"BLITZKRIEG" or lightning war is not a German term for just any kind of quickly waged and violent war. It is a name for a special kind of quickly waged and violent war which has a technique of its own. The ideas which lie back of this technique began taking shape in Germany in the period after the failure of either the Allies or the Germans to break through on the Western Front during 1915 and 1916, and they matured after the outbreak of the civil war in Spain.

While some of the guiding conceptions of the Blitzkrieg were tried out in Ethiopia, the results were not considered conclusive. The Ethiopians were a semi-savage people, and they lacked the modern armament and equipment necessary to offer the Italian invaders the kind of resistance essential if Blitzkrieg were to receive a real and complete battlefield test. But Spain furnished a fine proving ground. Then Albania was a dress rehearsal. And in Poland the system was put to the final proof.

The technique of Blitzkrieg is based on the principle of surprise as opposed to an effort to crush an enemy by bringing an overwhelming superiority in numbers and armament to bear against him. It can be likened to the swift and deadly thrust of a rapier as opposed to the crushing blow of a battle-axe or a war club. The objective is not the enemy civilian population but the enemy armed forces, both ground and air.

From the days of earliest military history, surprise has played a prominent part in winning victory. When coupled with better tactics -- that is, superior methods of combat on the battlefield -- surprise has always given victory against an enemy that relies on superior numbers and courage.

The Christians talked of "Mongol hordes" in an effort to explain their own quick and bloody defeats at Mongol hands. There were no military Mongol hordes in superior numbers. Probably the Christians outnumbered the Mongols in all the battles fought. But the Mongols used their ability to make long, hard marches on their tough Asiatic horses to take by surprise the slow-moving, ponderous masses of knights, men-at-arms and foot soldiers composing the Christian armies. In battle the Mongols had a definite tactical scheme. First their mounted archers, keeping out of reach of the Christians, shot holes in their ranks. When in consequence a certain amount of confusion had been created, then -- and only then -- did they charge. The Christians had no tactics in the proper sense of the word. They simply moved forward en masse, trusting to courage and numbers.

The war of 1914-1918 offered a parallel, so far as fundamentals are concerned. The Allies, conscious of their superior potential resources, leaned strongly towards the idea of crushing Germany and Austria-Hungary by sheer weight of numbers and metal. Too many of the Allied conferences held during the early years of the war resulted in nothing but an agreement for all the Allies -- West, East and South -- to make a simultaneous general attack.

The Allies adopted the usury idea of wearing the enemy down by killing and wounding large numbers of his troops. This method seemed particularly attractive because the enemy was distinctly inferior in man power. But it produced the really terrible Allied casualty lists. Nor did it result in any military advantage sufficient to compensate for even a fraction of the losses.

The artillery preparations for the large-scale Allied and German attacks were kept up for days at a time. Enormous quantities of shells were "dumped" on enemy positions. Yet again and again when the infantry went forward they found enough enemy machine guns still in action to cause enormous losses. What was worse, while ground would be captured, the expected crumbling of the enemy and the opening of a path for a break-through to decisive victory did not materialize. The Allied attacks on the Somme, the German ones on Verdun, are the best examples of the fallacy of the idea of crushing an enemy by usury methods.

As a consequence of these failures, leaders began seeking more and more for methods based on superior tactical skill and on surprise. Von Mackensen's break through the Russian line on the Dunajec River in 1915 was an example of superior tactics. He used the artillery rolling barrage to protect his advancing infantry -- the first time such a barrage had been used on a large scale.

