Second World War: The Storm of War

The German army’s training, discipline and Blitzkrieg tactics – directed by the supremely confident Führer – swept away Polish resistance in 1939. It took the shell-shocked Allies another three years to catch up, writes Andrew Roberts.

On the evening of Thursday, August 31st, 1939, an unnamed inmate of a German concentration camp was taken by members of the Gestapo to a radio transmitting station outside the frontier town of Gleiwitz. He was then dressed up in a Polish army uniform and shot. A propaganda story was subsequently concocted alleging that the Poles had attacked Germany, thus enabling Hitler to invade Poland ‘in self-defence’, without needing to declare war first. ‘Operation Himmler’, as this farcically transparent pantomime was codenamed, thus encompassed the very first death of the Second World War.

Although months of sabre-rattling against Poland meant that this could not be a surprise attack, Hitler hoped, with good reason, that the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics, hitherto the untested preserve of certain German and British theoretical tacticians, would prove successful. Blitzkrieg relied on fast-moving armoured columns punching deep holes in the enemy’s front, closely supported by dive-bombers and truck-borne infantry.

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