The rise and fall of blitzkrieg 1939-1941 – Lecture Notes

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THE RISE AND FALL OF BLITZKRIEG 1939-1941 – Lecture Notes

  • Why did Germany develop Blitzkrieg?

  • What was it/ what were its characteristics?

  • Why was it successful Sept 1939-April 1941?

  • Why did it fail against the USSR?

New kind of warfare

  • First unleashed on Poland September 1939

  • Foundation for German success 1939-1941

  • Literally means ‘lightning war’

  • Used by US and Israelis

  • Quest for quick decisive victory

Characteristics of German Tactics

  • Speed, ruthlessness and determination to advance at all costs

  • The intimate cooperation of all arms

  • Simplicity and flexibility, both in organisation and plans.


  • France – value of artillery – defensive

  • Maginot Line

  • Britain – revert to ‘British way in warfare’

  • Small BEF – large navy and air force – RAF bombers to deter Germany

  • Germany – don’t fight a long attritional war

  • Build on success of storm troopers


  • Head of troop office = Hans von Seeckt – visionary

  • Memorandum looking towards Blitzkrieg

  • Need to act quickly to strike decisive blow

  • German army failed in 1914 as it was not mobile

  • Mechanisation crucial especially tanks

  • Role of air force – support army’s advance, KO opposing air force

  • ‘The entire future of warfare will be in the employment of mobile armies rendered distinctly more effective by the addition of air craft’

GERMANY NEUTERED – Versailles Treaty

  • No offensive capability

  • Tanks, aircraft, artillery banned

  • Could not import or manufacture

  • Army limited to 100000

  • No general staff

  • Deprived tools of Blitzkrieg


  • 1922 Secret agreement with USSR

  • German expertise in armaments, Germans use training facilities

  • Experimented with tanks and aircraft

  • 1922 Allies agreed Germany could produce civil aircraft

  • Messerschmidt, Junkers, Dornier & Heinkel designed combat aircraft in Russia

  • German Flying Sports Association: gliding to start training pilots

  • 1926 First tank under guise of a tractor


Receptive to new ideas

  • Avoid long war and blockade

  • Overcome enemies quickly and decisively

  • 1932 ‘The next war will be….different. Infantry attacks….are obsolete’

  • 1933 ‘ I will never start a war without the certainty that a demoralised army will succumb to…a single gigantic stroke.’


1934 – Hitler saw prototype Panzer Mark I – ‘That’s what I need’

- Krupps started production

1935 Nuremberg speech – first reference to Blitzkrieg – ‘I should suddenly, like a flash of lightning in the night, hurl myself upon the enemy.’
Tactics based on:

  • Surprise and speed – secret mobilisation/no declaration of war

  • Armour and air power for a ‘break-in’

  • No preliminary artillery bombardent – Stuka dive bombers assume role

  • Panzer divisions spearhead advance

  • Penetrate deep into enemy lines

  • Infantry mopping up

Success based on:

  • Good communications – radios in tanks

  • Dynamic leadership – instant decisions

  • Commanders near front

  • Narrow focus – WWI = wide front

  • Terror warfare – Stuka dive bombers siren

  • Dislocate enemy command and control

  • Underhand tactics

Panzer II = main battle tank to 1943

Role of Tanks - influenced by ideas of Fuller and Liddell Hart


  • 1933-39 Wehrmacht from 100000 to 4 million +

  • Panzer divisions needed 3000 support vehicles – food and supplies

  • 1936 = Four Year plan – be ready for war by 1939

  • Germany industry unable to fulfil plan – armed forces only partially mechanised by 1939

Bloodless Victories

  • Rhineland

  • Austria

  • Sudetenland

  • Czechoslovakia

  • Victims intimidated by German forces

  • Hitler mocked British and French leaders – ‘ a bunch of coffee drinking aunties’

  • Faults rectified – In Austria fuel supplies did not keep up with tanks – over one third tanks broke down. Mobile repair workshops established. Czechoslovakia gave more tanks.


  • Not intimidated – guaranteed by Britain and France

  • Refused to give up Danzig/Polish corridor – 26th August 1939 German forces massed on the border

  • Poles refused to negotiate

  • Dawn 1st September Germany invaded – start of WW2

  • Poland = first application of Blitzkrieg

  • Luftwaffe destroyed Polish Air force

  • Tanks faced cavalry charges

  • Conquered in 3 weeks


  • Campaign began 10th May 1940

Allied strengths

  • French had heavier tanks

  • 58 French divisions plus 4 BEF

  • French Air force = 1300 aircraft + RAF spitfires and hurricanes

  • Maginot line – named after French Minister of Defence – line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts and other defences – give time to mobilize in event of attack.