The successful British attack with tanks at Cambrai was a surprise. It was successful because of the use of a new instrument of war; the tank surprised the Germans. The successful German attack on the Russian Riga line was a surprise attack without a warning artillery preparation. The artillery gave close support to the infantry during its forward advance. In this advance there was no rigid timetable, with the infantry advancing at a given rate per minute back of an artillery barrage which moved forward according to a precise schedule. Instead, the artillery concentrated its fire on the localities in the enemy line which were the strongest and could offer the greatest resistance to the attacking infantry. While this was going on, the attacking infantry pushed in around the flanks of those positions and cut them off. If they did not surrender, infantry was left to watch them while the main force went on. This happened regardless of whether or not troops on the right or left kept up. A considerable number of heavy trench mortars and light artillery kept up with the infantry to smash opposition where they could, and, where they could not, to smother it with a concentration of fire, while the infantry broke through the weaker spots and outflanked and cut off the stronger ones. The attack was like a tide coming in, rushing around the rocks which it cannot roll forward as it does the pebbles and shells. But the tide nevertheless finishes by submerging the rocks.

The success of the Riga experiment led to the use of the method on a large scale against the British in March and April 1918, and against the French in May. These surprise attacks, employing new artillery and infantry tactics, were so successful that in each case they just missed achieving a complete break-through. Victory for Germany would probably have been the result had a break-through occurred. Fortunately, the Germans lacked the reserve necessary to keep the attacks going; while the Allies possessed reserves enough finally to stop them. The Germans were exhausted just as a break-through seemed imminent.

The attack of July 15 and 16, 1918, from Château-Thierry on the Marne to Rheims, and thence across the Champagne to the Argonne Forest, was the last occasion when the Germans made this sort of an attack on a large scale. From just east of Château-Thierry to Rheims the attack penetrated deeply and threatened a break-through. However, in the Champagne new defensive tactics were used. Only a few men were left in the front line and the artillery and infantry were echeloned in depth. They barely succeeded in stopping the Germans.[i] Once again, the probabilities are that the Germans would have broken through had they possessed the reserves to continue the attack.

Then came the Franco-American counterattack from Château-Thierry to Soissons, begun on July 18. It drove deep into the western flank of the German salient which had been made by the May attack and enlarged by the successes on July 15 and 16 between Château-Thierry and Rheims. The continuation of this attack, and the tremendous increase in the Allied reserves due to the continuous arrival in France of the American troops by the hundreds of thousands, robbed Germany of the initiative and put her on the defensive until the Armistice ended the fighting.

However, neither the events themselves nor the ensuing German defeat were evidence that the new method of attack was wrong. On the contrary, the more the record of the fighting was studied the clearer it seemed that the method of surprise attack was correct. Such was the origin of the idea of the Blitzkrieg, which gradually developed in German minds. It offered a technique of successful surprise and of the exploitation of it by tactics which could rapidly be adjusted to meet successfully each local situation, rather than a plan of formal tactics based on artillery and infantry timetables rigidly laid down before the battle.

However, the children of the gas engine -- the tank, the armored car and the airplane -- played only a limited part in the German attacks which I have described above. The Germans had but few tanks. Their airplanes did a limited amount of bombing and machine gunning of troops on the ground; but the technique had not yet been evolved for enabling airplanes to give full and continuous support in an attack.

The British and French, however, had developed the tank and had been devoting considerable effort to a study of its best tactical uses. From the beginning their views diverged into two separate conceptions. The French considered the tank as an accompanying weapon to help the infantry overcome enemy machine guns and move forward. They therefore distributed it along the line of the attacking infantry. The British used this type of tank tactics also. But more and more a school developed in England which wanted the tanks utilized in groups, to smash a hole entirely through the enemy line; the tanks would use their own speed and fire power and would not be held down to the pace of the accompanying infantry. In general, the partisans of this plan wished to revive something like the crushing charge of the armored knight against the unarmored foot soldier.

On August 8, 1918, such an attack was made. It was a great success. The lack of morale shown by the German foot soldier on this occasion caused Ludendorff to call August 8 the black day of the war. Believers in the tank as a weapon in itself, as opposed to the conception that it was merely a weapon to support the infantry, were jubilant.

