The Myth of Blitzkrieg

Colonel Robert Doughty

October 14, 1998

The 1940 German campaign against France and the concept of blitzkrieg have exerted a powerful influence over modern perceptions of warfare. The 1940 campaign is frequently cited in discussions of strategy and operations and in publications about the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA). Proponents of the RMA have argued that blitzkrieg was the product of technological and conceptual advances during the interwar period. They have also claimed that the 1940 campaign demonstrates how such advances can quickly change the conduct of warfare.

Many of the concepts associated with blitzkrieg are actually myths. This is a consequence of poor military history and the preponderance of popular accounts of the 1940 campaign. For example, German doctrinal innovation was due more to the unfavorable situation Germany faced rather than to any "revolution" in technology or concepts of warfare. Their planning the 1940 campaign did not expect a swift, easy defeat of France nor was its success solely attributable to technology, specifically tanks and airpower. Rather, the campaign had modest objectives, German strategy and tactics were extremely important, and the infantry played a critical role in its success

The concept of blitzkrieg as it is now understood was not developed by Hitler and the German General Staff. Rather, it was formulated for public consumption. The term appeared occasionally in the literature between 1936 and 1940 and was the subject of a Time magazine article after France’s defeat. At this time, blitzkrieg simply meant a knockout blow in contrast to the trench warfare of World War I. The Germans, for example, employed the term to refer to a short war. No theorist used it to refer to a combined offensive by armored forces and aircraft to deliver a knockout blow against an adversary.

Rather than a revolution, mobile warfare represented a natural evolution in the conduct of war. The development of methods and equipment necessary for mobile warfare was informed by the experience of World War I. Yet, the evolution of technology and strategy was the subject of considerable debate in Germany. There was a lively discussion in the literature about the proper role of tanks and airpower. The development of mechanized forces was retarded by Hitler’s military and economic policies. The best strategy for the 1940 campaign was not immediately evident to the German high command. Hitler dabbled with strategy and inquired about the possibility of an offensive through the Ardennes before Manstein devised his plan. The German strategy for the attack against France was a desperate operational act ultimately chosen for its risky strategic possibilities.

The German advance in the 1940 campaign is widely perceived to have been a rapid "jaunt" through France with armor and airpower playing the dominant roles in the offensive. This notion is unsubstantiated. Rough terrain hindered the progress of the XIX Panzer Corps. The crossing of the Meuse River was also very difficult and its outcome might have been different were it not for some remarkable successes by a few German forces. The movement of armored units across the river was far slower than anticipated and German commanders submitted false reports about their progress and the vulnerability of the bridgehead. Moreover, infantry played a key role on both sides. German armored forces were led across the Meuse by antitank and engineer units. At the beginning of the campaign German forces encountered stiff resistance from Belgian infantry mounted on bicycles. A single rifle company turned back an assault by a German tank division. Furthermore, a German infantry batallion played a pivotal role in the eventual defeat of this company.

Airpower was important in the 1940 campaign and German ground forces would not have been successful without the air support provided by the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe achieved air superiority, established a protective umbrella over advancing German columns, and facilitated the crossing of the Meuse by German forces. German air attacks also confused French commanders about the location of advancing forces and contributed to the collapse of the French 55th Division defending the Meuse. However, German airpower accounted for little of the destruction on the ground nor did its use in the 1940 campaign mark the advent of a fundamentally new way of warfare.

Neither Hitler nor the German high command expected a rapid, easy victory over the French in 1940. They expressed serious concerns about the prospects for success on May 13th and 14th. However, the German forces were victorious because of luck, better leadership, skill and training, superior concentration of forces, and French weaknesses in strategy and tactics. German leaders considered the outcome of the 1940 campaign to be a miracle. Yet, this was soon forgotten as they fell victim to their own propaganda. Seeing themselves in newsreels and movies, the German officer corps became convinced that the myth of blitzkrieg was reality. Confident that blitzkrieg would enable Germany to achieve a swift, easy victory over the Soviet Union, Hitler initiated the invasion of the Soviet Union almost immediately after the 1940 campaign.

Continued British resistance and the expectation that Soviet forces would quickly be defeated led Hitler to pursue an offensive against the Soviet Union in 1941. The British rejected Hitler’s peace overtures following the defeat of France and a German Navy study concluded that an invasion of Great Britain would be extremely difficult. Meanwhile, military options on the eastern front were evaluated. An offensive would seek to crush the Soviet army before it could retreat and to seize enough territory in the east to prevent Soviet air strikes against Germany. Both Hitler and Halder believed that blitzkrieg would enable German forces to deliver such a knockout blow against the Soviet Union. A campaign against the Soviet Union was also expected to be far easier than the invasion of France. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, any remaining British hope of successfully resisting German domination of Europe would be eliminated.

Hitler therefore directed the German army to prepare to crush the Soviet military prior to the defeat of the United Kingdom. The Germans thus sought a "Super Cannae" against the Soviet Union. The invasion of the Soviet Union was widely anticipated to be a short campaign and military planning reflected this expectation. The German high command believed that 80-100 German divisions would easily be able to defeat the 50-75 top Russian divisions. The German economy was not mobilized for the invasion, stockpiles were not accumulated, and the long distances involved in transporting supplies to advancing German forces were ignored. Operation Barbarossa was based to an unprecedented degree on myths and hopes stemming from the successful invasion of France. Intoxicated by the success of the 1940 campaign, Hitler and Halder even envisaged the use of blitzkrieg operations to secure German domination of the Mediterranean and Asia. Such confidence contrasts sharply with the German high command’s far more sober analysis of the successful 1939 attack on Poland, which generated substantial pessimism among military leaders because of the many deficiencies that it had revealed. Instead, concluding that they had devised blitzkrieg to defeat the French, Hitler and the German high command believed it could also be used successfully against the Soviet Union. In the end, such arrogance and poor intelligence led to German failure in the east.

Colonel Robert Doughty heads the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Kansas. Colonel Doughty has written two books about the French military in World War II, The Breaking Point and Seeds of Disaster. He is currently working on a book on French military strategy and doctrine in World War I.

Rapporteur: Rafael Bonoan

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