For Colonel Heinz Guderian and other German officers whose careers spanned the tumultuous period between the two world wars, the death of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, marked the end of an era. A war hero who overcame defeat by the Allies in 1918 to win election as president, Hindenburg was reduced to a figurehead by Adolf Hitler, who abolished his office when he died and assumed his role as commander in chief. Officers would now have to swear allegiance to a former corporal who distrusted military leaders and feared they might thwart his efforts to remake the armed forces and restore Germany to greatness.
Even innovators like Guderian, who had impressed Hitler earlier in the year by demonstrating how tanks could break through enemy lines, had qualms about submitting to a supreme commander with no command experience, whose plans for rearmament defied strict limits imposed by the Allies at Versailles. “Tomorrow we swear the oath to Hitler. An oath heavy with consequence!” Guderian wrote his wife. “The army is accustomed to keep its oaths. May the army be able, in honor, to do so this time.”
Guderian’s pledge to obey the Nazi leader proved fateful for him and for the nation he served. He and the 45-year-old Hitler were contemporaries, born 10 months apart, and were united in opposing the Versailles Treaty, which carved up the powerful state of Prussia—Guderian’s homeland and the heart of the old German empire—and ceded part of it to Poland. Guderian favored Hitler’s plan for a resurgent German empire, known as the Third Reich, and shared his enthusiasm for new weapons and tactics. Only belatedly would he recognize that Hitler’s dictatorial ways threatened German military traditions and spelled disaster.
The German army had recently gained a formidable reputation for its astute General Staff, which examined past conflicts and planned future campaigns through rigorous analysis and debate, and for an officer corps noted for the drive and initiative it displayed in battle. In years soon to come, it would draw on those strengths and launch the modern era of mechanized warfare through a tactic that became known as blitzkrieg—literally “lightning war”—involving quick, deep strikes into enemy territory, spearheaded by armor with close air support. But honor would prove fleeting for Guderian and his colleagues as the dynamic tactics that brought them swift victory over France in 1940 inflated the strategic objectives of the leader they swore to follow. They succeeded in harnessing lightning, only to see Hitler let it loose in explosive struggles against superior powers that left Germany in ruins.
Eager and ambitious, Guderian saw Hitler’s rise as an opportunity and sought his support for the creation of an independent panzer force that would lead Germany to swift victories in the next war. In promoting and developing this armored force, Guderian was guided by his commander, General Oswald Lutz, and by his training as a signals officer, which taught him that reliable radio communications were crucial to the effectiveness of armor.
Without radio, tanks could clear the way for advances by foot soldiers, as they did during World War I. But tank commanders could not exploit their mobility and drive deep into enemy territory unless they were in radio contact with other elements of the panzer force Guderian and Lutz envisioned, which included motorized infantry, artillery and reconnaissance units. The goal was to free this mobile force from reliance on troops advancing on foot and make sudden, rapier-like armored thrusts that would paralyze the opposition. Lacking such capacity, Guderian warned, the army must “give up all hope of quick decisions in the future” and resign itself to sluggish, brutal combat like the trench warfare that exhausted Germany’s resources in the last war.
Anything that promised quick victory was of keen interest to Hitler, whose military ambitions exceeded the nation’s productive capacity. After Guderian demonstrated panzer tactics to him on the army training ground in early 1934, he felt he’d gained a champion in Hitler. The then-chancellor was much taken “by the speed and precision of movement of our units,” Guderian recalled, “and said repeatedly, ‘That’s what I need!’” Hitler could not afford everything he wanted, however, and the army and its budding panzer divisions had to vie with the navy and Luftwaffe for funding and materiel. By his own estimate, it would take 10 years to prepare Germany for war.
Hitler could not resist the opportunities for expansion that arose along Germany’s borders in the late 1930s, however. As conflict loomed, commanders had to make do with the weapons at their disposal. Guderian was not yet fully equipped to serve as Hitler’s armored fist. The prototypical German tank, the Panzerkampfwagen Mk. I, had armor barely a half-inch thick and carried just two machine guns in its turret, making it no match for heavier models produced by rivals such as France and the Soviet Union. Bigger battle wagons were in production such as the Pzkw Mk. IV, which was armed with a 75mm cannon, but even the heftiest tanks would be sitting ducks if they broke down or ran short of fuel, as many did when Hitler occupied Austria in 1938. Guderian responded by instituting a painstaking system of supply and maintenance that allowed his panzers to advance faster and farther than skeptics believed possible.
