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15 minutes | Blitzkrieg | Language | Guderian | TIME Magazine

Blitzkrieg—lightning war—is a compound German word, bringing to life the concept of rapid military assault and obliteration of an opposing force. With the exception of a few language weirdos who wobble their eyes and start drooling over etymological nit-picks like this [doffs cap, takes a bow], it’s generally accepted the term ‘blitzkrieg’ was first used by an unattributed journalist working for TIME Magazine—except, it wasn’t.

Is this misconception about the source of a word important? Yes. Why? Because this mot faux pas in particular distorts our understanding of the landscape in which the second world war evolved. As a doctrine, ‘blitzkrieg’ was not honed, clinically, in the minds of German military heavyweights. They did not issue a manual to their troops with, ‘The Art of Blitzkrieg, A Step by Step Guide’ as Chapter 14 — no, it’s all a bit weirder than that.

Generaloberst Heinz Guderian is often referred to as being the ‘father’ of Blitzkrieg. He’s quoted as putting the concept in a nutshell: “Man schlägt jemanden mit der Faust und nicht mit gespreizten Fingern.” You hit somebody with your fist and not with your fingers spread.

What Guderian did not do, is use ‘blitzkrieg’ in his own written work. He referred to the word as someone else’s invention, in his memoir, ‘Panzer Leader’. As a result of the successes of our rapid campaign,’ he wrote, ‘our enemies coined the word ‘blitzkrieg.”

Heinz Guderian

It gets worse. Dig into Table Talk—which, by the way, is a font of insights and a lesson in taking English-translations at face value—and you’ll find Adolf Hitler backing him up: “Blitzkrieg, the word is a purely Italian invention, Italian phraseology, a translation from Italian, but we only printed extracts from newspapers. The other day they said that all my success comes from studying Italian works carefully!” Hold that thought. I’m coming back to it. It’s true, the word ‘Blitzkrieg’ did appear in TIME magazine on September 25th, 1939, in a piece describing the latest German offensive in Poland. The article’s title was ‘Blitzkreiger’, but the word ‘blitzkrieg’ itself appears in this passage:

“The battlefront got lost, and with it the illusion there had ever been a battlefront. For this was no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration—Blitzkrieg, lightning war. Swift columns of tanks and armored trucks had plunged through Poland while bombs raining from the sky heralded their coming. They had sawed off communications, destroyed animals, scattered civilians, spread terror. Working sometimes 30 miles (50 km) ahead of infantry and artillery, they had broken down the Polish defenses before they had time to organize. Then, while the infantry mopped up, they had moved on, to strike again far behind what had been called the front…”

Blitzkrieg was not coined by that journalist for TIME magazine. It’s completely out of kilter with the rest of his illustrative corpus. The word ‘blitzkrieg’ was already in use, in Germany and elsewhere, at least as early as 1935. Karl-Heinz Frieser’s research nails this in the first few pages of his great book, ‘The Blitzkrieg Legend: the 1940 Campaign in the West’. Buy a copy. Frieser points out that a first appearance for blitzkrieg is in an article titled, ‘Die Ernärungswirtschaft als Wehrproblem’—The Food Economy as a National Defense Problem—which appeared in the military journal, Deutsche Wehr, in May 1935.

In that publication, it is not a description of operational tactics we recognise now; it’s a description of the way in which an enemy might be overcome by focusing an attack on food resources and raw materials. Frieser also cites the word’s appearance in a 1938 edition of ‘Militär-Wochenblatt’, where its definition has evolved to define a strategic attack of tanks, air force, and airborne troops – much closer to the concept we understand today.

Blitzkrieg: a violent, surprise, military offensive. An attack that uses a concentration of armoured, mobilised infantry formations to break through the opponent’s first line of defence—penetration—accepting massive losses, while using short, fast, powerful attacks to disrupt any defensive formations; then following up with speed and the element of surprise to encircle and overcome that opposing force—obliteration—all with the help of supressive air support.

A quick aside …  Blitzkrieg, a ‘lightning war’, depends on speed and surprise. The trouble is, you’re talking about the speed and surprise of soldiers, most of whom were suffering from traumatic stress disorder, all of whom were beset by fatigue. Sleep meant slowing down. Hence the allure of Pervitin—speed, driven by speed—but that’s another story.  

