Some old American military history/theory literature admired the "Vorwärtsdrang" of German tank division (and their commanders) in France 1940 at great length, without using this word. "Vorwärtsdrang" has no accurate English translation. It describes the acute urge to move forward.

This was very useful for the spearhead forces of an encirclement movement in 1940-1942. The quicker the advance, the less likely the opposing forces could establish a defence in front of them. Even hasty counters devised by the defenders would be obsolete by the time they can be executed. The correct answer was a proper flank attack well behind the spearhead, but the counterattacks that did happen usually lacked the offensive effectiveness in 1940-1942 and stalled.

Even infantry forces made good use of "Vorwärtsdrang". Capture that hill this evening despite being tired and exhausted and you don't have to do a bloody assault on it against defenders the next morning! This was a recipe for offensive success on the operational level in an age when front-lines with field fortifications were coining land warfare in Europe.

It's not necessarily a good concept for the post-Korean War era.

Front-lines have been very scarce after 1953. The Iraq-Iran War saw front-lines, but they were weak in most places because of the forces:length ratio. There were also relevant front-lines in Lebanon and at the Suez Canal. There's little reason to expect front-lines in Europe, unless Greece and Turkey wage war after all. European warfare rather involves strongpoint/hedgehog defences in long-running wars (Bosnia, Eastern Ukraine). We would likely see mostly highly mobile battlegroups facing each other in a NATO-Russia conflict. There would not be a real front-line until after the main action, during a ceasefire. I repeatedly wrote about that for more than a decade.

What's the use of Vorwärtsdrang when the operational picture is about two overlapping clouds of moving centipedes (mobile battlegroups) rather than about front-lines of infantry divisions in field fortifications interrupted by breakthroughs and breakthrough exploitation/encirclement phases? The urge to move forward would only position your battlegroup deeper, and severe your own lines of communication. There is no mobility advantage of spearhead (tank) forces over the opposing forces. If anything, battlegroups with tracked vehicles are at a road mobility disadvantage compared to all-wheeled formations. Their only technical mobility advantage to be had may be about forced obstacle (narrow river) negotiation (bridgelayer tanks).

Instead, agility, alertness and quick reaction might be the decisive virtues in a modern army. All those battlegroups could be overrun or pushed into an ambush if they don't best the opposing forces by eluding their efforts and positioning themselves for combined efforts to exploit fleeting opportunities.

It was very, very difficult and exceptional to have commanding officers with Vorwärtsdrang in the late 1930's when the paradigm of trench war was still influential and dominant. Today it is very, very difficult to have entire (battalion) battlegroups capable of leaving a bivouac in minutes to elude an attack, to have commanding officers who quick make on-the-spot decisions despite the NATO command staffs culture, to have division- and corps-level commanding officers who leave subordinate battlegroups off the leash to enable their quick decisionmaking. The 2nd and 3rd qualities mentioned can be seen in the campaigns of 1940-1942, but the Vorwärtsdrang in particular seems ill-advised now. It was possible to dominate the opposing forces by breaking their timetables with a quick relentless advance in 1940/41, but now we need something different with the current force structures and sizes. The ability to react quickly (to opportunities or threats) matters a lot more.

Hagiographies of Wehrmacht generals are not helpful for this, as they didn't represent the virtues that were best during and since the Cold War.


P.S.: An example of the kind of literature that I mentioned above is "Bias for action" by Dr. Russel H.S. Stolfi, 1991, written for the USMC and explicitly presenting the exploits of a particular German tank division of 1940/1941 as a good example for 1990's USMC tactical leadership. I've seen more than a dozen such anglophone and also some germanophone books with such conclusions or insinuations.


  1. That idea of a centipede seems to be limited to all-volunteer forces. What about such a force encountering an enemy with a huge number of state of the art infantry with a digital information network connected to their artillery? Such an organization could move differently. Is there a potential for such an infantry-centric force to win and shift the development towards a different paradigma?

