Mythbusters: Blitzkrieg Decoded
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 09:18
The German Army, geared for world conquest under Hitler, uses new weapons like the tank and bomber to rapidly defeat enemies that do not have them. The result is that the Germans nearly conquer all of Europe.
While the last part has some merit (Germany did succeed in conquering most of Europe), this explanation again falls into the standard pop-history trap of thinking "New technology leads to new victories!".
In reality, new technology very rarely achieves a decision on its own. It can only come about by bringing together many other elements, and this article seeks to peel away the myths surrounding blitzkrieg so that people have a greater understanding of what it was, what were its origins, and how instrumental the tank truly was (or wasn't) in its success.
Myth 1: Tanks Beat Enemies without Tanks
The most simplistic version of the Blitzkrieg myth likes to portray the Allies as helpless before the power of the tank and aircraft. Because the Germans had tanks while the Allies didn't, the Germans won.
But that's simply untrue, because the Allies actually had plenty of tanks for both France 1940 and Barbarossa in 1941. In fact, most estimates show that the Allies had more tanks than the Germans. And many of these Allied tanks were technically superior to German armor in both armor and firepower - two stats that pop history shows love bandying about as the supreme determinants of battlefield victory (which does not pan out in reality).
In fact, pure tank vs tank battles between the Germans and Allies often left the Germans broken and defeated. One famous instance is the battle at Stonne, wherein a single Char B tank of the French army destroyed around a dozen German Panzers that had no support.
As a result, many have attempted to expand on this explanation. They provide reasons like the Germans having "better organization and doctrine", and other similar tangents.
However, the problem with most of these "explanations" is that they are very generalized motherhood statements which do not go into the specifics of why the Germans were successful. If they did, they would come to a very quick conclusion:
The Germans never actually developed any new doctrine called Blitzkrieg.
Myth 2: The Germans Invented an all-new "Blitzkrieg" Doctrine
Shocking, but true: Blitzkrieg is almost never mentioned in any of the official German war manuals prior to the outbreak of war; to the point that someone who tried counting could only find two instances of the word being used in all of Germany's military literature. And no, "Achtung Panzer" (which was published by Guderian for consumption by the public; not as an official manual stating German army doctrine) does not count.
Instead, a quick look at how "blitzkrieg" works would reveal that the genesis of the doctrine lies not with any new technological development, but with the sustained work of the one German institution that is most responsible for that nation's considerable wartime success: The German Staff College, or the Kriegsakademie.
Dating from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, graduation from this institution was a virtual requirement to achieve high rank in the German Army. It was created with the specific intent of creating a corps of officers with a greater understanding of war, which could then beat opposing armies through superior generalship. And as it turns out, the key to superior generalship rested on one factor:
The ability to write a train schedule.
Well, okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration on my part. However, much of the Staff College's curriculum was in fact devoted to the art of wargaming and writing war plans. Students were given hypothetical scenarios (i.e. "Germany finds itself at war with France and Russia") and were tasked to create "solutions" to these conflicts (i.e. the Schlieffen Plan, which calls for a six-week war against France followed by a transfer of the victorious forces to the East to defeat Russia).
And the abiding "innovation" of the Staff College is that students were not allowed to simply put forth any plan based simply on imagination. They actually had to prove that their plans were feasible by showing detailed troops movements based on known operational realities, with very high levels of detail. For instance, it is a known operational reality that a Corps can advance no more than 20 kilometers on foot per day. No amount of screaming or begging will change this. Thus, if your plan involves the troops marching 40 kilometers per day, then it is clearly an impossible plan which will require re-working. Similarly, you need to account for details like the fact that two trains cannot occupy the same space at the same time. If your "plan" requires trains piling up at a station that can't hold that many trains, then it's back to the drawing board for you.
