|Nickname||Unser Giftzwerg, literally "our poison dwarf", meaning "our tough little bastard"|
|Born||25 December 1886|
|Died||13 December 1971(aged 84)|
|Place of birth||Gumbinnen (Gusev), East Prussia|
|Place of death||Endersbach, (Weinstadt), Germany|
|Buried at||Freiburg im Breisgau|
German Empire (to 1918)|
Weimar Republic (to 1933)
|Years of service||1905 - 1945|
Army Group Vistula
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords|
Iron Cross First Class
Iron Cross Second Class
Black Wound Badge
Gotthard Heinrici (25 December 1886 – 13 December 1971) was a general in the German Army during World War II. He was a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (German language: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern). Heinrici was considered one of the best defensive tacticians in the German Army and was largely a professional and chivalrous officer. This led to his final assignment as Commander-in-Chief of the last remaining forces of Army Group Vistula (final remnants of Army Group Center) in front of Berlin in April 1945. Author Cornelius Ryan's book "The Last Battle" centers around General Heinrici and his final days in the Battle of Berlin.
Personal life[edit | edit source]
Heinrici was born in Gumbinnen, East Prussia (now Gusev, Russia), on Christmas Day, 1886, to Paul Heinrici, a local minister of the (Protestant) Evangelical Church in Germany, and his wife Gisela, née von Rauchhaupt. Gisela's father was Edmund Rudolf Volrad Julius Fedor von Rauchhaupt (1804 - 1879), who came from an old Lutheran Prussian landlord family; her mother was Antonie Dietze, a daughter of Gottfried Dietze, a Prussian Chamber commission counselor (Kammerkommissionsrat).
Heinrici had two children, Hartmut and Gisela, with his wife Gertrude. Heinrici was a religious man who attended church regularly. His religious faith and his refusal to join the Nazi Party made him unpopular among the Nazi hierarchy, and he was on unfriendly terms with Hitler and especially Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, whom he regarded with contempt. Because Heinrici's wife Gertrude had a Jewish parent, their children were labeled Mischlinge (partly Jewish) under Nazi "racial" law. However, General Heinrici received a "German Blood Certificate" from Hitler himself, which validated their supposed "Aryan" status and protected them from discrimination.
Early army career[edit | edit source]
The Heinrici family had been soldiers since the 12th century. Gotthard Heinrici continued the family tradition by joining the 95th Infantry Regiment in March 1905, at the age of 19. Heinrici saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts in the First World War and won numerous awards. His awards included the Black Wound Badge for being wounded in battle. Heinrici also received both the Second Class and First Class Iron Crosses in 1914 and 1915, respectively. He participated in the Battle of Tannenberg in his native East Prussia. Heinrici was a victim of poison gas in World War I; this led to later health problems which Hitler would sometimes use as an excuse to fire him. At one point, Erwin Rommel briefly served as Heinrici's adjutant. Rommel would later rise to the rank of Field Marshall, surpassing Heinrici.
Second World War[edit | edit source]
Heinrici served throughout World War II. As in World War I, he served on both fronts. Heinrici built up a reputation as the best defensive tactician in the German Army, and was renowned for his tenacity. For this reason, his officers and men nicknamed him Unser Giftzwerg, literally "our poison dwarf" (roughly, "our tough little bastard"), in recognition of his character and lack of physical stature. Heinrici was considered reserved and quiet, popular among his staff and men who served under him. He was also well noted in the German Army for his wearing of World War I boots and leather leggings instead of the spit-and-polish jack boots of the Nazi era. In addition, he wore the "old style" field cap, and either the camouflaged jacket given to regular soldiers or a worn and dirty padded winter jacket with rank on his sleeve instead of the popular Nazi collar rank. Although his tactics against the Russians were sometimes brutal, Heinrici was not a Nazi and his conduct during the battle for Berlin has been regarded as professional. For instance, he promised the administrators of the city that he would not withdraw his army through Berlin; this partially eliminated the need of the Russians to storm through the city block by block as the Germans had in Stalingrad, and prevented even higher casualties on both sides. Also, he resisted Hitler's repeated orders to stand fast when it was clearly suicidal, often saving the lives of his men. Heinrici often dismissed any pro-Nazi officers pressed onto him by Hitler and his staff, knowing they were trying to subvert his military judgment.
Battle of France[edit | edit source]
During the Blitzkrieg into France, Heinrici's command was part of Colonel General (Generaloberst) Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb's Army Group C. He commanded the XII Army Corps which was part of the First Army. Heinrici succeeded in breaking through the Maginot Line on June 14, 1940.
