The Blitzkrieg Myth

James A. Chisem

James A. Chisem is an contributor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.

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28 Responses

  1. George Turner says:

    The German war planners depended on Underpants Gnomes for victory against the Soviet Union.

    In WW-I Russia collapsed while France bitterly fought on, yet France collapsed in weeks when faced with the fancy knew German tanks, which ranged in size from slightly larger than a Mini Cooper to slightly smaller than a good pickup truck. But Hitler figured that Russia should collapse about twice as fast as France did, because Russians suck at combat, so to Moscow we go!

    The Wehrmacht was warned about the insanity of Barbarosa by the Wehrmacht’s own logistics officers, but who listens to logistics officers? If they were any good they wouldn’t be working in supply, they’d be riding on top of a spiffy Panzer IV. The logistics fellas told the Army that they could support a short push that stopped short of Moscow, after which they could supply the Army with fuel, ammunition, food, or winter clothes – pick any three. Germany never had the ability to defeat the Soviet Union, nor any viable plan that included such an outcome. They were hoping the Soviets would just give up they way the French did. The Germans also had no viable plan for defeating Great Britain. They declared war on the United States without even a remote chance of conducting any strategic offensive actions at all.

    After the war the surviving members of the German Generals Staff wrote up what had happened, blaming Hitler for almost all the bad decisions. In fact, most of the really bad decisions were just Hitler following the Staff’s advice. They said they would’ve won except for the enormous amount of Russian manpower, an endless sea of combat personnel. A close look at Russian demographics shows that those personnel were just as numerous in 1940 and weren’t the result of Soviet cloning breakthroughs.

    Germany, along with the rest of the Axis powers, were not prepared to fight the global war they started. If they were seriously opposed, their defeat was inevitable because they lacked the capability to defeat their main opponents, and didn’t even have plans to do so.

    They gambled and they lost.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Damon says:

        I found this interesting:

        Youtube interview with Victor Davis Hanson (part I of II) on his book “The World Wars”.

        As he said, “the Axis powers were completely unprepared to win the war.”

        He also blames the war on Western appeasers. Germany came out of WW-I thinking they’d been stabbed in the back and that they could have won it had they just done things better. The West had a different conclusion about WW-I, which was that it should never ever be repeated. They didn’t just point to some math and economics to tell Germany that Nazi victory was all but impossible and that they shouldn’t try anything or they’d be crushed.

        As he said, the war was caused by a failure of deterrence.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to George Turner says:

          He also blames the war on Western appeasers.

          I would be astonished did he not.

          The West had a different conclusion about WW-I, which was that it should never ever be repeated.

          This conclusion was entirely correct. Some people took it further, moving from “should” to “must.”

          They didn’t just point to some math and economics to tell Germany that Nazi victory was all but impossible and that they shouldn’t try anything or they’d be crushed.

          The notion that mailing a white paper to Berlin would have change anything is just adorable!

          My rule of thumb with Hanson: He is absolutely fantastic when talking about early hoplite warfare. He is a genuine expert and shows great insight. Then, unfortunately, he had this flash that Xerxes and Greece were just like Islam and the West today. Things went downhill from there. The notion of looking to him for insight into the World Wars is absurd. He is at best an interested amateur in the subject, and one prone to political ax-grinding. I don’t read this kind of stuff, even when I agree with the author’s politics.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            Yet he is correct.

            The Nazis had no reason to think they could defeat the entire British Empire. They absolutely had no reason to think they could defeat the US. They signed a pact with Russia that told them the Russians had given them a green light to do what they wanted in Western Europe because Stalin wouldn’t fight them. They were given every reason to think that the British and Americans would not seriously oppose them, and they knew the Russians wouldn’t act against them until it was too late.

            Hitlers great fear was a repeat of the two-front war of WW-I. He did not want to repeat that. We let him think that he wouldn’t have to repeat a two front war, and that wasn’t corrected until WW-II was well under way. We could have told him beforehand, but we didn’t. WW-II was entirely unnecessary because all it did was confirm what we all could have told the Axis prior to the war, which is that they would lose. We didn’t even hint at such a thing.

