• Michael Malinconi

Allied and Third Reich’s Use of Force on the Western Front in World War II

Abstract: The Second World War is the best example of total war. It required the complete mobilization of societies. The disposal of resources shaped States’ overall strategies as never before. This paper aims to describe the strategic differences between the Third Reich and the Allies. Nazi Germany built up a pyramid of risks that eventually collapsed. The Allies by contrast adopted an indirect strategy until a direct assault was possible and favourable. Moreover, the confrontation between a civilian and a military leadership produced huge differences with crucial consequences, producing a vastly different relationship between the societies and their respective military structures. The Western front witnessed the use of different military tactics. This paper focuses predominately on land tactics: the German blitzkrieg doctrine that routed the Anglo-French contingent, the Allied countertactic and the efficient combination of arms implemented by US divisions. The initial Allied defeat was an intellectual one. The Blitzkrieg was and is not an invincible tactic. Its initial success depended more on the Allies’ operational failures than on its speed or firepower.


Bottom-line-up-front: What were the differences between Nazi Germany and the Allies on the western front during WWII? Why was the Blitzkrieg so successful? How did the Allies counter it?


Problem statement: How to assess the interconnection between the Third Reich’s strategy as well as policy and the Blitzkrieg concept in light of its tactical success and strategic disaster?


So what? World War II presented many revolutionary aspects that still influence contemporary military science. The analysis of these aspects is still necessary and can make us understand future developments. The use of force in WWII has been for many years underestimated and not adequately studied.


Source: shutterstock.com/Everett Collection

A Total War


WWII exacerbated many trends already present during WWI. Much of the weaponry had not changed much since the 1920s in terms of technological base. What had improved consistently with technological improvements was range, firepower, mobility and precision. The weapons’ revolution of WWI had produced a change in military mentality: the source of victory was believed to reside in quantity, in the optimal and unrestricted use of all possible forces. The concentration and limitation of force had proved inconclusive, so its extensive and escalating use became the path to victory[1]. What really divides WWII from WWI is the magnitude of resources deployed and the measure of societal involvement.


The Second World War reshaped societies and concentrated power on the battlefield in ways never seen before. Civilians and their property became legitimate targets for assault. Bureaucrats were converted in the Axis’ States into obedient and ruthless State executioners, motivated to kill by hate ideologies[2].


WWII became the primary example of total war in all its aspects. War became more and more based on resources and supplies, which necessitated the complete involvement of the country’s economy and society (war of matériel).

Society became a resource for the war effort, and consequently, societies became active belligerents. Populations’ morale took on primary importance exactly for these reasons. Each combatant felt the mobilization’s weight on his society and knew that he was fighting to protect it and its values from aggression by enemy forces.


In this context of complete societal mobilization, economic forces were crucial. Since each nation had different modalities to mobilize its economy, society and organizing the use of force, this new type of war adopted different forms from country to country.


The massive levels of national mobilization of resources from every belligerent to reach unrestricted war objectives led to total destruction and unconditional surrender[3]. Total mobilization required total goals (war à outrace). These aims pushed resilience beyond a reasonable limit.


WWII also altered the way battles were fought, and armies organized. Due to their submission to politics and ideology, the military establishment could no longer derive their operational dogma from eternal and scientific laws about war but rather had to develop a dogma from the means at their disposal[4].


Since military operations affected the whole society, strategy became a political act, not the exclusive competence of military notables. War was serving politics. This new concept of strategy dissolved the nexus between means and ends, characteristic of the nineteenth-century idealist approach. War expanded beyond the military world, and in doing so, it provided a reason for national mobilization, an explanation and legitimization of total war.[5]


Nevertheless, organization made the difference. Nazi Germany prepared for this extensive use of force because it wanted war, which it perceived as necessary for domestic reasons. The Allies used force extensively only from the second or third year of the war, due to production issues and military unpreparedness. The American production capability, on which depended the productive force of the Allies, needed time to reach its maximum after the economic downturn of the Great Depression.

