Blitzkrieg is a German word that translates into lightning war. The translation perfectly encapsulates what the term is about. Blitzkrieg is used to describe WWII Germany’s tactical maneuvers employing a dense concentration of force usually lead in by tanks together with mechanized or motorized infantry supported by close air support and artillery. The aim of this maneuver is to rapidly punch through an enemy front to surprise the enemy and sow disorganization to prevent them from re-establishing a cohesive defense.
Blitzkrieg’s origins are a combination of established military tactics that evolved from the 19th century and the current state of military technology then. Historic tactical maneuvers made emphasis on concentrating an offensive on a focal point (Schwerpunktprinzip). The availability of tanks and mechanized infantry (infantry transported through half-tracks) and motorized infantry (infantry transported through trucks) allowed for rapid troop movement with artillery and close air support.
Interestingly, the term blitzkrieg was never officially used by the German military. It was thought to be coined by Allied journalists in describing the then German war machine particularly through the Poland campaign. Even General Hanz Guderian wrote that “our enemies coined the word.”
In executing the maneuver, a Schwerpunkt (center of gravity) is determined. This point is chosen based on the strength of the line or in order to achieve total surprise. A concentration of forces will then breach the lines through this focal point. The breach will be lead by a mass of armored tanks with mechanized or motorized infantry formations in order to keep up with the mobility of the tanks. Artillery and aerial bombardment application is liberal.
Once the line has been breached, the units are not supposed to stop and engage the enemies at the flanks. Instead, the spearhead will continue to drive the enemy until a set point objective has been met. The use of a mechanized and motorized infantry formations means that an opposing defense cannot be effectively set up as the front lines will be changing far too rapidly. The Germans also counted on mass disorganization and disruption in order to paralyze any effort to resist.
The final part of the maneuver would be the Kesselschlacht or the Cauldron battle. Points of strong enemy resistance during the initial breach would not be directly engaged and instead be surrounded and enveloped into a pocket called the Kessel. Once the objective has been met, pockets will then be engaged and be forced to surrender or be annihilated.
The strength and effectivity of blitzkrieg relied on the chain of command and through coordination. General Hanz Guderian, one of the grandfathers of armored warfare, insisted that all of the tanks be equipped with wireless radio. During the beginning of the war, only Germany had their tanks radio equipped giving them immense advantage over their enemies.
The chain of command also allowed for quicker operations. Instead of an order, high command would only state the objectives rather than direct his subordinate commanders. This allowed his sub-commanders to make decisions rapidly which greatly contributes to the fast pace of blitzkrieg.
Breaking the myth
As a strategy, blitzkrieg is vulnerable to several things. The first would be logistics. The rate in which the attack is carried out would lead to very stretched supply lines. If left undefended, these lines would be vulnerable the attack risking the entire operation. Also, if the attack is insufficient in number to keep troops pouring into the breach in lines, the flanks of the salient would be vulnerable and would risk being closed into a pocket themselves.
Blitzkrieg was never an official military doctrine. The image of a highly elite doctrine perpetuated by contemporary admirers of the Wermacht turns out to be a myth. The maneuver was brought about by the state of technology at the time as well the aims of the German military to achieve rapid victory through mass encirclement and disorganization. Blitzkrieg was an impromptu solution to situations at hand. The focus on speed was a key point as German high command is convinced that they cannot win a drawn-out war, a thought that stemmed from early Prussian military concepts.
By the end of the war, most of the Allied commanders, particularly Gen. Patton, were utilizing blitzkrieg tactics against Germany itself.