Wednesday, October 9, 2013


1940 Battle of France

Even following the results of World War I Germany remained the nation with the greatest economic potential of all Western Europe.  Given its industrial and intellectual resources the German nation would have likely achieved its current standing among nations many decades ago without resorting to war.  This obviously was not apparent to the followers of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, whose ambitions were beyond any diplomatic solution.   Resorting to conventional military tactics to achieve Germany’s aims was not an option as the nation could not sustain a prolonged war of attrition.  Hitler employed a strategy of isolating one’s enemies, one at a time, then following up with a quick, decisive military victory.  This approach required a tactical doctrine that took advantage of the newest military technologies.

The world witnessed the devastating effect that Blitzkrieg had on Allied forces in 1940’s Battle of France.  Hitler’s armies held the initiative during the entire course of the battle, despite the fact that French and British forces were equivalent in strength to their German adversaries.  Allied commanders had no counter to Germany’s lightening warfare that combined a focused armored punch with breakout speed and mobility.

There are five essential elements to Blitzkrieg tactical doctrine.

1.            Surprise.  The idea is to limit one’s own loses by striking hard with a spearhead of tanks at a soft-point of the enemy.  In 1940 this involved the use of deception.  French and British Allied commanders expected Germany to sweep through the Low Countries of Belgium and Holland much as they did in 1914 prior to their invasion of northern France.  Germany encouraged this belief by moving a large army swiftly into the area, much as they had done at the start of World War I.  But this was not the real offensive.  It was only a feint to draw the Allied forces forward, leaving them vulnerable to the real attack that was coming through the Ardennes, several miles to their southeast.

2.            Air Control.  While the ground forces of the opposing armies were roughly equivalent in strength, the German Luftwaffe retained a significant advantage over the allied air forces in both quantity and quality of their aircraft.  German fighter aircraft were quickly able to dominate the skies, enabling German dive-bombers to coordinate their precision strikes in support of advancing German tanks.  The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter had no equals over the skies of France save for a few, underrepresented, British Spitfires.  This enabled the Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber to act as airborne artillery, picking off enemy strong-points in support of German armor on the ground.  Attacks from the air were also instrumental in disrupting enemy attempts at supplying and reinforcing frontline troops.  Communications facilities were attacked, sowing further confusion.

3.            Breakthrough.  Blitzkrieg doctrine concentrated overwhelming force onto a narrow front of the enemy’s line in order to quickly breach the opposition’s defense and then rapidly pour its forces into the weakly defended backfield.  While the allied armies of the west generally distributed their tanks as support for their infantry, German tactics called for specialized panzer divisions.  In 1940 these divisions each had about 240 tanks along with assorted other support vehicles.  There were seven such panzer divisions that broke out of the Ardennes forest in May of that year.  They were quickly followed up by three mechanized infantry divisions whose role was to provide flank defense for the initial breach.  This armored surge was aided in its mission by Stuka aircraft that took out enemy strongpoints using accurate dive-bombing from overhead.

4.            Deep Strikes.  Germany’s military tactics were designed to achieve a quick victory while avoiding actual battle as much as possible.  Once their armored units had achieved a breakthrough they used their speed and mobility to disrupt enemy communications as well as suppress opposition efforts at resupply, reinforcement and any organized counterstrike.  The panzer divisions were capable of reaching thirty miles within a day while follow-up infantry units maneuvered to envelope and dismantle the opposing force.  This rapidity of movement created confusion among allied commanders in 1940.  The result was a paralysis of indecision.  How should they respond?  Where should they respond?  Was the enemy’s objective the Channel coast or was it Paris?  It’s important to military commanders to keep the enemy guessing so they cannot easily concentrate their defenses. 

Penetrating deep behind enemy lines is the phase of blitzkrieg with the greatest potential for the enemy’s destruction.  It is also the point of the attacking army’s greatest vulnerability.  To better appreciate the problems inherent in blitzkrieg let’s first quickly look at the technological advances that occurred following the First World War.  Certainly the most dramatic advances occurred in aircraft design and performance.  The military planes of 1940 were much faster, had greater range and payload and were considerably more rugged than the wood and canvas biplanes of 1918.  Tank performance also far exceeded the first tentative efforts in tank design made by the British near the close of World War I.  These first tanks proved of little value in actual battlefield conditions.  Their slow speed and unreliability made them incapable of exploiting a breakthrough of enemy lines. 

Most everyone appreciates the contribution tanks and planes made to blitzkrieg.  But there is a third contribution that proved fundamental to the success of ‘lightening warfare’ and is often overlooked.  Fast and mobile armored units stretched the range of the battlefield many times beyond what it had once been in more conventional conflicts.  Command and control of one’s own units wouldn’t have been possible under these circumstances twenty years previously.  Improvements in radio changed this and enabled ‘real time’ communications over vast areas.  Radios were now more powerful and more reliable in different terrains and under varied weather conditions.  Most important, though, was the fact that radios had become portable.  They fit in tanks and planes.  Commanders could interact with their units and coordinate their maneuvers.  Planes could better collaborate with the ground troops they were aiding.  Commanders were aware of their units’ status and disposition, enabling armored penetrations that would have been reckless had they been moving blind.

The fact that armored spearheads were able to quickly cover vast distances created another danger.  Their long, thin probes left their flanks vulnerable to an enemy counterattack.  While the German assault into northern France in 1940 had available to it three mechanized infantry divisions that were capable of keeping pace with the tanks, they were not enough.  The vast majority of Germany’s infantry still moved on foot.  At various times the tanks had to wait for foot soldiers to make up the ground.  Tanks were also limited logistically.  Much of the German army’s supply was the responsibility of horse-drawn wagons.  Despite these drawbacks the effect of blitzkrieg on the opposing force was both dramatic and devastating. 

5.            Follow-up.  A very small portion of the German army actually decided the issue in the Battle of France in 1940.  But once armor has achieved the battlefield advantage there is still the need for large numbers of troops to secure the ground recently won.  Without the follow-up of a mass army a tank assault is little more than a cavalry charge into vast stretches of land.  It’s an exhilarating sight but ultimately on no consequence.

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