World War II in Europe : The War on Land

In World War I the armies for most of the time were unable to break the enemy's defensive lines (trenches); in the Battle of Tannenberg a German force of 40,000 defeated an attacking force of 160,000 Russians.
Actually, the weapons for the offensive side to break through, tanks and airplanes, were already at hand in World War I. German general and strategist ERWIN ROMMEL developed the strategy of attacking, fast-moving tank columns which, in combination with fighter planes constantly attacking enemy positions, piercing enemy lines and then enveloping enemy units. The French MAGINOT LINE, buit under huge expenses in the 1930es, proved ineffective.
This strategy, early in World War II, proved so successful, that German terminology (BLITZKRIEG = lightning warfare; KESSELSCHLACHT = battle of encirclement) found it's way into the English vocabulary. Even France had no concept against it; in the Soviet Union in 1941 it proved again highly successful.

Yet the USSR was too large, the climate again becoming a critical factor; German engineers had not laid out their tanks for Russian winter temperatures. Russian engineers, on the other hand, had constructed simple but robust and working tanks, the T 34. Russian artillery also was to take it's toll.
The German Army suffered from too large an area to occupy, an occupation policy alienating the occupied population and thus adding to the partisan forces, lack of supplies and reinforcements; they were heavily overstretched.
In the BATTLE OF STALINGRAD (Nov.1942-Feb. 1943), the Soviet artillery defeated the German defenders. In the BATTLE OF KURSK (July 1943) the Soviets proved that they had learnt Rommel's strategy to tank warfare, preventing another German summer offensive and continuing theirs.
After the Allied landing at Normandy, U.S. General PATTON adopted Rommel's strategy by relentlessly pushing forward, not permitting the Germans the time to establish themselves in new defensive lines. Only after he was stopped because of lack of fuel could the Germans attempt the BATTLE OF THE BULGE.

Italy's mountainous terrain was very infavourable to the use of tank columns. Here Allied forces made very slow progress, costly in terms of money and lives. Here in Italy, as well as during certain stages of the war on the Russian front, defensive positions including networks of trenches could be established and held over some period of time. In Russia since Stalingrad, the Russian artillery dipped the scale in favour of the Russians.
In France, the ATLANTIC WALL proved to be rather effective; a first attempt to invade failed at DIEPPE in 1942. When the Allies invaded at Normandy on June 6th, they left nothing to chance, having an overwhelming majority of troops, outgunning the German coastal artillery with their naval artillery, dominating the skies over Normandy. Yet the landing forces at OMAHA BEACH suffered heavy casualties; the outcome of the invasion operation was hardly in doubt.

Air support only grew in importance during the war. Allied control of the sky over Normandy made it extremely difficult for the Germans to move reinforcements to the beach. The battle of the Bulge was decided in favour of the Allies when the sky cleared up, permitting the US air force to strike the German forces.

VIDEOS Patton, 1970, cc; The Desert Fox, 1951, bw; Stalingrad, 1993, German w. Engl. subtitles
Longest Day, 1962, bw, covers invasion of Normandy

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on February 15th 2002