Military History Q&A Series Q19

Why were the Germans so successful in the early days of the World War 2?

This is a spinoff.

There were several reasons in fact, but perhaps one of reason for their success was that the Germans did something that no one else had done before. Better yet, they attacked where no one had thought possible to attack. They generated tactical surprise and gained an operational advantage. They invented blitzkreig, or lightning war.


The Germans might have inferior tanks compared to the Allies but they moved them faster than the Allies could defend against. And because the Panzers were much faster, they could reach places, such as rear headquarters, supply depots, and assembly areas. That in turn snowballed into panic and forcing the Allies to pull back from key areas to defend against the unexpected threats. It could disrupt the command and control so that units did not receive vital orders in time. All of this was in the German Army’s training and doctrine ever since Heinz Guderian published his book Achtung Panzer in 1937.


Second, airpower. Today, we have close air support between air assets and ground assets. Today, the troops on the ground in Afghanistan are talking to US Air Force or Navy planes and can request them to drop a 500lb bomb on Taliban positions. This is considered “normal” SOP. But back in 1939, this was new. Airplanes in World War 1 were scouts and occasionally bombers and few people knew their full potential in 1915. In 1939, the Germans were the first to demonstrate just how effective close air support can be.


Third, the Germans perfected the breakthrough technique; they chose to concentrate their armor and infantry into one particular point known as the schwerepunkt. “Heavy point”. Instead of attacking on a broad front, the Germans found Allied weakly defended points and punched through there.


Two short decades later, USAF Major John Boyd articled the OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Boyd stated that the person who can complete the OODA loop always won. Boyd was a fighter pilot and an instructor. Boyd issued the following challenge: in 30 seconds, and starting from an inferior position, he would be able to get on the challenger’s six or had a target lock. And Boyd often won because he was able to decide and act faster than his opponent. Boyd’s principle is now studied and applied in business, management, and negotiations.


OODA was applied in Operation Desert Storm by the US against Iraq. In every aspect from the ground to the air and inside the US headquarters, they were making decisions and acting and reacting faster than the Iraqis ever did.

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