Thanks to this, the Germans won the Franco-Prussian War, where their troop deployments ran relatively smoothly while the French army degenerated into chaos. The Germans also very nearly won the First World War in its opening weeks by capturing Paris, if not for a glaring flaw in the Schlieffen plan that went uncorrected. Meanwhile, in the East, mobile campaigning allowed the Germans to defeat the Russians outright in the First World War 1, an elusive goal that had actually defeated countless would-be masters of Europe, from Napoleon to Hitler.
In short, the Germans kept winning because they simply out-maneuvered their opponents, thanks to the excellent training of their officers who understood the realities of moving large bodies of fighting men. Why rely on the mythical qualities of the German soldier, when sound deployment schedules will ensure that you have four Corps in a crucial sector, while the enemy only has two? (which happened at Mons 1914, where the Germans pushed back the "experienced" and "battle-hardened" British regulars)
This did not change greatly in 1940 or even 1941, as during this time the vast majority of the German army remained a foot-slogging army. On average there were only a mere 20 Panzer Divisions, as opposed to over a hundred infantry Divisions whose composition, mobility, and equipment were little different from the German Divisions of 1918. Even then, the Panzers were still operating under the same general principles, only this time they could move at 20 kilometers per hour instead of twenty miles per day (More on this in Part 2).
That this myth has persisted for so long owes in large part due to the effort of the Western military establishment (particularly the British and French) to deflect blame from their own negligence. Both the British and French armies of 1939 insisted that trench warfare was the future of warfare, despite the fact that the trench war of 1915-17 was an anamoly even in the context of the Great War. Rather than admit that they failed to do their homework and study the great battles of maneuver in the Eastern Front, or even of the prelimenary battles like the Schlieffen Offensive of 1914, Western militaries instead simply used the "But they had shiny new weapons!" excuse.
Interestingly, the Soviet Union actually developed a doctrine prior to the Second World War known as "Deep Battle", and this doctrine fully embraced the idea that war would involve maneuvering vast bodies of men over entire fronts. Unsurprisingly, this doctrine was developed by men who fought on the Eastern Front of World War 1, and knew first hand that the British and French were silly in their insistence on static trench warfare. Had Stalin not committed some monumental acts of stupidity (purging his officers, including the chief architect of "Deep Battle"), the Red Army armed with the Deep Battle Doctrine could have given the Germans a run for their money in 1941.
Similarly, the United States never really bought into the idea of static warfare, as the greatest conflict fought on the North American continent (the Civil War) featured great battles of maneuver, especially in the Western theater where Grant and Sherman made their reputation, which helps account for the speed of American advances in 1944 after the Cobra breakout.
In part 2 of this article, I'll now go over to the actual effect of technology in the Second World War. And contrary to popular belief, what truly changed that war is not the tank or the airplane, albeit both are ultimately children of the real war-changing invention of the Second World War:
The internal combustion engine.
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 09:30
I got about halfway through and decided I'm too tired for this.
It's great info though and +1 for compiling it all and helping to dispel false myths
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 09:54
Germany was not Goliath, it was David. (Ironically)
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 10:31
The idea that bombers were somehow a replacement for a lack of tanks, either in numbers or quality, is false. The integration of airpower into the ground battle was a true element of German operational art, by intent and not by adaptation for failures of the panzerwaffe. It is false to say that it was soley a German development, or unique to blitzkrieg -- other nations were toying with it or seriously pursing it to various degrees; however, in that the Germans developed their airforce, integrated part of it into the ground campaign and employed it aggressively before the other major powers, Germany does deserve credit for showing the power and possibilities of joint air/ground warfare. Like many German developments, however, their achievements were quickly taken up, adapted, developed and employed far more effectively by others -- the price often paid for being the leader into new realms of endeavor.
Technology wins wars. It just doesn't do it alone. THis is the falacy of looking for any single cause to explain victory or defeat. Victory and defeat are synergetic in nature, and rarely attributable to a single cause.
Ultimately, wars are won and lost by people -- by the decisions they make, they ideas they hold, the machines they build, the systems they assemble, the perseverance and determination they muster, the political will they wield or let languish, and finally by the suffering, blood, loss and waste they are willing to endure.