The leader of this school of thought was General Fuller, who, I believe, possesses one of the most brilliant military minds so far produced in this century. Since 1918 he has had more to do than any other soldier with developing the uses of the tank, armored car and other motor vehicles for land combat. In planning the Blitzkrieg, the Germans adopted many of his ideas. Another officer whose brilliant military mind has helped shape the Blitzkrieg technique is an Italian, General Giulio Douhet.

Soldiers have long studied the problems involved in breaking through a relatively short front when there is a dense population in the rear trained and ready to come to arms within a few days. Some believers in the growing power of aviation argued that the airplane provided the answer. Airplanes would bomb the civilian population and so shatter their morale that whether or not the nation had been trained in universal military service it would sue for peace even before its army had been beaten in battle.

General Giulio Douhet's name has been erroneously attached to this idea. What he advocated was the preparation in time of peace of a large aviation force which, when war comes, will be ready to take off into enemy country without delay. Its objective would not be the civilian population, but the things used by a country first to mobilize and then to concentrate its war strength. "Mobilization" is calling to the colors the civilians who form the trained reserve. This takes time. "Concentration" is moving the units of the army, after they have been raised to war strength, from the places of local assembly -- by rail, ship, bus and on foot -- to the localities where they are to commence fighting. This also takes time. Thus the essential in each of the two processes needed to bring even the most modern, up-to-date army to the point where it can become effective is time.

But a large aviation, prepared in advance, needs no time in order to become effective. It already is mobilized and concentrated. It can start immediately for its goal. From this fact there followed a logical deduction. Why not use an air force against those means which an enemy uses, first to mobilize his troops and then to concentrate them? The means in question consists of barracks, stables, gun sheds, arsenals, railways, railway stations, bridges, ships, docks, electric light plants and power plants of all kinds. As Douhet conceived it, aviation would be used to make a surprise attack; but the surprise would not be in respect to the places attacked but in respect to the moment of the attack.

Up to the start of the Italian campaign in Ethiopia those military experts who were trying to decide what new equipment science and industry had placed in the locker of Mars, in order to make more effective use of the age-old principles of surprise, had reached three main conclusions: 1, despite the development of trench systems, surprise based on adequate artillery and infantry tactics was still feasible; 2, under certain circumstances, an attack of a large number of tanks can produce an effect which is decisive locally if not for the whole front; and 3, the essential factor is time. Even nations with conscript armies need a period of about ten days to complete mobilization, and a further period for concentration. Now no nation can afford to mobilize and concentrate its full body of troops in peacetime as a merely precautionary measure, still less can it remain in that condition indefinitely. Therefore, the period required by a potential enemy for mobilization and concentration provides an opportunity for effective surprise; and this is a type of attack for which the machine children of the gas engine are especially fitted.

It was to prevent a German surprise attack of this sort that the Maginot Line was conceived and built. Knowing that partially garrisoned fortifications can be captured by surprise, the French created a special corps of troops to garrison it permanently.

Ethiopia provided new experience and new ideas. I shall not go into details. Suffice it to say that the Italians found that while aviation alone could seriously damage the enemy by bombing points of military importance out of artillery reach, such bombings did not produce decisive results. Only when the aviation acted in direct support of troops operating on the ground were decisive victories gained. They also found that tanks operating alone not only failed to produce decisive results but frequently were in great danger, and sometimes were lost, when surrounded by enemy infantry. They found, further, that tanks operating in conjunction with infantry, artillery, cavalry and aviation as well produced excellent results.

In other words, the conclusion reached in Ethiopia was that tanks and aviation, far from replacing ground troops in any way, simply added two more essentials to an up-to-date army. Furthermore, despite Italian achievements in road building, the Italians found as they advanced that mechanized transport was not a substitute for animals if their troops were to be able to fight and were to be supplied anywhere and everywhere. In Ethiopia, the Italians used many thousands of horses, mules, donkeys and camels. In other words, neither in combat nor on the march had the gas engine and its progeny replaced the known tools of war. They had simply added to their number. However, due to the speed of the new mechanical instruments, the possibility of surprise attack had, under certain conditions, been tremendously increased. In cases where mechanized and motorized troops[ii] supported by airplanes could act, a surprise blow could be struck in a way never before possible.