The Third Reich’s Strategy


Doctrine is the way an army fights, the methods it applies in combat. On the other hand, strategy is how a nation organizes its strength toward achieving a political goal in war. While Germany’s strategy required offense, speed and flexibility, the Allied strategy in the first phases was characterized by expectancy, defence and attrition that only became more flexible and offensive with the appropriate amount of resources.[6]


Germany began the war with the clear goal to enlarge its “living space”, be economically self-sufficient, and establish German hegemony on continental Europe.[7] Under Nazi power, Germany had become a State made of war – by the domestic size of power and the strengthening of the regime -, which prepared for war (Germany reinforced conscription in 1935, the Allied only from 1939). It wanted war because it needed war. Motivated by its World War I defeat and enabled by the political instability of the Weimar Republic, apocalyptic sentiments arose in Germany during the years between the two wars. These sentiments produced a technocratic use of force coexisting with an ideology that considered war necessary in the process of national purification. This ideological strategy was organized rationally and industrially with the war of annihilation of eastern populations and of “internal enemies.”[8] This domination dream was lost on the way to Stalingrad, surpassing the Clausewitzian culminating point of victory.[9] Even if the Eastern front is seen as the decisive battleground for the German defeat[10], the western front was the clear example of the clash between two different strategies and doctrines.


Motivated by its World War I defeat and enabled by the political instability of the Weimar Republic, apocalyptic sentiments arose in Germany during the years between the two wars.

The Nazi strategy wasn’t determined by grand objectives but by gambles on the resilience of its productive capacity, military rapid effectiveness, and the regime’s ability to prevent a balance of power against it. The diverse operations, tactics and extermination campaigns were combined in a single war but lacked a real overall strategy above the singular aims of each campaign. Machine warfare was escorted into Germany by rational organization (Plamässigkeit) and by the general lack of ideas (Ideenlosigkeit)[11]. The German Army wasn’t ready for war in 1939, only Guderian’s enthusiasm[12] enforced the adoption of the new principle of high-speed mechanized warfare.[13] Nevertheless, the more conquests the Wehrmacht produced, the greater the likelihood of a military counterbalance; more ruthless and total was the internal “purification” of society, more partial was the industrial productivity. The escalatory German use of force raised the probability of strategic success at each operational victory but simultaneously strengthened the Allied forces.[14] It was a pyramid of risks. The greater the magnitude of risk, the greater the probability of collapse. As Gray states, “there’s more to war than warfare. Hitler’s Reich proved superb at the latter but grossly incompetent at the former”[15].


In other words, what Germany lacked was a grand strategy. It certainly had a political vision, a racially pure and hegemonic secure Germany; it also had a clear policy: reach the political vision by waging a succession of wars, each calibrated towards a single objective, conducted with magnificent armed forces. The spectacular work of German commanders could put off defeat but could not overcome the limits that the lack of a grand strategy imposed.[16]

Operation Barbarossa, ideologically necessary, showed to the world that Germany was not truly ready for total war and that the costs of Nazi political and military expansionism outran the benefits of its hegemony in Central and Western Europe. Strategic odds outran operational success. Germany did not have strong allies in the region (Italy proved itself highly incompetent), the economic benefits, even if massive, were not enough, and most of all the state was facing a coalition enemy on three fronts. Germany enlarged the theatre of operations to a point where it could not match the enemy’s countervailing resources.[17] After 1943, Germany de-mechanized due to fewer overall supplies and even fell short on manpower, a shortage which meant less training for combatant forces. Furthermore, Germany’s industrial capacity was increasingly reduced by blockades, Allied bombings and attrition.

Allied Strategy


The allied strategy was a compromise. The cautious political-oriented British strategy was faced by the American massive frontal assaults, which were not as sensitive to the political consequences of action. The latter was the product of the US war theory of mass and concentration that reflected American industrial and human potential. When Americans had improved their diplomacy and war techniques, and as soon their mobilization and production began to be felt, they took the lead.[18] Concerned about the effects of a long-term mobilization, Americans were power-minded, focused on facing and taking down the Germans quickly. This concern shows how WWII did not require only speed on the battlefield but also in strategic thinking.


