1939: Germany invades Poland, starting the second European war in a generation and introducing the world to a new kind of warfare: blitzkrieg.
This form of attack, which helped the Germans defeat the Poles and the French in a matter of weeks, relies on rapid mobility and the coordination of massed armor and infantry, with fighter planes and dive bombers providing air support. It also depends on the element of surprise, one reason Nazi Germany never declared war prior to invading an enemy.
The concept of blitzkrieg was a matter of adapting 20th-century technology — especially the tank, the airplane and the radio — to the age-old tactics of mobile warfare. The Germans were not alone in exploring these possibilities — military thinkers like Britain’s Basil Liddell Hart and France’s Charles de Gaulle also wrote extensively on the subject during the interwar years — but conditions within the German army, and inside Germany itself, made for a more receptive audience.
Heinz Guderian is the acknowledged father of the blitzkrieg. Guderian was a signals officer during World War I, but he studied tank tactics in the early ’20s and became a proselytizer for armored warfare. He later published a study, Achtung Panzer!, that amounted to a blueprint of German blitzkrieg tactics for the next war.
Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, was in the process of rearming the country when he attended a war-gaming exercise that combined tanks and motorized infantry. Hitler was impressed by the swiftness and the striking power, and he told Guderian — who was running the exercise — that this was the army he meant to have.
The tank is the blitzkrieg’s decisive weapon. Tactically, the key is to attack en masse rather than committing tanks piecemeal, in an infantry support role, which is what the French did. In Germany, this philosophy led to the creation of the panzer divisions, the world’s first truly armored units.
(Guderian, though only a colonel, was given command of the 2nd Panzer Division in 1935. As a general in World War II, Guderian commanded the XIX Panzer Corps during the Polish and French campaigns and, later, the Second Panzer Army in the Soviet Union. He also served as inspector general of panzer troops and, finally, as chief of the army’s general staff.)
The classic blitzkrieg attack unfolds like this:
Success is achieved through surprise and speed, which keeps the enemy off balance. Maneuvering is coordinated through the use of radio, which was used so extensively by the Germans that individual tanks carried their own equipment. The French, by comparison, hardly used radio at all. The French High Command was not even connected by radio to units in the field. Instead, it dispatched orders by motorcycle courier from its headquarters outside Paris.
Incidentally, the German Wehrmacht never officially used the word blitzkrieg — literally, “lightning war” — though it did appear in several prewar German military publications. It came into widespread popular use in English after turning up in Time magazine’s coverage of the Polish invasion.
Photo: German tanks and troops in Poland, September 1939 (German Federal Archive/Wikimedia:
This article first appeared on Wired on Sept. 1, 2008.