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Posted on Apr 22, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Wehrmacht Master of Defense

By Sterling Rock Johnson

The drawbacks of mixing formations were diminished by a system of rotation within each division— which now consisted of three regiments, each of two battalions.

For the second day of battle, the re-enforcing battalion would be the sister of the one that was brought in the day before. After two more days, a second completely new regiment would be in the lines; and on the sixth day, the original division would have been relieved altogether, and gone to hold a quiet sector recently vacated by the replacement units.

The repeated successes of this defensive maneuver against overwhelming odds were a remarkable achievement. They indicated how the war might have been drawn out, and the Russians’ strength exhausted if the defensive strategy had matched the tactics. But this prospect was wrecked by Hitler’s insistence that no withdrawal be made without his permission, and an accompanying reluctance to give such permission. With parrot-like repetition, the Supreme Command recited ‘every man must fight where he stands.’ Commanders who used their discretion were subject to court martial, even in cases where it was only a matter of withdrawing a small detachment from an isolated position.


Thus, Heinrici could count himself lucky that he was only confined to convalescence in the Karlsbad nursing home. He knew the war was being lost, and fully expected to never wear the Wehrmacht uniform again; a prospect he found unbearably frustrating.

There he languished for eight months as the Allies landed at Normandy, increased pressure in Italy; as the Russians moved every closer to the Reich, and Hitler survived the generals’ bomb plot. At last, late in the summer of 1944, he was ordered back to duty in Hungary as commander of First Panzer and Hungarian First armies. Although forced to retreat from northern Hungary, he contested the ground so tenaciously that on March 3, 1945, he was decorated with the Swords to the Oak Leaves of his Knight’s Cross—a remarkable achievement for a man so intensely disliked by Hitler.

At about this time, Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff (OKW), the architect of Germany’s panzer armies and blitzkrieg tactics of the early years, began to entreat Hitler to place Heinrici in command of Army Group Vistula, replacing Heinrich Himmler.

That Himmler had ever been in command was in itself either shockingly naive or criminally ignorant. Himmler was one of Hitler’s closest associates, the head of the SS and the Gestapo, and considered the most powerful man in Germany next to the Fuhrer himself. A former chicken farmer, Himmler had not held military command at even a regimental level, let alone was he capable of commanding a major group of several armies.

After the failure of the Ardennes offensive in the West, Guderian had been able to convince Hitler that the only hope for survival in the East lay in having Heinrici direct the defense there. Hitler finally agreed after Himmler resigned the position because of ‘other pressing duties.’

It was, therefore, an evolving set of circumstances that brought Heinrici in April, 1945, to the line of defenses along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, and which would determine the fates of Berlin and the entire German nation.

What he found upon taking command was chaos. He had nearly half a million men, but their quality and loyalty were in question. Mixed with regular German troops were Romanians and Hungarians. Two Waffen-SS divisions were made up of Norwegian and Dutch volunteers. There was even a formation of former Russian POW’s that he expected to desert at the first opportunity. His shortages were acute in gasoline, ammunition, food, medicine, tanks, and even in rifles. One anti-tank regiment had one projectile for each man!

Within one week of taking command, Heinrici had bulldozed his way through these seemingly insurmountable difficulties. He cajoled and goaded his troops, growled at and praised them, to build morale and to gain time to save lives. He moved all the anti-aircraft guns out of Berlin where they were no longer effective. Though they were immobile, needing to be set in concrete, they did help to fill the gap; the Third Panzer Army alone received 600 flak guns.

His adroit anticipation of Zhukov’s barrage and his astute movement of troops from one critical point to another served him well, as it had in the past. But he was under no illusions that the collapse of the Reich was inevitable. His only hope at the point was to prevent the wholesale loss of his armies, and to prevent a block-by-block, house-by-house battle in Berlin, which he knew would kill thousands of civilians.

When his forward position on the Oder became indefensible under mounting Russian attacks, he ordered the German Third army to retreat, setting up a second line of defense. As expected this was met with an immediate and sharp reaction from the Fuhrerbunker. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, one of Hitler’s primary sycophants arrived on the scene. After berating Heinrici for cowardice, Keitel ordered the Third Army not be moved to secondary positions. When Heinrici refused, Keitel removed him from command of Army Group Vistula.

As Heinrici drove toward his headquarters at Plon, he told his driver to do so slowly. Perhaps the war would be over before they arrived.
It is clear had Heinrici’s ‘rotating and delaying’ tactics been employed by other German generals, and had Hitler come to support them, the Russian advances may have been checked. After 1943, there was no way Germany could win the war, but perhaps negotiations could have begun which would have spared the Germans the depredations of the Red Army in Berlin and prevented for a time, the Soviet domination of East Germany; indeed of all Eastern Europe.

