At the start of the Second World War, the German armed forces scored resounding victories - defeating Poland in one month, Denmark and Norway in two months, Belgium in 17 days, Holland in five days and forcing the French to surrender in six weeks. The contrast with the First World War, which saw more than three years of trench warfare, eventually resulting in German defeat, could not be more stark. The radically new operational art of blitzkrieg was widely credited for these successes. The transformational effect of using armour with close air support, coordinated by wireless communications, stressing deep penetration and mobility and based on joint Army and Air Force planning affected all the major armed forces even after World War II. One of the key actors who made blitzkrieg possible was General Heinz Guderian whose fame as a dynamic and effective field commander in Poland and France is matched by his reputation as a maverick who strongly advocated armoured warfare against the doubts of conservatives in the German high command.
Heinz Guderian was born in Kulm, East Prussia, in 1888. His family had a long history of being landed gentry and lawyers but Guderian decided to follow in his father’s footsteps to become an army officer. In the cadet boarding schools, he was subjected to the strictest of Prussian discipline. Though seen as rigid and unbending, this Prussianism also stressed the right and desirability of an officer to express his own considered opinion right up to when an order was actually given. Such a trait of energetic frankness was to be exhibited by Guderian for the rest of his life.
Although he was trained as a light infantry officer, Guderian saw better prospects in signalling where he could build up his professional as well as technical expertise. The introduction of new wireless communications was also an area where Germany was taking the technological lead. He joined the radio company of a telegraph battalion from October 1912 to September 1913. After that, he received his General Staff training in the Berlin War Academy until the outbreak of the First World War where he served with signals units for most of the conflict. His experience was to strongly mould his future concepts of mobile tank warfare when he argued for a wireless set in every tank. This would be necessary to the style of fighting that he envisioned –commanding the battle as close to the front as possible with rapid co-operation from all other arms and a high degree of tactical flexibility among the tanks.
The successful use of tanks by Allied forces, for example in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, deeply impressed Guderian during his retrospective study of the First World War but senior German officers were sceptical because of better anti-tank weaponry and the expense of development costs, and continued to place their faith in cavalry which they regarded as having superior mobility. Guderian was posted to a motor transport battalions where he could experiment with mechanisation with less interference from conservatives concerned with preserving their traditional roles. But even his own commander, General Otto von Stulpnagel, gave him little encouragement, saying that “neither of us will ever see German tanks in operation in our lifetime.”
It was in the 1920s that Guderian built up his expertise on tanks. Because Germany was forbidden from owning tanks by the terms of Versaille Treaty, only a few experimental models were secretly tested in Russia, with the collusion of the Soviet government. It was not until 1929 that Guderian first got into a tank during a visit to Sweden. In lieu of actual experience, Guderian learnt from the experiences of others by reading voraciously. He delved into detailed historical study of the use of tanks in the First World War as well as the exercises of the British Experimental Mechanical Force of 1927. He also read theoretical and doctrinal works by British and French officers, including Ernest Swinton, JFC Fuller, Giffard de Quesne Martel and the then-obscure Charles de Gaulle. Wargaming, initially using tank dummies with canvas or sheet metal bodies, was also carried out.
Teaching and writing also helped Guderian to consolidate, develop and disseminate his ideas. From 1924-27, he instructed transport corps officers in military history and tactics and won such acclaim that he was transferred to the War Ministry as a lecturer on transport until 1930. From 1924 to 1935, in the Prussian tradition of an educated officer, he also expounded his military thought in numerous articles in military journals and magazines. Among the key concepts that crystallised in his mind in the 1930s was that the speed of the attack should be predicated on the speed of the tank, with the implication that armoured divisions with their own organic mechanised infantry, artillery and engineer units should be formed. This blatantly contradicted conventional wisdom held by the senior generals that the speed of any attack should be tied to the infantry’s rate of advance with tank formations being no larger than brigade strength and acting as an infantry support platform.