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 18:39
Or in short, it wasn't any German general who was the first to have it put into action - it was General Gregory Zhukov, a solid three months before Poland was invaded. Which I feel should be pointed out - the Russians did it with T-28s and T-26s, and Japan was still a significant military force in '39.
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 20:20
Posted Jan 15 2013 - 22:52
Edited by GenericSoldier, Jan 15 2013 - 22:53.
Posted Jan 16 2013 - 02:44
I didn't say the Second World War resulted in the invention of the the internal combustion engine. It was around even before World War 1.
What I said is that it was the internal combustion engine was the invention which truly defined the Second World War. Not the tank, not the airplane.
Re: Bombers Backing up Tanks
I didn't really get into specific tactics precisely because everyone actually had some inkling that you should operate with a combined-arms army (except for a few idiots like the British "cavalry" proponents). Other armies did in fact use tanks and bombers in concert with infantry in battles; especially when one considers that the effect of airpower is generally grossly overstated. Air forces on both sides have the highest kill inflation of any arm - claiming to wipe out numbers of enemy tanks that simply did not exist.
This is why I'm highlighting the fact that the "superiority" of the German Army lay with its officer's understanding that wars can be won via mass maneuver. It has nothing to do with small-time tactics like "have tanks support infantry" or "have bombers support tanks". Everyone recognized this was necessary to some degree.
They really key difference between the British/French and the Germans however? The Germans understood that static warfare was not the norm. It was an anomaly of 1915-1917. The Western Allies simply failed to do their homework, and helped perpetuate the myth of blitzkrieg ever since to deflect attention from this fact.
Re: Speed of Blitzkrieg and Supply Beyond the Railhead
Comments on this is precisely why I say that the internal combustion engine was the one invention that truly defined the Second World War; which will be covered in Part 2.
Edited by Zinegata, Jan 16 2013 - 02:46.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 00:04
The American Civil War was the first industrial war, featuring technological breakthroughs like telegraph and the rail. Telegraph revolutionized communication and the rail proved that large quantity of men and materiel could be rapidly and efficiently moved from the rear to the front. World War 2 was just like the Civil War for the US, except on a vast scale with an even faster pace.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 00:14
That's why you motorize and mechanize your entire formation, even supply troops. A tank battalion supporting an infantry regiment on foot can only move as fast as the foot soldiers, unless the tanks want to move up alone and drive into an ambush.
A panzer divison had a mechanized infantry battalion and 3 motorised infantry battalion. The problem was a lot of the supplies were still on beast power along with most of the artillery being horse drawn.
A true mechanized division was the late war US armor division. Infantry and artillery were mechanized and supplied by fleets of trucks.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 03:17
It's certainly the first major war wherein railroads played a prominent role. However, the issue with railroads is that the advance slows to marching pace once beyond the railhead. This is why Part 2 will focus on the internal combustion engine, as it finally freed armies from this limitation.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 03:28
Other than that, railways played less of a role during the war than they could have I recall, in no small part due to them being bombed by both sides. Trucks were the primary way of moving things around, although the Germans and Soviets relied heavily on horses as well.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 11:35
Myth 3: The Tank was the key invention that made Blitzkrieg possible
Some people in this forum often accuse me of hating the tank, because I often write long-winded posts about how the value of tanks has been vastly overstated. This is another one of them, so if you prefer to cling to your imagined notions of the tank then you should probably bury your head in the sand and ignore this post altogether.
However, the vast majority of people understand that the reality of war can be very different from the simple perception of war. And this section at long last defines what the tank's role truly was in the "Blitzkrieg" doctrine.
Let's step back to France 1940. We have the German army on one side, and the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch army on the other. We have already established that both sides have tanks. So the question becomes: what was the difference between these two forces, beside the fact that the British and French were criminally backward with their static warfare doctrine? (as opposed to the German, Russian, and American doctrines which all incorporated mobile warfare)
The answer is simple: The British and French tanks were, for the most part, made to operate as part of larger infantry formations. Despite the British / French tanks being capable of moving at 20 kilometers per hour, they were forced to operate with infantry forces who marched at 20 kilometers per day, squandering any speed advantage that they had.
