German troops parade through Warsaw, Poland, September 1939. The proud, goosestepping Soldat of the Wehrmacht embodied the idea of Nazi superiority and German right of conquest.
What is Blitzkrieg?
Blitzkrieg, or “The Lightning War", was an operating concept developed as a solution to the trench warfare of World War I. While American, Russian, British and other armies developed similar concepts, only the German generals received support for their operational plans prior to World War II.
Germany's Blitzkrieg tactics overwhelmed Poland in September 1939, then, after a pause, crushed Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries in April-May 1940, and finally France in June 1940. While the word Blitzkrieg is well remembered, it only became popular from use by British and U.S. journalists, while German officers used the term "bewegungskrieg," meaning war of movement, to describe their operations.
Blitzkrieg first appeared in the form of elite infantry units known as “Sturmtruppen", or Storm Troops, designed to rapidly overrun enemy positions using momentum and speed. Later, Blitzkrieg evolved into modern mobile warfare. Heavily armored tanks supported by infantry, motorized infantry, artillery and air power, would rapidly drive through enemy lines to capture strategic enemy positions or to encircle the enemy. Blitzkrieg accounted for most of Germany’s military victories from 1939 to 1942, and has since been employed widely from George Patton’s European campaign in 1944, to Israel’s various conflicts with its Arab neighbors, to American military action in both Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Nonetheless, the German military was far from fully mechanized. For the initial attack on Poland (1 September 1939), the Germans concentrated a total of 54 divisions, of which 7 were Panzer, 4 were motorized, and 4 were designated as mechanized light divisions. The rest of the force was infantry that still relied on horse transport, including horse-drawn artillery, with an allocation of 5,375 horses for a typical division. But the panzers were out front and until effective countermeasures were developed, Germany's Blitzkrieg operations achieved all their goals.
Blitzkrieg of Poland, September 1939
On 1 September 1939, using a manufactured pretext, columns of German forces launched Blitzkeieg across the German-Poland border at more than ten points. The Germans had about 1 million men against about 600,000 Poles available for active duty. The Luftwaffe had 3 planes for every Polish aircraft, most of which were destroyed on the ground in the first few days, allowing the Wehrmacht to do its work with little to fear from the air.
The Polish army was rapidly pushed back eastward to a natural line of defense along Poland's rivers, but had little hope of holding out without outside help from Britain and France. In just over a week, the Germans were at Warsaw and the following week two German army groups moving from the north trapped 170,000 Polish troops at Kutno (100 miles west of Warsaw).
On 17 September 1939, Soviet troops entered Poland from the east, carrying out the pact between Hitler and Stalin, just signed on 23 August. Poland was crushed between the Red Army moving westward and the Wehrmacht moving east. Although completely surrounded, Warsaw held out heroically until 27 September when, out of food and ammunition, they surrendered. Germany and the Soviet Union met the next day to set new borders dividing Poland between them.
Blitzkrieg of Scandinavia, March-April 1940
The British and French declared war on Germany in September 1939 as a result of the aggression against Poland. In mid-March 1940 Finland was forced to captiulate to the Soviet Union after a brief but bloody war. On 9 April 1940, in a one day campaign, Denmark fell to the Germans, a small country unable to resist directly.
On the same day, Germany moved against Norway with combined operations by the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe. With surprise, speed, and daring the Germans defied British Royal Navy patrols along the Norwegian coast, moving shiploads of troops and their supplies directly into Norwegian ports where they quickly disembarked and took up positions. The Luftwaffe bombed targets and landed paratroopers across the nation. Within a few hours all important points of control in Norway were in German hands and by the end of the day German troops occupied government buildings in Oslo. The only German setbacks were the loss of a few ships in coastal waters. A puppet government under the traitor Quisling was installed.
The British were stunned and surprised by these lightning moves. They attempted to respond with ill fated raids on Trondheim and Narvik, but the result was disaster. By 8 June 1940, the British had fully withdrawn from Norway. Although Norway was humiliation for the Allies, valuable lessons were learned and the danger of Hitler's Germany would no longer be underestimated.