WWII was a war fought to reorder not to adjust but to reorder the international system. A war already total in its objectives, i.e. the destruction and subordination of the enemy became total even strategically and tactically. This was true especially for Nazi Germany, but also the Soviet Union and the United States. Of all belligerents, Great Britain was the one who fought the larger total war, though it did so for limited objectives: to re-establish the status quo ante bellum and eliminate an existential threat. France took a similar approach. What united France and Great Britain after the summer of 1940 was the fact that their destinies were no longer in their own hands.[19] They both depended on the “New World” due to their inability to fight the total war that the Second World War had become. As in the Napoleonic age, Great Britain drew the world against a European hegemony.[20]


Of all belligerents, Great Britain was the one who fought the larger total war, though it did so for limited objectives: to re-establish the status quo ante bellum and eliminate an existential threat. France took a similar approach.

France’s capitulation forced Great Britain and Free France to adopt an indirect strategy, opposing the direct strategy of WWI.[21] For Great Britain, the use of indirect approaches was historically familiar. This strategy was dictated by military necessity (the need to reorganize an army, train it and get new resources), but it was preferred to a more direct approach, like that taken by the Soviet Union and the United States, until 1943. The British took an indirect approach for two reasons: the British tradition of indirect strategy had proved very successful[22], and the British and French were conscious of military inferiority on land and of their inability to fight a total war.


According to Hitler, the war against the US was peripheral and could have easily been postponed. However, the Nazi establishment did not expect the speed and strength with which the US entered materially and humanly into the war, and their ability to wage two wars across two oceans.[23] Even more surprising was the American decision to focus first on fighting Germany instead of Japan, the main opposition in American vital space. Consistent with the frontal approach used by the US during the war (as the invasion of France shows: a frontal assault to the enemy’s lines), American grand strategy in World War II was simple, consistent, and effective: building up quickly its massive war capacity and its material superiority while sustaining allies to make sure they could keep fighting. The United States patiently set the conditions for strategic success.[24] Here stands another key strategic difference: while Germany (and even Japan) thought in terms of regional supremacy and annihilation, with regional and separate enemies, the Allies formulated a global strategy to confront more enemies on multiple fronts. World War II was won with American production, Soviet manpower, and British codebreaking. Germany could not win against a coalition composed of the United States and the Soviet Union. It was highly improbable at the beginning of 1942, and it became clear in 1944.[25]


Alliances were fundamental in the ongoing war. The Axis weakened because Italy’s military performance was disastrous, Spain remained neutral, and Japan fought its own war. Britain’s most dangerous moment came when in 1940 when France was lost, the Soviet Union was not yet threatened, and the American public opinion was still forbidding war.[26]

Civilian vs Military Leadership


WWII also gives an example of the success of a civilian-led strategic leadership over a military one. In Germany, the military leadership broke with its professional tradition of Prussian heritage and based on rational strategic goals and supported Hitler’s political and ideological views, based on domestic and ethnic factors that overruled military analysis. The only way to strengthen this ideology was success, and for a while, it worked. Hitler’s strategic secret rested on ideologic interpretations and opportunistic use of force, not in a single method or principle.[27] War was instrumental in breaking the European balance of power, a precondition of the Nazi racial vision.[28] Hitler’s unique decision-making did not allow a true dialogue between civilian policymakers and soldiers. Churchill could be unreasonable but was open to persuasion when confronted with powerful arguments or incontrovertible evidence. The absence of authentic debate between civilian and military leaders, typical of centralized regimes, constituted one of the main deficiencies of Germany’s conduct. It produced chaotic decision-making and resulted in lability, nervous vacillation and irrationality.[29] Hitler’s decisions sometimes amazed, like the pioneering plan to attack France; other times, often against the opinion of his generals, they caused disasters: the shift of priority in the East that delayed the capture of Moscow, the halting of Guderian’s divisions when they could still encircle Dunkirk, and the opening of a new front in North Africa.[30]


The only way to strengthen this ideology was success, and for a while, it worked.