As war approached, skepticism about what an armored force could achieve in battle persisted at high levels in Germany and prevailed in France and Great Britain, where officers were well aware of what Guderian had in mind. He had learned much from the writings of J.F.C. Fuller, a British tank commander who pioneered attacks by massed armor in World War I, and had recently revealed his own tactical thinking in a 1937 training manual titled Achtung! Panzer! The doctrine Guderian espoused had outspoken proponents abroad such as Fuller and French Colonel Charles de Gaulle. But only in Germany did it receive sufficient support to give armor a leading role in battle plans. Britain and France were thinking defensively and put more trust in natural barriers like the English Channel or man-made ones like the Maginot Line, the network of defensive fortifications along France’s border with Germany, than in the offensive potential of tanks.
Germany had its own fortified line—the West Wall facing France—but its military leaders, in confronting potential enemies on both flanks, sought to avoid a prolonged struggle on two fronts by developing plans of attack that stressed speed and surprise above everything else. “Considering our geopolitical position,” one German strategist declared, “we must always aim for a short war and lightning-like decisions.”
That tendency worked to Guderian’s advantage, as did the Versailles Treaty, which restricted Germany to a 100,000-man army and forced many older officers into retirement before Hitler defied the treaty and expanded his forces. On the eve of World War II, the German officer corps was younger and more receptive to new ideas and technologies than its counterpart in France.
Contrary to the stereotype of the German soldier as a man who simply followed orders, German officers expressed their opinions freely to superiors, had wide latitude in fulfilling their assigned missions, and were encouraged to lead from the front—all of which suited Guderian’s conception of armored warfare as fast moving and free wheeling. “Once armored formations are out on the loose,” he insisted, “they must be given the green light to the very end of the road.” Support from Hitler helped Guderian and those who shared his views overcome official skepticism and refine their doctrine by combining massive armored thrusts with air strikes to produce the convulsive effect that is known today as “shock and awe.”
Some journalists and historians hailed the German conquest of Poland that launched World War II in September 1939 as a blitzkrieg, but much of that campaign was conducted conventionally, by artillery and infantry advancing on foot with horse-drawn vehicles. Operations that took advantage of more sophisticated military hardware contributed to the outcome, including an aerial blitz by the Luftwaffe that neutralized the Polish air force and an impressive drive by General Guderian’s XIX Corps, consisting of one panzer division and two motorized infantry divisions. But the Polish campaign was not revolutionary. Not until the battle for France unfolded in 1940 did the Germans concentrate their armor at the Schwerpunkt, or “main point of effort,” and achieve a breakthrough of historic proportions.
The original plan for that campaign, drawn up in late 1939, called for the army to make a big push from the northeast, down through Belgium into coastal France, much as it had at the start of World War I. “You won’t get away with an operation like that twice running,” Hitler told his chiefs. But they’d put forward the predictable scheme partly to buy time and keep their Führer, known for being impulsive, from launching an offensive too soon. Any thought of proceeding with the plan was abandoned in January 1940, when a plane carrying German staff officers crash-landed in Belgium, a neutral nation leaning toward France and Britain, and documents revealing their intentions fell into French hands.
Hitler demanded a new approach, based on “secrecy and surprise.” The result was Operation Sickle Cut, a bold alternative devised by General Erich von Manstein with input from Guderian. Manstein’s idea was to draw French and British forces northward into Belgium and Holland by staging convincing attacks there, while the main thrust unfolded to the south, around Luxembourg. That meant advancing through the Ardennes, a forested region with few roads, considered impassable by tanks. Guderian knew the area well, however, and felt sure panzers could get through so long as the Luftwaffe shielded them from Allied air raids. Beyond lay the French border and the Meuse River, flanked on the far side by an extension of the Maginot Line that was under construction. Once they had broken through that barrier, panzers would sweep westward across France like a scythe until they reached the Channel, cutting off Allied forces to their north.
The success of this plan depended on concentration and coordination. The French had more tanks than the Germans did, but most were dispersed along the front in support of infantry, and they had few reliable radios. By contrast, the Germans placed seven of their 10 armored divisions at the forefront of Army Group A, which would make the big push across the Meuse while Army Group B preoccupied the Allies to the north and Army Group C kept French forces pinned down behind the Maginot Line to the south. Guderian, whose corps now boasted three panzer divisions, would cross the Meuse at Sedan—the site of a crushing German victory over France in 1870—while other panzer leaders, including the hard-driving Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel, would cross nearby.
