The controversial British strategist Basil Liddell Hart once observed that “the real story of any great event is apt to be very different to what appears at the time…the truth sometimes leaks out later; sometimes never.” Although such an insight may seem obvious, or even banal, it is a useful starting point for any discussion concerning the German Blitzkrieg campaigns of the Second World War.
In the summer of 1941, the Third Reich cast its shadow from Smolensk in the Soviet Union to the Franco-Spanish border and more than a few statesmen were beginning to wonder whether the quick, decisive victories that the Wehrmacht had won in both the East and West heralded a Copernican revolution in the conduct of warfare.
And yet, by early 1943 the Teutonic war machine was encircled and rapidly hurtling towards defeat. In the decades following the war, several prominent scholars argued that the roots of this spectacular reversal of fortunes could be found at the operational level. More recently, something approaching a revisionist school of thought has emerged which frames the demise of the German offensive in explicitly strategic terms.
In this essay, I suggest that the decreasing effectiveness of German Blitzkrieg during the latter half of the Second World War can largely be attributed to poor decision-making by the political-martial leadership in Berlin. By the time that Hitler had decided to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, the gap between German war aims and the means available to achieve those aims was so great that even the most adept generals armed with the most up-to-date technology were left facing an insurmountable challenge.
The narrative is divided into three parts. Section one situates the doctrine of Blitzkrieg in a theoretical and historical context. Section two examines the relationship between the German victories of 1940 and the evolution of German grand strategy. The final section looks at the impact of this relationship on German operations on the Eastern Front during the period 1941-1943.
In the popular imagination, the German Blitzkrieg campaigns of 1939-1941 are synonymous with tactical innovation, organisational flexibility, and supreme strategic acuity. When the word Blitzkrieg is mentioned, the uninitiated layman can usually half-recall a threadbare story which has been repeated in thousands of books and hundreds of television documentaries. The story goes something like this: in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, several German staff officers discovered the writings of British tank-enthusiasts J.F.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart and, showing great foresight, persuaded the National Socialist regime to conduct a root and branch reform of the German armed forces. The fruits of this transformation soon became evident as the Anglo-French alliance, with its defensive posture and sclerotic armies, was “hopelessly outclassed” by the mechanised hordes of the Wehrmacht in May 1940.
Admittedly, there is a grain of truth in this version of events. Together with a widely-held revulsion at the static, bloody attrition which came to characterise the war of 1914-1918, the constraints placed on German armed power by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles made the Prussian officer corps more interested than most of their foreign contemporaries in harnessing new technologies such as the tank, the airplane, and radio communication.
The first head of the Weimar Republic’s military, Colonel Hans von Seeckt, was instrumental in modernising the theory and praxis of war in Germany. During the 1920s, he fought a series of pitched battles with conservative-minded members of the unofficial General Staff over the future of operational doctrine. For him, it seemed obvious that motorisation would restore manoeuvre to the battlefield, thus making it possible to prevail against an enemy in swift, decisive encounters.
Von Seeckt’s conclusions were gradually adopted, and later adapted, by a group of pioneering young officers, including Heinz Guderian and Werner von Fritsch, who argued that tank brigades should form the vanguard of assault units. In spite of the growing influence of these ideas from 1925 onwards, it was not until Hitler came to power in 1933 that they began to be taken seriously.
The most immediate reason for this was quite simple: before the introduction of Hitler’s re-armament programme, the German armed forces had been too small and underfunded to produce cutting-edge equipment in large quantities or to experiment with novel operational configurations.
There was, however, another factor at play. As Barry Posen makes clear, the foreign policy goals of the Third Reich, the avenues open to pursue those goals, and the regime’s embrace of mechanised warfare, were all interconnected. Hitler’s stated aims of restoring Germany’s lost territory and acquiring Lebensraum in the East were met with a great degree of suspicion and trepidation in London, Paris, and Moscow, not to mention in the countries which were a target of German revanchism.
As a consequence, the army, and later the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), were instructed to prepare to fight a series of short, decisive campaigns which would be over so quickly that a) the French, British, and Soviets would not have time to coordinate a response, and b) the domestic economy would not be disrupted to such an extent that social cohesion would be undermined.
The type of mechanised warfare that had been developed by the likes of Guderian—which involved the combined use of armour, mechanised infantry, and tactical air power, to penetrate an enemy’s rear area and disrupt his command and control functions—seemed to offer a way of achieving these ambitious designs without being drawn into a protracted multi-front war.
