Blitzkrieg is a term used to describe a method of offensive warfare designed to strike a swift, focused blow at an enemy using mobile, maneuverable forces, including armored tanks and air support. Such an attack ideally leads to a quick victory, limiting the loss of soldiers and artillery. Most famously, blitzkrieg describes the successful tactics used by Nazi Germany in the early years of World War II, as German forces swept through Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France with astonishing speed and force.
Blitzkrieg—which means “lightning war” in German—had its roots in earlier military strategy, including the influential work of the 19th-century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz proposed the “concentration principle,” the idea that concentrating forces against an enemy, and making a single blow against a carefully chosen target (the Schwerpunkt, or “center of gravity”) was more effective than dispersing those forces.
In the wake of their defeat in World War I, German military leaders determined that a lack of mobile, maneuverable forces and flexible tactics had led that conflict to bog down in the deadly attrition of trench warfare.
As a result, while France focused its efforts between the wars on building up its defensive border, known as the Maginot Line, the Germans decided to prepare for a shorter conflict won through military maneuvers, rather than in the trenches.
This focus on mobile warfare was partly a response to Germany’s relatively limited military resources and manpower, following the strictures imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and made clear his intention to rearm the nation, he encouraged younger commanders like Heinz Guderian, who argued for the importance of both tanks and aircraft in this mobile approach to warfare.
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Uses in World War II
German forces employed some tactics associated with blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the invasion of Poland in 1939, including combined air-ground attacks and the use of Panzer tank divisions to quickly crush the poorly equipped Polish troops. Then in April 1940, Germany invaded neutral Norway, seizing the capital, Oslo, and the country’s main ports with a series of surprise attacks.
In May 1940 came Germany’s invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France, during which the the Wehrmacht (German army) used the combined force of tanks, mobile infantry and artillery troops to drive through the Ardennes Forest and quickly penetrated the Allied defenses.
With close air support from the Luftwaffe (German air force) and the benefit of radio communications to aid in coordinating strategy, the Germans blazed through northern France and toward the English Channel, bombing London and other cities while pushing the British Expeditionary Force into a pocket around Dunkirk. By the end of June, the French army had collapsed, and the nation sued for peace with Germany.
In 1941, German forces again employed blitzkrieg tactics in their invasion of the Soviet Union, expecting a short campaign like the one they had enjoyed in Western Europe the previous spring. But the strategy proved less successful against the highly organized and well-armed Soviet defenses, and by 1943 Germany had been forced into a defensive war on all fronts.
Was Blitzkrieg Truly a New Form of Warfare?
In the stunned aftermath of France’s fall, both Nazi propaganda and Western media attributed Germany’s success to the revolutionary new form of warfare known as blitzkrieg. But in reality, though the word “blitzkrieg” had been used in German military writings before World War II to describe a short conflict, as opposed to a drawn-out war of attrition, it was never officially adopted as a military doctrine.
Rather than a completely new form of warfare, the strategy Germany followed in May and June 1940 had much in common with the strategy it employed at the outset of World War I, when strategists like Alfred von Schlieffen determined Germany should aim to defeat its enemies quickly and decisively, as it was ill-suited to win a long and drawn-out conflict against larger, better-prepared forces.
But unlike in 1914-18, German forces fighting in 1939-40 had the benefit of new military technology developed or improved in the 1920s and 1930s, including tanks, motor vehicles, aircraft and radios. These new tools, combined with an emphasis on speed, mobility, focused attacks and encirclements, enabled the Wehrmacht to turn traditional military tactics into a devastatingly modern brand of warfare.
German commander Erwin Rommel, who led a Panzer division during the invasion of France, later employed blitzkrieg tactics against British forces in the deserts of North Africa in 1941-42.
After blitzkrieg failed in the Soviet invasion, however, Hitler and German military leaders distanced themselves from the concept, claiming it was an invention of their enemies; Hitler himself denied he had ever used the word.
Later Uses of Blitzkrieg
The Allies adapted blitzkrieg to their own advantage by the end of World War II, including in the Battle of Stalingrad and the European operations commanded by U.S. General George Patton in 1944. Patton had carefully studied the German campaigns against Poland and France and also favored quick, decisive action as a way to avoid more costly, drawn-out conflicts.
Though Germany’s quick victories in 1939 and 1940 remain the most famous examples of blitzkrieg, military historians have pointed to later blitzkrieg-inspired operations, including the combined air and ground attacks by Israel against Arab forces in Syria and Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Allied invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.
Ian Carter, “The German 'Lightning War' Strategy of the Second World War.” Imperial War Museums.
Robert T. Foley, “Blitzkrieg.” BBC.
Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend.
David T. Zabecki, ed., Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History.