Barbarossa[edit | edit source]
Late in January 1942, Heinrici was given command of the German Fourth Army. This unit was crucial to the rapidly crumbling German line directly facing Moscow. The Fourth Army under Heinrici held out against the Soviet onslaught for ten weeks. Heinrici managed this even though his forces were sometimes outnumbered 12 to 1. During this time, Heinrici developed one of his most famous tactics: when he judged a Soviet attack was imminent, Heinrici would pull his troops back from the line prior to the preliminary artillery barrage. Then, immediately afterwards, he would return them unharmed back to their lines to face the attacking Soviet troops. When an officer protested this tactic, saying it resembled a retreat (something Hitler had forbidden) Heinrici replied, "When a worker is cleaning a punch press in a factory, does he stick his head under the slab when it turns on? No! He pulls it out of the way in time!"
Smolensk[edit | edit source]
In late 1943, Göring had Heinrici placed in a convalescent home in Karlsbad on the pretext of "ill health". This was actually punishment for refusing to set fire to Smolensk in accordance with the Nazi "scorched earth" policy. Heinrici went on a two-month leave of absence twice during World War II. He took leave from June 6 to July 13, 1942. About one year later, Heinrici took leave from June 1 to July 31, 1943. One of these leaves was believed to be due to his contracting hepatitis.
In the summer of 1944, after eight months of enforced retirement, Heinrici was sent to Hungary and placed in command of the German First Panzer Army and the Hungarian First Army which was attached to it. He was able to keep the First Panzer Army relatively intact as he retreated into Slovakia. Heinrici fought so tenaciously that he was awarded the Swords to the Oak Leaves of his Knight's Cross on March 3, 1945.
Retreat from the Oder[edit | edit source]
On March 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler replaced Heinrich Himmler with Heinrici as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula on the Eastern Front. Indicating that he was ill, Himmler had abandoned his post on March 13 and retired to a sanatorium at Hohenlychen. At this time, Army Group Vistula's front was less than 50 miles from Berlin. Just before handing over command to Heinrici, Himmler revealed that he intended to negotiate peace with the Western Allies; Heinrici was appalled by this act of treason, but nonetheless he did not expose Himmler's secret when they later attended a military conference at Hitler's bunker.
As Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula, Heinrici commanded two armies: the Third Panzer Army led by General Hasso von Manteuffel and the Ninth Army led by General Theodor Busse. Heinrici was tasked with preventing a Soviet attack across the Oder River. But he faced shortages of manpower and material and Hitler's conviction that the Red Army would not attack Berlin. Only the terrain itself favored Heinrici; he dug the 9th Army into three defensive lines atop Seelow Heights, overlooking the sandy, swampy banks of the Oder. Von Manteuffel's 3rd Panzer Army, which ironically had fewer panzers than the 9th, was similarly positioned in the north to delay a possible flanking strike by Marshall Rukussovsky's 2nd Byelorussian Front.
The Soviets had advanced rapidly in early 1945, conquering East Prussia, Danzig and much of Pomerania, but had been stalled east of the Oder for months. As Anglo-American armies drew closer to Berlin from the West, however, Joseph Stalin became convinced that they intended to take Berlin for themselves and ordered Zhukov and Konev to seize the city without further delays.
On April 15, Heinrici met with Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer and Lieutenant General (Generalleutnant) Helmuth Reymann to discuss Hitler's so-called "Nero Decree", which called for a scorched earth policy in Germany. While outwardly responsible for carrying out the decree, Speer was clandestinely campaigning against it. Heinrici also opposed the scorched earth policy. At that time, Reymann was the commander of the Berlin Defense Area. Although Reymann refused to side with Speer, he did promise to confer with Heinrici before destroying any infrastructure in Berlin.
On April 16, the Battle of the Oder-Neisse, began. The Soviets attacked with more than 1,500,000 men for what they called the "Berlin Offensive Operation". In the early morning of 18 April, Zhukov's front crossed the Oder and assaulted Heinrici's positions on the western bank. Simultaneously, Konev's front attacked Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner's Army Group Center further south. Although the Soviets launched a stunning barrage of rockets, shells and bombs, most of them missed their targets; true to his old tactic, Heinrici had successfully shifted his troops back right before the bombardment began. As soon as it stopped, he moved them back to their positions; their concealed anti-tank, artillery and machine gun positions inflicted heavy losses on Soviet infantry and armor crossing the river. Their accuracy was actually aided by vast searchlights the Soviets had deployed, hoping they would blind and demoralize the enemy- instead, they spotlighted Soviet tanks and vehicles struggling through the water and mud.