However, the conclusions drawn from the Italian campaign in Ethiopia were tentative. They could not be considered conclusive because the Ethiopians were deficient in artillery of all types, and had practically no tanks or aviation at all. But new opportunities for experimentation soon were provided in Spain. Until the battle of Teruel in the winter of 1937-38 the civil conflict in Spain did not assume the character of what could be defined as war (grand warfare); it consisted merely of isolated operations (minor warfare). Beginning with the battle of Teruel, however, and continuing through the final campaign in Catalonia, the number of troops, guns, tanks and planes engaged was sufficiently large to permit one to draw some definite conclusions.[iii]

The operations in the final period of warfare in Spain fall into two categories -- hard-fought, knockdown and drag-out battles; and pursuits. Teruel, Alfambra, Sarrión, Ebro and Segre belong in the first class. The separate operations leading up to the advance on and capture of Castellón-de-la-Plana consisted of a series of stubborn small battles fought along a wide front. The operations after Alfambra, terminated only when Franco reached the Segre and Ebro Rivers and the Mediterranean at Vinaroz, were a large-scale pursuit. The operations in Catalonia after the crossing of the Segre and Ebro Rivers and the capture of the main positions beyond were another large-scale pursuit. It terminated only when the remnants of the governmental armies were driven across the French frontier.

The results showed that weapons and tactics essential in one of the two categories of fighting were frequently of little use in the other. In a hard-fought battle the ability to give and take hard blows was proved to be absolutely necessary. Speed at the sacrifice of this ability introduced dangers which frequently led to defeat. Therefore artillery with first-class fire power, heavily armed infantry, armored tanks with cannon and huge quantities of ammunition were required or else defeat was certain. Similarly, the ability of such troops and their supplies to move fast was entirely subordinate to their ability to march and fight regardless of the difficulties of terrain. Therefore, while motor transport and mechanized heavy artillery and tanks were used wherever the ground permitted, the troops as a whole depended upon horses, mules and donkeys.

For pursuit, on the other hand, the primary requisite was speed, in combination with enough combat power to overcome whatever minor resistance rear guards and the braver elements of defeated troops might put up. The elements that produced the best results were light speedy tanks armed with machine guns, armored cars and motorcycle infantry where the terrain permitted their use; on other terrains, horse cavalry was needed. All this had to be backed up by infantry and by artillery carried in motor trucks where that was possible; in other cases infantry had to march. As the pursuit continued, the infantry would be more and more outdistanced until it was as much as several days in the rear.

The light tanks were shown to be useless in heavy battle because where they were not destroyed by artillery fire they were burnt or captured by the enemy infantry. Even the armored tanks that carried cannon failed when they attacked enemy infantry alone.[iv] They proved useful only when they attacked with, and were backed up by, their own infantry, preceded first by a heavy artillery bombardment and then by a heavy aviation bombardment of the enemy position. Thus for hard-fought combat the French theory of tanks as infantry support weapons proved to be correct; while for pursuit General Fuller's theory of mechanized vehicles acting independently was shown to be correct.

In Spain aviation played a rôle which few had foreseen in advance. Such reliable evidence as exists shows that bombing of civilian populations did not produce results worth the risk to planes and pilots, particularly where modern anti-aircraft fire had to be faced. Bombing of important military objectives far in the rear, in accordance with Douhet's theory, while producing considerable damage, was never decisive. This was due to the fact that since airplanes are unable to capture (i.e. occupy) and hold territory, they could not prevent the enemy from renewing activity in the localities which had been bombed as soon as the bombing ceased. Also, due to lack of accuracy in bombing and an inability to keep up the bombing incessantly, the destruction accomplished was never total.

However, in battle and pursuit, the rôle played by the Spanish, Italian and German aviation was so important that we are safe in saying that in battle where two sides are equal in everything but aviation, the side which possesses it and uses it as it was used in Spain will win.