            The US didn’t even come to the aid of Britain when London was being bombed, so why would Japan possibly think we would fight with all our might in the Pacific over some far-flung European colonies they overran?

            The whole thing was a failure of signalling.Report

            • Kolohe in reply to George Turner says:

              The Japanese knew that they were going provoke a major response with their Dec 7-8 offensive. The gamble was that a big decisive strike would take out *all* of American Naval power west of 130w longitude, and by the time America could reconstitute those forces, Japan would be entrenched enough that eventual war weariness would provide enough incentive for a negotiated peace that solved the existential crisis Japan was in wrt petroleum and other industrial inputs.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

                That was never going to happen.

                In fact, under no conceivable scenario could Japan achieve its war aims (resource independence) because those would have required the conquest of all of the Pacific, China, India, and parts of South America.

                But we kept signalling our desire for peace, which naturally would make Japan think they could strike us and carve out a bunch of turf. They were so stupid as to think they could strike at the world’s 1st and 2nd largest navies, one with a virtually unlimited production capacity, and win while having virtually no domestic resources.Report

              • Brent F in reply to George Turner says:

                The Japanese were screwed from the moment they invaded China in 1937. They were stuck in an unwinnable quagmire they didn’t have the means to end successfully and defeat would mean literally fatal loss of face (as the mid-level officers would murder anyone contemplating defeat). The Japanese were misreading American signals in 1941 because they had no alternative but wishful thinking by that point, supposed American mixed signals are quite secondary to that internal dynamic.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

                But if they were so stupid, what makes anyone think they would have reacted to a show of strength from us as anything but a provocation?

                What I find unappealing about the “appeasement” narratives, is that it is Monday morning quarterbacking requiring psychic abilities;

                We should have known Hitler was lying when he promised peace;
                We should have known the Emperor would be swayed by the hard line hawks;

                It also requires wildly optimistic alternative scenarios:

                The other side of the appeasement coin is overreach.

                Non Appeasement Alternative 1:
                Had Germany wisely refrained from invading Russia,the Eastern Front would have never materialized. The Normandy invasion almost certainly would have been repelled.

                Non Appeasement Alternative 2
                Had the Allies stood united against Hitler, he might have shrewdly refrained from invading Poland, and been allowed to hold onto Austria and Czechoslovakia. Germany and Eastern Europe might still be a Nazi power to this day.

                There are a million alternative timelines that can be spun out of a scenario where the Allies were Churchillian titans, fearlessly confronting Hitler.

                A lot of those timelines result in a thousand year Reich becoming a reality.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                I think you miss the point.

                We wouldn’t have to have a show of strength to maintain deterrence, we would just have to not refute the obvious conclusions about how a potential fight would end.

                Men constantly calculate outcomes of potential fights. Into these we factor whether the big guy is a marshmallow, his social isolation, his “enemy” support, etc. Are you tempted to start a fight in a biker bar or a bar frequented by police, or any variation thereof? We signaled that we would not fight. The Axis responded to those signals.

                They attacked based on the assumption that we would not fight, and that assumption was wildly wrong. But we are the ones who gave them some justifation for that assumption.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

                Yeah, I get that, but what we will never know is how an alternative signal would be received.

                Would a show of strength in 1936, 37, 38, have resulted in Hitler backing down, or doubling down with greater intensity?
                He had a history of being unpredictable and irrational, and based his political appeal on the idea that Germany was the victim of international conspiracy, so what makes anyone think the Allies literally conspiring to deny them lebensraum would have a happy result?

                Think of our contemporary situation.

                Russia annexed Crimea and the US did nothing.
                Was this weakness and appeasement, or a shrewd and pragmatic avoidance of catastrophe?

                If we signaled a willingness to go to war over this, would Putin back down, or respond with greater aggression?

                We don’t know, for the same reason Roosevelt didn’t know how Hitler would have reacted.Report

            • Richard Hershberger in reply to George Turner says:

              The whole thing was a failure of signalling.