Churchill and Roosevelt centralized government practices and the preparation of military operations around them. Constructing cooperation between them and the military enabled them to formulate a grand strategy and select successful and rational choices. The decision to go on with Operation Torch other than Bolero[31] (since a continental invasion was considered premature by the military staff) is a perfect example[32].


The Relationship between Social and Military Structures


The transformation to a military culture in which the machine is fundamental in warfare led to the disintegration of the Prussian-based military institutions, based instead on land warfare, together with their uniformity, hierarchy, classism, and subordination.[33] The National Socialists viewed war as instrumental for social reconstruction, in which the use of force was subordinated to and depended on the country’s mobilization. The collapse of German professional strategists with their operational knowledge based on eternal and scientific laws, challenged by Hitler and of which Blitzkrieg is a manifestation, introduced ideology as a substitute for strategic planning. From these ashes was born the German military system of rigorous training and a flexible and adaptive approach to command in battle. It planned operations, not on eternal laws about war but the available means. German generals, unable to counter Hitler’s approach, focused on operational planning and in this technocratic thinking and ideological strategy found a symbiosis.[34]


Blitzkrieg lived off the destruction of systematic methods. A generation of ambitious commanders, battle-hardened from WWI, trained in skill-oriented programmes and the optimization of force, was set free. The ability to delegate, a key factor in combined arms doctrine, was fundamental in the Wehrmacht’s initial success. Based on shared understandings of what needed to be done, tactical commanders had lower-level initiative to realize higher-level intents, reducing friction and time but gaining velocity and security. The final objective was common, the ways to obtain it were various. They had freedom in the fields of observation, orientation, decision and action: rapid and concise assessment of situations followed by quick decision and quick execution.[35] This command’s decentralization is an explanatory factor of the long German resilience.


On the other hand, French commanders had direct control of subordinates and their decision-making was paralyzed when faced with Germany’s more flexible structure. The Battle of France clearly showed the difference between a Blitzkrieg mentality and a Maginot Line mentality, i.e. between an offensive mentality based on freedom of movement and command and a defensive mentality based on overall direct control of subordinates.[36] The French Army was internally torn apart by national tensions, bureaucratic slowness, and career officers' incompetence[37]. Similarly, the British Army was permeated by an anachronistic culture dominated by “gentleman-officers” that integrated new technology in a static defensive framework and, reflecting the hierarchical English gentry, were unable to give initiatives to subordinates.[38] The German Army appeared more “democratic,” the distance between private and officer less insurmountable.[39] Paradoxically, the French Army still relied on Prussian-style traditions that not even the German officers followed anymore.


The US Army’s primary peacetime task was to provide a core of professional soldiers that would enable a large wartime force of citizen soldiers in war. It was literally a citizen-army—a society at war.[40] Social structures can influence the amount of military power that can be generated from material resources. It follows that divisive social structures can reduce that power. Military organizations will be more likely to reflect the structures of the larger society with non-professional mass armies with little training and goals different from military effectiveness.[41] WWII armies were guided by professionals but composed by citizens. The National Socialist Army was united under ideology, the Allied one under threat. Nazi ideology implied an existential division that boosted its military effectiveness but reduced its overall power. The Allies inclusive social structures enabled the mobilization of huge material and social resources that trumped German military success.


Social structures can influence the amount of military power that can be generated from material resources. It follows that divisive social structures can reduce that power.

Land Force Tactics


World War II, in a major proportion to WWI, was a conflict waged in the style of combined arms. Technological developments, especially mechanization, determined tactics. In WWII tanks became crucial for tactical protection and to gain mobility through rapid exploitations. Tanks acting independently in small formations were fatally vulnerable, as the Battle of France showed.


