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Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg

World War I (WWI) had been a long, stagnant stand-off in the trenches, as sides struggled to gain even small amounts of land. World War II (WWII) was the opposite. Military leaders had learned from that first "modern war" and were better able to utilize the tools available to them. The result was the German Blitzkrieg, which moved far faster than the trench warfare of WWI. In the middle of this occurred a stand-off, a pause, known as the "Phoney War." How did modern warfare evolve between the two world wars?

"Blitzkrieg" is German for "lightning war", a term used to emphasize a reliance on speed

The Blitzkrieg and the Phony War German Panzers StudySmarterFig.1 - German Panzers

The Blitzkrieg Definition

One of the most important and well-known aspects of WWII military strategy was the German Blitzkrieg. The strategy was to use fast, mobile units to quickly strike a decisive blow against the enemy before losing soldiers or machines in a drawn-out battle. Despite being so crucial to German success, the term was never an official military doctrine but more of a propaganda term used on both sides of the conflict to describe German military successes. Germany used the term to boast of their military prowess, while the allies used it to portray Germans as ruthless and savage.

Influences on the Blitzkrieg

An earlier Prussian General named Carl von Clausewitz developed what was called the Concentration Principle. He believed that the most effective strategy was to identify one crucial point and attack it with overwhelming force. The long, slow attrition of trench warfare was not something the German army wished to engage in again after WWI. It was decided to combine von Clausewitz's idea of attacking a single point with the maneuverability of new military technologies to avoid the attrition that occurred in trench warfare.

The Blitzkrieg Tactic

In 1935, the creation of the Panzer Divisions began the military reorganization necessary for the Blitzkrieg. Instead of tanks as a support weapon to troops, these divisions were organized with the tanks as the primary element, and the troops as support. These newer tanks were also able to move at 25 miles per hour, a huge advancement from the less than 10 miles per hour tanks had been capable of in WWI. The planes of the Luftwaffe were able to keep up with the speeds of these new tanks and provide needed artillery support.

Panzer: A German word for tank

Luftwaffe: German for "air weapon", used as the name for the German air force in WWII and still today

Germany Military Technology

The military technology of Germany during WWII has been the subject of myth, speculation and many "what if" discussions. While forces of the blitzkrieg were reorganized to emphasize new war machines such as tanks and planes, and their capabilities were quite good for the time, horse-drawn carriages and foot troops were still a big part of the German war effort. Some of the radical new technologies like jet engines developed by the end of the war pointed toward the future, but at the time were too impractical to have a major effect due to bugs, manufacturing issues, lack of spare parts due to many variant models, and bureaucracy.

Blitzkrieg and the Phony War German 6th Panzer Diviision WWII StudySmarterFig.2 - 6th Panzer Division

The Blitzkrieg World War II

On September 1, 1939, the Blitzkrieg struck Poland. Poland made the crucial mistake of spreading its defenses across its border, instead of concentrating them. The concentrated Panzer Divisions were able to punch through the thin lines while Luftwaffe cut off communication and supply with overwhelming bombing. By the time the infantry moved in, there was little resistance left to German occupation.

Although Germany was a larger country, the failure of Poland to defend itself can largely be traced to its' failure to modernize. Germany came with mechanized tanks and weapons that Poland did not possess. More fundamentally, Poland's military leaders had not modernized their mindset, fighting with outdated tactics and strategies that were no match for the Blitzkrieg.

The Phoney War

Britain and France had immediately declared war on Germany in response to its attack on their ally Poland. Despite this activation of the ally system, very little combat took place for the first months of WWII. A blockade was set up around Germany, but no troops were sent in to defend quickly collapsing Poland. As a result of this lack of violence, the press mockingly dubbed what would later be called WWI as the "Phoney War".

On the German side, it was called an armchair war or the "Sitzkrieg".

Blitzkrieg Strikes Again

The "Phoney War" proved to be a real war in the April of 1940, when Germany pushed into Scandinavia after crucial supplies of iron ore. The Blitzkrieg pushed on into Belgium, Luxembourg, and France that year. It was a truly shocking victory. Britain and France were two of the strongest militaries in the world. In just six weeks, Germany took over France and pushed the British army supporting France back across the English Channel.