It is important to note, though, that the process of re-armament in Germany during the period of 1933-1939 appears to have been “extremely hectic” and lacking the “intellectual unity of any definite strategic or operational doctrine.”
According to J.P. Harris, the objective of the OKW at the outbreak of war was to envelop “large bodies of enemy troops, thereby severing their supply lines and forcing them either to surrender or fight in an unexpected direction…to break out.”
Rather than tear up the rulebook and start anew, the General Staff essentially grafted the latest advances in weaponry onto the traditional nineteenth-century strategy of Kesselschlacht (encirclement and annihilation). This was reflected by the rather old-fashioned make-up of the armed forces on the eve of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. As Larry Addington writes:
“Behind a thin veneer of panzer and motorised divisions was an army composed in the main of old-style infantry-artillery divisions—divisions hampered by logistical limits similar to those which had afflicted the armies of Moltke and the Kaiser.”
What is more, the different service branches often pulled in opposite directions. For instance, the Wehrmachtakademie, which was founded in 1935 with the intention of coordinating the education of army, air force, and naval officers, was closed just three years later amidst bitter inter-service bickering. It was not until the Spanish Civil War began winding down that the Luftwaffe and Heer began to appreciate the effectiveness of using single-engine bombers in a ground support role.
These organisational limitations were compounded by the High Command’s wilful neglect of the economic, demographic, geographic, and diplomatic aspects of grand strategy. Alongside Hitler’s impatience and the General Staff’s inherent deference, the almost limitless territorial ambitions of the Third Reich compelled the military establishment to plan to fight a succession of wars which they knew they might not win and which could have an unfavourable impact on the European balance of power.
More seriously, the OKW made little attempt to develop contingency plans or alternative strategies which did not hinge on the prompt termination of pre-emptive offensives. This combination of political intemperance and military obduracy would prove to be fatal as the war progressed.
For a short time, however, it looked as if these problems had been circumvented. The overwhelming success of the Wehrmacht’s western European campaign in May and June of 1940 came as a shock to just about everybody. One commentator was moved to declare it the “most mystifying event in the history of modern war”, whilst Liddell Hart spoke of “the most sweeping victory in modern history.” The British and American press, meanwhile, attempted to explain it by positing the existence of a holistic German strategy known as Blitzkrieg.
Still, no one was more surprised than the architects of the plan themselves. When German Panzers broke through the Anglo-French lines at Sedan on May 17th, General Günther Blumentritt, the operations officer attached to Army Group A, was so astonished that he thought a miracle had occurred.
In the following five days, as German forces pressed on more or less unopposed through the French rear areas and split the Allied army in two, Guderian could not help but think the same. In his post-war memoirs, he recalled that “the success of our attack struck me as almost a miracle”.
Perhaps more significantly, Hitler saw the fall of France as a clear vindication of his expansionist foreign policy. To be sure, countless scholars have argued that the experience of 1940 had a heavy bearing on the subsequent decision and plan to invade the Soviet Union, which the Germans codenamed Operation Barbarossa.
On the one hand, the political leadership were convinced that they had “found the secret of victory in Blitzkrieg: in other words, an operational miracle weapon that could be used to defeat even an economically—and thus strategically—far superior opponent by means of quick battles of annihilation.” On the other, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were persuaded that they could rely on “operational and tactical flair, improvisation and the ad hoc.”
Such hubris was categorically unwarranted. Rather than demonstrating the efficacy of decisive mechanised warfare as a strategic expedient, the campaign of 1940 actually exposed its intrinsic limitations.
To begin with, the Battle of France was as much an Anglo-French failure as it was a German triumph. Allied grand strategy, which was predicated upon the adoption of a defensive posture in the early stages of the war, followed by a mass offensive sometime in 1942 or 1943, was defined by a variance of objectives and poor coordination, planning, and communication. The Wehrmacht ruthlessly and effectively exploited these weaknesses during the first three weeks of the assault.
Nevertheless, once the French recovered from the shock of the initial onslaught they managed to slow the advance of the Panzers and tie up the Luftwaffe, thereby turning the last few weeks of the battle into a traditional contest of infantry-artillery divisions.
In addition, it is critical to note that the German armed forces proved incapable of mounting an invasion of the United Kingdom. Not only did the Luftwaffe fail to achieve air superiority over the skies of Britain in the summer of 1940, but the Heer and Kriegsmarine were psychologically, organisationally, and materially unprepared for a major amphibious landing.
