Wehrmacht Master of Defense
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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