Blitzkrieg—as we know it today—is about momentum and imbalance. It’s about rapidly changing the weight and direction of attack. A ‘blitzkrieg’ offensive makes it hard to respond logically on an operational level and difficult to accept on a psychological level; the loss to defensive troops is devastating because the attacking force accepts, intrinsically, that there is no purpose to pacing their own assault for the purpose of preserving resources. In theory, that momentum culminates in Vernichtungsschlacht. One battle, resulting in annihilation.

So, in TIME Magazine, the reportage about assaults on Polish forces does make partial sense. But by the time that edition was in circulation, the word ‘blitzkrieg’ had already appeared in print several times. Six months earlier for example, on 3rd April 1939, Hansard records Hugh Dalton MP referring to it explicitly, in his role as Minister of Economic Warfare (his remit included setting up the Special Operations Executive, but that’s an aside here).

In the belief it was essential to disrupt the German economy, thereby helping the Allies, the Ministry of Economic Warfare was created to—surprise, surprise—wage economic warfare against the Axis Powers. The aim was to achieve disruption, either indirectly, by lowering German civilian morale, or directly, by interfering with German industrial production and food supply.

Woah. Hold the front page. Food supply. Now, where have we heard that before?

Dalton would have seen all kinds of literature coming out of Germany, including Deutsche Wehr. That article on economic warfare and disruption to food supply would have been right up Dalton’s street. His entry in Hansard begins:

“This new German technique of the Blitzkrieg, of a sudden surprise, or a sudden threat to bomb the capital city of the country proposed to be intimidated, does indeed call—and I am glad the Government realise it—for a reconsideration of the mutual relationships of peaceful States…”

Okay, so not food. Never mind. The word is there and it’s repeated in the Chamber, three days later, by Vernon Bartlett – who, by the way, also made a suggestion that German food distribution could be disrupted by getting the Royal Air Force to drop large numbers of forged ration cards. Sadly, Chamberlain didn’t go for that, preferring to insist that Britain “fights fair”, instead. Vernon: 

“As I see it, the only hope of Germany to destroy this Empire is to win what they themselves call a Blitzkrieg, a lightning war. If Germany cannot win a war in a very few weeks, then our much greater resources, and probably our greater number of allies, will be the decisive factor in victory. As I see it, we have to do everything to make sure that in the first few days or weeks of war, if war were to happen, we should not be found unprepared.”

Where is the word coming from? Unexpected quarters. Working laterally, we find it in everyday use in Britain, a month prior to TIME Magazine hitting the bookshelves. It’s in ‘Ophthalmic Services in Emergency’, for example, an article written for the British Medical Journal. 

Heinz Guderian

This unattributed piece describes a discussion on how the nation might handle an increase in eye injuries during a national emergency—they’re talking about mustard gas, and the need to plan for eventualities. I have to say, one person asked for approval to use cocaine.

A delegate at the meeting, one Mr Arnold Sorsby, points out that modern warfare comprises two elements now: the terrorisation of the population, and ‘Blitzkrieg’ or lightning war. This is where it might get interesting. Arnold Sorsby MD, FRCS, was Surgeon Director of the Research Unit, at the Royal Eye Hospital. This is his portrait, as held by the National Gallery – isn’t he an endearing fellow?

His work on all things ophthalmic is referred to with respect, today. Back then, his opinion was also well-respected and his own, independent article on war-focused preparations was published a couple of months later by the BMJ, on September 23, 1939—two days before TIME Magazine comes out. The opening salvo is familiar: 

