Gotthard Heinrici

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Gotthard Heinrici
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1977-120-09, Gotthard Heinrici.jpg
Gotthard Heinrici
Nickname(s) Unser Giftzwerg
(literally "our poison dwarf", meaning "our tough little bastard")
Born (1886-12-25)25 December 1886
Gumbinnen, Province of East Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire now Gusev, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russian Federation
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg, West Germany
Allegiance  German Empire (to 1918)
 Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany
Years of service 1905–45
Rank Generaloberst
Unit 95th (6th Thuringian) Infantry Regiment
14th (3rd Pomeranian) Infantry Regiment
203rd Infantry Division
Commands held 16th Infantry Division
XII Corps
4th Army
1st Panzer Army
Army Group Vistula
Battles/wars World War I

World War II

Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
Iron Cross First Class
Iron Cross Second Class
Black Wound Badge
Signature Gotthard Heinrici signature.svg

Gotthard Heinrici (25 December 1886 – 10 December 1971)[1] 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: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern). Heinrici was considered the best defensive tactician and expert in the Heer (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 Centre) in front of Berlin in April 1945. Author Cornelius Ryan's book "The Last Battle" centres on General Heinrici and his final days in the Battle of Berlin.

Personal life

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.[2] 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 labelled 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

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. From 1916 on he served on the western front, participating in the Battle of Verdun. Heinrici was a victim of poison gas; this led to later health problems which Hitler would sometimes use as an excuse to dismiss him from command. At one point, Erwin Rommel briefly served as Heinrici's adjutant. Rommel would later rise to the rank of field marshal, surpassing Heinrici.

Second World War

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 judgement.

Battle of France

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 14 June 1940.


In 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, Heinrici served in the 4th Army under Günther von Kluge as the commanding general of the XXXXIII Army Corps. It was in that year Heinrici received the Knight's Cross.

Late in January 1942, Heinrici was given command of the 4th 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, playing a critical role in containing General Zhukov's counter-attack. 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!" Between Oct. 21, 1943 and March 9, 1944 Heinrici was the mastermind in holding the front opposite Moscow. During the Orsha offensives the Red Army lost 530,000 dead and wounded while Heinricis 4th Army lost about 35,500 men.[3] Heinrici was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross on 24 November 1943.


Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge (left) and Gotthard Heinrici, mid 1943

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 reportedly defended his actions by stating that had Smolensk been burned to the ground he would not have been able to withdraw his troops through it.[4] Heinrici went on a two-month leave of absence twice during World War II. He took leave from 6 June to 13 July 1942. About one year later, Heinrici took leave from 1 June to 31 July 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 1st Panzer Army; as well as 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 3 March 1945.

Retreat from the Oder

On 20 March 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 (who had no real experience whatsoever as a military commander) 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 favoured 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 Marshal Rokossovsky'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 15 April, 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 Defence Area. Although Reymann refused to side with Speer, he did promise to confer with Heinrici before destroying any infrastructure in Berlin.

On 16 April 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 Centre 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 armour 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 meagre 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 19 April, 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 21 April 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

On 28 April 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.[5]

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.[5] 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 Marshal Keitel, that if you want these men to be shot, why don't you do it?!"[5] 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.[5]

Keitel relieved Heinrici of his command on 29 April, 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 the Netherlands) could arrive and assume control of Army Group Vistula. But Student was captured by the British before he could take command.

After his dismissal, Heinrici retired to Plön, where he gave himself up to British forces on 28 May — nearly three weeks after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.

After the war

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 19 May 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 defence 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 10 December 1971 in Karlsruhe and was buried with full military honours at the cemetery in Freiburg im Breisgau, in southwestern Germany near the French border.

Ranks held


Wehrmachtbericht references

Date Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording Direct English translation
23 November 1943 Westlich Smolensk haben die unter dem Oberbefehl des Generalobersten Heinrici und unter Führung des General der Infanterie Voelckers stehende schlesische 18. Panzergrenadierdivision, die württembergisch-badische 25. Panzergrenadierdivision, die württembergisch-badische 78. Sturmdivision, die 1. SS-Infanteriebrigade (mot.) und die im Erdkampf eingesetzten Teile der 18. Flakdivision in der siebentägigen 3. Schlacht an der Smolensker Rollbahn einen hervorragenden Abwehrerfolg errungen. 34 Schützendivisionen und 6 Panzerbrigaden der Sowjets rannten hier vergeblich gegen die deutschen Abwehrstellungen an und erlitten dabei beispiellose Verluste an Mensch und Material.[11] West of Smolensk, under the command of Colonel General Heinrici and under the leadership of General of Infantry Voelckers, the Silesian 18th Panzer Grenadier Division, the Württemberg-Baden 25th Panzer Grenadier Division, the Württemberg-Baden 78th Panzer Assault Division, the 1st SS-Infantry-Brigade (motorized) and those elements of the 18th Flak Division used in ground combat, have achieved an outstanding defensive success in the seven-day 3rd Battle of the Smolensk runway road. 34 rifle divisions and 6 armored brigades of the Soviets ran in vain against the German defenses and thereby suffered unprecedented losses in men and material.

See also



  1. Hürter 2014, p. 10.
  2. Rigg 2002, p. 433.
  3. Karl-Heinz Frieser, Klaus Schmider, Klaus Schönherr, Gerhard Schreiber, Krisztián Ungváry, Bernd Wegner: Die Ostfront 1943/44 – Der Krieg im Osten und an den Nebenfronten, Im Auftrag des MGFA hrsg. von Karl-Heinz Frieser, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 2007, XVI, 1320 S. ISBN 978-3-421-06235-2. (Serial: „Das Deutsche Reich und der 2. Weltkrieg, Vol. 8) published by the German Military Research Institute
  4. Ryan 1995 (1966), p.48
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Dollinger 1982, p. 171.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Scherzer 2007, p. 377.
  7. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 219.
  8. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 74.
  9. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 48.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Thomas 1997, p. 263.
  11. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 2, p. 612.


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External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Generalleutnant Gerhard Glokke
Commander of 16. Infanterie-Division
12 October 1937 – 31 January 1940
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Heinrich Krampf
Preceded by
General der Gebirgstruppe Ludwig Kübler
Commander of 4. Armee
20 January 1942 – 6 June 1942
Succeeded by
Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth
Preceded by
Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth
Commander of 4. Armee
15 July 1942 – June 1943
Succeeded by
Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth
Preceded by
Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth
Commander of 4. Armee
31 July 1943 – 4 June 1944
Succeeded by
General der Infantrie Kurt von Tippelskirch
Preceded by
Generaloberst Erhard Raus
Commander of 1. Panzerarmee
15 August 1944 – 19 March 1945
Succeeded by
Generaloberst Walther Nehring
Preceded by Commander of Army Group Vistula
20 March 1945 – 28 April 1945
Succeeded by
General der Infantrie Kurt von Tippelskirch