The Third Reich’s military victories in the biennium 1939-1941 were directly attributable to the blitzkrieg doctrine. Blitzkrieg, perceived by contemporaries and even after as a revolutionary tactic, in reality, was not a new way of war but was simply the adaptation of the long-standing German military doctrine of exploiting mechanization and enemy errors with the traditional German belief in decisive battles.[42] It reflected the old doctrine of envelopment clearly represented in the Schlieffen Plan, the infiltration tactic elaborated under Ludendorff and the use of Fuller’s flying columns of tanks and motorized vehicles.[43] Blitzkrieg’s speed and mobility, as the use of an indirect strategy to counter it, has its roots in ancient Rome history: it recalls Hannibal’s Italian invasion and the Romans adoption of Fabian strategy, considering even the theoretical inspirational ties that the Prussian and German military environment had with Roman history and in particular with Cannae.[44]


Under the Versailles military constraints, German leaders thought that the only way to effectively defend the country was by using mobility and surprise. Hitler transformed this strategy of necessity into an offensive doctrine.[45] Key factors resided in the joint operational use of independent, concentrated and fast-moving tank forces, exploiting their firepower and shock actions, supported closely by airpower, mobilized infantry and artillery. The Nazis pioneered the large-scale joint employment of armoured and mechanized forces. The British and French Army still considered tanks predominantly in a mere support function to the infantry, inappropriate in defensive operations and operating far away from each other.[46] The aim was to create and exploit opportunities to repeatedly penetrate enemy’s lines at all levels (tactical, strategic and grand strategic) and in many ways: elude resistance in order to splinter, envelop and wipe-out isolated remnants or vulnerable interior forces, generate confusion, disorder and creating moral or mental inadequacies.[47] They could remain dispersed but linked on the battlefield, searching for weak points in the defence. This strategy succeeded in Poland, France and the early stage of Operation Barbarossa thanks to improvisation and the enemy’s mistakes,[48] against a confident enemy that was temporarily inferior in doctrine and technology. Its success derived from demoralizing the enemy.


Key factors resided in the joint operational use of independent, concentrated and fast-moving tank forces, exploiting their firepower and shock actions, supported closely by airpower, mobilized infantry and artillery.

Blitzkrieg was the tactical reflection of Germany’s strategic risks. The Allies unpreparedness to face rapid advances and encirclements was the crucial factor, together with shallow and static linear defences[49], resumed by the WWI’s experiences.[50] The French military doctrine, called “methodical battle, " focused on highly rigid battles where units moved obediently between phase lines and adhered to strict timelines, emphasizing greater firepower. It reflected its Levee en Masse tradition, economic constraints, and the victorious experience in World War I.[51] Nazi belief in the invincibility of Blitzkrieg was shattered when in the endless Russian territories, where even dramatic encirclements did not deliver truly decisive military success, mechanized forces began to suffer from tenuous logistic support.[52] Furthermore, at the tactical level, Blitzkrieg warfare began to be defeated when effective attrition features began to be applied, first by the Russian and then by the Anglo-Americans. If tanks could attack, they could even counterattack and defend.[53] Mobile defence and territorial depth, with anti-tank weapons or surrogates, enabled infantry units to contrast mobile armoured divisions.[54] These changes transformed WWII into an attritional war where defeat could be imposed only gradually. Successful armoured penetrations were still possible but more difficult. Without operational success, the Nazi strategy collapsed: it had to formulate a defensive tactic without controlling the initiative or quantitative superiority.[55] The Germans understood at the end that modern warfare was beyond the era of decisive battles and must be waged gradually.[56]


The 1940 failure is also a military-strategic one: in France, the Germans used the same tactics employed eight months before in Poland. It was predictable that they would have used them even in the West. Furthermore, the only way to contrast Germany before May 10 would have been to conduct a rapid offensive operation that the French Army was not prepared to do. The offensive mistake to move most of the troops in the north, trusting the invulnerability of the Maginot Line, facilitated the German penetration against the poorly prepared French troops in the Ardennes and then enabled the almost successful encirclement of the British and French forces.[57] The Battle of France depended on Allied mistakes (training and operational deficiencies, ruthlessness and undetermined leadership, antiquated mobilization system) and German ability to capitalize on those mistakes.