If France had not collapsed so spectacularly and in such a short space of time, military officials may have been more likely to recognise the operational and strategic shortcomings of decisive mechanised warfare, less prone to underestimate the difficulties associated with an invasion of continental Russia, and more willing to cultivate economic and diplomatic alternatives. It is doubtful, though, whether Hitler and his henchmen would have ever genuinely considered addressing the growing gap between the ends and means of German foreign policy.
The disjointed and often blasé German approach to the conduct of coalition warfare stands as a case in point. In an incisive article written for War in History, R.L. DiNardo and Daniel J. Hughes draw attention to the failure of the Third Reich to “establish common plans with her allies…prior to the outbreak of hostilities”, arguing that this led to an expansion of German military commitments and a gradual escalation of the war. They convincingly demonstrate that the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Japan, and Italy, was more an uneasy marriage of convenience than an alliance. Each state had divergent objectives and frequently pursued them without considering the impact their actions would have on the wider war.
The Italians, in particular, caused numerous problems for the Germans. In April 1941, Hitler was forced to intervene to rescue Mussolini’s “ill conceived, poorly prepared, and badly executed” invasion of Greece. Whilst the diversion of the German Twelfth Army to the Balkans forced military planners to delay Operation Barbarossa by one month, the rising number of Italian troops in Greece compelled Hitler to send a sizeable expeditionary force to North Africa.
For their part, the Germans failed to take advantage of the productive capacity and military power that their allies possessed. In a demonstration of conceited self-confidence, Hitler dismissed the idea of Japan entering the war against the Soviet Union, at the same time as he was encouraging Prime Minister Hideki Tojo to confront the United States militarily.
All of this stands in marked contrast to the common goals and integrated planning apparatus of the United Nations.
Germany may have achieved hegemony in continental Europe by 1940, but there was no room in Hitler’s Manichean vision of the world for mere regional preponderance. The Germans consequently ignored the political and military weaknesses of Blitzkrieg and chose to expand the war even though they were unable to compete economically with a coalition composed of three of the most powerful nations on Earth: the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. More than anything, this strategic blunder curtailed the ability of the German military to defeat its enemies on the battlefield after 1941.
The German experience in the Soviet Union during 1941-1943 is an ideal testing ground for the ideas discussed above. It is one of history’s great ironies that Operation Barbarossa was both the only German military effort in the Second World War to be consciously planned as a Blitzkrieg and the first genuine military catastrophe faced by the National Socialist state.
In line with the military bureaucracy’s new-found belief that “technique could be substituted for mass,” the invasion force had less artillery and fewer aircraft than had been available in the west, while the number of tanks in each division was half that of what it had been in France. Even so, it was anticipated that Barbarossa would be brought to a satisfactory conclusion within three months.
Even before the invasion had begun, the Germans struggled to clearly define the political objectives of the campaign. The vast Soviet frontier was divided between three Army Groups: North, which was tasked with the encirclement of Leningrad; Centre, which was to head for Moscow; and South, which was to tear through the Ukraine and capture Kiev.
However, there was no agreement as to which target was to receive priority status. The OKW, who favoured the Moscow approach, were adamant that the destruction of the Soviet state’s command and control functions would in effect put an end to meaningful resistance. In contrast, Hitler thought that the invasion should focus on overrunning the country’s centres of economic and agricultural power in the north and south. This inability to determine the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’ was a product of Germany’s over-reliance on tactical and operational fixes. In the absence of an overarching strategic purpose, the only true goal of the campaign was to neutralise the bulk of the Red Army as quickly as possible. As Michael Geyer points out, everything else was sooner or later expected to fall into place.
Despite these issues, the first stage of the campaign was judged to be a success. Once again, the Germans achieved the element of surprise and inflicted heavy losses on the main bulk of the Soviet forces stationed in the west. Nonetheless, it became apparent in mid-July that the opening assault had failed to deliver a knockout blow. There are four factors which explain why this was the case.
First, the economic foundations of the Soviet Union were far more robust than the Germans had predicted. Hundreds of industrial units had been dismantled and transferred to the Urals and the Germans, who had virtually no strategic air assets in theatre, were unable to disrupt Soviet war production.
Second, the Germans had underestimated the size of the Red Army by around 160 divisions. This meant that the Russians were able to defend in depth.
