Blitzkrieg is, of course, a German word meaning ‘lightning war’. The ironic thing is that it was in many ways a British invention, derived from the lessons of the Western Front in the First World War. Captain Basil Liddell Hart had drawn his own conclusions from the excessively high casualties suffered by both sides. As an infantry subaltern, he himself had been gassed, the long-term effects of which forced him to retire from the army in 1927, after which he turned to journalism, working as defence correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and then The Times and publishing numerous works of military history. In Liddell Hart’s view, the fatal mistake of most offensives on the Western Front had been their ponderous and predictable directness. A more ‘indirect approach’, he argued, would aim at surprising the enemy, throwing his commanders off balance, and then exploiting the ensuing confusion. The essence was to concentrate armour and air power in a lethal lightning strike. Liddell Hart defined the secret as lying
partly in the tactical combination of tanks and aircraft, partly in the unexpectedness of the stroke in direction and time, but above all in the ‘follow-through’ – the way that a break-through is exploited by a deep strategic penetration; carried out by armoured forces racing on ahead of the main army, and operating independently.
The good news for Liddell Hart was that his work was hugely influential. The bad news was that it was hugely influential not in Britain but in Germany, With the notable exception of Major-General J. F. C. Fuller,* senior British commanders like Field Marshal Earl Haig simply refused to accept that ‘the aeroplane, the tank [and] the motor car [would] supersede the horse in future wars’, dismissing motorized weapons as mere ‘accessories to the man and horse’. Haig’s brother concurred: the cavalry would ‘never be scrapped to make room for the tanks’. By contrast, younger German officers immediately grasped the significance of Liddell Hart’s work. Among his most avid fans was Heinz Guderian, commander of the 19th German Army Corps in the invasion of Poland. As Guderian recalled, it was from Liddell Hart and other British pioneers of ‘a new type of warfare on the largest scale’ that he learned the importance of ‘the concentration of armour’. Moreover,
it was Liddell Hart who emphasized the use of armoured forces for long-range strokes, operations against the opposing army’s communications, and [who] also proposed a type of armoured division combining panzer and panzer-infantry units. Deeply impressed by these ideas, I tried to develop them in a sense practicable for our own army … I owe many suggestions of our further development to Captain Liddell Hart.
Guderian – who was happy to describe himself as Liddell Hart’s disciple and pupil and even translated his works into German – had learned his lessons well. In September 1939 his panzers were unstoppable. The Poles did not, as legend has it, attempt cavalry charges against them, though mounted troops were deployed against German infantry, but they lacked adequate motor transport and their tanks were fewer and technically inferior to the Germans’. Moreover, like the Czechs before them, the Poles found Anglo-French guarantees to be militarily worthless. At the Battle of Bzura they mounted a desperate counteroffensive to hold up the German assault on Warsaw, but by September 16 their resistance was crumbling. By the 17th the Germans had reached the fortress at Bresc (Brest) on the River Bug. On September 28 Warsaw itself fell. Eight days later the last Polish troops laid down their arms. The entire campaign had lasted barely five weeks.
The Poles had fought courageously, but they were outnumbered and outgunned. The most striking thing about the war in the West the following year was that the opposite was true. It was perhaps predictable that the Dutch and Belgians would succumb to superior German forces, but the fall of France within a matter of just six weeks was, as the historian Marc Bloch said, a ‘strange defeat’. Even without the support of the British Expeditionary Force, the French forces were superior on paper, an advantage that ought to have been magnified by their fighting a defensive campaign.
* Fuller had been the mastermind behind the British tank offensive at Cambrai in 1917. His frustration with the British Establishment led him to support Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.