Nevertheless, Nazi tactical success, though temporary, was also an intellectual victory. Germany was able to think of a “new” type of war before putting it in practice, contrary to the Allies. The transformation in the concept of distance and the importance of quick operations were ideas known in Great Britain and France, but they did not become predominant in the pre-war years despite some isolated Cassandras like De Gaulle, Fuller or Liddell Hart. Germany was fighting in 1940, France and Great Britain in 1915: in the Ardennes German tanks were faced by the French cavalry.[58] The firmness on the insuperability of the Maginot Line and the effectiveness of the French Army in an attrition war clouded this intellectual division. The speed of the German advance disadvantaged French and British forces. Their mobility was felt as out of place. While the Wehrmacht believed in mobile actions, improvisation, and the unexpected, the Allies were firm in their immobility, sluggishness, and predictability.[59] There was a difference in thought behind the operational defeat. The Anglo-French were unprepared to think in these terms and especially slow in thinking overall at the operational level. The attack – more a surprise of modalities than a surprise of concept since the war was going on since September – paralyzed Allied forces. The French military had more and better-trained troops than the Germans and had more tanks, bombers and fighters but could not mobilize them in time.[60] The dispatching and the scandal in which the rhythm of the war threw the Allies is the product of conceptual unpreparedness to face a different war from the one imagined.[61] It was a psychological and emotional defeat as well as a military one. The greatest Nazi success consisted of causing uncertainty and confusion in the enemies’ minds by undermining their will to fight (moral warfare) and encouraging the distorted perception of reality with deception or attacks on communication lines (mental warfare). Attacks on wartime capacities (physical warfare) inhibited French material capacity to fight, mental and moral warfare inhibited their willingness and spiritual strength to resist.[62]


The Anglo-French defeat led to an immediate call for US armoured divisions. The US learned from their allies’ errors and modernized their ranks. The objective was speed and unity of decision, attack combined with defence, but not defence alone. US theory focused on conducting fluid, massive, manoeuvre warfare against relatively limited resistance with massive firepower. It also employed flexible use of combined arms teams and close infantry-tank cooperation. The possibility to organize massive units, their centralized firepower system, efficient communications, and air supremacy propelled Allied advance.[63]


The Allied armies’ early failures did not lay in their doctrine. The Allied resistance on defensive doctrines resulted from their strategy of sustaining a long war. The collapse of the French front in 1940 depended more on Allied operational mistakes and German ability to capitalize on them. Realists and professionals in the Allied leadership understood that a decentralized command style with an offensive doctrine was disastrous against a highly professional German Army. The war’s fate did not reside in which tactic forces used, but in who could best execute the available tactics and mobilize society more efficiently, committing fewer strategic mistakes at the same time.[64] The challenge of WWII was to calibrate the increase of violence, resources and manpower, in order to not use them more than necessary.[65]


Realists and professionals in the Allied leadership understood that a decentralized command style with an offensive doctrine was disastrous against a highly professional German Army.

Conclusions


World War II followed the track built by WWI in many aspects but differentiated itself in many others. The magnitude of resources deployed and the concentration of power on the battlefield had no precedents. Societies became active belligerents and, in doing so, also became targets. Since war was no longer uniquely relegated to military affairs, political ideology submitted the military establishment to its power. Total war required total aims.

The Third Reich prepared for war because it needed war to keep living. The Nazi strategy wasn’t determined by grand objectives but by a series of gambles on the resilience of its productive capacity, on the military rapid effectiveness of its troops and on the regime’s ability to prevent a balance of power against it. It lacked a grand strategy that could combine the political, military, and economic policies (and its societal plan of internal “purification”). In the end, Hitler built up a pyramid of risks that collapsed due to its magnitude. The efficiency of the German armed forces could put off defeat but could not overcome the limits that the lack of a grand strategy imposed.