Guderian hoped they’d be given a green light once they breached enemy defenses, but that remained to be seen. General Franz Halder, the army’s chief of staff, expected that panzer forces, after securing bridgeheads across the Meuse, would wait for the bulk of the army to catch up before launching a “properly marshaled attack in mass.” Guderian argued against that cautious approach, urging that panzers be allowed to exploit breakthroughs without delay and “drive a wedge so deep and wide that we need not worry about our flanks.” He soon won Halder over. But would Hitler, a former infantryman who believed in securing his flanks, prove daring enough as supreme commander to see this high-stakes gamble through to a triumphant conclusion?
On May 10, 1940, German troops launched conspicuous attacks in Holland and Belgium to draw French troops and the British Expeditionary Force northward into the trap while panzers advanced through the Ardennes. Intended to be furtive, that advance resulted in massive traffic jams, with vehicles clogging the roads for more than 100 miles between the German border and the Meuse River. Tank commanders looked anxiously aloft for Allied warplanes. One officer wrote that his strung-out panzer division presented an ideal target as it moved “slowly forward on a single road. But we could not spot a single French reconnaissance aircraft.” Quick work by the Luftwaffe destroyed many Allied planes on the ground and kept those that took off from detecting the advance by Army Group A before it gained momentum. Anticipating a long war, the French had removed hundreds of military aircraft to runways far from Germany, where they escaped harm but did nothing to deter this developing blitzkrieg.
Guderian had promised to reach the Meuse in four days. He got there in three. His attack at Sedan began on May 13, 1940, with a thunderous air raid by the Luftwaffe that did little damage to the bunkers across the Meuse but unnerved the defenders. A French lieutenant there recalled the maddening sound of Stuka dive bombers swooping down with sirens howling. The noise “drills into your ear and tears at your nerves,” he wrote. “You feel as if you want to scream and roar.”
Toward evening, Guderian sent infantry and engineers across the river in inflatable rafts to blast defenders out of their bunkers and construct pontoon bridges for the tanks and other vehicles. Many of the French units holding the unfinished extension of the Maginot Line in this sector were little more than construction crews and lacked combat training. Their opponents, by contrast, had drilled meticulously for this operation in Germany by crossing the Mosel River under live fire. By nightfall, the defenders were retreating in droves, clogging roads and spreading panic. “Tanks are following us!” they shouted, although no tanks would in fact cross the Meuse before daybreak. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Henri-Jean Lafontaine, wasted precious hours that night shifting his command post rearward and seeking detailed orders from superiors. By the time he counterattacked the next morning, Guderian—who habitually led from the front and made snap decisions—had enough armor and artillery across the river to repulse the belated French challenge and secure his bridgehead.
Guderian then overcame objections from superiors, who wanted to consolidate forces at Sedan before advancing, and pushed ahead with two panzer divisions, leaving a third behind to defend the bridgehead. He was taking a big risk, for Allied warplanes were swarming over the Meuse, and the French were massing heavy armor at Stonne, south of Sedan. Between May 15 and 17, Stonne changed hands more than a dozen times as panzers battled in the streets with hulking French Char B heavy tanks, so thickly armored that shells bounced off them like buckshot. Those gas guzzlers could not operate long without refueling, however, and few had functioning radios. Many eventually fell prey to lighter but more maneuverable panzers and to German artillery, including fearsome 88mm anti-aircraft guns that doubled as tank killers with their barrels lowered. The French were defeated at Stonne, and a spirited effort by Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Fourth Armored Division to halt Guderian at Montcornet, west of Sedan, failed as well. “A few of his tanks succeeded in penetrating to within a mile of my advanced headquarters,” Guderian observed, but de Gaulle’s lonely bid faltered for lack of support.
Operation Sickle Cut was succeeding beyond expectations. To Guderian, it was “almost a miracle,” and others up front felt equally confident. To some at headquarters, however, the relative ease of victory seemed too good to be true. Surely the Allies would make concerted efforts from the north and south to pinch off the advancing panzer columns before they reached the Channel.
What German chiefs did not know was that their stunning breakthrough had spread despair and defeatism not just among defenders along the Meuse but all the way up the chain of command. When General Alphonse-Joseph Georges, commanding French forces at the northern end of the front, learned that the enemy had punched through at Sedan, he “flung himself into a chair and burst into tears,” one officer recalled. “He was the first man I had seen weep during this campaign. Alas, there were to be others.” Georges regained his composure, but he and his fellow chiefs never regained the initiative. Their supreme commander, General Maurice Gamelin, had committed the bulk of his reserves to stop what he assumed was the main German thrust to the north and had completely lost hope, declaring that the French army was “finished.”