However, the German defensive positions had now been exposed, and Soviet aircraft began bombing and strafing them while more Soviet troops crossed the river. Heinrici's first line finally broke apart, but the Soviets were again slowed (and bloodied) by his second and third defensive lines. However, Heinrici had known from the start that all he could hope to do with his meager forces was delay the Soviets. He had only enough ammunition for five days at most and virtually no fuel, while the Soviets (though having a few significant logistical troubles of their own) outnumbered him almost 10:1 and had total control of the air.
By April 19, the Soviets had broken through the last line, and the Battle of the Oder-Neisse ended. Now began the second stage of the Battle of Berlin, the battle for the city itself. With no genuinely unified forces left under his command, Heinrici made no attempt to defend Berlin; he began withdrawing his surviving troops westward, to establish new positions. The Soviets rapidly advanced into the German capital, largely ignoring what was left of Army Group Vistula.
By late April, Heinrici realized that the remnants of Army Group Vistula could not halt the Soviet advance. After days of intense fighting, he ordered the retreat of his army group across the Oder River — this, despite Hitler's orders that no retreat could be authorized without his personal approval.
Around April 21, Hitler, now holed up in the underground Berlin bunker, learned of the retreat of Army Group Vistula only after a puzzling request by Heinrici, who sought permission to move his headquarters to a new site. Hitler was only able to find Heinrici's proposed headquarters after much searching on the map. Hitler saw to his fury that the new site was west of Berlin and thus farther from the Soviets than Hitler's own position in the Führerbunker.
Clash with Keitel and Dismissal[edit | edit source]
On April 28, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander in chief of the Wehrmacht, was riding along the roads north of Berlin when he noticed to his amazement that troops of the 7th Panzer Division and of the 25th Panzergrenadier Division were marching north, away from Berlin. These troops were part of General Hasso von Manteuffel's 3rd Panzer Army. The 3rd Panzer Army was one of two armies which made up Heinrici's Army Group Vistula and were supposed to be on their way to Berlin. Instead, they were being moved northward in an attempt to halt the Soviet break-through at Neubrandenburg.
Heinrici had defied the strictest orders of Keitel and his deputy, General Alfred Jodl. Furious, Keitel went in search of Heinrici and found him on a road near Neubrandenburg. Heinrici was close to the front and accompanied by von Manteuffel. Processions of wounded and disarmed soldiers and endless treks of refugees were moving past. Keitel, his face purple, called Heinrici to account and spoke of insubordination, treason, cowardice, and sabotage. Keitel accused Heinrici of weakness and shouted that if Heinrici had only taken General Lothar Rendulic as an example and shot a few thousand deserters or strung them up on the nearest tree, his armies would not now be on the retreat. To this, Heinrici scornfully replied, "I can only say, Field Marshall Keitel, that if you want these men to be shot, why don't you do it?!" After Keitel's heated exchange with Heinrici, armed men of the Wehrmacht who were purposely positioned nearby exited the woods armed with machine guns and inquired if everything was all right. These men escorted Heinrici from then on in fear he would be executed by Hitler. Heinrici stated after the war that he never found out who had positioned the men in the woods or ordered them to provide a security escort for him. Heinrici's movements were intended to bring his army group, and as many civilians as possible, to the west. Heinrici intended to get them into the area between the northern reaches of the Elbe River and the Baltic Sea.
Keitel relieved Heinrici of his command on April 29, the day before Hitler's suicide in Berlin. Heinrici's command was offered to von Manteuffel — but von Manteuffel not only declined the promotion, he protested the treatment of Heinrici all the way to the Führer's Bunker in Berlin. Kurt von Tippelskirch was named as Heinrici's interim replacement until General Kurt Student (who was in Holland) could arrive and assume control of Army Group Vistula. But Student was captured by the British before he could take command.
After the war[edit | edit source]
After his capture, Heinrici was held at Island Farm — a British prisoner of war camp at Bridgend, South Wales — where he remained, except for a three-week transfer to a camp in the United States in October 1947, until his release on May 19, 1948. Thereafter he resided in the village of Endersbach bei Waiblingen, a district of Weinstadt in Baden-Württemberg, and lived to the age of 84.