In heavy combat, as the preparatory artillery fire ceased, heavy bombing planes bombed and re-bombed the enemy positions from one end to the other. This was followed, during the advance of the attacking infantry and tanks, by continuous diving attacks and light bombing and machine gunning of the enemy positions by the assault aviation. For pursuit, airplanes bombed and machine gunned retreating enemy elements far to the rear. Their bombs and heavy machine guns also furnished the light mechanized and horse cavalry with the high-explosive and heavy machine gun fire which their artillery and heavy machine guns frequently could not provide because they were unable to keep up. In other words, this support from the aviation prevented the artillery and heavy machine guns of the enemy's rear guard from holding up the light mechanized forces and horse cavalry, which would have given the main enemy forces a chance to retreat in order or to organize a new defensive position.

Thus in the one real test, that of battle, the Spanish war proved: 1, that the children of the gas engine could not accomplish decisive results alone; 2, that in heavy combat, while their support is essential, they are subordinate to the infantry and artillery, as their speed cannot compensate for their inability (unlike the infantry and artillery) to take and give heavy blows; and 3, that for pursuit, or against an enemy lacking the artillery of various types and the tanks and aviation necessary for successful defense, light and mechanized forces supported by aviation can strike surprise blows which may prove decisive.

With the acceptance by the German and Italian High Commands and General Staffs of the accuracy of this third conclusion, and following the reorganization and rearmament of their armed forces accordingly, the long evolution of the theory of Blitzkrieg was over. It was ready for use as a well-rounded conception of military strategy.

It is important to note the difference between the third and the second conclusions just recorded. The third lies at the basis of the idea of Blitzkrieg; the second indicates conditions under which it could not work and therefore should not be tried.

Thus Blitzkrieg would not be tried against the Maginot Line. Nor, probably, would it be tried against an enemy with a strong air force and numerous large-caliber anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns -- in other words, an enemy prepared not only to engage in hard combat against infantry and artillery but also against tanks, armored cars and aviation.

The seizure of Albania gave the Italians the opportunity to indulge in a dress rehearsal of Blitzkrieg. They knew just what force the Albanians could mobilize and how long mobilization would require. They knew that while the Albanians, once they were mobilized, could put a respectable force of infantry and field artillery into the field, they lacked aviation, armored tanks with cannon, and large-caliber anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. In other words, the period needed by the Albanians for mobilization provided the time needed to execute a successful surprise attack. Lack of matériel for heavy combat meant that the Albanian power of resistance against aviation and light troop attacks was so slight that the Italians need not send across the Adriatic the troops and matériel necessary for heavy combat. Actually they sent only 23,000 light troops, backed up by armored motorized divisions and supported by aviation. The reports that these troops had to make numerous assaults before they succeeded in landing are not supported by reliable evidence.[v] Inside of a few days the light armored cars and motorcycle troops, backed by more heavily armored and armed mechanized troops, and supported by aviation, had occupied all of Albania. Twelve hundred Grenadier Guard Infantry, fully equipped and armed, were flown over the Adriatic and landed near the capital just as the advance elements of the light troops entered the city. If the light troops had met with any resistance from King Zog's troops, the Grenadiers were there to reinforce them. It was all over before the average Albanian knew what was happening.

The Albanian dress rehearsal showed that the technique of Blitzkrieg had been properly developed.

The suppression of the Polish Republic proved that a brave, well-armed, well-equipped and well-trained army, according to ordinary standards, is incapable of resisting a Blitzkrieg attack. True, the Poles made strategic errors in trying to defend all of Poland, instead of accepting the invasion of the western part of their territory as a necessary evil and concentrating their army where it could have made the most effective resistance. But even if they had adopted this correct strategical procedure they would have been beaten. The reason for this statement is that the Poles lacked the aviation, the well-armored tanks with cannon, and the large-caliber anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns which would be needed to stop and defeat a Blitzkrieg force. And I might say in passing that the Regular Army and National Guard of the United States would fare no better today, and for exactly the same reason.

