Misconceptions of WWII, Part Three

(Editor’s note: This is the final part of Chris Ketcherside’s series on myths relating to World War II. Thanks again for reading!!)

6) Blitzkrieg = planes and tanks

This is not so much a myth as it is a general perception, stemming from what German tactics appeared at the time, the principle weapons they used, and, simply the term “blitzkrieg” which of course is German for “lightning war.”

First, we can begin by dispelling the term.   The term blitzkrieg has no well known origins.  It’s easier to say what it is not, and where it did not originate than to affirm what it is, and that is sufficient to our purpose here.  It is not a German term or doctrine for a type of warfare.  Lightning war sounds good,  and, in comparison to the speed of operations the Germans had in the beginning of the war compared to what had been known previously it is accurate.  But it is no more a real military term than “shock and awe” is to the US military.

Rather, the Germans advocated a doctrine called Auftragstaktik, this is the term they would recognize and use.  It is a doctrinal term, almost  a philosophy as much as a technique for fighting wars.  There is no real easy translation, but the closest that the US military currently uses is “mission orders.”   The German army first began to develop this doctrine in WWI, and they had it perfected for their use by the beginning of WWII.

Mission orders means that a commander tells his subordinate leaders what the objective it. He tells them his desired endstate, or, what he wants to have accomplished at the end of the day so to speak.   But, he does not specify how he wants it done.  The subordinate leader must decide how he will accomplish it, with the resources at hand.  This allows him to be flexible as conditions change, as they always do.  In combat, the Germans knew, no matter how good, how perfect, your plan is, there are many variables you can never predict with complete accuracy, such as the enemy’s numbers and actions, weather, terrain, etc.  So, instead of trying to account for all of this with assumptions, the Germans were allowed to change their plan however they wanted as long as they accomplished the objective.

By way of example, suppose you are given the task of going to buy ice cream.   If you are given a traditional type of order,  such as Britain, France, and the US used at the beginning of the war, you would be told what car to take, what store to go to, how to get there on which roads, what time to go, and so on.  Of course, all of this unravels if there is unexpected traffic, road closures, the car breaks down, the store is out of ice cream, and so on.  If you given Mission Orders, you’re simply told to have ice cream by a certain time, and you have complete freedom to determine how to get it.

The traditional types of orders used by the British, French, Poles, and so on, at the start of the war originated in WWI as well, and were an attempt to minimize the confusion of war with management of details.   The concept was to attempt to compensate with planning and detailed orders the chaos and unknown factors.  Also, such detailed orders allowed commanders to coordinate all the supporting arms and different branches of the military force.  An infantry commander would need artillery, air, and logistical support to accomplish his mission, detailed orders were used to coordinate all of these different players.   The Germans compensated for this by forming kampfgruppes, or battle groups.  A subordinate leader would be given a mission, and he would have assigned to his command all the supporting elements he needed, which formed a kampfgruppe.   Therefore, the German leader would be able to change his plan as circumstances dictated all the while keeping his objective in mind.

Additionally, as part of this philosophy, Germans were indoctrinated to seek and maintain the initiative.  As part of your orders, or even if you had no orders, it was expected to keep momentum moving so that the enemy was always trying to react to what you were doing, instead of pursuing their own plan.  Thus, a German leader might initiate attacks before he was ready, or even if he was unsure of success, simply to keep his enemy off balance.  The idea was, an attack one unit makes, even if not successful, might contribute to another friendly unit’s success if the enemy was constantly unbalanced.

On the other side, the traditional model developed by the French and British, subordinate comanders had highly detailed plans that did not allow for flexiblity.  Therefore, when conditions changed, as they inevitably did, subordinate commanders had to contact their higher headquarters, advise them of changes, and wait for new orders as the headquarters attempted to re-coordinate all the subordinate elements and supporting units to the new circumstances.  The crucial failure here is that all of this took time.   Time that the Germans were using to act.  While the British, French, Poles, etc were attempting to coordinate every time change happened, the Germans were, literally, moving around them in circles.

During the invasion of France in 1940, it is a little known fact that between the British and French forces, they actually had more tanks than the Germans did.   And, the French and British tanks were better armored, and had more powerful guns, the result being that German tanks could rarely destroy British or French tanks.  The Germans had sacrificed armor and armamanent for speed.  They then grouped them together in kampfgruppe, and attacked at weak points.  So, the result was that while th  Allies had more and more powerful tanks, they were slow in reacting to German attacks, and the Germans used their speed to move around and disrupt Allied command, control, and supply lines.  The Germans had chosen speed for their tanks to support thier doctrine of Auftragstaktik.  In 1940, the bulk of Allied forces found themselves cut off from their headquarters, and therefore unable to act without orders.   Also, they were cut off from supply, and found themselves surrounded by German forces who did not outnumber them in terms of sheer numbers, but who out manuevered them with speed and initiative.  And, all these German units had their supporting elements with them, and did not require ponderous and unreliable cross-coordination for support, as the Allies did.

This is a good example of practical application of history.   The US  initially had modeled its system to a large degree off the traditional French and British traditional methods of orders.  After 1940, all the Allies tried to emulate the Germans, the US being the most successful, and the results can still be seen today, as US leaders are taught  what we call “mission type order“ using “commander’s intent“ and emphasizing initiative.  And, whatever their base units are, US units are able to organine into combat teams, echoing the German kampfgruppe.

On a somewhat related note, in order to play to my audience here, I’d like to dispel the notion that the tank is the modern day equivalent of the medieval knight.  This is usually assumed to be the case by historians of the modern era who don’t know much about medieval history, or vice versa.

In appearance, the two have much in common; speed, the physical and psychological effects of attack, and being seen as the dominant combat system.  However, while appearing to be the dominant battle system, they are only part of a team.  Without supporting infantry they are vulnerable (especially in towns), and they need artillery and air support to be best used.  Whereas, the armored knight was the dominant weapon system, being vulnerable only to other knights (and occasional English yew).  While both have mobility, the mobility of the knight was only tactical, he was able to influence the battlefield the day of battle, but beyond that the horse and rider would tire out before too much time and distance was expended.  The tank had the mobility and ranged weapon to be able to effect the battlefield, but also the mobility to effect combat on the operational level, moving over huge distances for several consecutive days.  This changes combat significantly.

Most importantly, however, is the difference outside of combat.  While some tanks are qualitatively better than others, in many regards, a tank is a tank is a tank, a large inanimate piece of metal that is useless without a driver, who can be anyone with a minimal of training.  A knight was a social, political, and economic factor in his times, influencing not just the tactical battle, but the environment he was in by virtue of being an nobleman.  Even with the abilty to travel for hundreds of miles, a tank would never have this kind of influence.

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