BBC - History World Wars: Blitzkrieg (2023)

Hitler dictates terms

On 21 June 1940, early in the second year of World War Two, the French president, Marshall Philippe Pétain, sued for peace with Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. In the course of the negotiations Pétain - victor of the battle of Verdun in World War One - agreed to cede three-fifths of French territory to German control.

In one of history's great ironies, Hitler insisted that the armistice be signed in the very railway car in which Germany had been compelled to admit defeat at the end of World War One. He was in a good position to dictate such terms.

It had taken only a few short weeks for the Wehrmacht (the German army), under his control, to crush the army of the French Third Republic . His well-trained and organised troops had also caused France's Allies, in the form of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), to beat an ignominious retreat from continental Europe.

Thus between 10 May and 21 June 1940, the Wehrmacht had accomplished what the army of Kaiser Wilhelm II had not managed to do in four years of desperate fighting in World War One.


Allies unprepared

BBC - History World Wars: Blitzkrieg (1)The Maginot Line: the Allies expected a protracted, defensive war©Across the English Channel, a stunned British military establishment struggled to determine how it was that events had so quickly gone so horribly wrong. The BEF had sailed for France believing that they and their French ally were well equipped and well trained to fight a modern war. In truth, as events proved, they were completely unprepared to face Hitler's Wehrmacht.

During World War One, the armies of the two Allies had dug in for what became a long, drawn-out conflict. And in 1940, influenced by this experience, the British and French leaders of World War Two were still expecting to fight a war in which the defensive would dominate. With this approach in mind, the French army was sent to man France's heavily fortified border with Germany, the Maginot Line, and to await a German attack. The BEF was sent to join the line of French troops defending the border with Belgium.

... they were completely unprepared to face Hitler's Wehrmacht ...

They expected that battles would develop slowly and be dominated by 'traditional' arms - those of the infantry and the artillery. Although the two armies had more than 3,500 tanks between them, these were largely cast in a supporting role.

The events in May and June 1940 proved that this outdated vision of war could not have been further from reality. This time, unlike the Allies, the Germans intended to fight the war offensively, and win quickly.


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German tactics

At dawn on 10 May, the Germans began an invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands. Accordingly, convinced that they were facing a repeat of the German strategy of 1914, Allied commanders moved the bulk of their forces from the Franco-Belgian border into defensive positions within Belgium to await the continuation of the German attack. In so doing, they fell right into Hitler's trap.

Rather than repeating the World War One Schlieffen Plan, the Germans in 1940 advanced with their main thrust through the Ardennes Forest, in order to smash the vulnerable flank of the Allies. As 29 German divisions advanced through the Netherlands and Belgium in the north, 45 further divisions, including about 2,400 tanks in 7 divisions, burst through the Allied right flank and drove towards the English Channel.

... the German advance south from Belgium was swift and decisive.

By 21 May, this thrust had reached the Channel and encircled 35 Allied divisions, including the BEF. Although the French army put up token resistance for several more weeks, their spirit was broken and the German advance south from Belgium was swift and decisive.

Despite desperate attempts by Winston Churchill to bolster French resolve, the defeat of the British and French armies in May effectively spelled the end of French resistance. The Allied armies, completely unprepared for the rapid, mobile operations of the Germans, had simply been out-fought at every turn.


New form of warfare?

BBC - History World Wars: Blitzkrieg (2)The Allies believed that 'blitzkrieg' was dependent on new technology, such as tanks and dive-bombers©Shocked by their experience, the Allied military observers who had survived the fall of France attributed their defeat to the completely new form of warfare pioneered by the Wehrmacht - the blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg seemed to be based around the pervasive use of new technology. After all, during the disastrous campaign in Belgium and France, it had seemed as if German tanks and aircraft were everywhere.

This view that the Germans used technology, namely the tank and the dive-bomber, to create a new and unique form of warfare has often dominated understanding of how the Germans fought in World War Two.

Contrary to the beliefs of the Allied military establishment of the day, however, blitzkrieg was not a brand-new way of waging war. In fact, although it is a German word, the term itself was created by an English newspaper sometime in 1939.

... blitzkrieg was not a brand-new way of waging war.

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In reality, the way in which the Wehrmacht fought, their 'doctrine' in today's parlance, was based more upon ideas than technology. And the ideas that shaped how Hitler's army fought were influenced by the fighting methods German soldiers had used since the 1870s. The so-called blitzkrieg of 1940 was really the German doctrine of 1914 with technology bolted on.



BBC - History World Wars: Blitzkrieg (3)Schlieffen's doctrine formed the basis of 'blitzkrieg'©Before 1914-18, Germany had perceived itself as surrounded by enemies who were superior both in numbers and resources. And German strategists, most notably Alfred von Schlieffen, had concluded that Germany could not win a long, protracted war against such opposition.

