At 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. By September 19, they forced the surrender of the last Polish army in the field. Eight days later, they completed mopping up the stubborn Polish resistance in Warsaw. The popular view is that Germany overwhelmed Poland with a massive mechanized attack that quickly overran the outdated Polish army.
In fact, the vast majority of the German army was foot mobile and was supplied by horse-drawn transport. Of the thirty-four German divisions in the attack, only six were Panzer divisions and an additional four were “light” divisions. The other twenty-four were essentially World War I infantry divisions, with horse-drawn wagons carrying all their heavy weapons, artillery, and logistics support.
Further dissipating the impact of massed mechanized formations is the fact that the Army Group South commander parceled out his armor throughout his infantry formations. Only Guderian, commanding Army Group North, massed his two panzer and two light divisions into a hard striking corps. Thus, the German army that overran Poland was not a transformational force but a highly competent army struggling to make use of new weapons and formations. Like all their predecessors, the soldiers were learning as they fought.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the birth and development of blitzkrieg is the action of the German army after its astonishingly rapid victory over Poland. Although most armies would have rested on their laurels, the German army conducted a detailed, even brutal critique of its own performance. It then began an intensive, demanding training program to overcome the deficiencies identified during its review of the Polish campaign.
In contrast to the Germans, who were training furiously in preparation for the inevitable clash, the French army remained inactive, snug in the Maginot Line, lacking the imagination to see how warfare had already changed. Its allies, the British, were desperately trying to expand their small peacetime army to a wartime footing. Lacking time, equipment, and trained personnel, they had no choice but to expand on existing-force structure and doctrine. They, too, had failed to understand what had happened in Poland. Neither army made a concerted effort to understand how Germany had so quickly defeated Poland. “Sitzkrieg” not only described the level of combat over the winter of 1939–40 but also the level of preparation on the Allied side.
Due to the intensive retraining, the force the Germans unleashed on France on May 10, 1940, incorporated the lessons learned from the Polish campaign. The Germans succeeded in making these lessons part of their operational and tactical art. Although still primarily an infantry army, the Germans organized their armored forces into Panzer Corps and used them to shatter the cohesion of the Allied forces. The result was another astonishing victory. Britain was evacuating its forces from Dunkirk only sixteen days after the invasion. France lasted only another month. In contrast to four bloody years of stalemate in World War I, the German’s conquered France in weeks. The victory stunned the Western powers. They were certain the Germans had created an entirely new form of warfare.
Third-generation warfare had arrived. Yet, as with previous generations of war, it was not just the militaries’ response to specific tactical problems that drove the evolution of this generation of war. The evolution of 3GW required political, economic, social, and technological conditions to be right.
The political and social atmospheres of the opposing sides were critical to the difference in development. While the politically unified state that permitted 3GW still existed throughout Europe, the social contract between governed and governors had been dramatically altered by the First World War.
In the democracies, people no longer had blind faith in the institutions of government. Virtually every family in Britain and France had lost at least one male relative to the apparently pointless slaughter in the trenches. The Allies had mobilized almost twenty-eight million men and had suffered almost twelve million casualties. The populace of the Allied nations rightly blamed these staggering losses on failures of both their governments and their militaries.
The German people, despite suffering proportionately heavier casualties—six million of eleven million mobilized—did not react in the same fashion at all. They never withdrew support from their armed forces. In fact, the armed forces remained a respected institution in the German government. Over time, the Germans developed the myth of the “stab in the back.” They came to believe that their army had not been defeated on the field of battle but, rather, had been betrayed by subversive elements in the civilian sector.
Thus, the political conditions were very different in the interwar period. Hitler was able to use the myth as part of his propaganda and rise to power. Although the Treaty of Versailles was specifically designed to keep Germany from developing a powerful army, Hitler’s political will allowed the German army to begin rebuilding years ahead of the Allies. Although the Versailles treaty restricted Germany’s technical research to a certain degree, it did not prevent the army from applying the lessons it learned from World War I in building the new army.
Despite Hitler’s buildup and the understanding by many British officers that Germany was the primary threat to Britain, the Chamberlain government did not change its official policy until February 1939. Only seven months before the outbreak of hostilities on the mainland, the British army was finally given permission to prepare for that war.
Although no French government adopted the open hostility toward and neglect of its armed forces that the British did, neither did the French prepare for war. Content to focus on the deeply flawed concept of the Maginot Line, they simply failed to prepare their army until it was too late.
Although the political climate varied greatly between the future belligerents, the economic factors were similar. The Great Depression severely limited funds available during the early to mid-thirties. But the impact varied greatly, according to each government’s willingness to expend scarce resources on its military forces—and its officers’ willingness to test new concepts without the actual equipment they would use.
Hitler willingly spent Germany to the brink of bankruptcy in building up his armed forces. In contrast, the French and British governments severely restricted military spending until just before the outbreak of war. Similarly, the German army worked extensively to develop combined arms tactics—even though it had to use motor cars for tanks, light planes as fighters and dive bombers, and small formations to simulate large ones. The French did little, and the British rejected the experiments they did conduct.
Despite the Great Depression, all three nations, as well as the United States, had the economic base to build the combined-arms forces that made blitzkrieg possible. Although no nation had the technology or industrial capacity at the end of World War I, the rapid technological changes in aviation, armor, motor transport, artillery, and communications meant that the capacity existed in all three nations by 1939. This was essential to the birth of blitzkrieg. Only a society producing sufficient numbers of mechanics, drivers, electricians, and so on, can build, man, and equip a modern armed force.