Allied weaknesses

  • Franco-Belgian frontier not covered by the Maginot Line

  • Belgium was neutral so could not move into there til they went to war

  • Allied commanders don’t think in ‘tank time’ – still think in WW1 terms

  • Communications poor

  • French Air Force only 50% modern aircraft, 11 bombers


  • 14th may 1940 Germans got across River Meuse on pontoon bridges

  • Allies tried to counter with air strikes

  • Obsolete bombers easily thwarted

  • Guderian ordered 1st and 2nd Panzer division forward

  • Soon advanced 40 miles


  • Allies divided and confused

  • 18th-19th may two British divisions obliterated by five Panzer divisions

  • Hitler worried tanks too far ahead of infantry

  • 23 May 1940 – halt order

  • Allowed BEF to evacuate from Dunkirk


  • Panzers bypassed strong points – following infantry dealt with them

  • Panzer group Guderian swung behind Maginot Line to bottle up French 2nd Army group

  • 25th June 1940 France fell – in six weeks


  • Psychological dislocation Allies main factor in defeat

  • Germans inflicted 2.3 million casualties and took 2 million prisoners

  • Allies fought at pace of 1914

  • Reacted too slowly

  • Panzers re supplied by air to maintain speed


  • Balkans had key minerals and raw materials

  • Romania – oil at Ploesti

  • Need to protect southern flank for invasion of USSR

  • 6th April 1941 – simultaneous invasions – Yugoslavia and Greece

  • Defeated by end of April


  • Ideological – lebensraum – living space

  • Strategic – convinced that this was why the UK was defiant

  • Economic – secure oil
    Overconfidence – ‘I have only to kick down the door’


  • Vastness – 10 Panzer divisions that took France were not enough

  • June 1941 – 21 Panzer divisions

  • But each 2 not 4 tanks battalions as before

  • More powerful – Panzer IIIs and IVs

  • More horses than Napoleon


  • 121 infantry, 21 Panzer and 12 motorized divisions

  • Luftwaffe = 1000 aircraft

  • Split into army groups

  • North – objective Kiev (Ukraine)

  • Centre strongest – objective Moscow

  • South – objective Leningrad (St. Petersburg)


  • Red Army being organised (lessons of 1940)

  • New emphasis on all arms formations

  • New formations have new T34 tanks

  • Under trained

  • Border defences with Poland non-existent

  • Most forces deployed in frontier districts

  • 150 divisions and 6000 aircraft

Operation Barbarossa – Hitler – ‘The world will hold its breath’

152 German division – largest invasion force ever.

Blitzkrieg succeeds in early phase

  • for four weeks Panzers advanced 450 miles

  • Russia lost 2 million men and 5000 aircraft. Almost 3 million prisoners.


  • Stalin ‘any other country that had lost as much as we have would have collapsed

  • Prepared to take heavy casualties

  • Deserters shot

  • SS atrocities united population behind regime

  • ‘Great Patriotic War’

Runs into Problems

  • Three Army Groups – diverge

  • Neglect core principle of Blitzkrieg – concentrate overwhelming force on single objective

  • Disagreement within High Command – should Moscow be main target? Hitler aiming for Ukraine – oil wells

  • Army Group Centre diverted from Moscow

  • Gave 78 reprieve


  • by end of September had been fighting over three months

  • Trap Russians in pockets goal – succeeded early on

  • Now Russians tend to escape trap

  • Divergence between tanks and infantry

  • Guderian: ‘ the unique chance to strike a single great blow is fading more and more and I do not know if it will ever reoccur’


  • need to penetrate over 1000 miles

  • Russian roads poor – many dirt tracks

  • Autumn mud turn unto quagmire

  • Lack of mobility – enemy gets away

  • June 1941 600 tanks operational – September 1941 50 tanks operational

  • Partisans attack extended supply lines

  • ‘General Winter’ saved Moscow

  • Worst in 50 years, by late November -40 degrees c

  • Troops frostbitten – no winter clothes

  • Tanks – 12 hours to thaw out engine

  • Artillery recoil systems froze

  • Stopped Luftwaffe flying

  • Threw onto defensive


  • Became nervous when ran into trouble

  • Diverted Army Group Centre from Moscow – convinced Ukraine more important

  • But capital was symbolic and a key communications centre

  • Confused commanders – daily orders issued by telephone.


