Heinz Guderian, the German leader in tank operations and implementer of “blitzkrieg”-type warfare delivered early lightning-strike victories in France and Russia to Adolf Hitler. Through applying theories about armored capabilities, Guderian converted warfare from the static trench operations of World War I to the mobile, maneuver combat of World War II. Aristocratic, blunt and outspoken, Guderian remained loyal to Hitler while also being one of the few officers willing to stand up to him and suffer the consequences.
From his birth in Kulm on June 17, 1888, to a Prussian officer-father, Guderian was bound for a life as a professional soldier. He entered cadet school at age twelve and eight years later joined the 100th Hannover Jaeger Battalion, which his father commanded. He received his lieutenant’s commission on January 27, 1908. Although initially assigned to the infantry, Guderian joined a wireless radio company in 1912, where he came to appreciate the advantages provided by electronic communications.
Guderian began World War I commanding a wireless station assigned to the Fifth Cavalry Division and the progressed through staff levels to join the general staff in 1918. During this time he became intrigued by armor potential and in the late 1920s began studying writing of Englishman John Frederick Charles Fuller, on the concept of penetration warfare.
After the armistice, Guderian remained on active duty as one of the four thousand surviving German officers selected to make up the peacetime army. With his continuing interest in tanks, he secured various staff and field assignments in motor transport units, while he advanced his theories of armored warfare.
But Guderian faced heavy opposition, within the German army and political structure, to creating a tank unit because of the expense and lack of understanding of its potential. Not until Hitler assumed power and saw an impressive series of small demonstrations of armored operations did Guderian receive permission in 1934 to form his first tank battalion. Although Germany had a limited industrial base from which to mass-produce tanks, Hitler recognized that to achieve his military objective he would need an edge. Guderian convinced Hitler that the mobility and shock value of armored warfare offered that advantage.
With Hitler’s support, Guderian rapidly expanded the German tank, or “panzer,” force in the late 1930s and continued to refine the ideas of Fuller and Liddell Hart in order to develop his own blitzkrieg strategy. In 1936, Guderian book Achtung! Panzer (Attention! Armor) outlined his theories that massed armored units, with artillery and air support, could penetrate enemy front lines and then fan out in rear ears to destroy command, control, supply, and reserve units. Guderian believed the key to successful blitzkrieg lay in rapid, sustained mobility that bypassed difficult terrain to maintain the advance. He advocated that commanders, supported by excellent communications that allowed them to control movement and direction, should lead from the front.
By 1939, Guderian had give Panzer Divisions operational and several others in various stage of preparation. On August 22, Guderian, as the commander in chief, Panzer Troops, received orders to lead the invasion of Poland. Commanding his armored corps from his own tank, at the head of his troops, Guderian crossed the border on September 1 and within four days had penetrated the major Polish defenses. By September 16 he had defeated all remaining resistance.
Hitler, greatly impressed by the panzers, awarded Guderian the Knight’s Cross and increased the allowance for tank resources. Adapting lessons he had learned in Poland about bypassing difficult terrain and maintaining close coordination with his air support, Guderian, on May 10, 1940, led a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and smashed through French lines. Three days later, he captured Sedan and by May 23 had taken Calais and Boulogne despite constantly facing numerically superior forces. Guderian was poised to destroy the remaining French and English troops at Dunkirk when Hitler ordered him to turn his attack southward instead. By the time France surrendered, on June 22, Guderian had advanced all the way to the Swiss border.
With the blitzkrieg offensive method now proved successful, Hitler ordered Guderian to lead the invasion of the Soviet Union. In June 1941, Guderian and other German units penetrated the Russian defenses and raced across the country. Five days and two hundred miles later, the German army surrounded three hundred thousand Soviet troops at Minsk, forcing their surrender. A month later, the panzers performed the same maneuver and forced another one hundred thousand soldiers to surrender at Smolensk, then repeated the operation, capturing six hundred thousand near Lokhvista, on September 15.
Despite their initial successes, Guderian and the German army were at the end of long supply lines and facing the infamous Russian winter. Outside Moscow the exhausted German soldiers and their worn machines slowed and the stopped. Hitler ordered the army to stand fast, but Guderian and other commanders wisely withdrew rather than needlessly expose their men and weapons. An angry Hitler relieved Guderian and other senior officers from command.
Not until February 1943 did Hitler finally determine that Guderian was too valuable to remain unemployed. Hitler recalled the tank leader and appointed him inspector general of Panzer Troops. Guderian immediately increased tank production and upgraded the training of the panzer forces. His efforts, however, were too late to prevent the eventual defeat of his country.
Guderian remained a loyal professional until the end. He did not participate in the military-led attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. After the purge of the conspirators, the Fuhrer elevated Guderian to chief of the general staff of the Army High Command. Despite Hitler’s reward, Guderian, as always, refused to become a “yes-man,” remaining one of the few officers willing to argue with the German leader. When Guderian urged making peace with the advancing Allies, Hitler again dismissed the panzer leader from active service, on March 21, 1945.
Guderian retired to the Tyrol, where he became prisoner of the American on May 10. Although held as a war criminal, Guderian never faced formal charges. He died on May 14, 1954, at age sixty-three.
John Fuller and other armored enthusiasts had an impact on Guderian’s ideas, but it was the German panzer leader who made armored warfare a reality. He literally wrote the book, Achtung! Panzer, and then proved his theories correct by mounting the command tank and leading his divisions into combat. George S. Patton certainly read Guderian, as has every significant armored leader since.