Meanwhile, the German tanks were allowed to operate independently. Despite having only a handful of Panzer Divisions, these Panzer Divisions were not made to march alongside the rest of the infantry-based army. Thus, the German army had a small, specialized force which could rapidly deploy at a much faster pace than the infantry, allowing them to rapidly encircle the British and French forces before they could react (because again, the British/French tanks were limited to marching pace), resulting in the forced evacuation of the BEF and the best of the French army units at Dunkirk.
Thus, it becomes easy to see that the decisive, war-winning difference between a Panzer Division and a French/British Division is operational mobility - which is the ability to move large bodies of men on the battlefield at a pace much faster than the enemy.
[Sidebar: Note that this is different from "strategic" mobility, which is the ability to transfer large bodies of troops using railroads or merchant ships over large distances. High levels of strategic mobility were already available in the First World War, which was defined by railroads.
It is also different from "vehicle top speed", which is really little more than "tactical mobility". Getting a single tank to move 45kph is one thing. Moving three hundred tanks and its supporting elements over a hundred kilometers in a few hours without resort to rail or merchant transport is another thing entirely]
So does this finally present an airtight example of the tank's war-winning qualities? Unfortunately, no, as it is often forgotten that the Panzer Division was not an all-tank formation. It is instead part of a combined arms formation, for the German Army - like all competent militaries - recognized that different arms were needed to succeed in combat.
Indeed, a quick look at the Panzer Division's organization would show that it has a substantial infantry component, which would proportionately grow larger and larger as the war progress. Because at the tactical level, an all-tank force simply made no sense. Such a force was easily defeated by massed anti-tank guns, as the ATGs were easily concealed and could often rain fire on the armor without fear of retaliation. To drive away the ATG crews, infantry and artillery were needed.
Thus, to have a successful mobile army, you needed to be able to move everything at the rate of 20 kilometers per hour. Not just your tanks, but also your infantry and your artillery, and the ammunition and fuel needed to keep them fighting. Otherwise, your unsupported tanks will simply be picked off. And to move these supporting forces, you need to fully utilize that invention I mentioned earlier: The internal combustion engine.
Apart from tanks, the diesel and gasoline engine powers an enormous variety of transport vehicles, most notably the truck. These vehicles are not sexy. They are generally unarmed. But if you want your tanks to fight with infantry and artillery support, then you must rely on trucks and other transports to carry them for you.
And by 1944, the Allied armies had come to realize and finally embrace this concept. The United States, in particular, fully motorized all of its infantry Divisions. This was why US "Infantry" Divisions were racing alongside US "Armor" Division to the German border in 1944 - because you actually don't need the tank in order to create a highly mobile army. The tank is certainly useful in a wide variety of roles - particularly infantry support - but working on its own it could still not force a decision.
Myth 4: Only Germany Mastered "Blitzkrieg"
Now that we've established what "Blitzkrieg" actually is, it's now time to move on to the other myths and misconceptions about it. In particular, there's this very annoying brain bug that has come up in recent years, that claims the Allied armies of 1944 were incompetents who simply overcame German tactical skill with overwhelming numbers. Hence the frequent claims of "One Panther lost for every five Shermans", and other nonsense lies.
The reality of 1944 was completely different. In fact, it was almost a complete reversal of the situation of 1940.
It was now the Allies that had highly mobile armies, while the German army was still limited to a handful of Panzer Divisions. Allied generalship by this point was also much better, with many Generals being leading proponents of mobile warfare (Patton, Zhukov). The German general staff meanwhile, had been gutted. Its leaders were being forced into retirement (Manstein, Guderian) or suicide (Rommel), and Hitler kept insisting on patently insane static warfare statics like his ill-fated "Festungs".