Against resistance from the Chief of the General Staff, Beck, and the cavalry arm, Guderain and his superior, General Lutz, successfully pushed through the initial formation of three Panzer (literally, “coat of mail”) divisions, which can be seen as the precursor of the Combined Arms Division, in 1934. While Lutz was the senior officer, Guderian was considered the intellectual driving force behind the Panzer idea, who had won followers, laid down the main training doctrines, command and control procedures, logistical systems and coordinated with industrial suppliers. His book, Achtung - Panzer!, was published in 1937. It served as the tank advocates’ spearhead in the battle for intellectual and institutional legitimacy when various arms were fighting for their share of resources in German rearmament. The positive results of the 1937 autumn manoeuvres also helped to prove that the Panzer division was a viable fighting force. Despite continued scepticism from the army leadership, Guderian’s ideas found favour with Hitler who was seeking the means for quick victory and avoidance of a two front war. He was finally promoted to General of Panzer Troops and Chief of Mobile Troops, and was given a direct reporting line to Hitler.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland proved to be the Panzer divisions’ first test in battle, after the nearly bloodless annexations of Austria, the Sudentenland and Czechoslovakia where the tanks had merely taken part in a show of strength. The Panzers, together with overwhelming air superiority, allowed the Germans to swiftly overcome fierce but confused Polish resistance. Poland’s situation had been further exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s attack on the East. Hitler and the hitherto sceptical General Staff were surprised and overjoyed at the apparent ease of victory. However, Guderian also garnered valuable lessons from the Polish campaign, such as the need to replace the Panzer I and II with models that were more heavily armed and armoured as well as better organisation and direction of fuel supply columns and field maintenance units. The unsatisfactory performance of the four Light armour divisions, whose formation had earlier been insisted on by the General Staff, also gave Guderian strong grounds to have them converted into full Panzer divisions. Thus, by the eve of the Battle of France, Guderian had put together ten Panzer divisions.
The Battle of France was to be Guderian’s crowning glory. He supported General von Manstein’s proposal to send the Panzer divisions across the forested Ardennes, and was instrumental in its energetic execution after the Manstein plan was eventually endorsed by Hitler. Having achieved complete surprise over the Allies, the Panzers broke through the French lines and Guderian, now a Corps Commander, kept up the momentum of his advance in the absence of any direct orders of what to do after the breakthrough had been achieved. The French and British actually had superior numbers and quality of tanks and artillery but squandered this advantage by committing them in a piecemeal and uncoordinated manner. The stunning rapidity of Guderian’s advance and the increasing vulnerability of his flanks made Hitler so nervous that he ordered the Panzers to halt just short of Dunkirk, thus allowing the bulk of the British forces to escape. Nonetheless, after the offensive was resumed, the French were already psychologically shattered and the Allied toll stood at 300,000 dead and two million captured.
In 1941, Guderian was given command of the 2nd Panzer Army for Operation Barbarossa - the attack on the Soviet Union. After initial successes in enveloping and destroying large numbers of Soviet forces, the offensive eventually bogged down in the face of improved Russian leadership and the deployment of large armour formations, with advanced tanks such as the KV1 and T34s. The onset of winter also exposed the inadequacies of German preparations. Finally in December 1941, under intense Russian pressure, Guderian conducted a retrograde strategic withdrawal in defiance of Hitler’s orders and was relieved of his command. Guderian spent a relatively uneventful two and a half years, the former half unemployed and the latter half as Inspector General of Armoured Troops. In the aftermath of the 20 July 1944 bomb plot to assassinate Hitler, Guderian was appointed Chief of the Army General Staff where he oversaw an increasingly desperate situation until he dismissed in March 1945 after a string of heated disagreements with Hitler over strategic and operational issues. After unconditional surrender was declared on 28 Mar 1945, Guderian entered American captivity. He was a prisoner of war until June 1948 and was eventually not charged with any war crimes. His book, Panzer Leader, was published in 1952 and serves a valuable record of the build up, deployment and eventual collapse of the Panzer forces as well as an autobiography of the “father of the Panzer divisions. Shortly afterwards, his health declined rapidly and he died on 17 May 1954.
Guderian was a rare officer who was both a man of ideas and a man of action. Through diligent study and experimentation, he gained insights into armoured warfare and proceeded to push for the implementation of his maverick ideas against scepticism and resistance
from conservatives and entrenched interests above him. Drawing on the doctrinal, command and logistical systems that he was instrumental to building up, Guderian then realised his vision with success in the field of battle where also clashed with superior commanders who could not adapt to his battle style of concentration and movement. However, ironically, the success of his Panzer divisions may have helped to inspire the Nazi leadership’s over-confidence and to feed Hitler’s megalomania. His ideas were also effectively copied by Germany’s opponents and executed by able generals such as Britain’s Montgomery, America’s Patton and the Soviet Union’s Zhukov who were also backed with tremendous industrial resources. In the final analysis, the gains of Guderian’s trans-formational efforts were whittled away by geopolitical realities and squandered by an incompetent political leadership.
Heinz Guderian, trs by Christopher Duffy, Achtung-Panzer!: The Development of Armoured Forces, Their Tactics and Operational Potential (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992)
Heinz Guderian, trs by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Panzer Leader (London: Michael Joseph, 1952)
Kenneth Macksey, Guderian: Panzer General (London: MacDonald and Jane’s, 1975)