♦  The Birth of Blitzkrieg 

Part One: 1914-18


The first of the many: A MK I heavy tank, 1916 (Imperial War Museum)

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Nazi Germany’s run of victories in the opening round of the Second World War made Blitzkrieg—German for lightning war—a household term. The word had first appeared in a German military publication in 1935, and though it was never officially adopted by the German Army, it seemed an apt description of the high-tempo, lighting-fast operations that characterized the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 offensive that defeated France.

Blitzkrieg appeared to herald a revolution in the art of war. Mechanizing the army—replacing horses with motor vehicles, including armored fighting vehicles with cross-country capability—networking units via radio, integrating ground and air forces, and exploiting all these new capabilities to speed up the tempo of operations were indeed revolutionary developments. But there was an element of continuity in Blitzkrieg as well, for its tactics and techniques represented an attempt to restore to warfighting something that seemed to have been lost: mobility. What the press called Blitzkrieg the German Army called Bewegungskrieg (mobile warfare) and it was nothing new.

In 1914 the Great War in the west began briskly, with a series of mobile encounter battles that, though they cost both sides heavily, failed to produce decisive results. There were two reasons for this. First, the great increase in Europe’s population, rail transportation, the telegraph and the evolution of the administrative state made possible the mobilization and sustainment of armies vastly larger than those that Frederick the Great or even Napoleon had ever put in the field. Second, the warlike products of the Industrial Revolution—the magazine rifle, the machine gun, breech-loading recoil-stabilized rifled artillery—vastly increased those armies’ firepower. The result, after the initial clash, was stalemate. Long ago Clausewitz had noted that defense is the stronger form of war, and so it proved on the Western Front. The situation was somewhat different in the east, where the ratio of forces to space was much lower and mobile operation remained possible. But in France and Flanders, the two sides soon became mired in Stellungskrieg—positional warfare. The front line stretched from the Swiss frontier to the Channel coast. There was no way around and, seemingly, no way through. Repeated offensives, mostly by the French and British armies, invariably at great cost, failed to break the deadlock.

The deadlock: A British front-line trench, Western Front, 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

The tactical problem was obvious enough: Against defenders positioned in trenches and strongpoints behind multiple belts of barbed wire, well supplied with machine guns and supported by artillery, advancing infantry was terribly vulnerable. Even if the attackers managed to capture a stretch of the enemy line, it proved nearly impossible to convert the break-in to a breakthrough. Decimated and exhausted, the troops of the first wave could only hang on and wait for the arrival of the reserves whose task it was to continue the advance. But those reserves could not be committed to action until commanders had accurate information about the situation in the zone of battle—where the break-in attempt had succeeded, where it had failed—and such information was hard to come by. Telephone lines could be cut, radios were too cumbersome to go forward with the attackers, messengers might be killed, wounded, captured or simply get lost. When reliable information came finally to hand, it was usually too late for the attacker to exploit a break-in. With time on his side, the defender could rush reinforcements to the threatened area by road and rail much faster than the attacker's reinforcements could struggle over the devastated, muddy terrain of no man’s land.

The Allies initially attempted to break the deadlock by applying firepower in the form of more and heavier artillery. The enemy’s line would be pulverized—strongpoints smashed, trenches caved in, barbed-wire entanglements swept away—by a bombardment lasting days or even weeks. Then the infantry would simply walk forward and occupy the devastated area. But the Germans soon evolved a system of defense that greatly mitigated the destructive effects of shellfire: multiple trench lines four to six miles in depth, reinforced underground galleries to protect their troops, reserves positioned to deliver prompt counterattacks. Moreover, prolonged bombardment canceled what little was left of the element of surprise. Already it was easy to spot the prolonged, ponderous build-up for a major offensive: the huge ammunition and supply dumps, the arriving reinforcements, the front-line preparations. A long bombardment merely signaled to the defender that the already-expected attack was imminent. So one offensive after another faltered and faded out and the terrible butcher’s bill lengthened—but the generals remained undaunted. Surely, they argued, if enough explosives were poured on the enemy, his defenses must collapse. Thus after each unsuccessful offensive the cry went up for more and still more guns and shells.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and other more innovative thinkers on the Allied side were pondering a different solution. They agreed with the generals that what was needed to sustain the attack was firepower—but protected, mobile firepower, capable of providing the infantry with timely, on-the-spot support.