Third, the brutal conduct of German forces in the occupied territories stiffened the resolve of ordinary Soviet soldiers and made it possible for Stalin to unite a diverse range of national groups behind the Communist regime.
Fourth, the German advance was complicated by the peculiar geospatial and geophysical features of European Russia. The Wehrmacht soon found that it did not possess sufficient planes, motor vehicles, and petroleum, oil, and lubricant reserves for action in such a vast theatre of operations. The Panzer divisions were therefore forced to “halt time and time again to permit the infantry to close up.” This lack of manoeuvrability was exacerbated by the poor state of Russia’s transport infrastructure.
When the accumulation of operational success did not produce a strategic victory, the Germans were forced to fight a protracted campaign that they had not bargained for. In the autumn of 1941, and again in the summer of 1942 and 1943, the frailties of the Wehrmacht and the shortcomings of German strategy came to the fore.
Due to a lack of political perspicacity, the main thrust of German forces changed five times in a period of one year: from Moscow to the Ukraine and back, and then to the Caucuses oil fields. Aided by American supplies, the Soviets were thus able to prepare elaborate defences and eventually to launch major counter-offensives. German forces were simply too small in number and too spread out (in theatre and across Europe and North Africa) to inflict critical wounds on the Soviet body politic, a fact which was highlighted by the Red Army’s encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in 1942.
Most battles in the latter half of the war were attritional ones “fought on a broad front” by large formations. The Wehrmacht was not designed for such a war, nor was the German economy. As Earl Ziemke observes, when “total war truly began, ‘art’ proved insufficient, and victory inevitably went to the big battalions.”
The dramatic decline of German power between 1942 and 1945 was a direct result of the failure of German leaders to calibrate political ends with military means. Abetted by a military establishment which focussed excessively on operational planning and emboldened by the sudden victories of 1939/1940, the Nazi regime pursued a limitless campaign of territorial expansion without developing a coherent grand strategy. Blitzkrieg, as German mechanised doctrine became known, represented an operational solution to a strategic problem.
Having originally intended to eliminate its enemies one by one, the Third Reich instead brought about a war of global proportions. It had neither the diplomatic patronage nor economic resources to win such a contest. As the balance of forces tipped against Germany, it became increasingly evident that Blitzkrieg could not compensate for the strategically unbalanced character of German war aims—a fact reflected by the failure of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and the subsequent inability of the Wehrmacht to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front.
 Liddell Hart BH The Other Side: Germany’s Generals, Their Rise and Fall, With Their Own Account of Military Events, 1939-1945 (Cassell and Company Ltd, London, 1948) p.111.
 These scholars tend to focus on military organisation, technology, tactics, planning, logistics, and so on. They contend that German deficiencies and/or Allied ingenuity in these areas account for the ultimate failure of Blitzkrieg. For instance, Liddell Hart BH The Other Side and Addington LH The Blitzkrieg Era and the German General Staff, 1865-1941 (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1971).
 Harris JP ‘The Myth of Blitzkrieg’ pp.335-352 in War in History Vol.2, No.3, 1995 p.335-336. For quote, see O’Neill RJ ‘Doctrine and Training in the German Army 1919-1939’ pp.143-166 in M Howard (eds) The Theory and Practise of War: Essays Presented to Captain BH Liddell Hart (Cassell, London, 1965) p.143.
 Ibid. p.343.
 Addington LH The Blitzkrieg Era p.iii
 Quoted in Freiser JT The Blitzkrieg Legend p.1 and p.2.
 Guderian H Panzer Leader (Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA, 1996) p.106.
 Op. Cit Frieser p.12
 Alexander MS ‘After Dunkirk: the French Army’s Performance Against ‘Case Red’, 25 May to 25 June 1940’ pp.219-264 in War in History Vol.14, No.2, 2007 p.264.
 Quote at Ziemke EF ‘Military Effectiveness in the Second World War’ pp.277-319 in AR Millet and W Murray Military Effectiveness, Volume III: The Second World War (Allen and Unwin, London, 1988) p.302. Also refer to Sheffield GD ‘Blitzkrieg and Attrition: Land Operations in Europe 1914-1945’ pp.51-79 in C McInnes and GD Sheffield (eds) Warfare in the Twentieth Century: Theory and Practise (Unwin Hyman, London, 1988) p.70.
 Ibid. p.89.
 Op. Cit. Sheffield GD p.75.
 Op. Cit. Ziemke EF p.315.
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