The Blitzkrieg technique, as exemplified so successfully in Poland, follows certain well-defined successive steps:

1. An airplane attack is made on all enemy aviation and aërodromes.

2. An airplane attack is made on all railway junctions and stations, barracks, depots, bridges, and motor convoys on roads -- that is, everything used by an army for mobilization and concentration. (If the aviation is large enough it carries out 1 and 2 simultaneously.)

3. While this is going on, the artillery of all calibers which already is in place near the border heavily shells all the enemy batteries, trenches and other works, while the regular infantry assaults and takes them. Heavy bombing and light diving bombing and machine gunning by airplanes assist this preparation. These operations by the troops armed and trained for hard combat open the way for the Blitzkrieg troops. Of course, if there are no minor fortifications or organized resistance of any kind at the frontier, this step is not necessary. In those circumstances the Blitzkrieg troops start their invasion directly after steps 1 and 2 have been executed.

4. The light divisions made up of motorcycle infantry and machine guns, armored cars, light tanks (carried in trucks), horse cavalry, and sometimes horse artillery (light) and artillery carried in trucks, lead the way.

5. After the light divisions come the armored divisions, each composed of about 400 tanks (generally medium-sized), motorized infantry, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, and engineers. The light and armored divisions are closely supported by aviation, which is ready at all times with heavy bombing planes and diving light bombing and machine gun planes to help overcome any enemy resistance.

6. Next come infantry and artillery in motor trucks. Italy also has arrangements to pick up infantry units and fly them wherever needed. Reliable reports indicate that Germany has at least four regularly organized air regiments, each consisting of a fully equipped and armed regiment of infantry, with the transport planes necessary to fly them all at one and the same time. The purpose of these is to reinforce quickly the light and armored divisions should they meet with more resistance than they can overcome with their aviation support. The troops would not be landed by parachute in the rear of the enemy, a procedure few military men would care to sanction; troops so landed would probably be a present to the enemy. Instead, the airplanes land just out of enemy artillery range, in the rear of their own troops.

The Blitzkrieg troops do not attempt to engage in knockdown, drag-out combat with enemy troops prepared for this type of fighting. Instead, they go around the flanks, leaving the other job to the regular divisions which come plodding along in the rear.

No nation in Central Europe or the Balkans is armed and equipped, any more than was Poland, to withstand a Blitzkrieg attack. Nor is Turkey. The possibility therefore is that in the not distant future either Germany or Italy, or both, will use their special light and armored divisions and aviation to enforce their will in these regions should any of the countries involved dare to be intractable either economically or militarily.

[i] The author was in the line near Suippes during this attack and was an eyewitness of how narrow was the margin of victory for the French and Americans.

[ii] Mechanized troops are infantry, cavalry and artillery which use motorized matériel in battle. Motorized troops are infantry, artillery and cavalry which use motor transport to get them to the battlefield but which, once there, fight as in the days before the advent of the gas engine.

[iii] In the Catalonian offensive Franco assaulted with 352,000 troops, 16,300 of them Italians. In the Seros sector alone 448 guns fired 120,000 rounds for the jump-off of 5 infantry divisions on a front of 10 kilometers. These 5 divisions totalled around 80,000 men.

[iv] In the battle of Fuente de Ebro seven companies of Franco's infantry, unsupported by artillery, decisively defeated from 90 to 100 tanks attacking alone.

[v] In fact, such evidence as I could accumulate on the spot was to the contrary. I talked shortly after the invasion with all the eyewitnesses I could find. The marks of shell fire, etc., indicated no resistance of any consequence.

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  • HENRY J. REILLY, D.S.M., Colonel of Infantry in the U. S. Army in the World War, now Brigadier General in the Officers Reserve Corps; former editor of the Army and Navy Journal; war correspondent for various American publications in many campaigns
  • More By Henry J. Reilly