“Modern warfare carries the evil promise of two new principles – the terrorisation of the civil population and the ‘Blitzkreig’—the lightning war. Every possible kind of injury is thus to be expected. More stable conditions are likely as the moment of the blitzkrieg slackens, as it inevitably must from the terrific losses that will be suffered by the attackers and from the growing necessity of greater economy in effort.” That seems fairly informed for an ophthalmic surgeon, doesn’t it? Mr. Arnold Sorsby. Or, to give him his original name, Mr. Arnold Sourasky—born in Bialystok, in Poland. I do not entertain conspiracy theories. I’m a great believer in Occam’s Razor. My guess is, Sorsby was simply reading the daily newspapers on a regular basis. On Friday, 26 November 1937, ‘Peace or War in Europe’ is a short column that appears in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Under a subheading, ‘Lightning Fallacy’, the author—I Revesz—hints at policy-making opinions he’s collected on his travels around 18 countries in Europe. There is: “a belief that an offensive could be carried out rapidly, and that an army that attacks strongly and with vigour is irresistible,”note the proper use of irresistible—“This was the theory of the famous “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of which Herr Hitler spoke, and which seemed to be particularly the creed of the German General Staff.” Worth noting here, that author also had concerns about unfettered Franco-British alliances, which might do more damage than good: “The sum of the effective influence of Germany and Italy, acting separately, is far greater than the same sum after their alliance”, he writes. “Many people expressed to me their view that the only danger at the moment is that England and France, either jointly or separately, wil try to break that axis and will be prepared to pay a heavy price to one or both parties.”

Is this also a source for the ‘axis of evil’ phrase? That’s a question for another time. But would Sorsby have been reading the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer? He didn’t need to. In June 1938, at the Daily Herald’s newsdesk—with a wider circulation—we find one Mr William Norman Ewer writing headlines to dissuade angst about German superiority. You’ll work hard to find more chutzpah in the press today.

The headline reads ‘W. N. Ewer exposes the GREAT NAZI MYTH’. This is a large chunk of text. You’ll see why it’s worth including in full. As you read it though, bear this in mind: William Ewer—known as ‘Trilby’—is a name that now sits alongside Philby, Burgess, and Blunt. Ewer was a well-entrenched, successful Soviet spy, with a job writing headlines in British newspapers: 

“That is why they, or some of them, have been thinking in terms of “blitzkrieg”—the lightning war; staking everything on the attempt to gain victory by one smashing blow; a knock-out in the first round. The idea is to combine an overwhelming air-offensive against big cities with an irresistible thrust by mechanized troops before the enemy’s defence consolidates. And then a quick peace before anybody else joins in.”

Interesting: quick peace, before anybody else joins in.

“It is a tempting vision. But—and there are many buts. The air action must really overwhelm: the assault must be really irresistible. If there is any miscalculation, any breakdown, if the first punch for whatever reason, fails to connect, why then – certain disaster. And the technique of blitzkrieg is supremely difficult. It necessitates the highest standards of efficiency throughout the whole army: a perfect machine moving without a hitch at top speed.”

Okay. If it weren’t for that damning title, then you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘so far, so good’.  However: 

“Faith in the possibility of a blitzkrieg has waned. Spain and China gave reasons for doubt. But Austria even more. The invasion was, in a way, a dress rehearsal. There was no resistance. But the German army went through all the motions: and, indeed, until the last moment, the possibility of resistance had to be taken into account. Results were profoundly discouraging. Despite all the bally-hoo the truth of the matter is that the military operation was a complete fiasco. Where there should have been smooth co-ordination there was muddle and confusion. The machine failed to work.”

For clarity, Ewer is talking about the German war machine here.

“To their dismay, the generals found their new army was not adequately organised and trained and staffed for such as comparatively minor operation against a phantom enemy. So, for the time being, the ‘blitzkrieg’ is off, for the simple reason the Germany army is incapable of executing it. It was tested, and it failed. Whether any army is will ever be capable of executing it is perhaps doubtful.”

Wow. June 1938. It is somehow disturbingly prescient to find ‘Blitzkrieg, nah, that’ll never work…’ on a British newspaper’s front-page.

The truth is, a ‘blitzkrieg’ in itself had no specificity in German military doctrine (and Liddell Hart—Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, the historian and military theorist—did quite a bit of damage, reflecting on who invented what and when). But the word ‘blitzkrieg’ has long been mythologised as German legend, and it’s taken on a life of its own ever since. I haven’t been looking at doctrine here. Rather, I hope I’ve been able to cast just a little bit of light on the the urban myth that the word ‘blitzkrieg’ began its journey in TIME Magazine.