World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (III) – The Blitzkrieg
“Operation means movement.”
Alfred Graf von Schlieffen
The word blitzkrieg – lightning war appeared after the German invasion in Poland in 1939 and since then has been used countless times in military history, politics, economy, even in sports. It has come to symbolize speed, surprise, swift action and utter destruction.
The view that the term blitzkrieg originally described a theory of conducting military operations is quite common. Some believe that this theory was devised by armor experts like Guderian and others prefer to attribute this supposed theory to Hitler and the Nazi Party. As always the truth is much more complex, and reality remains well hidden behind the myths.
Asking the right questions
The German General Staff planned the campaign in Poland with the intention to encircle and annihilate the entire Polish Army. That was its victory vision. If there was a novel blitzkrieg theory at the time, it must have influenced the concept under which the campaign was planned. Was the concept of “encircling and annihilating the enemy” something new for the German Army in 1939? To answer this question we have to go back in time!
The Prussian tradition: Clausewitz
The German Army was the inheritor of the Prussian military tradition, for this reason our quest will begin with the great war theoretician Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz is known for his book “On War”, which was published by his wife, Marie von Brühl, after his death. What is of importance to our research is that he set as the primary goal in every war the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and he believed that this would be better done in one giant battle, rather than in a series of smaller battles. He also believed that the encirclement of the enemy offered the best chances for decisive results, but he was skeptic if such a maneuver was possible at the strategic level.
In the second half of the 19th century, a series of wars took place in northern Europe; when they ended Germany was united under the Prussian rule. These wars are known as the Wars of German Unification, and the military genius behind the Prussian successes was Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke’s most brilliant victory took place in 1870 when he encircled two French Armies and captured 104,000 prisoners, the French king among them. Moltke was worshipped by his officers as the new demigod of war and created a standard against which his successors would be measured.
Moltke retired from service in 1888, after 70 years in the army. In 1891 Count Alfred von Schlieffen became chief of the Great General Staff. Schlieffen was in line with Moltke’s tradition and took the “annihilation” concept to the extreme. Schlieffen was of the opinion that in a future war, the entire French Army ought to be encircled and annihilated in a single battle. The Count used his many years in the office to devise a plan where the right wing of the German Army was to envelope and ultimately encircle the French Army. Schlieffen did not live to see his plan materialize. He died in 1913.
Germany lost World War I, so it is reasonable to wonder if the defeat altered the victory vision of the German Army. Well, it did not, because:
- In the eastern front, the battle of Tannenberg proved once more the validity of the "annihilation" principle. The German 8th Army encircled and annihilated the Russian 2nd Army. (92,000 captured - 78,000 dead and wounded)
- The failure of the German right wing to outmaneuver the French Army was attributed by many officers to the then chief of the general staff Moltke the Younger (a nephew of Moltke the Elder) and not to the unfeasibility of Schlieffen’s plan. It was clear that the majority of the officers had not lost their confidence to the “annihilation” principle.
- Even in the Western Front a level of maneuverability was reestablished with the introduction of tanks and the use of storm troop tactics. Although none of these innovations brought the much desired decisive victory, they both showed significant potential.
In almost all the military studies issued after World War I the perception that only the encirclement of the enemy can lead to the decisive victory remained strong. The same is true for the official manuals of the German Army. I think that it has become obvious by now that no blitzkrieg theory ever appeared. The German General Staff in 1939 planned the Polish campaign according to the “annihilation” principle which was well established from the 19th century. The German Army envisioned victory in the battlefield as the annihilation of an encircled enemy. This concept incorporated two seemingly contradictory Clausewitzian perspectives. He had said that defense is the stronger form in war, but only offense can lead to positive results. With the encirclement of the enemy, the German Army was switching from attack to defense only that now the enemy had to fight with his front inverted. The Germans were using defense, the stronger form, to destroy the enemy.
Who coined the word blitzkrieg?
The word became known to the world thanks to the September 25, 1939 issue of TIME magazine. A journalist had written about the Polish campaign, and he described the military operations as "no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration—Blitzkrieg, lightning war”. After that it was used by everyone, including Goebbels who loved the word.
I do not think that the TIME’s correspondent had any war theory in his mind. I think that he only expressed, with this impressive word, the awe with which he watched the Polish campaign unfold. So, what happened there which so vividly impressed the TIME’s reporter and the rest of the world?
In order to understand the awe that the Polish campaign caused, we have to see it through the eyes of someone whose war experiences came from World War I and especially the Western Front. This guy was familiar with the trench warfare and knew offensive operations as a series of frontal attacks by infantry divisions, supported by heavy artillery concentrations. Tanks could be attached to the infantry, but the pace of the advance was determined by the foot marching soldiers. This was actually the way French and Polish generals expected the war to progress. But it didn’t.
The pace was determined by Panzer divisions concentrated into Corps level formations, operating independently from the foot marching soldiers. What happened was much different from what was expected and I think that this explains the awe. The Germans did not produce a new war theory; they only adjusted the new means available to them into their existing concept. Unfortunately for the rest of the world this adjustment was not expected.
The Nazi blitzkrieg
Some are of the opinion that the supposed blitzkrieg theory was devised by Hitler or the Nazi party, and it had the characteristics of Nazi ideology or even Hitler’s personality! Amusing, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Nazi ideology needed war as a tool for global domination but never produced any kind of war theory.
The strategic paralysis
Some others supported that the so called blitzkrieg theory was a way of conducting a "minimal violence" war. In their view, a fast moving armored force rapidly strikes some moral objective which causes the entire enemy front to collapse. Checkmate!, but sadly not the case here. The German Army considered an enemy defeated only when his troops were dead or captured. Only an encirclement could produce such results.
The German Army sought to paralyze the enemy but in another way. They believed that when the enemy was simultaneously threatened with a breakthrough in the front, and with encirclement in the rear, he paralyzes and becomes indecisive as to where he should commit his reserves. When he finally does so his action comes to late to have results. That explains why during the Polish campaign the German Army never avoided frontal attacks even against fortified positions. And that explains their high casualties.
…keep the magic
The word blitzkrieg is actually meaningless; no body of theory is attached to it. It can be used to describe anything from a football match to a successful election campaign, but it is a powerful word, it generates feelings and it makes the adrenaline run high. So I suggest we should keep the magic, but also we should study the facts.
The Polish Campaign series
- World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (IV) – ...
On September 1, 1939 the German armies invaded Poland. Great Britain and France had guaranteed Poland’s safety and Soviet Russia was waiting for her turn.
- Crossing the Brda River: Guderian’s First Panzer Action
An action early in WWII by the famous panzer general.
- World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (II) – ...
On September the first, 1939 a massive German Army invaded Poland. Follow the battles, the armored thrusts and the fight in the air.
- World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (I) – T...
August 31, 1939, only a few hours before WW II breaks out. German and Polish plans and expectations, the inhuman machinations of the SS and Hitler's inner thoughts.