              Ah, signalling! I remember those discussions from the Cold War: What signals should we be sending to the Kremlin? If we could just send the right signals, good things would result. After the end of the Cold War, when the two sides compared notes, it turned out that these signals generally went unnoticed. This isn’t actually how international diplomacy works in the real world.

              This is before we even get to the problems of translating these signals from one culture to another. And even that is before the bigger problem of the implicit assumption that decisions to go to war are made rationally. Some are. Many are not.

              Both Germany and Japan were big on the belief in their own racial superiority. If you are racially superior, vulgar considerations of stuff like industrial capacity fall by the wayside.Report

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    I may have missed something here. I am confused about what exactly is the “Blitzkrieg Myth.” What we have here is the observation that the German war effort was both operationally and strategically more improvised than was obvious to the Allies at the time; and also that it was much more fucked up–that Teutonic efficiency wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. I don’t disagree with either point, but how much of this is controversial? My days of in-depth interest in the topic were a couple of decades back. The only claim that seems remarkable compared with what had filtered down to the “interested layman” level back then is that the actual tactics of the Blitzkrieg were improvised, rather than being worked out in theory and tested in exercises ahead of time. That the German war effort was more fucked up than popular myth would have it is particularly unremarkable. I was reading about this back in the day. The other side always looks better then it really is, at least at first. We were worrying about the awesome Red Army well into the 1980s, at which point it in reality was an empty shell.Report

    • InMD in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Don’t want to speak for the OP but I think the intent is a corrective to a popular narrative (not sure how prevalent it is here but I see the author is UK based). Like you, I think most people versed in the subject understand that Hitler got really, really lucky in Western Europe, at first anyway.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      That is the myth, that Blitzkrieg was some grand strategy of the Nazi’s that showed a great deal of thought and planning, rather than a one-off that surprised pretty much everyone, Germans included, with how well it worked.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      This is a very lucid article which I enjoyed reading. However, like several others, I fail to see where the revision lies?

      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.

      Is pretty much the summary extant during my grad school days some 30-years ago. Possibly the worm has turned twice since then such that what was standard is now revised, but if you are polishing this for publication for review, then the historiography must obviously occupy the first section and the argument sustained through parts 3-5.

      But again, as far as an article describing the origins, expectations and limitations of Blitzkrieg its really quite good. We give it 5 baddie skulls.Report

    • Brent F in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      You can overstate the lack of preparedness though. Looking at the guts of the thing in retrospect you can marvel at the ineptness. But inept and ept in warfare is relative to opponents, and compared to their opposition (which represented the best other armies in the world at the time) the Germans were far ahead of the curve in tactics and operations from the start of the war until 1942ish.

      Of course, its also absolutely important to note that the only unqualified operation and strategic success the Germans got in WW2 against a peer oponent was the fall of France. This success was based on a hail mary scheme to make up for bad informational security leaking the original, less imaginitive plan to the Allies and not particularly favourable balance of forces situation. That this scheme worked so well got it made into doctrine, hence Barbarosa being conducted from the start on “blitzkrieg” (a term the Hehr never used for itself) principles.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Brent F says:

        You can overstate the lack of preparedness though.

        I’d be inclined to disagree, at least with one aspect: you don’t want to adopt a grand plan that’s dependent on mechanization and speed unless you’ve got your petroleum supplies in order. The old, “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics” thing. There are any number of WWII analyses that assert the Allies won on the basis of the East Texas oil fields and the Big and Little Inch pipelines. US Pacific actions were often constrained by the Navy’s inability to move enough fuel around.Report

        • Brent F in reply to Michael Cain says:

          The impact of petroleum to the war is another thing to easily overstate. By the time its a big strategic issue for Germany, the war is already lost for other material reasons. During the window in which they had to win gains it wasn’t much of a factor as they had sufficient reserves and production to make it work for them.