The Allied strategy was a compromise between the frontal war theory of the United States and the indirect approach that Great Britain and France were forced to take. The cautious political-oriented British strategy was faced by the American massive frontal assaults. The speed of the US in operations and strategic thinking reflected its concerns about the long-term mobilization of its industrial and human assets. The Allies formulated a global strategy able to confront more enemies on multiple fronts. Nazi Germany, like Japan, thought in terms of regional war and regional supremacy.


The absence of authentic debate and confrontation between civilian and military leaders constituted one of the main deficiencies of German strategy. These factors produced chaotic decision-making, instability and, finally, irrationality. Churchill and Roosevelt, instead, centralized political and military operations. The cooperation with the military establishment in a civilian-led society enabled the Allies to formulate a grand strategy and select successful and rational policies.


The power of politics and ideology produced new practices now based on the available means, like Germany’s flexible and adaptive approach to command in battle.

Blitzkrieg was not a new way of war but reflected a mixture of old and recent military tactics. As a tactic, it reflected Germany’s pyramid of strategic risks. It used mobility and surprise because they were the main tactics available to the German army in the late 1930s. The Wehrmacht, through Blitzkrieg, transformed the concept of distance and showed the importance of speed. The Anglo-French were unprepared to think in these terms. The fast German intrusions caused misperceptions that eventually lead to panic and confusion. The real innovation of the Third Reich was the joint employment of armoured and mechanized forces that created opportunities to penetrate enemy’s lines generating confusion and disorder repeatedly. The Allies capitulated due to their unpreparedness to face rapid advances and encirclements with shallow and static linear defences. With the introduction of mobile defence and territorial depth, infantry units effectively contrasted mobile armoured divisions. Forced to adopt a defensive tactic, German strategy collapsed: it lacked the control of the initiative and quantitative superiority.


The United States had the advantage of being able to learn from its allies’ mistakes. US warfare theory focused on conducting fluid, rapid but imponent attacks combined with mobile defence and massive firepower. Other characteristics were the flexible use of combined arms teams and close infantry-tank cooperation. The Allied defensive tactics in France can be appointed to their defensive strategy. A rational strategy focused on sustaining a long war. The problem was their unpreparedness to face Blitzkrieg tactics and the panic it caused.


The way of using force in WWII has been for many years underestimated and not adequately studied. The differences in strategy were clearly described in these years that separate us from the end of the war, but the links between the tactics employed on the western front were not clearly outlined. Blitzkrieg is still today considered an unexpected tactic invented by The Third Reich. The collapse of the Anglo-French line in 1940, instead, was studied by many scholars during the years and many possible causes were put forward. Focusing primarily on the difference in mentality and on the social internal composition of the respective actors definitely adds a new perspective to the discourse.


Michael Malinconi; graduate candidate in International Relations at the University of Bologna; interested in geopolitics, international law related to defence issues and military science; has written in Italian and English for Osservatorio Globalizzazione and Opinio Juris. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.


[1] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 546-547.

[2] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 126; Heuser, Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 196-197.

[3] Michael Howard, War in European History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 134.

[4] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 543.

[5] Ibid, 546-547.

[6] Douglas Porch, “Military "Culture and the Fall of France in 1940: A Review Essay” (International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Spring, 2000), pp. 157-180), 168.

[7] Louis Leo Snyder, Hitler’s Third Reich: A Documentary History (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981).

[8] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 573-574, 580.

[9] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 566-573.

[10] Richard Overy, Why Allies won (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 19.

[11] Ernst Junger Die Perfektion der Technik. (Klostermann; Erste Ausgabe Edition, 1946), 184.

[12] Heinz Guderian was the real mastermind behind blitzkrieg. After WWI, as some of his colleagues in other countries as Fuller and Liddell Hart in Great Britain and De Gaulle in France, and on the theorization of Alfred von Schlieffen e Hans von Seeckt, Guderian convinced Hitler that the coordinated action of tanks followed by mechanized infantry could break easily the enemy front line.

