Modern militaries remain fascinated with the early Second World War German way of warfare. Particularly how they achieved such rapid tactical and operational success as the advanced through France and the Soviet Union. The German way of warfare included three predominant factors which continue to fascinate modern military professionals; Auftragstaktik (mission command), blitzkrieg (combined arms integration) and officer education. These three elements of the German way of warfare were by no means perfected by the German military but at the tactical level they were achieved to a standard, particularly for the time, which is envied by modern militaries professionals.
Auftragstaktik (mission command) – espouses independent thinking of subordinate commanders. Junior commanders in modern militaries are enamoured with the concept as it provides purpose for their intellectual and tactical endeavour toward professional excellence. It affirms their sense of responsibility and independence on the battlefield and implies that they would, if required to fight and lead in war, be called upon to make independent decisions which would subsequently have a legitimate effect on the course of a battle (or even a war). Most western military doctrine and training promote the importance of intelligent independent thought in their junior leaders. However, the risk adverse approaches created by current political environments; what could arguably be considered ‘wars of choice’ which many militaries of today fight; and, increased demands for precision and synchronisation rarely allow true independent tactical action comparable to that of the Second World War German military. Modern militaries speak of mission command, but in reality, are often required to actively constrain it. The rhetoric surrounding the historical examples of Germany’s Auftragstaktik have evolved them into modern myths which espouse them as exemplars of tactical freedom of action and command trust in subordinate elements. The approach is a romantic one, but it is in constant tension with the need to synchronise operations and tactical effects. For the Germans it inherently embraced high levels of risk (albeit along with high payoff) and was not able to be well synchronised with other actions. Therefore, Auftragstaktik, the German approach to mission command, is for the most part, rarely exercised by modern militaries.
“The German Blitzkrieg was fast, highly risk-accepting and highly independent”
Blitzkrieg (combined arms integration) – similarly embodies an idea which modern militaries strive to achieve. The integration and synchronisation of all arms to achieve a decisive effect at a given time and place is fundamental to modern military doctrines. Furthermore, the achievement of these effects at an unexpected time and location targeting an identified weakness or the enemy ‘centre of gravity’ is the textbook solution to defeating a conventional enemy. Blitzkrieg for the German military was about massing firepower at a decisive point, achieving a break-in and vernichtungsschlacht (battle of annihilation). The German commanders who exercised Blitzkrieg and Auftragstaktik during the Second World War were generally commanding battalion and brigade sized organisations while in modern militaries the examples are often used in relation to platoon and company sized organisations. For modern militaries in the offence combined arms is about manoeuvring to synchronise all arms capabilities to target an enemy weakness at a decisive point, thereby achieving surprise and overwhelming them to a point where their ability to respond is reduced and they culminate. Arguably, more comparisons could be made with modern combined arms tactics and the Russian combined arms and deep battle approach applied later in the Second World War. The German Blitzkrieg was fast, highly risk-accepting and highly independent. There is a considerable gap between the modern concept and requirement of combined arms applied within the highly synchronised, joint multi-domain battlespace, that does not align with what the German’s achieved with their Blitzkrieg early in the Second World War. But the comparison is there, and it remains a powerful one.
German officer education underpinned both Blitzkrieg and Auftragstaktik. Modern militaries have high standards of officer education, yet there remains intrigue toward the German approach of the early 20th Century. Modern staff and command colleges which have (for the most part) attained a balance of dept, breadth and context of military history and education are rarely compared to the German officer education system, and for good reason. The German military of the Second World War had lost their appreciation of strategy and operational art, which is the primary focus of modern staff colleges. However, the German approach to the education of junior officers (and modern-day non-commissioned officers) fascinates military professionals because they like the idea of independent creative junior thinkers who can take advantage of a changing and dynamic battlespace. The German military officer training continuum of the 1930s focused on developing intellect and character in junior institutions and staff colleges. Furthermore, German officer training was designed to ensure that officers learned to plan carefully and issued clear orders, but also encouraged them to delegate authority and use initiative to exploit opportunity. Perhaps the most important facet to the training continuum was the inculcation of the ability to think on the move and take advantage of a changing situation with a bias for action. This approach was embraced and reinforced throughout the German military up to divisional level and resulted in a high degree of tempo at the tactical level of war.
“Militaries want junior commanders who are agile and have the confidence to adapt and take advantage of the changing battlespace.”
But herein lies the problem. Modern militaries want independent creative junior commanders, but only if they are doing what they are told and their one, two and sometimes even three up has approved it. Culturally modern militaries have evolved to a point where decisions and actions are required to be more scrutinized. There are many potential contributing factors, but one is risk aversion, particularly as the world continues to become increasingly connected. Junior commanders today are generally not enabled to make relatively simple decisions in barracks or on field training exercises without considerable scrutiny from their command, and rigid adherence to ever-expanding policy documents and risk templates is expected. Militaries want junior commanders who are agile and have the confidence to adapt and take advantage of the changing battlespace. However, modern militaries are seemingly unable to replicate environments which reinforce and enable that degree of tactical agility. The German officer training system created excellent tactical leaders but poor operational and strategic thinkers. The German approach to junior officer training remains fascinating in its ability to harness tactical advantage in war. However, to successfully develop independent creative junior commanders’ modern militaries will need to overcome the newer barriers which exist in barracks, training and on operations. If they remain in place they are likely to degrade contemporary junior commanders’ mental agility, and ability to act decisively.
Germany’s successful rapid advances through France and the Soviet Union during the Second World War will remain valuable historical studies for military professionals. The German military achieved remarkable tempo and overcame their adversaries by exploiting opportunity through rapid decisive actions. However, like any example provided by history, the German way of warfare during the Second World War needs to be studied in the political, societal and technological contexts of the time. Comparisons can be drawn, and valuable lessons can be learned, but the character of war is in a state of constant evolution and lessons are rarely able to be transposed directly from the past into the future.
Robert Citino, The German Way of War, 2005,
Dennis Showalter, “From Deterrence to Doomsday Machine,” Journal of Military History, (July 2000)
Geoffrey Megargee, Inside Hitler’s High Command, 2000,
David Stahel, “Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East”, 2009
Jeff Rutherford, Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front: The German Infantry’s War, 1941-1944, 2014
Richard Simpkin, Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukachevskii, 1987