Thus, in order to win, Schlieffen knew the German army would have to defeat its opponents quickly and decisively. Always outnumbered by its enemies, it would have to match quantity with quality.

Schlieffen set about creating a doctrine that would allow the outnumbered German army to outfight its opponents. This doctrine stressed speed of manoeuvre and attacking the enemy where he was weakest, and usually this meant attacking the flanks.

Schlieffen also stressed the need to keep the enemy reacting to German moves. In other words, he foresaw the need to maintain the initiative. To accomplish this, he advocated the use of the flexible command system pioneered by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.

Recognising that battlefield conditions changed rapidly and that orders often became overtaken by events, the German army encouraged its commanders to make decisions without waiting for orders from above, thus allowing them to take advantage of fleeting opportunities as they arose. Above all else, this doctrine created aggressive and flexible leaders.

Schlieffen and his successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, trained the German army well in what they termed Bewegungskrieg, or 'war of manoeuvre'. In 1914, German units inevitably outfought their opponents whenever they encountered each other on the battlefield.

... this doctrine created aggressive and flexible leaders.

One element that was lacking from the German army in 1914 was the ability to move long distances quickly. Had the German army been mechanised at the outbreak of World War One, it is likely that the outcome of the war would have been very different. As things were then, the German army was unable to defeat its enemies decisively in the war's early battles, and reluctantly settled into trench warfare in late 1914.

Throughout the remainder of the war, German officers searched for a process by which the stalemate of the trenches could be broken. In March 1918, they found such a means.


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Development of the strategy

Schlieffen's ideas were largely aimed at operational-level leaders, that is, the commanders of Germany's divisions and army corps. The biggest problems in World War One, however, were at the lower, tactical level. And the German solution to these problems was to apply Schlieffen's operational principles to small units as well as to large ones. Thus, by decentralising command and by increasing the firepower of the infantry, they created a large number of platoon-sized units capable of independent action on the battlefield.

These units had the freedom to fight as they thought best, without having to refer constantly to a higher commander. While the Allies relied upon tanks to break through the stalemate of the trenches in 1918, the Germans used a largely infantry force empowered by a sound tactical doctrine.

... units had the freedom to fight as they thought best...

After their defeat in 1918, German military intellectuals began reshaping the army. Under the direction of Hans von Seeckt, commanders fashioned the doctrine that the Wehrmacht was to employ in World War Two. Repelled by the waste and indecisiveness of trench warfare, they returned to the ideas of Schlieffen, and in 1921 the army published its new doctrine, Command and Combat with Combined Arms.


Applying the doctrine

BBC - History World Wars: Blitzkrieg (4)Guderain recognised the importance of tanks©This doctrine integrated the operational-level ideas taught by Schlieffen with the tactical concepts developed during World War One. And as military technology, including that of tanks, motor vehicles, aircraft and radios, was developed during the 1920s and 30s, so it was grafted onto this doctrinal framework.

Innovators such as Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein recognised that the protection given by tanks increased the ability of the German army to manoeuvre in the face of enemy artillery, and that this enhanced speed and mobility. However, the modern technology was merely used to enhance the capabilities that had already been provided, thanks to the army's strategic doctrine.

Thus, unlike the Allied armies, the German army in 1940 had an offensive doctrine that emphasised speed of decision-making, speed of manoeuvre and decentralised action. From the operational ideas of Schlieffen they placed the emphasis on speed, flank attacks, encirclements and decisive battle.

... the German army in 1940 had an offensive doctrine that emphasised speed of decision-making ...

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The experience of World War One had convinced German leaders that these ideas needed to be applied not only at top operational level, but also at the tactical level - by combined-arms teams capable of independent fire and manoeuvre. Tanks, motor vehicles and aircraft merely enabled the Wehrmacht to apply these principles more efficiently.

With this doctrine, despite being outnumbered in tanks and combat aircraft, they were able to outfight the Allies at every turn in 1940, and cause the rapid and total collapse of Allied resistance.


Find out more


Alfred von Schlieffen's Military Writings by Robert T Foley (Frank Cass, 2003)

The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940 by Robert A Doughty (Archon Books, 1990)

The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform by James S Corum (University Press of Kansas, 1992)

The Path to Blitzkrieg: Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920-1939 by Robert M Citino (Lynne Reinner, 1999)

Germany and World War Two, Vol. II: Germany's Initial Conquests in Europe by German Research Institute for Military History (Clarendon Press, 1991)

Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919- 1939 by Mary B Habeck (Cornell University Press, 2003)


About the author

Robert T Foley is a specialist on the development of German strategy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College London and the Joint Services Command and Staff College. His most recent book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, published by Cambridge University Press in November 2004.


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