The French built what were regarded as the best tanks of their days. They were certainly more than a match for the German Mk I, Mk II, and Czech tanks that made up over seventy-five percent of the German tanks in the invasion. Unfortunately, despite some forward-thinking officers, the French did not concentrate their armored forces but parceled them out among their infantry forces. Their inability to adapt intellectually squandered their technological edge. Only the Germans had the political will and strategic imperative to build a complete combined-arms team to execute the tactics they had developed in World War I.
The development of a new generation of war is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and should therefore be visible in the decades prior to the appearance of blitzkrieg. In fact, it was.
We can see the thought process behind blitzkrieg developing as early as 1915. In August, Captain Rohr took over the Assault Detachment of the German army. This was in essence a laboratory to refine tactical techniques for breaking through the increasingly sophisticated Allied trench system. Rohr’s commander, General Gaede, gave him a simple, mission-type order: “to train his unit according to the lessons that he had learned during his front line service.” General Gaede then provided him with a mix of mortars, machine guns, infantry guns, and standard weapons in an innovative way, to restore the offensive capability of the German army. In addition to these close-supporting weapons, Captain Rohr ensured that artillery support was an integral part of his operations.
From this beginning, the Assault Detachment developed the small-unit tactics of infiltration and refined them. In a series of attacks increasing in scale, it worked out the tactics, techniques, and procedures of combined-arms operations at the small-unit level. Based on the Assault Detachment’s success, the German army systematically retrained its forces to use assault tactics. These were combined-arms tactics that relied on small-unit initiative to penetrate the enemy’s trenches and then move rapidly to exploit those breaches in the enemy lines.
Rather than rigid employment driven by a timeline, the new German tactics emphasized flexibility and reconnaissance pull. No longer would leaders remain in the rear and push forces forward on a predetermined front. Instead, leaders would have to be forward, just behind their lead elements, so that they could lead their units into the gaps those lead elements created.
By 1918, the German army had been retrained to use these tactics in Ludendorff’s major offensive. The tactical successes of the new approach allowed the Germans to punch a huge hole in the Allied defenses. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans had no practical operational or strategic objective. Nor had they solved the problem of pushing fresh troops and supplies across the devastated terrain of no-man’s-land. Therefore, the Allies were able to shift reserves faster than the Germans could exploit the gaps they created. Soon, the Allied were able to contain the penetration. This was a last-gasp offensive by the Germans, and the Allied counterattack culminated in the German surrender.
Although the new tactics failed to win World War I, they introduced an entire generation of German officers to the idea of mission-type orders, reconnaissance pull, penetrating a front, and expanding from the penetration. Thus, the intellectual foundation of 3GW was firmly in place in 1918. In addition to the intellectual basis, World War I saw the introduction of tanks, aircraft, long-range artillery, and, on the eastern front, great battles of maneuver.
Not content with a superficial understanding of what had happened in World War I, the German army undertook an intensive historical study of what really happened. They focused on several major issues: the reasons the Schlieffen plan failed, solving the problem of the trenches to restore mobility to the battlefield, the British use of tanks at Somme and Cambrai, the tactical success of the German 1918 offensive and why it failed operationally, and the use of airpower by the Allies against the German 1918 offensive.
It is interesting to note that their studies explored the key components of what would become blitzkrieg. During the interwar period, the Germans continued to study these ideas and to integrate the separate successful tactical and technical innovations into a coherent operational weapon.
So if blitzkrieg was in fact evolutionary, why didn’t the British and French militaries learn from World War I and apply those lessons in the interwar period?
The British actually attempted to learn but suffered from the fits and starts of chiefs of staff who exhibited varying tastes for learning. At the end of World War I, the British army did successfully conduct combined-arms mechanized warfare. As Millett and Murray point out:
It can be seen, therefore, that the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) really conducted two kinds of warfare in the second half of 1918: first, mechanical warfare in July and August; and secondly, traditional or semi-traditional open warfare, from the end of August to the Armistice. Yet the fact that the large scale mechanical attacks did not take place in the last months, while the war was won by means that were familiar to most officers, did strongly influence the way that mechanization and mechanical warfare were debated in the 1920s and 1930s. It is important, however, to note that this debate did not actually start after the war, but in fact commenced in late 1917 and early 1918.
In 1918, the British were equal to the Germans in tactical thinking and ahead in the application of technology, in the form of armor. Unfortunately, they did not undertake a detailed study of the lessons of the war until 1932. Even then, they did so only because Lord Milne, a progressive thinker, became chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). However, the report was not finished until the new CIGS, Field Marshal Montgomery-Massing-berd, took over.
Montgomery-Massingberd was adamantly against discussing the army’s problems in public, so he severely restricted distribution of the report. Unfortunately, he set a trend. Until the outbreak of World War II, all chiefs of the Imperial General Staff after Lord Milne refused to study the lessons of World War I. They tied all armor developments to support of infantry and cavalry, squandering numerous opportunities for Britain to develop true combined-arms tactics.
Further reducing any chance for change was the anti-intellectual bent of the British army. Simply put, unlike the Germans, who saw war as a profession requiring intense study by the best minds in the army, the British seemed to consider the army a pleasant occupation for second sons. The closed-mindedness of the British regimental mess was staggering. Thus, the few innovators who did appear in the interwar period were kept firmly in place by the CIGS, regimental traditions, and their fellow officers.
The French, in contrast to the British, conducted an intensive study of World War I, seeking doctrinal and organizational lessons. Unfortunately, the institutional bias toward “methodical battle” ensured that the study was limited to battles that “proved” that a tightly controlled, centrally directed battle, emphasizing firepower, was the key to victory. Reinforcing the institutional bias was the requirement that “all articles, lectures, and books by serving officers had to receive approval by the high command before publication.” The uninspired interwar army leadership, the stifling of discussion, and emphasis on the “methodical battle” ensured that the French army completely missed the evolution that drove blitzkrieg.