The New German Military System
Excerpt from How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, by Bevin Alexander, pages 6-8
The Polish campaign [beginning September 1, 1939] should have tipped off the Allies to new uses for two weapons in the German arsenal. But it did not, and they hit the Allied forces in the west like a bolt out of the blue. The weapons were the airplane and the tank.
German generals had discovered something that the leaders of other armies had not figured out---that airplanes and tanks were not weapons but vehicles. And these vehicles could carry anything on them up to their maximum weight limits. The payload could be armor, guns, or people, and this fact made possible an entirely new type of military system built around them. Armies could consist of troops carried by airplanes or dropped from them, or of self-propelled forces containing tanks, motorized artillery, and motorized infantry. Air forces could include tactical aircraft, such as dive bombers, that functioned as aerial field artillery, or strategic aircraft with long range and heavy bomb-carrying capacity that could bomb the enemy homeland.1
Heinz Guderian had built the panzer arm on the teachings of two English experts, J.F.C. Fuller and Basil H. Liddell Hart, whose ideas of concentrating armor into large units had been largely ignored in their own country. The German high command was as hidebound as the British leadership on this point, and fought Guderian's ideas. It was the enthusiasm of Hitler for tanks that gave Guderian the opening to establish army doctrine putting all armor into panzer divisions, instead of dividing it into small detachments parceled out to infantry divisions, as remained the practice in the French and British armies.
In addition, Guderian won acceptance of the doctrine that panzer divisions had to be made up not only of tanks, but of motorized infantry, artillery, and engineers, who could move at the speed of tanks and operate alongside armor to carry out offensive operations wherever the tanks could reach.
It was not Guderian, but Erwin Rommel, to become famous for his campaigns in North Africa, who produced the best one-sentence description of blitzkrieg warfare: "The art of concentrating strength at one point, forcing a breakthrough, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lightning deep into his rear, before the enemy has had time to react."
This was a revolutionary idea to the armies of the world at the time. Most military leaders thought tanks should be used as they had been employed in World War I---to assist infantry in carrying out assaults on foot against enemy objectives. For this reason, the best Allied tanks, like the British Matilda, were heavily armored monsters that could deflect most enemy fire, but could move scarcely faster than an infantryman could walk. German tanks, on the other hand, were "fast runners" with less armor, but able to travel at around 25 miles an hour, and designed for quick penetration of an enemy line and fast exploitation of the breakthrough thereafter into the enemy rear.
It is astonishing that Allied (and most German) generals did not see the disarming logic of Guderian's argument. He pointed out, for example, that if one side had 2,100 tanks and dispersed them evenly across a 300-mile front to support its infantry divisions, the tank density would be seven per mile, not enough to be decisive except in local engagements. If the other side had the same number of tanks and concentrated them at a single Schwerpunkt or main center of attack, the density would be as many tanks as could physically be fitted onto the roads and fields in the sector. Such a concentration would be bound to break through. Defending tanks and antitank guns would be too few to destroy all the attacking armor, leaving the remainder to rush into the rear, with other motorized forces following to exploit the victory. This would inevitably destroy the equilibrium of the main line of resistance, and force the entire front to disintegrate.
Nevertheless, British and French armies persisted in spreading most of their tanks among their infantry divisions. Both remained under the delusion that battles would be fought all along a continuous line, and they could move tanks and guns to block any point where a few enemy tanks achieved a breakthrough. They did not understand the effect of massing large numbers of tanks for a decisive penetration at a single point.
The radical aircraft the Germans developed was not much to look at. It was the Junker 87B Stuka, a slow (240 mph) dive bomber with nonretractable landing gear and only an 1,100-pound bombload. It was already obsolescent in 1940, but the Stuka (short for Sturzkampfflugzeug or "dive battle aircraft") was designed to make pinpoint attacks on enemy battlefield positions, tanks, and troops. And, since the German Luftwaffe or air force gained air superiority quickly with its excellent fighter (the Messerschmitt 109), the Stuka had the sky over the battlefield largely to itself. The Stuka functioned as aerial artillery and was highly effective. It also was terrifying to Allied soldiers because of its accuracy and because German pilots fitted the Stuka with an ordinary whistle that emitted a high-pitched scream as it dived. The Allied air forces had not seen a need for such a plane, and concentrated primarily on area bombing, which was much less effective on the battlefield.
When German panzers broke through enemy lines, they could employ both their own organic artillery and Stukas to shatter enemy positions or assist motorized infantry in attacks. It was a new way to win tactical engagements, and the Allies had nothing to match it.
1 An ancillary concept is that successful warfare always has depended upon movement or mobility, best summarized by the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest who said, to win, one had to "get there first with the most"---the "there" being a decisive or important objective. World War II was the moment in history when armies were changing from mobility primarily by animal or human legs to mobility by internal-combustion engines. Dwight Eisenhower, to become supreme Allied commander in Europe, saw this transition take place, and wrote that the bulldozer, the jeep, the 2 1/2-ton truck, and the C-47 two-engine transport plane, none designed for combat, were among the most vital elements in victory. See Eisenhower, 163-64.<< More 'World War II' Excerpts << Back to top