  • dual tasks rendered ineffective

  • aiding army and bombing cities

  • massive ground operations central and southern fronts sucked up resources

  • 1941 76 raids on Moscow: 59 by 10 aircraft

  • lacked range to bomb industry beyond the Urals

  • out-produced what the Germans destroyed


  • Germans have faced defeated armies June 1941 – face fresh armies Siberia/Mongolia

  • Save Moscow – counter-offensive drove Germans back 175 miles

  • USA comes into war against Japan, Hitler declares war on USA

  • US devotes 85% war effort to defeat Hitler


- accepted had failed in centre 1941

- Focus on south – Objective oil of Caucasus – passed through Caucasian Mountains

- Number of casualties by 1941 meant reliance on allies

- Most Panzer divisions below 1941 establishment

- At one point Germans held 80% of Moscow but it cost 800 troops for very street won

  • Red army more motorised than Wehrmacht

  • Lend Lease gave 427000 trucks

  • By end of 1943 had attained air superiority

  • By 1944 assembled mass tank armies with air support – ‘deep battle’ concept

  • Waves of fighter-bombers

  • Stalin ‘ artillery is the god of war’


  • Germany superior militarily 1939-1941

  • Blitzkrieg worked vs. weaker opponents

  • Failed in USSR

  • War became attritional

  • Eastern Front – Battle of the Atlantic – bombing

  • D-Day opened 2nd front – hastened end.


  • Dependent on short campaigns – Poland 36 days, West 42 days, Yugoslavia 10 days, Greece 22 days. Directive 18th December 1940 – ‘swift campaign’

  • USSR 1000 days

  • Weather – needed win by Autumn, muddy roads incapacitated advance, initially glad of frost = firmer ground. German scientists only invented anti-freeze in 19i42 – German troops lacked winter clothing.

  • Hitler – emphasis on destruction of Russian forces, failed to importance of Moscow as a central command and control centre. Kept changing objectives, distracted by Leningrad, then economic benefits of southern Russia. Subordinate commanders confused.

  • Lacked tools for task – Wehrmacht/Luftwaffe built in 1930s to destroy smaller neighbours – needed longer to build forces to attack Russia/ Luftwaffe failed even against England, even more inadequate in vast landscape.

  • Mechanisation – Radio mechanised forces and foot soldiers disproportionate – mechanised not strong enough to achieve victory alone, foot soldiers too slow to maintain momentum. Panzer groups created vast pockets but infantry 2 weeks march time away.

  • Supply – Lines of communication vast compared to previous campaigns, deeper Panzers penetrated the further supplies, fuel, spares, ammunition fell behind. Poor road and rail system. Lack of air re-supply sources

  • Over Optimism – conviction victory by autumn, no proper study of geographical of meteorological conditions of Russia. Lack of administrative foresight making available stores and equipment. Faulty intelligence – underestimated scale of soviet forces. Scorched earth policy.

  • Resolute opponent – ideological struggle to the death – no surrender. Stalin willing to take mass casualties, helped by German atrocities – sparked Partisan guerrillas. Reconstituted war economy beyond Urals – created more than was destroyed. T34 and KV1 tanks better than Panzer III/IV

  • Germany could not afford losses – June 1941-April 1942 lost 1.3 million – replaced with 450000 but became reliant on allies. Russians broke through Romanian sector at Stalingrad. In June 1941 over 3000 but by December 1942 only 495 were battle worthy.

  • Soviet contribution – Churchill: ‘Red army ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht’ Decimated 607 axis division 1941-45. 75% German divisions on Eastern Front, 25% Western Europe. Soviet losses unknown but in the millions- 20-30?

Stalin: ‘The Russians gave blood, the Americans gave money, the British gave time’

George Bernard Shaw: ‘There will only be two winners – The United States and Russia’

WWI = invention of modern war – combined use of tanks, infantry, artillery and aircraft

Success of WWI battlefield depended on tactical expertise, punctuated by new technological developments.

Reichsheer – examined revolutionary nature of the 1918 battlefield

General Hans von Seeckt – made sure reduced army (100,000 men) only included best, no regard for nobility/war heroes.

By 1939 Germany had developed impressively effective tactics and operational concepts based on thorough study of WWI – Seeckt established 57 committees to study WWI.

Germans more radical – rejected hierarchical top-down leadership – need to be able to react with haste – German command emphasized surprise, judgement, speed and exploitation of enemy’s momentary weaknesses.

1930s – Germans understood principles of mobile, armoured warfare before they even had their first tanks.

Panzer units must consist of motorized infantry, artillery, engineers and signal troops – evolutionary rather than revolutionary development – extending basic principles of German war.
British army not so advanced – army not trained for fighting on the continent. Anti-war sentiment. French also failed to study WWI efficiently – tactics all based around not sustaining too many casualties.

Red army made effort of break with the past – economy backwards in interwar period but this was attacked with 5 year plan. Also worked on establishing mechanized corps before the Germans

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