Throughout the war, Heinrici was opposed to Hitler's scorched earth policy, whereby everything of use had been ordered destroyed so as not to fall into the hands of the advancing enemy. He refused to lay waste to Smolensk as Göring had ordered, and late in the war he supported Minister of Armaments Albert Speer who worked to save Berlin from total destruction. When he was briefly put in charge of the defense of Berlin itself, Heinrici's first command was that nothing be purposely destroyed.
After the war, Heinrici's diary entries and letters were collected into a book entitled Morals and behaviour here are like those in the Thirty Years’ War. The First Year of the German-Soviet War as Shown in the Papers of Gen. Gotthard Heinrici. He was also featured prominently in Cornelius Ryan's 1966 book, "The Last Battle."
Heinrici died on Dec. 13, 1971, and was buried with full military honors at the cemetery in Freiburg im Breisgau, in southwestern Germany near the French border.
Ranks held[edit | edit source]
- Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier (19 Jul 1905)
- Fähnrich (19 Dec 1905)
- Leutnant (18 Aug 1906)
- Oberleutnant (17 Feb 1914)
- Hauptmann (18 Jun 1915)
- Major (01 Feb 1926)
- Oberstleutnant (01 Aug 1930)
- Oberst (01 Mar 1933)
- Generalmajor (01 Jan 1936)
- Generalleutnant (01 Mar 1938)
- General der Infanterie (01 Jun 1940)
- Generaloberst (30 Jan 1943)
Decorations[edit | edit source]
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross: 18 September 1941, General der Infanterie, Commanding General of XXXXIII Army Corps on the Eastern Front.
- Oakleaves (No. 333): 24 November 1943, Generaloberst, Commander-in-Chief of the 4th Army on the Eastern Front.
- Swords (No. 136): 3 March 1945, Generaloberst, Commander-in-Chief of the 1st Panzer Army on the Eastern Front.
- Prussian Royal House Order of Hohenzollern, Knight's Cross with Swords: 9 August 1918.
- Prussian Iron Cross 2nd Class (1914): 27 September 1914.
- Prussian Iron Cross 1st Class (1914): 24 July 1915.
- 1939 Clasp to the Prussian Iron Cross 2nd Class (1914): 13 May 1940.
- 1939 Clasp to the Prussian Iron Cross 1st Class (1914): 16 June 1940.
- 1939 Wound Badge (Black)
- Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: Carl Eduard War Cross
- Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: Duke Carl Eduard Medal, 2nd Class with Swords and Date
- Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach: House Order of Vigilance or the White Falcon, Knight 2nd Class with Swords
- Saxon Duchies: Ducal Saxe-Ernestine House Order, Knight 2nd Class with Swords
- Reuss: Princely Reuss Honour Cross, 3rd Class with Swords
- Schwarzburg: Princely Schwarzburg Honor Cross, 3rd Class with Swords
- Hamburg: Hanseatic Cross
- Cross of Honor for Combatants 1914-1918
- Wehrmacht Long Service Award, 1st Class (25-year Service Cross)
- Wehrmacht Long Service Award, 3rd Class (12-year Service Medal)
- Austria: Military Merit Cross, 3rd Class with War Decoration
- Medal for the Winter Campaign in Russia 1941/1942
See also[edit | edit source]
- Battle of France - 1940
- Operation Barbarossa - 1941
- Battle of Berlin - 1945
- Hans Krebs, Chief of Staff
- Helmuth Weidling, Commander of the Berlin Defense Area
- Felix Steiner, Commander of the Eleventh SS Panzer Army
- Theodor Busse, Commander of the German 9th Army
References[edit | edit source]
- Rigg, Bryan Mark (2002). Hitler's Jewish soldiers: the untold story of Nazi racial laws and men of Jewish descent in the German military. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas. pp. 433. ISBN 0-7006-1178-9.
- "The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan", Hans Dollinger, Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 67-27047, p. 171
- Thomas 1997, p. 263.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000) (in German). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtsteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches]. Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6.
- Schaulen, Fritjof (2003). Eichenlaubträger 1940 – 1945 Zeitgeschichte in Farbe I Abraham - Huppertz (in German). Selent, Germany: Pour le Mérite. ISBN 3-932381-20-3.
- Thomas, Franz (1997) (in German). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 1: A–K [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 1: A–K]. Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2299-6.
[edit | edit source]
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gotthard Heinrici.|
- Gotthard Heinrici in the German National Library catalogue
- Gotthard Heinrici @ islandfarm
- Gotthard Heinrici @ Ritterkreuträger 1939–45
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