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Blitzkrieg, German for "lightning war", principally refers to the combined arms tactics used by the German military in the Polish campaign of 1939, the campaign into France and the Low Countries in 1940, and the early phases of the attack on the Soviet Union. In common usage, it has become a generic term for any fast-moving military operation using apparently high technology. The term was not widely used in German literature, and actually became popularized by an article in the American Time magazine.[1] In modern military professional literature, it is a subset of the various doctrines of deep battle.

German WWII usage

In the specific usage, it referred to the action of groups of tanks, vehicle-carried infantry, some mobile artillery, and aircraft in close air support. Its execution also depended on extensive radio communications from headquarters to advancing units, although communications were fairly primitive by modern standards. At the level of operational art, the Panzergruppe was the overall command organization.

Some of the limitations included the lack of tight coordination and compatible communications between ground and air forces. While other German thinkers contributed to its development, Heinz Guderian clearly was its prime executor in the 1939 invasion of Poland.[2]

Much of the German military of the time moved on foot, or by horse-drawn transit. The role of the air-armor teams was to break holes in the enemy lines, and move quickly into the rear areas, disrupting command, communications, and logistics. Conventional military would hold the flanks of the breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, the Einsatzgruppen, not part of the military, also followed the breakthroughs in Poland and Russia, and were responsible for most atrocities against civilians and prisoners. Some German generals, such as Johannes Blaskowitz, actively protested their actions, while others rationalized it as rear area security.

While it is not clear to the extent to which foreign authors contributed to the German interpretation, writers, between the World Wars, who discussed related mobile, tank-heavy operations include Basil Liddell-Hart and J.F.C. Fuller (U.K.), Charles de Gaulle(France), and Mikhail Tukhachevsky (Soviet Union). While Tukhachevsky's work, along with his collaborator, V.K. Triandafillov, was not known specifically in the West until before WWII, it is plausible that during the Black Reichswehr period in which the Soviets secretly trained the Germans, the earlier Soviet doctrinal work might have become available to Guderian and others.


In many respects, the individual techniques were not new, but had not been put together in a coherent whole. In the First World War, for example, there were two striking examples of the use of high technology to break through defense lines, but the high command involved had not planned to rush mobile forces through the gap and cause chaos in the rear. These two examples were the first large-scale use of chemical weapons, by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres (22nd April to 25 May 1915), and the first use of massed tanks, by the British at the Battle of Cambrai ((20 November to 3 December 1917). One can look back to the Battle of the Crater, on July 30, 1864 during the American Civil War, to see an even earlier failure of imagination, and unreadiness to exploit a breakthrough.

Also in the First World War, Germany had developed techniques for limited breakthrough and infiltration by elite infantry, called "shock" or "storm" units. These stormtroopers were very different in discipline than the interwar Sturmabteilung (SA). Erwin Rommel discussed his techniques in a 1937 book.[3]


Basic blitzkrieg worked far better in Poland and the Battle of France than in Russia.

Keil und Kesel flow

In the doctrine use at the start of the Russian invasion, the Germans planned to use Keil und Kessel (wedge and cauldron) tactics to encircle and destroy the Russian. The Panzergruppen would act as the wedge, forming an outer ring around the enemy. Foot-mobile or motorized infantry would then form an inner ring,of the cauldron, destroying the enemy while the outward-facing armored units would prevent the enemy from being relieved. On 10 July 1941, the Eleventh German Army had part of its 198th Infantry Division had been caught without antitank support and mauled badly by a heavy tank attack.[4]

Describing his experience commanding a Panzergruppe, Erich von Manstein wrote "the security of a tank formation operating in the enemy's rear largely [depended] on its ability to keep moving. Once it [came] to a halt, it [would] be immediately assailed from all sides by the enemy's reserves." The position of such a stationary panzer unit, Manstein added, could best be described as "hazardous."[5]

For local defense, halted panzer units would go into a formation called a hedgehog. This was adequate to defend the tanks, but not to control large areas. Such area control was the job of the infantry. If there were enough motorized (i.e., truck-borne) infantry units, the two rings could be formed quickly. There were few such units, however, and the 7th Panzer Division, after encircling the Smolensk pocket, faced simultaneous attacks from the inside and outside 1 August 1941.

A difference from the West and Poland was that Soviet T-34 medium and KV heavy tanks were effectively immune to the main guns of German tanks. The Germans compensated by redeploying 88mm guns in the antitank role, but this was a challenge they had never faced.

Role and complementary approaches

In blitzkrieg, the emphasis is on breaching a relatively static defensive line, holding the flanks of the penetration with foot-mobile infantry, and then having the fast breakthrough force engage targets of opportunity in the enemy's rear. As opposed to the Soviet concept of an Operational Maneuver Group, which will rampage in the rear until destroyed or victorious, the fast force expected to rejoin followup echelons.

The Operational Maneuver Group was only one option in much broader Soviet deep battle doctrine of operational art, such as the gluboky boi developed by Mikhail Tukhachevsky and complemented with logistics and troop mobilization ideas from V.K. Triandafillov.[6] The particularly Soviet flavor of deep battle doctrine, however, was defensive; it focused on the counterattack against forces that had penetrated by blitzkrieg, but that were overextending their logistical and infantry support. Where blitzkrieg was more or less continuous, gluboky boi used a "pulsed" sequence of echeloned forces of different composition.

Modern U.S. doctrine continues deep battle principles, although current thinking is more along the lines of maneuver than breaking through defensive lines. Nevertheless, in the Gulf War, the heavy armored corps used a fire-heavy technique to penetrate the main Iraqi line, although with all forces being mobile and with far more firepower, even in comparative terms against the Iraqis, than had been imagined by Guderian.


  1. "Blitzkrieger", Time, September 25, 1939
  2. Heinz Guderian (1952), Panzer Leader (2001 reprint ed.), Da Capo Press, ISBN 978-0306811012
  3. Erwin Rommel, with Manfred Rommel in current version (1937), Infantry in the Attack (Infanterie im Angriff) (Zenith Press reprint & update, 2009 ed.), Zenith Press, ISBN 978-0760337158
  4. Timothy Wray (September 1986), Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front During World War II: Prewar to March 1943, U.S. Command and General Staff College
  5. Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories. Edited and translated by Anthony G. Powell. Henry Regnery Co., 1958, quoted by Wray
  6. Eric D. Beaty (May 2009), Effects of Operational and Strategic Pauses on Mission Success, School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College