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In military history, Blitzkrieg, from the German lightning war, describes a military tactic used by the German army at the beginning of World War II, where rapid and unrestricted movement of troops allows no time for the opposition to set up a stable defense. In 2003, the term effects-based warfare and rapid dominance were introduced to describe a modernized version of Blitzkrieg.
Blitzkrieg was a fast and open style of warfare, heavily reliant on new technologies. First aircraft were used as long-range artillery to destroy enemy strongholds, attack troop concentrations, and spread panic. Then combined arms forces of tanks and motorised infantry coordinated by two-way radio destroyed tactical targets before moving on, deep into enemy territory. A key difference to previous tactical models was the devolution of command. Fairly junior officers in the field were encouraged to use their own initiative, rather than rely on a centralised command structure.
The strategy was developed as a reaction to the static attrition of trench warfare during World War I and became practical in the early 1930s, due to the increasing power and reliability of the internal combustion engine, and the invention of the portable radio which allowed for coordination of attacks. A number of military figures in several nations realized that static warfare was an outmoded concept and could be defeated by concentrating forces on a narrow point in a fast thrust.
The key to Blitzkrieg was to organize the troops into mobile forces with excellent communications and command, able to keep the momentum up while the battle unfolded. The basic concept was to concentrate all available forces at a single spot in front of the enemy lines, and then break a hole in it with artillery and infantry, easy enough to do even in World War I. Once the hole was opened, tanks could rush through and strike hundreds of miles to the rear. This allowed the attacking force to fight against lightly armed logistics units, starving the enemy of information and supplies. In this way even a small force could destroy a much larger one through confusion, avoiding direct combat as much as possible.
Precursors and Successors
Although trumpeted as a truly modern style of war, Blitzkrieg's theoretical basis was almost as old as war itself. Similar strategies were employed by Alexander the Great in classical times; Napoleon was a master of them; and they were used on a smaller scale by both sides in the closing stages of World War I. Germany itself had a long tradition of using deep penetration tactics: in the Franco-Prussian War the Prussian army, knowing that the French could field larger forces, devised a war plan that relied on speed. If, on declaration of war, they could mobilise, invade and seize Paris fast enough, then they would be victorious before the vast French army could form and retaliate. This tactic was used to devastating effect in 1871, and was developed into the Schlieffen Plan, which was used at the start of World War I and very nearly succeeded. (See trench warfare and Battle of the Marne.)
The military doctrine of Rapid Dominance or shock and awe is considered by some a modern successor to Blitzkrieg. Rapid Dominance is a primarily air-based doctrine that strikes at enemy command and control structures.
Use in World War II
In the early part of World War II, Blitzkrieg was put into practice only by Germany. By the late 1930s they had re-organized their Army to include a number of elite Panzergruppen, divisions consisting almost entirely of tanks, infantry in half-track armored personal carriers and trucks to supply them. To this they had added a new weapon, the dive bomber (specifically the Junkers Ju 87) to replace artillery and allow for "breakthrough" attacks even far behind the lines.
The theory was first put to use against Poland, where it proved effective although mechanization of the troops at the time was limited. It demonstrated its true worth in 1940 against France, when a small force of panzers broke through the defensive lines and rushed to the coast before the defending forces could organize any sort of counterattack.
The term Blitzkrieg is mainly used to describe German tactics in the first part of the European war, however the general tactic was certainly not unique to them, and was used whenever the opportunity presented itself, notably by the forces under the command of General Patton in the exploitation of the breakout from Normandy, and (in modified form) by the Japanese in their rapid advance during 1941 and 1942 (where sea transport, light artillery, and hard marching largely substituted for the tank and the truck).
Problems with Blitzkrieg
Blitzkrieg is not without its disadvantages; there is a real danger of the attacking force overextending its supply lines, and the strategy as a whole can be defeated by a determined foe who is willing to sacrifice territory for time in which to regroup and rearm, as was seen in the Operation Barbarossa campaign of 1941. Although the attack took huge areas of Russia, the overall strategic effect was more limited and the Red Army was able to regroup far to the rear, and eventually defeat the German forces several years later.
Common interpretation of "Blitzkrieg"
The classic interpretation of German tactical and operational methodology in the first half of the Second World War is deemed to be that it was a new method of warfare. The word, meaning "lightning war", was associated with a deliberate strategy of quick and decisive short battles to deliver a knock out blow to an enemy state before it could fully mobilize. To do this the economy would not be fully mobilised to avoid disruption to civilian life as much as possible. Instead "superior" armaments and communications would achieve victory on the basis of quality rather than quantity. The method of this so-called "Blitzkrieg strategy", was to use fifth columnists behind enemy lines to disrupt enemy communications which would be followed by massive air strikes to paralyze enemy movement and defenses. The next phase of the assault envisaged an attack by a fully motorised and mechanized army which would initiate deep thrusts into the defenders strategic depths with the aim of encircling the main forces and destroying them to achieve a rapid, decisive victory.
Opposition to the existence of "Blitzkrieg"
The position of most academic literature regards Blitzkrieg as a myth. The notion the the Third Reich developed a Blitzkrieg strategy to achieve its total aims has been widely attacked.
Historians Shimon Naveh and Richard Overy reject the idea that "Blitzkrieg" was a military doctrine. Naveh states, "The striking feature of the Blitzkrieg concept is the complete absence of a coherent theory which should have served as the general cognitive basis for the actual conduct of operations". Naveh described it as an "ad hoc solution" to operational dangers, thrown together at the last moment.
Richard Overy also rejected the idea that Hitler and the Nazi regime ever intended a "Blitzkrieg" war. The suggestion that the German state intentionally streamlined its economy to carry out its grand strategy in a series of short campaigns in the near future was false. In fact Hitler intended to start an unlimited war, at a much later date than 1939. But the Third Reich's foreign policy had forced the Nazi state into war before it had fully prepared. Hitler's, and the Wehrmacht's planning attitudes during the 1930s do not reflect a "Blitzkrieg" method, but the exact opposite.
Historian J. P Harris has pointed out that the Germans never used the word "Blitzkrieg". It was never used in any German military field manual, either in the Army or the Air Force. It first appeared in September 1939, by a Times newspaper reporter. Harris also rejects that German military thinking developed any kind of "Blitzkrieg" mentality.
In his book the Blitzkrieg Legend, German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser also shares Overy's and Naveh's concerns over the myth of the "Blitzkrieg" economic and strategy. Moreover Frieser states that surviving German economists and members of the German General Staff have denied Germany went to war based on a Blitzkrieg strategy.