The idea was nothing new. Armored fighting vehicles of one kind or another had been proposed or described for centuries before the Great War. Leonardo da Vinci sketched his concept of such a machine in 1487. Over time the concept was taken up by numerous writers, especially H.G. Wells in his 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, and in his 1903 short story, “The Land Ironclads.” In the first decade of the twentieth century there were several proposals for tracked armored vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and armed with light cannon. But orthodox soldiers, already grappling with the military implications of modern rifles, machine guns and artillery, rejected them. Only as the reality of the Western Front deadlock sank in did minds begin to change.

A Mark V (M)  heavy tank and its crew. It was armed with two 57mm Guns and four machine guns (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

Britain is generally credited as the birthplace of the tank (though armored vehicles were being developed in other countries as well), and there the idea was promoted not by the War Office but by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. His always-active imagination was fired by the concept of a “landship,” an armored vehicle capable of crossing no man’s land, crushing barbed-wire obstacles and suppressing the enemy’s defensive fire with its machine guns and light cannon. Infantry, advancing close behind the tanks, would then attack through the breach created—without having suffered crippling losses. Numerous designs were tried and discarded before a practical armored fighting vehicle was developed, successfully tested and accepted for service: the Mark I tank, nicknamed Mother.

With casualties mounting, even the most skeptical generals were willing to give the tank—the name originated as a cover designation suggesting a mobile water carrier—a try. Some thirty tanks were committed to action during the Battle of the Somme. It was an unimpressive  debut. The ground was unfavorable, the breakdown rate was high and, as tank commanders had protested before the battle, their numbers were insufficient. These deficiencies were gradually remedied, and in the last two years of the war British and French tanks played an increasingly large  and important part in Western Front battles. Though by the end of the war there were visionaries on the Allied side who foresaw for the tank the decisive role in future war, most soldiers regarded it as an infantry support weapon—useful, no doubt, but no more than that.

In Germany, though tank development was neglected the problem of the trench stalemate was not. It was tackled, however, by the development of new tactics rather than new technologies. The Germans’ analysis disclosed that what had been lacking in earlier offensives: Since the massive preparations for an attack were difficult if not impossible to conceal, the enemy was unlikely to be surprised. But the effects of surprise—shock, confusion, disorganization—could be replicated by other means. So instead of a preparatory artillery bombardment lasting days or weeks, the attack would be preceded by a brief but intense “hurricane bombardment” lasting no more than four or five hours. Its principal purpose would be to cut the defender's communications, isolate his forward troops and sow confusion up the enemy chain of command; to that end the artillery would fire a high proportion of smoke and gas shells. When the attack went in, the first wave would consist of specially trained assault troops (Stoßtruppen). Operating in platoon or company strength, they would infiltrate the defenses, bypassing centers of resistance, making for the enemy’s vulnerable rear areas. Behind them would follow larger battle groups. Their task was to mop up isolated defenders, consolidate the ground gained, and clear the way for main body of attacking infantry.

Stoßtruppen: German assault infantry. The cloth bags slung over the shoulders carried stick grenades. (Bundesarchiv)

These new tactics demanded a wholesale reorganization of the infantry. Thus the infantry battalions of the 1917-18 Mob-Division had three companies, each with three rifle platoons, plus a heavy machine gun company and a trench mortar platoon. Each rifle platoon had three squads with light machine guns and grenade launchers. In addition the division had an assault battalion (Sturmabteilung) consisting of the elite Stoßtruppen. These battalions were equipped with light machine guns, grenade launchers, light mortars and flamethrowers, and included a pioneer (combat engineer) platoon. Overall, the rifle strength of the infantry division was reduced by one-third in exchange for a much larger allotment of light and heavy machine guns, grenade launchers mortars and infantry guns. The guiding principle was to provide units at each echelon of command with all the weapons needed to accomplish their mission: Einheit (unity) as the German Army called it, or in modern parlance combined arms doctrine.

These assault tactics were first employed on a large scale during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. They were used with great success on the Eastern Front in 1917-18, during the Austro-German offensive in Italy (late 1917), and on the Western Front for Germany’s Victory Offensive in 1918.

It was the combination of the Allied technological solution—the tank—with the German tactical solution that led to the postwar development of mobile warfare doctrine—Blitzkrieg.

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