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Reviewed by:
  • The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, and: Lightning War: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940
  • P. M. H. Bell
The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West. By Karl-Heinz Frieser. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005 [1996 in German]. Maps. Photographs. Charts. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Indexes. Pp. xx, 507. $47.50.
Lightning War: Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940. By Ronald E. Powaski. New York: Wiley, 2003. ISBN 0-471-39431-9. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. 388. $30.00.

These are two very different books on the German victory in the West in May-June 1940. Frieser's The Blitzkrieg Legend develops the thesis that the German success arose, not from the application of a carefully conceived blitzkrieg strategy, but from "the accidental coincidence of the most varied factors" (p. 2). Hitler did not possess a strategic blitzkrieg concept at the start of the war, and the Germans still had an army which was only semi-modern, short of motor vehicles and tanks and heavily dependent on horse transport. Similarly, the doctrine of armoured warfare was only slowly gaining ground among German commanders, the majority of whom remained cautious and conservative. In the campaign itself, the Germans owed their success more to individual initiative than to careful planning—for example, a devastating Luftwaffe attack on 13 May only took place because an officer disregarded an order to change the plan. On the other side, the Allies had more (and often better) tanks than the Germans, but numbers were not decisive. Most French tanks had no radios, and the fuel tanks in the heavy Type Bs were so small that they often simply ran out of petrol.

Much of this is no longer novel, especially to readers of Ernest R. May's Strange Victory, but Frieser's detailed exposition, based on a thorough mastery of the German sources, commands exceptional authority. Moreover, his thesis is more nuanced than the book's title might imply. Frieser does not seek to dispense with the word blitzkrieg, but rather to clarify its significance, preferring the terms lightning operations or campaigns to lightning war. His concluding analysis of "The Secret of the Success of the German Blitzkrieg" (p. 329—no shrinking from the term here!) argues that the secret lay in a combination of tactics and technology, Panzer divisions plus speed and surprise. For Frieser, the term blitzkrieg is not dead, but has assumed another meaning.

Powaski's Lightning War makes many of the same points about numbers and quality of tanks, and includes exactly the same story about the Luftwaffe attack on 13 May. But the author's main purpose is not to present a thesis but to tell a story, which he does with clarity and verve, and with a keen eye for vivid personal accounts. He spreads his net widely to bring in different aspects of the campaign, including the capture of Eban Emael, the bombing of Rotterdam, and the Dunkirk evacuation, as well as political events in Paris and London. Old 1940 hands will find little new, but those who come fresh to the story will be carried along by the pace of the narrative.

Kieser's book is essential reading for scholars, modifying our understanding of the term blitzkrieg without removing it from our vocabulary. For the general reader or university student, Kowaski provides a first-rate introduction [End Page 531] to the events of 1940. Most readers of this journal will be glad to have both on their shelves.

P. M. H. Bell
University of Liverpool
Liverpool, United Kingdom


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pp. 531-532
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2010
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