          As the article points out, the mechanization of the Hehr is vastly over-stated in popular culture. The bulk of the German units were foot infantry using a firepower based doctrine that emphasized gun fire (German infantry correspondingly tended to be light on riflemen), this is an update on WW1 fighting that relies on traditional German military-industrial strengths of chemicals and steel to make the guns and ammo, railways to trainsport, and educated people to staff make the system more efficient then their peers. The petrol heavy armoured and motorized divisions plus tactical airforce was a way to get the most out of a limited petrol supply by concentrating it at the point of decision and rapid exploitatation phases. This set up is about as good as its going to get for the Germans giving resource and time constraints in rearming before the war and is well suited for European conquest and about as good as they are going to do with what they have for fighting in western USSR.

          That this force structure is completely inadequate for fighting a world war is obvious, but now force structure within their resource constraints is going to be adequate for that otherwise. Putting resources into the assets that could be used to knock out the UK or fight the US in the Atlantic or pursue the Soviets to the Urals means they don’t have enough of what they needed to get where they did in 1939-41.

          The big logistical hiccup isn’t petrol supplies, its not paying attention to how deep they can realistically penetrate the USSR before resupply becomes untenable. This is roughly at the point they held in the winter of 1941-42 (or autumn 1941 before Typhoon) and never were able to sustainably move beyond. They could successfully punch on a single axis beyond this point and did multiple times, but not hold ground long term so long as the Red Army was a peer opponent. This is something their logistics officers knew but failed to press home to the command the implications of. Given supply constraints, the only realistic option to beating the USSR was to break the Red Army in the battle space from the border to the Lennigrad-Smolensk-Rostov line, then pick up the pieces, or break the USSR politically. Both strategies require the enemy to cooperate with you to some extent.

          The German grand strategy is screwed because it was always going to be screwed for fighting the war they did. That their preparations were suboptimal is the same for every WW2 power which had suboptimal preparations pre-1939 in many respects. On the balance, they used what they had about as well as they could pursuing goals that were kinda stupid in 1939, pretty stupid in early 1941 and incredibly massively stupid in late 1941, early 1942.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Brent F says:

            The Wehrmacht used twice as many horses in WW-II as it used in WW-I because for the early parts of the war they were still a horse-drawn army. Much of the motor transport for Barbarosa was commandeered from other countries that had surrendered to them.

            But back to my ongoing point. Germany didn’t need to count on defeating France and England outright with their new tactics. They’d already taken Poland and just needed to put France and Britain in a much worse position than they were in in WW-I before everyone dug in. Given that both France and England had spent decades saying WW-I must not be repeated, making it obvious that they had no appetite for war, such an initial position would be immensely favorable to Germany. From that position Germany could negotiate extremely favorable terms, or failing that could just press its initial advantage and keep pressing toward a winning outcome.

            But instead France collapsed and England evacuated. It was a miracle.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Brent F says:

            Knowing what we know now, it’s plausible that the USSR could have been broke politically. Late 1930s Soviet Union was a mess of purges and economic policies that provided short term gain at high long term cost.

            But as the op and everyone else has said, the actions of the Germans on the ground led the Soviets to rally around the flag, and around Stalin.

            The key thing also of course was keeping US material, even more than men out of the fight, and the Germans failed the political management of US neutrality and the operational management of having enough submarines when things kicked off to do to Allied shipping what the US did to Japan’s. (But in fairness, the US really only learned This One Cool Trick To Cripple Your Enemy in 43 going into 44)Report

            • Brent F in reply to Kolohe says:

              It was a plausible thought going into the fight, although the Nazi’s did their damnest to screw up the option from the get go. This thinking probably underlines the thinking behind those who thining they can win if they took their opening to attack Moscow in fall of 1941 when the defenses were weak.

              Doing that however would have pased up their best opportunity in the war to deal a major blow to the Red Army in the Kiev encirclement. The other problem big problem with the early Moscow push option is that if doesn’t create a political collapse, it probably ends up being a much bigger Stalingrad to the inevitable Soviet counter-attack against the an overextended army trapped in urban combat.

              The problem for the Germans against the Soviets is that there are ways to win, but you can’t win entirely by your own forces taking territory against a peer enemy and occupying ground. They need to be broken either militarily or politically to beat them.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Brent F says:

                VDH’s point was that German thinking didn’t even go there. Using WW-I as a guide, the Soviet Union should have collapsed in weeks, about half the time that France did. As Hitler said, all Germany had to do was kick in the door.