It was left to commanders at lower levels like de Gaulle to mount isolated counterattacks. One such assault by British armor, launched against the right flank of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division as it neared the French coast on May 21, was repulsed at some cost and rattled Hitler, who was not reassured when Rommel, overstating the threat, reported fighting off “hundreds of enemy tanks.”
On May 24, fearing that his fast-advancing armor might be cut off by a pincer movement, Hitler upheld an order by General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, halting the panzers within 10 miles of Dunkirk, where Allied forces were assembling for evacuation across the Channel. Von Rundstedt wanted to give trailing infantry divisions time to close up with panzer columns and protect their flanks. But his superiors, Chief of Staff Halder and Commanding General Walther von Brauchitsch, were convinced the Allies were beaten and urged Hitler to lift the order. In a stinging rebuke to the army chiefs, Hitler left the decision to their subordinate von Rundstedt, who did not give the panzers the go-ahead until May 26. By then, the Allies had bolstered their defenses at Dunkirk, where they held out long enough for nearly 340,000 troops to be evacuated by sea, including most of the British Expeditionary Force.
Although the British narrowly escaped disaster at Dunkirk, Operation Sickle Cut doomed France by stranding more than 1 million Allied troops in Belgium and eliminating them from the final phase of the campaign, which ended in June with the occupation of Paris and French surrender.
Yet this staggering triumph proved far more instructive for the losers than the winners. Germany’s foes were quick to adopt mechanized tactics and defensive measures such as deploying anti-aircraft guns against tanks. Hitler, by contrast, ignored the cautionary lessons of a contest that was far closer than it appeared.
If the Allies had better coordinated their efforts and concentrated more firepower at Sedan or Stonne or Montcarnet, they might have stopped the Germans in their tracks and forced them into a prolonged struggle for which they were ill-prepared. Intoxicated with success, Hitler came away thinking of blitzkrieg as a strategic silver bullet that could puncture the defenses of great powers and bring them to their knees within months. This grandiose blitzkrieg strategy did not develop until after the French campaign, concludes the German military historian Karl-Heinz Frieser in his revealing book, The Blitzkrieg Legend: “It was not the cause but rather the consequence of the victory.”
After failing to defeat Britain later in 1940 with an aerial blitz that exposed Germany to strategic bombing in return, Hitler made plans to break his nonaggression pact with Josef Stalin and invade the Soviet Union. In so doing, he took the risk of inviting war on more than one front, for the British were taking on Axis forces in North Africa and hoped one day to invade occupied France.
That was a nightmare scenario for the German army, yet few officers at high levels openly questioned the wisdom of invading Russia. Many shared the belief that no theater was too vast to be dominated by their fast-moving forces. Ultimately, they would lose both the war and their honor in Russia, where generals became enmeshed in Hitler’s murderous campaign against Jews and other targeted groups, carried out by special forces called Einsatzgruppen that operated in conjunction with the army. Guderian’s claim that he knew nothing of such atrocities as he led his Panzergruppe 2 toward Moscow in late 1941 conflicts with reports from those responsible for the killings that they had “no difficulties” securing cooperation from commanders in his sector.
If he somehow had escaped knowledge of the death squads, Guderian surely knew by this time that Hitler was not a leader he could follow in good faith. Spirited debate had long been part of the army’s decision-making process, but Hitler would not tolerate dissent or a free exchange of ideas. “Everybody is scared of the Führer and nobody dares say anything,” Guderian wrote his wife as the fateful Russian campaign unfolded. Rapid advances by panzers over the summer gave way to agonizing delays and fitful progress amid worsening weather and mounting resistance.
In December, facing intense cold and a blistering Soviet counterattack, Guderian defied a standfast order from Hitler and pulled his Panzergruppe 2 back from within 100 miles of Moscow to a more defensible position. After being relieved of command for insubordination, he was approached by German officers who were plotting against Hitler but declined to join them. He would not break his oath to the Führer and, in late 1944, became acting chief of staff as Hitler’s disastrous blitzkrieg strategy unraveled and defeat loomed.
“Such was Germany’s dictator,” Guderian wrote afterward, “a man going on in solitary haste from success to success and then pressing on from failure to failure, his head full of his stupendous plans, clinging ever more frantically to the last vanishing prospects of victory, identifying himself ever more with his country.” In the end, Hitler brought that country and its once-mighty armed forces down with him.
This article by Stephen Hyslop was originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to World War II magazine today!