- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004


By John Mosier

Harper Collins, $27.50, 338 pages, illus.


In “The Myth of the Great War” John Mosier recently produced one of the best books on the combat tactics of World War I ever published in the English language. Here he aspires to set conventional wisdom on its head for World War II the same way — but fails to do so.

“The Blitzkrieg Myth” is a curious book, full of first-class insights and riveting nuggets of research but ultimately far less than the sum of its parts. Yet just in the questions he raises, and the conventional wisdom and sacred cows he challenges, Mr. Mosier makes it well worth the ride.

Mr. Mosier tries to argue that the idea of blitzkrieg — of masses of armor backed by air power punching through the enemy lines and bringing the enemy to defeat — was a chimera through all of World War II and that all the great victories of either side in the West were due to other causes.

The author has a fine time rightly poking holes in the “pure armor” theories of British Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller and Italian air theorist Giulio Douhet, and he is indeed correct to point out how the obsession with their theories extracted a high price — strategic as well as tactical — from the generals on both sides who swallowed them wholesale.

Indeed, Mr. Mosier makes many excellent points almost unknown in popular historical writing and all too seldom noted even in scholarly and technical studies. The French army did fight gallantly and well against the Wehrmacht in the battles of 1940, suffering well over 100,000 fatalities in only two and a half months. It was true that French tank designs in general were far superior to German ones and that the French had many more tanks as well.

It was also true that the Germans far outstripped the Allies in their use of air power as close-in ground support and flying artillery. And in the Western Desert battles, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s abilities and achievements were vastly exaggerated by both his British foes and his own fuehrer.

Furthermore, the very real and crucial battlefield command achievements of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery have been scandalously ignored and falsely criticized by his own British historians. (Largely out of rancor: “Monty” was a remarkably insufferable and unlikable fellow who drove his fellow officers to distraction. Only his soldiers loved him. He saved their lives.)

Mr. Mosier also scores on the disastrous consequences of Winston Churchill’s insistence on driving up the Italian peninsula. Montgomery and U.S. Gen. George C. Marshall were both rightly against this plan. In the event 400,000 German soldiers held up 1,100,000 Allied troops for nearly two years on their own terms and inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on them.

On all these matters and many more, Mr. Mosier proves a highly important and long overdue corrective. Accordingly his book should be valued as essential reading on the great conflict. Even his bibliographic discussions at the end of every chapter are remarkable for their penetrating scholarship and clarity.

However, he fails on his central thesis, which appears to be that blitzkrieg never worked. If one accepts the narrow definition that blitzkrieg was the “pure” theory of armor smashing through opposing lines without need of significant infantry support, and that it was the intellectual construct of Fuller and his acolytes, Mr. Mosier is of course quite right.

But serious military historians have long recognized that the key tactics and integration of battlefield systems that produced the stunning breakthroughs of blitzkrieg had nothing to do with Fuller, or with French armor theorist Charles de Gaulle either for that matter. They had been fully worked out in “from the ground up” tactical studies within the German army itself by the spring of 1918.

By 1939, air support and armor technology on the battlefield had progressed so far that they could be integrated into the pre-existing blitzkrieg concept. The amazing German “lightning war” victories from Poland for three years through the drive to the Volga in August 1942 were the result.

Yet for all his erudition, Mr. Mosier appears ignorant of the work of the great late American military strategist, former U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd and his friend William S. Lind. Boyd’s concept of “Third Generation” warfare first used by the Germans in the Western Front campaigns of 1918 and then in all their 1939-42 campaigns proposed that they utilize integrated, coordinated and rapid-moving attacks to disrupt the command control systems of the other side — so rapidly that organized opposition, however fierce, fell apart or could be outflanked and then destroyed at leisure.

This applied concept explained why slow-reacting armies like the French in June 1940 and the Soviet Red army a year later were no match for the Wehrmacht, regardless of their material superiority. By contrast, as Mr. Mosier himself notes, by the time Montgomery had reorganized Eighth Army command in the Western Desert to stop Rommel’s last thrust at the battle of Alam Halfa in August-September 1942, the jig was up.

The Red army had finally learned fast-reaction techniques after unprecedented losses a few months earlier when they at last were able to pull back their main armies from the steppes between the Don and Volga rivers to escape German encirclement.

Mr. Mosier is of course correct in noting that major fortification lines manned by determined troops, like the Siegfried Line in Fall 1944, and key city bastions like Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin could not be taken by blitzkrieg or on the cheap but only at the cost of enormous casualties.

But this did not mean that blitzkrieg did not exist or was a chimera.

The German victories of 1939-42 that swept Europe proved that. And so did the great Allied practitioners of blitzkrieg, most notably Patton, whom Mr. Mosier ludicrously undervalues. Nor does he spend as much as a paragraph on the great Soviet victories using classic integrated blitzkrieg tactics: the November 1942 break-outs across the Volga and encirclement of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad; the encirclement and annihilation of Army Group Center in the Minsk pocket in July 1944; and the drive from the Vistula to the Elbe in early 1945.

There is, at the end of the day, far less here than one hoped for and was promised. But no serious student of World War II should miss the intellectual fireworks along the way.

Martin Sieff is Chief Political Correspondent for United Press International.

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