirit commanders like Guderian and Rommel, with highly trained or combat experienced soldiers, and with excellent weapons as the Panzer IV and the Stuka dive bomber, the Germans were able to achieve amazing victories with Blitzkrieg.
Later during the war the Germans were eventually matched by equal armor commanders like Patton and Zhukov.
Their tanks were outclassed by the Russian T-34 which was perhaps the best tank in World War 2. And the Stuka dive bomber was matched by superb tactical support aircraft like the Russian Il-2 Sturmovik which was the most armored aircraft in World War 2, and later by a new breed of American and British multi-role fighter-bombers.
- Air superiority - is a supporting element, but a critical one. If the enemy has it, Blitzkrieg becomes impossible, as Rommel and other German commanders found out later during the war.
- Logistics - is another critical supporting element which the Germans neglected, and it was the element which eventually crippled their military.
A relatively short-range and short-time Blitzkrieg in good weather, as the invasions of Poland, France, Yugoslavia and Greece were, is one thing, and the Germans excelled there. But when they invaded Russia in 1941, the logistical needs they knew before were dwarfed by Russia's huge distances, terribly bad roads, and extreme winter conditions. Instead of so many horses and not enough trucks, the German military greatly needed many tracked vehicles capable of keeping with the tanks, moving both infantry and supplies, but they had much too few of them.
Air supply by a fleet of cargo planes could also be helpful, but the Germans lost many of them in their airborne invasion of Crete, and lost many more in an arrogant and futile attempt to air-supply a whole army encircled in Stalingrad instead of allowing it to retreat.
In addition to the classic logistic problem of supplying a moving army with large quantities of food water and ammunition, the tanks also required large amounts of fuel and spare parts, and this problem greatly intensified for the Germans as the war progressed and crippled their armor. Later German tanks, the Tiger and King Tiger, were very technically complex and consumed much more fuel than the earlier Panzers, and so many of them were stuck or even lost because of technical faults and lack of fuel, not by enemy fire. So Blitzkrieg demanded not just tanks but also that they will be highly reliable, have long range, and be properly accompanied by a following mobile fleet of support vehicles of all types. The Germans neglected that less glorious side of war and paid heavily for that. At the later stages of the war the Russian army improved its mobile logistical support so much that its tank units could advance hundreds of miles almost non-stop, sometimes even refueling on the move, and of course relying on the very high technical reliability and simplicity of their vehicles.
Blitzkrieg in world World War 2
Blitzkrieg is the basis of modern warfare in the age of the tank, aircraft, and radio, simply because it makes the best military use of their natural advantages in speed and firepower. It obviously achieved the best results against a less modern or less prepared army, but it could also defeat equally equipped armies which used lesser tactics.
- In 1939 Blitzkrieg defeated the Polish army, which had obsolete Cavalry instead of tanks and an obsolete Air Force.
- In 1940 it defeated the French army, which had the necessary weapons (tanks, aircraft, radio), but of lesser quality, and it didn't know how to use it because it totally neglected mobile warfare after World War 1 and didn't have fighting spirit either.
- In 1941 it defeated the Yugoslav and Greek armies which had the fighting spirit but not the needed weapons for mobile warfare.
- In 1941 it also defeated the huge Russian army all the way to Moscow, but because of the logistic neglect it was defeated by Russia's endless size and extreme weather. The Russian army had great numbers of tanks and aircraft when the Germans attacked, but most of the tanks were obsolete, and the political mass murder of most senior officers by Stalin's brutal Communist regime before the war and the extreme rigidness it enforced on the surviving officers had paralyzing results. This rigidness also meant that the Russian Air Force totally neglected air superiority in favor of dedicating everything to tactical air support, but this resulted in its almost total destruction, on the ground and in the air. It took a long time and millions of casualties before Zhukov finally persuaded Stalin to permit reasonable tactical flexibility, in order to allow him, and a new breed of young and tough battle-hardened surviving commanders to fight properly, and by then they were also properly equipped with excellent new weapons like the T-34.
- In North Africa, Erwin Rommel, which already excelled in the Blitzkrieg invasion of France in 1940, used the same tactics in the desert campaign, but he was crippled by lack of fuel and supplies, by superior enemy air power, and by having too few tanks.
- In 1944 in France, Patton demonstrated American-style Blitzkrieg, with levels of air support and mobile logistics beyond Guderian's wildest dreams.
- At the end of 1944, the Germans tried Blitzkrieg one last time, almost at the same place as they did in 1940, but this was just a shadow of their past Blitzkrieg. They had much less tanks, their formidable King Tiger tanks were very short on fuel, they had almost no air support, and they were totally dependent on bad weather to avoid being decimated by allied fighter-bombers. They advanced, but not significantly, and when the sky finally cleared they were smashed by allied fighter-bombers.
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