Blitzkrieg of the Low Countries, May 1940
An assault on the Low Countries -- Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg -- was the essential next step in Hitler's plan to consolidate control of Europe under German rule. Having neutralized the Soviet Union, absorbed western Poland, and secured Germany's northern flank, on 10 May 1940 the Wehrmacht rolled across the Dutch border in the now familiar Blitzkrieg fashion. German parachutists seized strategic points, dive bombers destroyed the small Dutch air force, and the infantry followed Panzers across the flat land, eliminating any resistance. The Hague and Rotterdam fell quickly to airborne troops and the main force took only a few days to penetrate the Dutch interior and link up. On 14 May 1940 Rotterdam was heavily bombed with estimates of up to one thousand civilian deaths and the heart of the city was destroyed, an atrocity with no military reason. The Dutch Royal Family escaped to England and the country surrendered on 15 May 1940, after 5 days of German slaughter.
Belgium and Luxemborg were attacked on the same day as Holland. Tiny Luxemborg fell in a few hours. Belgium was able to mount a strong defense, although the result was the same. The Blitzkrieg tactics of simultaneous air assault and direct attack on the ground by fast moving armored infantry made a mockery of prepared defenses and Allied plans. The Belgian fortress of Eben Emael on the Meuse River, reputed to be the most formidable stronghold in the world, fell on 11 May, the second day. Allied forces on the Continent moved toward Belgium to assist, but it was far too little, too late. The Germans pushed through the "impassable" Ardennes and opened a breach in the Allied lines. Within seven days the Germans reached the English Channel, dividing the Allied forces.
On 25 May, King Leopold notified King George of Britain that Belgium would have to surrender within days, a message given to the French as well. Belgium fought on, buying invaluable time for the Allies, but on 28 May, as the Belgian Army approached exhaustion, King Leopold asked Germany for an armistice. The British and French troops fighting with Belgium faced annihilation as the Germans closed in.
In a miraculous operation, every civilian and military craft afloat in Britian was sent to the Channel port of Dunkirk, opposite Dover. While the Germans were held at bay by the Royal Navy and a defensive perimeter on land, over 338,000 men -- including 140,000 French and Belgians -- were evacuated to England over a harrowing period of nine days (26 May-3 June). Although their equipment was lost, the troops lived to fight another day, a moral victory that baffled the Germans who thought the troops were hopelessly trapped.
Blitzkrieg of France, June 1940
From the invasion of Poland (September 1939) into the spring of 1940, France waited behind the mighty Maginot Line with an army that on paper was the strongest in Europe. During this "Phony War" or "Sitzkrieg" the French hoped they were not on Hitler's list, but were confident they could win if challenged by the Germans. Not until the debacle in Belgium did the French wake to the dimensions of their danger. As the battle raged at Dunkirk, the French army formed the defensive Weygand Line opposite the Belgian border, trying to extend the Maginot Line to the west. The effort was futile. On 3 June 1940 Paris was bombed and two days later 100 Wehrmacht divisions attacked furiously at four points, outflanking the static Maginot defenses and overwhelming the pathetic Weygand Line.
Blitzkrieg came to France with unopposed Luftwaffe dive bombers pounding the French from above while an estimated two thousand panzers roared across the French countryside scattering the disorganized French army and destroying anything in their path. The Germans moved too fast for the French to mount effective counterattacks or even to defend any point successfully. The French army, and then the French population, dissolved into headlong, panic-driven retreat southward, abandoning Paris and other French cities. The Luftwaffe bombed and strafed not only the French military, but also these columns of refugees who were defenseless in their traffic jams, leaving French roads littered with corpses.
On 10 June, Mussolini's Italy took cowardly advantage of the German onslaught to declare war on France and invade through the Riveria with 400,000 troops. On 11 June, the French government left Paris to the Germans and fled to Tours and on 14 June German soldiers entered Paris to the horror of its remaining citizens. German victories in the field continued to accumulate until, on 17 June, Marshal Pétain assumed control of the vestigial French government. Pétain handed the country over to Hitler at a humiliating ceremony on 22 June 1940, staged by the Germans at Compiegne, on the very spot where Germany had surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War I in 1918. Europe lay at Hitler's feet.
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