                They had no plan B, plan B being the plan for the possibilty that your opponent doesn’t run screaming to his mommy no matter how effective your initial attack turned out.

                Germany was trying to do a better job of refighting WW-I with niftier equipement and tactics, and was not prepared to fight WW-II. Nor could Germany have been prepared to fight WW-II because its economy and population were not that much larger than France, or England, or a bunch of other powers.

                The math wasn’t much different from modern Germany deciding to take on NATO, the EU, and Russia, or for that matter France trying to take on the whole world. The more interesting question is why they even thought of such a thing, not how it turned out.Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    I agree with everyone that this was great, and also agree with everyone that I’m not clear what’s the actual current ‘conventional wisdom’. As far as know, everyone agrees that the German military were experts at operational art, but overally centralized and haphazard decision from the political leaders, plus the political contradictions of the Nazi regime, (oh, and just being evil) undermined the German war goals to the point they became impossible to achieve.

    (the most significant political contradiction to me is the one you state in factor 3. Eastern Europe was ripe for an anti-Russian alliance on both historical national and more recent anti-Bolshevik grounds, but Nazis being Nazis, couldn’t bring themselves to make friends and client states with non-German folks)

    I’m also of the notion that ‘blitzkrieg’ as an operational concept does actually work, in its own way, as was demonstrated in both Iraq wars. (as well as some of Israels wars over the years). It’s just vastly insufficient to handle ‘ok, you smashed everything to pieces, what comes next?’

    There’s a cool document, which I can’t find right now, of the Army brass telling Ike to STFU, stay in his lane and color when he wrote ‘A Tank Discussion’ in 1920. His statements on how tanks *should* be used in battle completely contradicted existing doctrine, but basically predicted how tanks would actually be used in 20 years.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kolohe says:

      I’m also of the notion that ‘blitzkrieg’ as an operational concept does actually work, in its own way, as was demonstrated in both Iraq wars

      I think part of the confusion about whether or not something “works” in warfare is that what does and does not work is very dependent on the specific conditions, both physical and mental. France in 1940 had material superiority over the Germans, but no idea of how to counter the German operational techniques, a/k/a blitzkrieg. Fast forward a few years and not only are the Germans at an even worse material disadvantage, but their opponents have had a few years to figure it out.

      You see this sort of thing all the time. Who had air superiority on the Western front in World War I? What month? Airplane technology was advancing at a furious rate. Whichever side had just deployed the newest model could sweep the skies clear. The same sort of thing happened in WWII naval warfare. One day a U-Boat wolfpack is unbeatable. The next day the Allies have a new anti-sub weapon or technique and forming a wolfpack is collective suicide. These swings are slower with land warfare because there is just so much of it. There is too much to replace all the old equipment, so even once the new stuff is on the front line there is still a lot of the old stuff. But part of being a good army is spreading the word when someone comes up with a new technique.

      Oh, and upon reflection, I suspect that the “myth” bit is aimed at people who learned everything they know on the subject from watching the History Channel.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    Taking a cue from George up above, here is the myth in meme form:

    1) Blitzkrieg!
    2) MOAR Blitzkrieg!
    3) Rule the world!

    Here is reality:

    1) Blitzkrieg!
    2) ????
    3) Rule the world!Report

  5. Here’s the myth as I understand it, though the OP author (or anyone else) can correct me if I disagree:

    The Nazis, as evil as they were, were highly efficient. So that at the price of an evil regime, the people can at least have “efficiency.” The Blitzkrieg is the embodiment of this efficiency. (This is the myth that I think the non-specialist layperson probably holds.

    By demonstrating that the Blitzkrieg strategy wasn’t so efficient or predestined to succeed, James shows a big crack in the myth of Nazi efficiency, so that we can see Nazism for what it is, an ideology for thugs and kleptocrats.Report

  6. Brent F says:

    Of potential general interest to anyone who read this article:

    Adam Tooze, who wrote the singular book about WW2 German economy and how it related to German strategy, is teaching a course on War in Germany 1618-2018, with course slides generally availible.