“Lightning War”: The Father of the Nazi Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg. The word conjures up terrifying images of the Nazi war machine crushing their European neighbors. Luftwaffe bombers pounded the enemy from the air, the first paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines, and incredibly mobile mechanized forces, commanded by notables such as Erwin Rommel, defeated their opponents through brilliant combinations of speed, surgical strikes, and devastating power.

Throughout the early years of World War II, the blitzkrieg was an astounding success for Germany, and Adolf Hitler loved to credit himself for the Nazi’s rapid victories rather than the innovator of “lightning war.” Hitler, however, had nothing to do with the development of the blitzkrieg, and the doctrine that underpinned blitzkrieg did not magically appear on the Fuhrer’s desk during an intense thunderstorm one night in 1936 (whatever he might have wished).

Adolf Hitler, Looking Surprised in 1943. Dragon Report

In short, the word blitzkrieg describes a strategic series of short, decisive battles that overwhelm an enemy state before it mobilizes. This means crushing the enemy through overwhelming combat power with incredibly mobile, and finely coordinated, mechanized units in a surgical campaign that demoralizes and utterly destroys an opponent’s ability and will to fight. Germany’s military combined these principles in maestro-like fashion, and the innovator responsible for developing “lightning war” into a doctrine that militaries still utilize was named Heinz Guderian.

Born in 1888, Heinz Guderian belonged to a military family. His father, Friedrich, was an officer in the vaunted Prussian army, and both Heinz and his brother Fritz followed him into the military. They attended cadet schools together, but Heinz graduated ahead of his younger brother, and earned his commission in the German Jaegers (light infantry) in 1908 after attending the War School in Metz.

Guderian was an intelligent and capable young officer driven by powerful ambitions, and he diligently studied military tactics, theories, and evolving technologies, such as the new radio-signal equipment. His work earned Guderian a coveted place at Berlin’s War Academy, and he developed a tactical reputation for intently studying his enemy before devastating their forces with rapid attacks.

Guderian’s education was interrupted when World War I engulfed Europe. His experience with radio equipment, however, kept Guderian from the battlefield, and he served in the communications division throughout most of the war. The work was arduous and poorly understood by the high command, but Guderian grasped what his superiors did not.

Radio allowed him to develop a coherent tactical picture of a battle, and an able commander could redirect troops to seize fleeting opportunities, or avoid disaster, in a way never thought of before. Guderian’s realization (and fascination with the new tanks) laid the foundation for his future theories, and the reports describing the visceral carnage that poured in from the stalemate at the front convinced the young officer that war was due for a makeover.

Guderian’s work in communications did not go unnoticed, and, after a brief stint in intelligence, he was appointed to the General Staff Corps on February 28, 1918. This was a short-lived post for Guderian, and ended shortly after Germany agreed to an armistice on November 11, 1918. The surrender infuriated Guderian, and, like many other Germans, he felt betrayed by the German government for capitulating to the Allies.