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1st September 1939 Wehrmacht Invades Poland

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1st September  1939 Wehrmacht Invades Poland

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1 September 2008

1st September 1939: Wehrmacht invades Poland, starting the second European war in a generation and introducing the world to a new kind of warfare: blitzkrieg. This form of attack, which helped the Wehrmacht obliterate the Poles in three weeks and the French in only six, relies on rapid mobility and the co-ordination of massed armour and infantry, with fighter planes and dive bombers providing air support. It also depends on the element of surprise, one reason Nazi Germany never declared war prior to invading an enemy.

The concept of blitzkrieg was a matter of adapting 20th century technology especially the tank, the aeroplane and the radio to the age-old tactics of mobile warfare. The Germans were not alone in exploring these possibilities military thinkers like Britain's Basil Liddell Hart and France's Charles de Gaulle also wrote extensively on the subject during the inter-war years but conditions within the German army, and inside Germany itself, made for a more receptive audience.

Heinz Guderian is the acknowledged father of the blitzkrieg. Guderian was a signals officer during World War I, but he studied tank tactics in the early '20s and became a proselytiser for armoured warfare. He later published a study, Achtung Panzer!, that amounted to a blueprint of German blitzkrieg tactics for the next war.

Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, was in the process of rearming the country when he attended a wargaming exercise that combined tanks and motorised infantry. Hitler was impressed by the swiftness and the striking power, and he told Guderian who was running the exercise that this was the army he meant to have.

The tank is the blitzkrieg's decisive weapon. Tactically, the key is to attack en masse rather than committing tanks piecemeal, in an infantry support role, which is what the French did. In Germany, this philosophy led to the creation of the panzer divisions, the world's first truly armoured units.

Heinz Guderian, though only a colonel, was given command of the 2nd Panzer Division in 1935. As a general in World War II, Heinz Guderian commanded the XIX Panzer Corps during the Polish and French campaigns and, later, the Second Panzer Army in Russia. He also served as inspector general of panzer troops and, finally, as chief of the army's general staff.)

The classic blitzkrieg attack unfolds like this:

Air strikes, rather than artillery, open the attack, hitting at key targets such as enemy airfields, communications centre's, rail lines, main roads, supply depots and troop concentrations. Early in the war, the Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bomber was heavily employed in this role.
Artillery zeros in on those points in the enemy line selected for the armoured breakthrough.
When the barrage lifts, massed armour attacks those points (Schwerpunkte in German), tearing gaps in the enemy's line. Tanks, supported by motorised infantry, achieve the breakthrough, driving deep into the enemy's rear areas without stopping to consolidate gains or engage troops on the flanks. The point is to disrupt communications, paralyse command structure and destroy the enemy's ability to mount a co-ordinated counterattack.
Infantry divisions follow up the breakthrough, encircling and mopping up enemy resistance, shoring up the flanks and consolidating the conquered territory.

Success is achieved through surprise and speed, which keeps the enemy off balance. Manoeuvring is co-ordinated through the use of radio, which was used so extensively by the Germans that individual tanks carried their own equipment. The French, by comparison, hardly used radio at all. The French High Command was not even connected by radio to units in the field. Instead, it dispatched orders by motorcycle courier from its headquarters outside of Paris.

Incidentally, the German Wehrmacht never officially used the word blitzkrieg literally, "lightning war" though it did appear in several pre-war German military publications. It came into popular use after turning up in Time magazine's coverage of the Polish invasion.

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