Unleashed in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1939, Germany's "lightning war" -- the blitzkrieg -- quickly pierced Poland's border forces and sliced through the Danzig Corridor. As the German Luftwaffe hammered Poland's air force, panzer divisions smashed Poland's army, leaving its units scattered and surrounded.
Yet Poland continued to resist. Britain and France joined the war on Sept. 3. Sept. 17, however, sealed Poland's fate, as Russian forces invaded eastern Poland -- the "stab in the back" by Joseph Stalin. Poland collapsed.
The sensation, however, that Poland had succumbed to a "new kind of war" shocked a world still mired in World War I, where bunkers, trenches and firepower stymied offensive operations. From 1919 to 1939, France and Britain had prepared for a repeat of "the last war," with France's Maginot Line the literally concrete expression of that preparation. The Maginot Line was a bunker complex perfected, complete with underground train lines and turreted artillery covering broad minefields.
German Nazis touted the blitzkrieg's success as an example of Teutonic superiority. They also delighted in the terror blitzkrieg sowed. The Stuka divebomber had a siren that emitted a piercing scream as the plane plunged toward the earth -- a psychological weapon intended to frighten troops beyond the blast of the bomb.
German "storm troop" infiltration tactics used in 1918 are a blitzkrieg predecessor. However, improved communications was the key to "new war." Radios linked the tank on the ground with the aircraft and with commanders. During the interwar years, officers in several nations (including Britain, France and Italy) understood the power of this network. Germany, however, acted on the ideas.
To the awed press and stunned populations, the blitzkrieg that devastated Poland appeared to be a "magic bullet." When Germany attacked France in May 1940 and flanked the Maginot Line by invading the Low Countries, the dark magic worked again. In 1941, the magic seemed to work in Russia, as panzer spearheads approached Moscow.
Then the magic began to fade.
Britain adapted. The combined arms terror of blitzkrieg couldn't bridge the English Channel. The British withstood the "London blitz" (of aircraft only). Russia adapted, employing General Winter and forcing the Germans to besiege big cities. The United States -- surprised by Japan -- adapted. The U.S. and Russia developed mobile forces supported by overwhelming firepower. In 1945, Germany became a Poland crushed between superior armored and air forces. Germany circa September 1939 never anticipated that outcome.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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