And the results actually reflected this. 1944 was not a year when the Allies suffered defeats at the hands of mythical Panthers and Tigers. It was in fact a year of utterly catastrophic losses for the German Army.
In the East, an entire Army Group vanished after the Soviets launched "Operation Bagration", which saw the Russian armor and motorized units cutting into the German rear and annihilating three entire armies (worse than Stalingrad).
In the West, the bulk of seven Panzer Divisions and many other Divisions were crushed when the Western Allies performed a smaller mass encirclement at Falaise. The defeats were so crushing that they essentially equalled Germany's dazzling advances in 1939 and 1940.
While Allies still suffered losses, what's important to realize is that when two armies achieve the same level of technology and firepower, heavy losses are inevitable. There is no "magic solution" to reduce casualties once the other side becomes as mobile as you, and their tactics and strategy are no longer incompetent. In fact, German "blitzkrieg" had already failed in 1943, highlighted by that supposed mother of all tank battles: Kursk.
Popular history likes to depict Kursk as a massed, swirling tank battle. It was actually anything but except for very specific portions. Instead, it was simply vindication for the Red Army, who now showed that they had learned their lessons. As shown in the paper here:
The Red Army of Kursk was no longer the plodding army that kept finding entire armies surrounded and wiped out by the nimble Panzers before they knew what was happening. It had now learned to create defensive positions manned by combined-arms formations, supported by mobile reserves that could quickly move up to counter any sudden German movements.
This new, improved Red Army defeated the cream of the German Panzer forces, which never recovered despite attempts to make them "better" by introducing "technically superior" tanks like the Panther and Tiger. But the introduction of these super-tanks actually only accelerated the rot, because the Panther and Tigers were mechanically unreliable and had little operational mobility - the very key to the success of the original Panzer Divisions.
This is why, despite all the myth-making, the kill rate of the Panzer forces actually declined by 1944, and they were completely unable to prevent the disasters of Bagration and Falaise.
Myth 5: Blitzkrieg as the Way of the Future
Finally, it's worth noting that the myths of blitzkrieg had a profoundly negative effect on the development of modern day armies, and this resulted in two superpowers getting humbled.
The standard narrative of the modern "mechanized" army is as follows: The Second World War proved beyond a doubt that the tank was a war-winner. Hence, the super powers created vast armies of mechanized forces, centered around the tank, which was supported by other armored vehicles.
This narrative falls apart when we consider that the tank wasn't a war-winner on its own. It still needed help from infantry and artillery. Moreover, what's important to realize is that the mechanized army was not the child of the tank. It was instead the child of the atomic bomb.
The real reason why the US and Soviet armies went all-mechanized was because they both believed that any war between them would become a nuclear war. In a nuclear environment, foot infantry are too vulnerable to atomic weapons to be useful. Only tanks and other armored units have any chance of surviving in an environment full of radiation and poison gas.
Unfortunately, mechanized armies are profoundly unsuited for anything but an all-out war in the North German Plains. Tanks cannot operate well in most environments, like jungles and mountains. The infantry component of mechanized units is also too few to establish proper area control.
And this is really the major reason why both the United States (in Vietnam) and the Soviet Union (in Afghanistan) found themselves humbled by Third-World militaries during the Cold War. Infantry - armed only with light anti-tank weapons - can persist against enemies armed with tanks and other heavier vehicles that have insufficient staying power due to their paucity of infantry. Fighting "regular" or "irregular" opponents - who do not possess vast armories of tanks - require different weapons to fight.
In summary, much of what is known about Blitzkrieg is a myth. They were born out of dangerous misunderstandings and outright attempts to deflect blame. It was simply the application of mobile combat doctrines (mastered by the Germans thanks to their staff college, ignored by the British and French due to their myopia), which was supplemented by the power of the internal combustion engine which conferred greater operational mobility to tank and motorized infantry/artillery forces.
More importantly, it was not, and never was, a be-all end-all doctrine that rendered all other forms of combat obsolete. All the warring powers in fact were able to rapidly implement it, with the Allies implementing it in a superior fashion.