Blitzkrieg and the Phony War the London destruction during the Blitz StudySmarterFig.3 - Aftermath of the Blitz in London

Blitzkrieg becomes The Blitz

While British soldiers were unable to cross the English Channel and liberate France, the problem went in the other direction as well. The campaign war moved into the long-term German bombing campaign against London. This was known as "The Blitz". From September 1940 to May 1941, German planes crossed the English Channel to bomb the city of London and engage with British air fighters. When the Blitz failed to sufficiently wear down British defenses, Hitler changed targets to resume the Blitzkrieg, but this time against the USSR.

Blitzkrieg and the Phony War Russian soldiers checking Destroyed German panzers StudySmarterFig.4 - Russian Soldiers Check Destroyed Panzers

Halt of the Blitzkrieg

In 1941, the stunning successes of the Blitzkrieg ground to a halt when used against the well-armed, organized, and massive Russian Army, that could absorb massive casualties. The German army, which had pushed through the defenses of so many countries, finally found a wall it could not break when it encountered the Russian army. United States troops arrived to attack the German positions from the West that same year. Now, the offensive German army was caught between two defensive fronts. Ironically, US General Patton studied the German techniques and utilized Blitzkrieg against them.

Blitzkrieg Significance

The Blitzkrieg showed the effectiveness of creative thinking and integration of new technology in military strategy. Military leaders were able to learn from the mistakes of a past war and improve their methods. It was also an important instance of psychological warfare by using the "Blitzkrieg" propaganda term to portray the German military as unstoppable. Finally, the Blitzkrieg showed that German military prowess could not overcome what is often regarded as one of Hitler's greatest mistakes, attacking the USSR.

Psychological Warfare: Actions perpetrated to undermine the morale and confidence of an enemy force.

Blitzkrieg - Key takeaways

  • The Blitzkrieg was German for "lightning war"
  • Such little actual combat occurred in the first months of WWII that it was popularly labelled "The Phoney War"
  • Highly mobile forces quickly overwhelmed their enemy in this new tactic
  • Blitzkrieg was a propaganda term used by both sides of the war to stress either the effectiveness or savagery of the German military
  • The tactic was extremely successful at quickly taking over large parts of Europe
  • The tactic finally found a force it could not overwhelm when Germany invaded the USSR

Frequently Asked Questions about Blitzkrieg

The Blitzkrieg plan was to quickly overwhelm the enemy with fast, concentrated attacks

The Blitzkrieg allowed Germany to take over large portions of Europe in stunningly quick victories 

The Blitzkrieg was less effective against the Russian army which was better organized and better able to absorb losses.  German tactics may have worked against other enemies but the USSR was able to lose almost three times as many soldier as Germany did in the entire war and still keep fighting. 

WWI revolved around slow moving trench warfare, where the Blitzkreig emphasized quicky, concentrated warfare.

The effect of the Blitzkrieg was quick and sudden German victories in Europe.

Final Blitzkrieg Quiz

Question

What does "Blitzkrieg" mean in German?

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Answer

Lightning War.

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Question

Blitzkrieg was about mobile and ______ attacks

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Answer

Concentrated.

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Question

What army did Blitzkrieg not work against 

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Answer

Russia.

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Question

What was the German Luftwaffe?

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Answer

Air Force.

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Question

What were Panzers?

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Answer

Tanks.

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Question

What was the Blitz?

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Answer

German bombing of Britain.

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Question

"Blitzkrieg" was a _____

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Answer

Propaganda term.

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Question

Who came up with the concentration principle that Blitzkrieg was based on?


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Answer

Carl von Clausewitz.

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Question

What was the "Phony War"?

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Answer

The Phony War was the period between the declaration of war by Britain and France and the German invasion of Scandinavia where little actual combat took place.

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Question

Who studied the Blitzkrieg and used it against Germany?

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Answer

General Patton.

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Question

Which did not impact the effectiveness of German advances in military technology?

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Answer

Military intelligence.

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Question

What is the difference between Blitzkreig and Phony War as terms?

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Answer

One term is propaganda and the other is criticism. 

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