Guderian and Synchronization

by Capt William S. Jesson

In his March article on synchronization, Maj McKenzie suggested that effective implementation of the principles of maneuver warfare doctrine requires reliance on “a body of techniques and procedures grouped under the umbrella heading of synchronization….” Below is a sampling of initial reactions. In addition, the editorial board is now considering three lengthy manuscripts prompted by the article, which obviously touched a sensitive and important point. Look for more on the “Synchronization Debate” in future issues.

Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie’s article “Fighting in the Real World” (MCG, Mar94) deserves high praise for attempting to work the broad, generally agreed upon, conceptual ideas of FMFM 1 into what will be vigorously debated procedures/techniques for use in the “Real World.” I bought the author’s logic on most points, however, I take exception to his statement that Guderian‘s XIX Corps attack at Sedan was an example of synchronization. I wish to offer a brief historical description of the 1940 campaign and make some conclusions on the issue of synchronization.

The breakthrough at Sedan can be analyzed at two levels. At the operational level, the attack through the Ardennes by Army Group A and XIX Corps was the main effort, although deceptively cloaked at the time. This is an example of synchronization when it is taken in context with the noisy, attention-grabbing secondary attack conducted through the low countries by Army Group B. However, the tactical conduct of the Meuse crossing and the follow-on actions of XIX Corps do not fit the synchronization paradigm.

An infantry regiment of the 1st Panzer Division attacked across the Meuse, near Sedan, without artillery or most of its engineer support. Ground combat support was delayed due to traffic congestion along the Ardennes corridor. Only massive Luftwaffe support silenced the French guns covering the crossing points and enabled an infantry assault to gain the high ground. The German infantry boldly continued the advance at night to enlarge the bridgehead without armor, artillery, or antitank gun support. This opportunistic stroke preempted the effectiveness of the next day’s counterattacks and opened the road to the channel ports. Would this fleeting opportunity have been lost if the crossing attacks were delayed to organize a combined arms attack that met the prerequisites of synchronization?

On their march to the sea Guderian‘s units formed combined arms teams to defeat piecemeal French counterattacks (battlefield activities). As the tank-infantry teams were outpacing their competitors in a risky advance behind enemy lines, Guderian had to fend off (in somewhat of a disobedient manner) numerous attempts from Army Group A (von Rundstedt) to slow the advance. This loss of “nerve” at higher headquarters was really a conservative tendency to grasp at synchronization in order to deal with the increasing level of uncertainty that was caused as lines of communication lengthened.

As XIX Corps neared the channel ports from the south, von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the Army, transferred Guderian‘s Corps to Army Group B, which was nearing the coast from the east. This would have synchronized the pincers around the Allied pocket. However, Hitler, who was visiting von Rundstedt’s headquarters, countermanded this order. Von Rundstedt then ordered the panzers halted under Hitler’s authority. XIX Corps was unleashed 2 days later with Army Group A regrouped and in a better position to orchestrate the effort. This critical 2-day delay enabled the miracle of Dunkirk.

The cautious von Rundstedt, focused on synchronization within his own command, sought to protect his flanks, rear, and resources (XIX Corps) from the Allies and other friendly commands without grasping the opportunity presented the organization as a whole. His influence may have clinched Hitler’s decision to switch the effort to Air Marshal Goring’s Luftwaffe at Dunkirk. Hitler and Goring have received the preponderance of blame for a decision that was made against a backdrop of disunity among Army leaders. Would an intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) process have modified the behavior of the Army Group A commander?

I see the debate on synchronization as the “intellectual tension” Maj McKenzie describes. I think it can be characterized as tension between decentralization and centralization at various levels of command. Decentralized control allows such brilliant tactical and operational maneuver as was displayed at the Meuse crossing and the race to the sea. Centralized control is necessary for obedient and unified application of force, which was demonstrated successfully by the use of close air support during the Meuse crossing, but was unattainable at the strategic command level as envelopment pincers closed in on the Dunkirk pocket. Only a vibrant and trust-filled culture can enable an organization to maker proper judgments on decentralization/centralization issues when the chaos of war distorts the “real” situation. Synchronization is a tool for centralized control that is especially useful in staff planning and can be used within the dynamics of a campaign only when necessitated by external factors (exploiting enemy weaknesses, battlefield opportunities, etc.). Synchronization used as a tool to comfort internal phobias and appease internal political pressures will erode the potential effectiveness of maneuver warfare doctrine.