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How Hitler's Blitzkrieg Tactic Shocked the Allies in WWII

Rotterdam in ruins
Rotterdam, Holland, lies in ruins one hour after heavy German bombardment, during the Nazi blitzkrieg across the Low Countries of Europe. Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Starting with Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler's military machine pulled off a string of stunning victories at the start of World War II, perhaps none as shocking as Germany's utter trouncing of France in 1940.

"France is basically defeated in the first 10 days of the war," says Robert Kirchubel, a military historian with Purdue University's FORCES initiative and author of "Atlas of the Blitzkrieg: 1939-1941." "This is a country that had lasted four years against Germany a generation ago in World War I. Now it's all over in a little less than two weeks."

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The reason for Hitler's spectacular early success in WWII was a brazen new style of warfare known as Blitzkrieg, a combination of the German words for "lightning" (blitz) and "war" (krieg) coined by Western journalists who were floored by the speed and ferocity of the Nazi attack.

"The Blitzkrieg shocked the world," says Kirchubel, "that an enemy army could be defeated so quickly and that nobody seemingly had a counter for it."

Painful Lessons from World War I

Nearly 2 million German soldiers were killed during World War I, primarily as casualties of an agonizingly slow style of fighting known as trench warfare. In the first battles of WWI, all sides suffered such devastating losses from artillery, machine guns and other modern weapons that they resorted to digging long trenches in the battlefield for protection. The mud-filled, rat-infested trenches became the closest thing to hell on earth for these soldiers.

One of the longest and deadliest examples of trench warfare was the 141-day Battle of the Somme, in which the British, French and German armies suffered more than a million combined casualties.

Every nation that fought in WWI vowed to never fight in another miserable trench, but they each had different ideas for how to achieve it, says Kirchubel. During the interwar years, the British invested heavily in aircraft technology, planning to fly over trenches and bomb the enemy at home. The French decided to build a more permanent and fortified version of a trench known as the Maginot Line, a series of 58 underground fortresses constructed along the French-German border in the 1930s.

The German military took a different tack.

"The Germans said, 'We're going to blast through the trench with this new technique,'" Kirchubel says.

What's a Blitzkrieg Attack?

The philosophy of Blitzkrieg is to hit the enemy hard where it's the weakest and attack with three components of the military at once: armored tanks, infantry and air bombardment.

"With Blitzkrieg, your armor would always be the spearhead — the tanks would always be at the front." says Martin King, an Emmy-winning military historian and author of several excellent books on WWII. "The infantry would come up behind, normally in half-trucks and trucks. As soon as the armor engaged, the Stukas and the Messerschmitts (German bombers and fighter planes) would come in flying low and basically decimate the opponents."

Kirchubel says that Blitzkrieg was inspired by old-school Prussian ideas of indirect warfare — not fighting the opponent "strength against strength," but exploiting weaknesses instead. To compare warfare to a boxing match, Blitzkrieg is the one-two punch that quickly knocks your opponent to the mat, not a drawn-out, 12-round decision.

"Blitzkrieg was fast, it was furious, it was accurate and it did the job," says King.

A key component of Blitzkrieg was a flexible command-and-control structure within the German army. Early in the war, Hitler had full faith in his generals, especially Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, so the Fuhrer didn't have to personally authorize every attack plan. In turn, those generals delegated authority in battle to lower-ranking field officers so they could quickly react to changing conditions on the ground.

German tanks, which were inferior in many ways to the French Renault tanks, came with one important technological upgrade — a two-way radio. Tank commanders not only received orders, but passed critical battlefield info back up the chain of command.

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blitzkrieg cartoon
This 1940 newspaper cartoon shows the Blitzkrieg of Adolf Hitler in France and Denmark. SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"The perfect example of the Blitzkrieg was the Western campaign in 1940," says Kirchubel, referring to the Nazi invasion of France and the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. "The Germans did everything right and the Allies did everything wrong."

France had a standing army of 800,000 men and was regarded as the strongest military force in Europe. But their philosophy of warfare was stuck in WWI. The French put all of their faith in the fortified Maginot Line as an unbreakable trench-like defense against a large-scale German invasion.

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But the Germans identified a point of weakness, a poorly defended stretch of Belgian-German border that ran through the dense Ardennes forest. To the French, a tank attack through the Ardennes would have seemed hopelessly risky, but the Blitzkrieg was all about taking risks.

"It was the German Blitzkrieg against the French 'methodical battle,' which is what the French called their technique," says Kirchubel. "There are no two more completely opposite ways of fighting a war. It's like watching a wildlife show when the lioness starts chasing the impala. There was only one possible outcome."

Less than six weeks after Hitler's tanks rolled through the Ardennes, the new French premier Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, signed an armistice treaty surrendering three-fifths of French territory to the Nazis.

Blitzkrieg Meets the Soviet Army

After his successful campaigns in the West, Hitler turned his armies East in June 1941 for a full-on Blitzkrieg attack of the Soviet Union. For four months, the Germans ran roughshod over the Red Army using the same one-two punch of armored tanks, infantry and air support.

But unlike Poland, Norway, France and other armies that hit the mat after taking a Blitzkrieg beating, "the Soviet Union takes three to four hits to the head, but keeps standing up," says Kruchibel.

Blitzkrieg wasn't meant for a months-long siege or years-long war. The pace and intensity of the fighting took too much of a toll on both man and machine. The Soviet Union was too big and its army too large to conquer with the same lightning-war tactics that had shocked Germany's neighbors into submission.

"The Germans started unlearning all the stuff they had learned in France and they started to lose," says Kirchubel. "Part of it is because of the enemy, but part of it is bad decision-making on the part of the Germans."

Hitler's Blitzkrieg effectively died in the Soviet Union and never returned. The Allies quickly developed their own Blitzkrieg tactics. Operation Cobra employed a Blitzkrieg-like shock and awe campaign to finally break through the German lines after the D-Day invasion in 1944.

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