    1. I wrote "centipede" because a battalion battlegroup has approx. 100 vehicles, which add up to about 6 km if they all march on one road and with minimal acceptable spacing.

      I consider the concept of forward observer infantry calling fires from magic land to be nonsense.
      To use mostly long-ranged (60+ km) munitions is prohibitively expensive. Artillery needs huge quantities of munitions and shoot & scoot both requires much movement and 'burns' many firing positions. This would lead to horrible attrition in face of even only platoon-sized hostile forces.

      Dispersed forces make sense, but for some purposes you need formations acting as such, and this means at the very least company battlegroups capable of temporarily joining for larger actions. This leads to 30...40 motor vehicles convoys at least.

    2. I described what Finland seems to do.
      They don't seem to have that many purpose built military vehicles and what they have as vehicles might be busy pulling their many artillery pieces.

  2. I cant help but feel this is optimisation of cold war realities. Its asking more of sub Brigade units and commanders than ever before (including the Battle of France) and doesnt account for changes in technology that may make it obselete.

    I cant see what the war would be anymore. Russia sending spearheads into Europe seems like theatre. It seems pathetic. I suppose it was during the cold war as well, Reforger and the Soviet tactical nuclear strike plan shows that. If the war wasnt continent wide, i.e. Armenia, even if domestic forces could be equipped and trained to a degree you suggest, to what end? Non continental powers have limited sovereignty.

    Off topic ramble.

    How does the assumption that OPFOR would have multiple layers of recon drones effect the doctrine? The benefit of operational momentum above all else seems based partly in the fog of war. Does that still work if the attacking force can be fixed in real time?

    1. ... what Kofman said.

  3. With regard to your statements on flank attacks as the supposedly correct reaction to the advancing spearheads, I would like to note that this was a problem because these advancing mechanized formations were followed by other units, especially the infantry divisions with a little distance.

    Such a line of units behind one another with gaps between them can easily lead to your flank being attacked by one of the follow-up units when you are trying to flank the spearhead.

    The juxtaposition of the urge to move forward as a primarily necessary property in the past and reaction as a primarily necessary property today also seems to me to be too strongly influenced by the offensive-defensive theory. Forward urge = a primacy of the offensive. Reaction = a primacy of the defensive. At the end of the day you are explaining the defensive to the superior form of combat.

    But why should the defensive be stronger today? Precisely because the rooms with a low number of troops are getting bigger and bigger, there is more and more space for movement and opportunities to deploy your own troops in a scattered manner and still concentrate before contact with the enemy. In my opinion, that should promote the offensive and not, on the contrary, the defensive.

    Acting is better than reacting, especially today because acting produces new informations, but reacting needs an correct interpretetion of the information available. The urge to move forward should therefore not be portrayed as wrong, but simply viewed from a new perspective. While this was used to turn in a certain direction, today it aims in any direction (attack in any direction).

    Strictly speaking, there is not even a complete contradiction in terms, since the other aspects of agility and alertness are the decisive features of a successful push forward.

    I am of course aware that a more defensive stance is more in line with your political agenda and basic attitude. Regardless of this, in my opinion, the attacker has more of an advantage today, because the fog of the battlefield is less than it used to be and therefore action is better than reacting. These: In terms of the offensive-defensive theory, the attacker today has an advantage. Vorwärtsdrang is useful in the offensive. Therefore it is not obsolete and not and does not contradict quick reactions, but to the opposite both belong together.

  4. I strongly doubt that the words "offensive" and "defensive" should have the same meanings on the theatre level today as they used to have.

    Nowadays with state of the art doctrine going on the offence should mean that the manoeuvre formations have their permitted area of action pushed forward.

    Meanwhile, they would both be expected to elude blows and to strike through manoeuvre (to exploit opportunities) regardless of the theatre-wide situation.

    Other differentiations make more sense:

    manoeuvre formation / dispersed forces / support formation
    fresh / transiting / recuperating
    solo / joined