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

Wehrmacht Master of Defense

By Sterling Rock Johnson

Just before dawn on April 16, 1945, Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov gave the signal to attack. More than 20,000 field guns, mortars, and Katyushkas- multiple rocket launchers- began firing on German positions west of Kustrin on the Oder River. People in Berlin, forty miles away, heard the barrage, and many of the gunners began to bleed from the ears so great was the noise. The greatest artillery onslaught of the war lasted for more than half an hour, and Zhukov believed no army on earth could withstand such fire.

And he would have been correct, except it all fell on empty lines. General-Oberst Gotthard Heinrici had pulled his troops back hours before to let the Russians blast unoccupied ground. Now, when three Russian armies moved forward in a huge mass of 750,00 men and 1800 tanks, the Germans stopped them in their tracks.


If the Russians had known who faced them, they wouldn’t have been surprised by this defensive tactic, for Heinrici had been doing similar things to them for more than three years.

Heinrici had built his reputation as a brilliant defensive fighter during the disastrous winter of 1941-42. He was placed in command of the 4th Army at the gates of Moscow, when the Soviets threw a hundred divisions at his freezing and ill-clad troops. He held out for almost ten weeks using every method available to him. Goading, exhorting, promoting, and tactfully retreating, he kept his army intact in the face of 12-l odds. It was here, that Heinrici developed the technique that served him so well in the defense of Berlin. From intelligence reports, patrols, interrogation of prisoners, and an extraordinary sixth sense, he was able to pinpoint the time and place of impending Russian attacks. He’d order his troops to retreat the night before to new positions one or two miles back. ‘We let them hit an empty bag,” he said.

General Heinrici joined the German Army in
1906 and during the First World War served on
both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

In fighting on the long retreat from Stalingrad, his soldiers held their ground well, knowing that Heinrici would never throw their lives away needlessly. He contested every mile, every step, and then would withdraw to safer ground when a situation became hopeless. A staff officer said of him, ‘Heinrici retreats only when the air is turned to lead…and then only with determination.”

The retreat was interrupted at Smolensk in 1943. He was accused by Reich Marshal Goering of failing to carry out the Fuhrer’s scorched-earth policy. He narrowly escaped court martial, but was instead declared in ill health, and dispatched to a nursing home in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia.

The incident with Goering was not unexpected, as Heinrici never got along with the toadies and lackeys that made up much of Hitler’s inner circle. After listening to on interminable discussion in the Fuhrerbunker that involved phantom divisions and panzer armies which no longer existed, Heinrici called it ‘Cloud Cuckoo-land.’

He was the sort of soldier that Hitler intensely disliked, having come from a family of military aristocrats—a class Hitler despised and blamed for leading Germany to defeat in World War I. Heinrici had spend forty of his fifty-eight years in the army, serving with solid professionalism, but in almost impenetrable obscurity. There had been no dashing blitzkrieg attacks, no full-page layouts in Das Signal, the Nazi magazine devoted to military triumphs.

And, worst of all, Heinrici had no time for, nor interest in, the spit and polish, the black boots, and baton-pounding posturing so common to the German general officers.

In fact, those meeting him for the first time would never suspect he was a general. Short, slightly built, with fair hair and a neat mustache, Heinrici seemed at first glance a schoolmaster, and a rather shabby one at that. He wore his uniforms until they were threadbare, and refused to part with a ratty sheepskin coat he wore for the duration of the war.

But if he didn’t look the part of a general, he acted like one. He was every inch the soldier, and his troops called him affectionately ‘unser Giftzwerg—our tough little bastard.’

When the Russians opened their winter offensive in 1943, it was Heinrici’s 4th Army which bore the brunt of it, holding a hundred mile front between Orsha and Rogachev, with only ten depleted divisions. The Russians delivered five offensives against him between October and December, each lasting five or six days, with several renewed efforts each day.

They deployed some twenty divisions in the first offensive, when the Germans had just occupied a hastily-prepared position consisting of a single trench line. They employed thirty divisions in the next offensive, and the subsequent attacks were made with some thirty-six divisions.

The main weight of the Russian assault was concentrated on a front of a dozen miles astride the Moscow-Minsk highway. Heinrici used three-and-a-half divisions on this very narrow front, leaving six-and-a-half to cover the remainder of his extensive line. He thus had a dense ratio of force versus space at the vital point.

Heinrici was well aware of the Russian tendency to mass troops and armor at a central point, and then try to simply overwhelm the defenders. His artillery was almost intact, and he concentrated 380 guns to cover the crucial sector. Controlled by a single artillery commander at 4th Army headquarters, he was able to concentrate his fire at any threatened point of the sector.

At the same time, Heinrici made a practice of ‘milking’ the divisions on the quiet part of his front in order to provide one fresh battalion daily during the battle, for each of the divisions that were heavily engaged. This usually balanced the previous day’s loss, while giving the division concerned an intact local reserve that it could use for counterattack.

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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?
      PÃ¥l 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.)
      PÃ¥l 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.”