[13] Basil Liddell Hart, Storia militare della Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1970), 982-983.

[14] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 575; Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 128.

[15] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 149, 154.

[16] Douglas Porch, “Military "Culture and the Fall of France in 1940: A Review Essay” (International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Spring, 2000), 157-180), 165; Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 143; Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 150.

[17] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 579, 581; Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 166.

[18] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 677-700.

[19] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 166.

[20] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 141.

[21] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 576, 679.

[22] Britain historic policy in European war consisted in the use of its economic force and its navy to hit the enemy in its periphery and to gradually weaken it. Examples can be found from the Anglo-Spanish war of XVI century, the Spanish War of Succession, until the failed attempt to open a new front at Gallipoli in 1915 of which Churchill was the mastermind.

[23] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), p.153; Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 580.

[24] Richard Hooker, The Grand Strategy of the United States (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2014), 6-8.

[25] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 140.

[26] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 143.

[27] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 583.

[28] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 143.

[29] Ibid, p. 154; Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 491-497.

[30] Basil Liddell Hart, Storia militare della Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1970), 980-984.

[31] Operation Bolero was the Allied code name for the invasion of France in 1943, later delayed to June 1944 and called Operation Overlord.

[32] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 497-509, 686.

[33] Ibid, 528, 543.

[34] Ibid, 564-572, 584.

[35] John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict: a Discourse on Winning and Losing (Maxwell: Air University Press, 2018), 94.

[36] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 199; John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict: a Discourse on Winning and Losing (Maxwell: Air University Press, 2018), 384; Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 85.

[37] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), p. 73; Philip Bankwitz, Maxime Weygand and Civil-Military Relations in Modern France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 165-166.

[38] Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War: French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 144, 149.

[39] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 98.

[40] Robert Goldich, “American Military Culture from Colony to Empire” (Daedalus, vol. 140, no. 3, The Modern American Military, pp. 58-74, Summer 2011), 60-61.

[41] Stephen Rosen, “Why Society Matters”. (International Security, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 5-31, Spring, 1995), 26-28.

[42] Charles Pickar, Blitzkrieg: Operational Art or Tactical Craft? (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1992).

[43] John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict: a Discourse on Winning and Losing (Maxwell: Air University Press, 2018), 102.

[44] Terence Holmes, “Classical Blitzkrieg: The Untimely Modernity of Schlieffen's Cannae Programme” (The Journal of Military History, vol. 67, n. 3, 745-771, July 2003), 745-771; Alfred Von Schlieffen, Cannae (Fort Leavenworth: The Command and the General Staff Schoolpress, 1931).

[45] Douglas Porch, “Military "Culture" and the Fall of France in 1940: A Review Essay” (International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 157-180, Spring, 2000), 168.

[46] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 65-66.

[47] John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict: a Discourse on Winning and Losing (Maxwell: Air University Press, 2018), 104.

[48] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 210.

[49] Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 85.

[50] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 122.

[51] Robert Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1985), 3-4.

[52] Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 147.

[53] Michael Howard, War in European History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 132.

[54] Douglas Porch, “Military "Culture" and the Fall of France in 1940: A Review Essay” (International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 157-180, Spring, 2000), p. 179; Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 74.

[55] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 210; Colin Gray, War, Peace and International Relations. An Introduction to Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 146-147.

[56] Charles Pickar, Blitzkrieg: Operational Art or Tactical Craft? (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1992), 40.

[57] Basil Liddell Hart, Storia militare della Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1970), 96-97, 982.

[58] Ibid, 92.

[59] Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War: French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 144-145; Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 52-53, 61-62.

[60] Ernest May, Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).

[61] Marc Bloch, La strana disfatta (Milano: Edizioni Res Gestae, 2014), 110.

[62] Freedman Lawrence, Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 198-199.

[63] Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 105-130.

[64] Douglas Porch, “Military "Culture" and the Fall of France in 1940: A Review Essay” (International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 157-180, Spring, 2000), 176, 179-180.

[65] Peter Paret, edited by, Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 593.

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