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  1. Fortunately, Heinrici was not in good standing at the time of Normandy. If he had been in command in that theatre, using his tactics in much more favorable defensive conditions, the western Allies might not have reached Paris, let alone the Siegfried Line, for many months, possibly changing the outcome ofthe war

  2. Paul, Model was in charge in the West at that time (Rundstedt was nominally in charge, but he did nothing). Model was known as “The Lion of Defense” since his remarkable performance in the Rzhev salient in early 1942, and he was in no way inferior to Heinrici in defensive tactics. This article gives the impression that Heinrici had hit upon something unusual by withdrawing his troops before an expected Russian barrage. In fact, that technique had been used in WWI by the krauts and was firmly embedded in their doctrine when WWII came around. What Model (and probably Heinrici) did was prepare his entire area thoroughly, so that when the Russians attacked they faced a defensive set-up with extensive switchlines, dummy positions, and command posts ready to be manned, with all necessary paperwork showing fields of fire, neighboring sectors, working field phone networks, etc. This sort of preparation was forbidden by Hitler, who considered that it encouraged soldiers to fight “looking over their shoulder” (wanting to run away) rather than giving everything they had to defeating the enemy where they were. Model (and apparently Heinrici) simply ignored such silly orders and did what they thought necessary, not telling their higher commands of their preparations and just quietly doing it. Obviously the higher commands knew about it but didn’t report it. Model’s defensive tactics were not popular with armor officers, who didn’t want tank mobility tied up in such tactics; but when whole tank corps and armies were at the mercy of overwhelming allied air power in the West, this kind of tactics was all that had any hope of success.

    • How do you know Model was in no way inferior to Heinrici in defensive tactics? Is it possible to compare Model’s performance in e.g. the Rzhev salient with Heinrici’s operations?
      Pål Jensen

      • I answered your question in my earlier remarks. In addition, Heinrici did nothing in defense that hadn’t already been done by Model AND Raus long before 1944.

        Heinrici did have a serious disadvantage in the West, in that by that time about all that were left were Volksgrenadier outfits (teenagers and old men) that often lacked decent equipment. Model’s fights in Rzhev were with Panzergrenadier Divisions who had good training and equipment.

        Both mean clearly were outstanding, but I see no reason to rate Heinrici above Model. To my mind the best defensive tactician in the Wehrmacht was Erhard Raus, whose “zone defense” tactics gave the Russians very hard going wherever Raus went.

    • Thank you for your answer. Yes, both Model, Heinrici, Raus (and probably several other Wehrmacht officers) were outstanding defence generals. But I find it difficult to rate one of them above the others at all. Of course, you’re right that Heinrici in 1944 was not the first to retreat from the first defense line before the enemy’s artillery barrage. But he startet the tactics in January 1942. In addition, before the Battle of Berlin, he predicted the start of the Soviet offensive to the right day (16th April), even to the right hour. If not, the retirement could had been a catastrophe. Perhaps Model and Raus could made as good predictions as Heinrici, but they barely could have made them even better. (Of course, I know an officer’s performance is more than correct predictions of the emeny’s offensives.)
      Pål Jensen

  3. Model didnt go west as such until after Kluge had killed himself and had little to do with normandy …the retreat out of the falaise gap yes and the defense surrounding market garden.
    As for Heinrici i have not heard about his revolving door policy with units but it sounds productive, more so than Model who used to throw what ever he could find by breaking units up which loses a certain cohesiveness in troops. Erhard Rauss favoured a zone defense but i would agree the basic tenet is defense in depth and force to space ratio. In normandy when the British attacked during goodward Rommel with Heinrich Eberbach used a defense in depth.
    Guderian proposed a defense in depth, there being usually an outpost line then main line with rear lines, the fighting zone is between the rear and the main so u always pull out of the main line. This is standard for German defensive thought 1918 – 1945 truppenfuhrung..

  4. Well written story about this humbling general. Many speak of Gurdarian, Model, and Rommel but never of Heinrici.

    • My Great-Uncle would be very happy to have read this article and see that Heinrici was remembered. He served in the 4th on the Eastern Front and somehow survived (he was a gunner in Pzkw Mk IV’s). The little he did talk about the war was great respect of his superiors.

  5. Actually, “‘unsere Giftzwerg,” which is all that’s written on his gravestone under his rank and name, General-Oberst Gotthard Heinrici, means “Our poison dwarf.” (which may be a reference from the “Nibelungenlied”). Heinrici was one of the few anti-heroes in the Wehrmacht high command, an honest and resourceful warrior in a bad cause. Stumping along in anything-but-spit-and-polish boots and his “ratty sheepskin coat,” be-medaled popinjays like Göring dislike him intensely partly for his permanently-rumpled uniform, but especially for his frank and forthright responses to the Führer, with answers Hitler did not want to hear, let alone understand.

  6. How very disappointing. Much of the OP’s article consists of unattributed quotes from Cornelius Ryan’s “The Last Battle”. You are a rascal, OP.

  7. Unlike Model, Heinrici was very much loved by his men; one contemporary said he had as much charisma as a 20 lb. sack of fertilizer. It is a shame such a fine soldier had to be mixed up with the likes of people like Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, etc.

  8. The Germans had several superb generals (as well as some bums). Gen Hermann Balck was considered by many to be the best field general on any side in WWII. His autobiography, “Order from Chaos,” was translated by an American general (name escapes me) who said Balck was “the best general nobody ever heard of.”