Tanks were invented, by the British incidentally, during the First World War, as a means of breaking the stalemate that had been created by barbed wire and the machine gun in that bloody conflict. Although the Allied blockade of Germany did more to bring about the end of that war, the development of the tank did ultimately insure that the next world conflict would not be a static, dug-in affair. The reason for this was the invention of the armored fighting vehicle altered the concept of armored warfare. Future wars would be wars of movement, in which armies that were slow and ponderous would be swiftly outmaneuvered, cut off, and surrounded, and hence defeated, often by a numerically inferior enemy.
So, how were armored vehicles used in battle to the defeat an enemy? The British may have created the first tanks, but it was the Germans who put together the theories of the most advanced military thinkers during the years between the World Wars, and came up with the idea of Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” In its classic form, this type of warfare is best typified by Germany’s attack on France in 1940. In May of that year, German armor was hurled, en masse, at a relatively small portion of the Allied defensive line. That mass of armor penetrated the Allied line, and then did a thing unexpected by the old standards of warfare – it kept going! In less than two weeks German armor and motorized infantry moved across southern Belgium, through northeastern France to the Channel coast, thus separating the Belgian army, the British Expeditionary Force (BFF), and part of the French army from the bulk of Allied forces in the rest of France.
There were several things new and revolutionary about this attack. As previously mentioned, the assault unleashed by the Germans was a war, above all, of movement. One of the foremost problems of the Allied defenders was to even determine where the Germans were at any one time. Never before had entire divisions advanced forty or more miles in a single day. Another new and terrifying development was the use of ground-attack aircraft, in this case the famous Stukas, in close cooperation with attacking army units. In the First World War, airplanes had mostly fought each other and left the embattled armies alone. Now all that had changed. Screaming dive-bombers were used as flying artillery in order to destroy enemy strong-points and attack enemy supply columns and lines of communication.
The role of the tank was to break the enemy’s line at a weak point, advance along the path of least resistance through the enemy’s rear areas, and sever supply lines and communications. This was the most startling thing about this new kind of war. In previous wars, the object had been generally to meet the enemy head-on and defeat him in a strength vs. strength fight. Blitzkrieg, on the other hand, sought to avoid the enemy’s strongest points. German tanks did not seek out French and British tanks to fight. Instead, they looked for enemy infantry to overrun, and once they had done so, they proceeded on to shoot up trucks and wagons full of fuel, ammunition, food, medicine, etc. They also took every opportunity to send columns of retreating enemy soldiers and civilian refugees flying in terror before them. In May 1940 the mere rumor that German tanks were coming was more than enough to cause Allied defenses to collapse.