Finally, myths of blitzkrieg should cease to serve as the basis for modern doctrine. In fact, given that virtually all states who possess tanks and mechanized armies also own nuclear weapons, it is unlikely we will ever see such wars of mass maneuver ever again; and the ability to fight other forms of war become more paramount.
Edited by Zinegata, Jan 17 2013 - 11:40.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 11:51
But just let me add, that you should also take a look at the equipment of the wehrmacht in the early stages of the war and especially at the outbreak.
There was a significant lack of machineguns, not every squad in the divisions was fully geared up and some generals said it was too early to start a war.
But it wasnt only mobility and maneuverability that made germany so powerful, you were talking about divebombers as an addition for the lack of tanks, we
call it "battle of combined arms". Air superiority and close air support for the first time were major contributors to success of ground operations.
Germany had all that in the beginning of the war and therefore was able to move so freely while later that advantage was lost, divisions couldnt move in daylight or in good weather.
Support arrived late or never. Look at that too.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 20:03
There's more to it than that.
How long do we stay in places like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan? 5 years? 10 years? 50 years?
How long do Vietnamese stay in Vietnam? Iraqis in Iraq? Afghanis in Afghanistan? A lot longer than what we plan to.
Viet cong suffered horrendous casualties at the hands of US military. I bet the mujahadeens did at the hands of the Soviets as well. But at the end of the day, Americans and Soviets had to go home. Vietnamese and Afghanis didn't have anywhere else to go.
There are 3 ways to defeat your enemy: extermination; subjugation; conversion. We can't exterminate or subjugate people any more. Those are considered "inhumane." So that leaves one option: conversion. We did a pretty good job in Japan, Germany, and now Vietnam. We'll see about A-stan and Iraq.
Edited by blurr91, Jan 17 2013 - 20:12.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 22:31
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 22:35
EDIT: Nobody stays in those countries because it isn't affordable >> debts
Edited by NGU873X, Jan 17 2013 - 22:40.
Posted Jan 17 2013 - 23:11
EDIT: Nobody stays in those countries because it isn't affordable >> debts
The problem is modern western societies don't have patience. Conversion of the natives take generations, not just decades or years. US was hostile toward the British Empire for decades. Things only changed during WW2. Sure, we helped them in WW1, but we still had war plans to fight the British Empire as late as the 1930s.
Mongols tried extermination and was fairly successful. Mongols couldn't exterminate Hans in China. They were expelled after 90 years of occupation. Think about it, Mongols occupied China for 90 years and then were still kicked out. Our current operations are peanuts compared to that.
Manchus were much better at occupying China. They lasted 260 years. But in the end, Hans still toppled their rule.
Manchus did the same thing the British Empire did, using the natives to control the natives. Keep them fighting each other for scraps and control how much scraps there are.
Posted Jan 18 2013 - 02:37
What needs to be realized however, is that you need boots on the ground in order to provide security to pave the way for conversion. Killing the Vietcong by a ratio of 10:1 did not result in victory because there remained insufficient forces to protect the rural villages. Likewise, almost all of the problems of Iraq 2 can be traced to the US Army relegating only half the number of troops that Shinseki estimated would be needed to hold the country.
I'm not saying mech isn't useful. But I am saying that conflicts have shown that you simply can rely on technology and greater firepower to win wars. That's the most dangeous myth perpetuated by blitzkrieg.
You simply need more boots on the ground, rather than the expedient of deploying half the number of troops and hoping that the Bradleys will make up for the shortfall (they didn't). The occupations of Germany and Japan were a sucess partly because there were more than enough boots on the ground to cow any would-be resistance.
The effect of Luftwaffe airpower was grossly overstated. They were averaging less than 1 sortie (of all kinds) per mile of front in Barbarossa.
Posted Jan 18 2013 - 02:42
Well relations thawed a bit during the Civil War when the Union declared Abolition and the British were too. Also thought the British did repay a part of the fee for reparations the Union demanded for damages relations were still icy.