Academic journal article Military Review

Blitzkreig in Retrospect

Academic journal article Military Review

Blitzkreig in Retrospect

Article excerpt

Film footage of German victories during the opening phases of World War II in Europe brings to mind a term synonymous with German successes--blitzkrieg. This word might be one of the most used and abused terms from the war, and after 60 years, it is still often misunderstood even by professional military officers.

Since 1945, the U.S. Army has studied German methods of war diligently and has even developed doctrine based on these studies. Still, too often, blitzkrieg is depicted as a new way of war, a doctrine, or a virtual revolution in military affairs.

"Blitzkrieg" combines two German words, one means "lightning," the other means "war," and should probably be regarded as a catchword. Commander in Chief of the German Army Hans von Seeckt was likely correct when he stated, "Catchwords ... are necessary for those who are unable to think for themselves." (1)

The term blitzkrieg, became popular during the 1939 Polish Campaign and subsequent invasions of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Its first use in the Western press appears to have been in a 25 September 1939 Time article during the waning phases of the Polish Campaign. The correspondent wrote, "This is no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration--blitzkrieg--lightning war. (2) At the same time, Commander in Chief of the German Army Field Marshall Walther von Brauchitsch was termed a "blitzkrieger." (3) So began what one German author refers to as "die blitzkrieg legende." (4) Military historian Sam J. Lewis notes in The Forgotten Legions: German Infantry Policy, 1918-1941, that the origins of the term might be found in Fritz Sterberg's book Germany and a Lightning War. (5)

Adolf Hitler was perhaps the best source to question the German acceptance of the term. Although Hitler clearly understood the power of catchy words or phrases, he said, "I have never used the word blitzkrieg because it is a totally nonsensical word." (6) On another occasion he showed his disdain for the term: "Blitzkrieg, the word is a pure Italian fabrication, Italian phraseology, a translation out of the Italian language." (7)

Blitzkrieg gained widespread acceptance through usage by British and U.S. journalists. The Germans used the term "bewegungskrieg," a war of movement, to describe the type of warfare they were waging. However, the term was not as catchy and did not have the propaganda effect of the word blitzkrieg, but once the term began to appear in the Western press, the Germans quickly capitalized on it and fed the West with propaganda about its advance against Poland and France.

What exactly was blitzkrieg? The term was more common in the Allied press than in German periodicals. Many military writers have attempted to describe what it means. In his article "Blitzkreig," Daniel Hughes best summarizes what blitzkrieg was and was not: "On the battlefield and in campaigns[,] blitzkrieg was a result or perhaps an ex post facto description of the result. It was never a tactical or operational system." (8)

Hughes' definition is the best overall description of blitzkrieg. So, what were commentators attempting to describe when they wrote about blitzkrieg? Was it a new doctrine emphasizing mechanized warfare--motorized spearheads thrusting deep into the rear of Polish or French positions? Was it warfare h la Heinz Guderian, the enthusiastic apostle of mechanized warfare who in many ways epitomized German successes in the early ground war campaigns? (9)

When the word blitzkrieg began emerging in the Western press, the Germans were not truly waging a mechanized war. In the Polish Campaign of 1939, or in France and the Low Countries in 1940, the German Army was simply not the mechanized force that some assume.

For the initial attack on Poland, the Germans concentrated a total of 54 divisions, of which 7 were Panzer, 4 were motorized, and 4 were designated as mechanized light divisions. …

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