Military history

Part Two


MARCH 22 dawned misty and cold. South of the city, Reichsstrasse 96 stretched away through the dripping pine forests, patches of frost gleaming dimly on the broad asphalt. Early on this chill second day of spring the road was crowded with traffic—traffic that even for wartime Germany had an unreal quality.

Some of the heavy lorries that came down the road carried bulky filing cabinets, document cases, office equipment and cartons. Others were piled high with works of art—fine furniture, crated pictures, brasses, ceramics and statuary. Atop one open truck a sightless bust of Julius Caesar rocked gently back and forth.

Scattered among the trucks were heavy passenger cars of every kind—Horchs, Wanderers, Mercedes limousines. All bore the silvered swastika medallion that marked them as official vehicles of the Nazi Party. And all were traveling along Reichsstrasse 96 in one direction: south. In the cars were the party bureaucrats of the Third Reich—the “Golden Pheasants,” those privileged to wear the gilded swastika of the Nazi elite. Together with their wives, children and belongings, the Golden Pheasants were emigrating. Hardfaced and somber in their brown uniforms, the men gazed fixedly ahead, as though haunted by the possibility that they might be halted and sent back to the one place where they did not want to be: Berlin.

Speeding northward on the opposite side of the road came a Wehrmacht staff car, a big Mercedes with the checkerboard black, red and white metal flag of a Heeresgruppe commander on its left mudguard. Hunched in an ancient sheepskin coat, a muffler at his throat, Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici sat beside his driver, and looked out bleakly at the road. He knew this highway, as did all of the Reich’s general officers. Heinrici’s cousin, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had once caustically called it “der Weg zur Ewigkeit”—the road to eternity. It had carried many a senior officer to military oblivion, for Reichsstrasse 96 was the direct route to the German General Staff headquarters eighteen miles from Berlin. Outside high-ranking military circles, few Germans knew the location of this headquarters. Not even local inhabitants were aware that, heavily camouflaged and hidden deep in the woods, the military nerve center of Hitler’s Germany lay just outside their 15th-century town of Zossen. Zossen was Heinrici’s destination.

If the oncoming traffic, with its disquieting evidence of government departments on the move, made any impression on the General, he did not communicate it to his 36-year-old aide, Captain Heinrich von Bila, sitting in back with Heinrici’s batman, Balzen. There had been little conversation during the long hours of their 500-mile journey. They had left before dawn from northern Hungary, where Heinrici had commanded the First Panzer and Hungarian First armies. They had flown to Bautzen, near the Czecho-German border, and from there had continued by car. And now each hour that passed was bringing the 58-year-old Heinrici, one of the Wehrmacht’s masters of defense, closer to the greatest test of his forty-year military career.

Heinrici would learn the full details of his new post at Zossen—but he knew already that his concern would not be with the Western Allies, but with his old enemies, the Russians. It was a bitter and, for Heinrici, a classic assignment: he was to take command of Army Group Vistula with orders to hold the Russians on the Oder and save Berlin.

Suddenly an air raid siren blared. Heinrici, startled, swung around to look back at the cluster of half-timbered houses they had just passed. There was no sign of bombing or Allied planes. The wailing continued, the warbling sound fading now in the distance. It was not the sound that had startled him. He was no stranger to bombing attacks. What had surprised him was the realization that this deep inside Germany, even little villages were having air raid alerts. Slowly Heinrici turned back. Although he had commanded units from the very beginning of the war in 1939, first on the western front, then after 1941 in Russia, he had not been in Germany for more than two years and he had little idea of the impact of total war on the home front. He realized that he was a stranger in his own country. He was depressed; he had not expected anything like this.

Yet few German generals had experienced more of the war—and, conversely, few of such high rank had achieved less prominence. He was no dashing Rommel, lionized by the Germans for his successes and then honored by a propaganda-wise Hitler with a field marshal’s baton. Outside of battle orders, Heinrici’s name had scarcely appeared in print. The fame and glory that every soldier seeks had eluded him, for in his long years as a combat commander on the eastern front, he had fought the Russians in a role that by its very nature relegated him to obscurity. His operations had dealt not with the glories of blitzkrieg advance, but with the desperation of grinding retreat. His specialty was defense, and at that he had few peers. A thoughtful, precise strategist, a deceptively mild-mannered commander, Heinrici was nevertheless a tough general of the old aristocratic school who had long ago learned to hold the line with the minimum of men and at the lowest possible cost. “Heinrici,” one of his staff officers once remarked, “retreats only when the air is turned to lead—and then only after considerable deliberation.”

In a war that for him had been a slow and painful withdrawal all the way from the Moscow suburbs to the Carpathian Mountains, Heinrici had held out again and again in near-hopeless positions. Stubborn, defiant and demanding, he had grabbed every chance—even when it was just a matter of holding one more mile for one more hour. He fought with such ferocity that his officers and men proudly nicknamed him “Unser Giftzwerg”—our tough little bastard.* Those meeting him for the first time were often nonplussed by the description “tough.” Short, slightly built, with quiet blue eyes, fair hair and a neat moustache, Heinrici seemed at first glance more schoolmaster than general—and a shabby schoolmaster at that.

It was a matter of great concern to his aide, Von Bila, that Heinrici cared little about looking the part of a colonel general. Von Bila constantly fretted about Heinrici’s appearance—particularly his boots and overcoat. Heinrici hated the highly polished, knee-high jackboot so popular with German officers. He preferred ordinary low-cut boots, worn with old-fashioned, World War I leather leggings that buckled at the side. As for his overcoats, he had several, but he liked his somewhat ratty sheepskin coat, and despite all of Von Bila’s efforts he refused to part with it. Similarly, Heinrici wore his uniforms until they were threadbare. And, as he believed in traveling light, Heinrici rarely had more than one uniform with him—the one on his back.

It was Von Bila who had to take the initiative when Heinrici needed new clothes—and Von Bila dreaded these encounters, for he usually came out the loser. When Von Bila last ventured to bring up the subject he adopted a cautious approach. Tentatively, he inquired of Heinrici, “Herr Generaloberst, shouldn’t we perhaps try to find a moment to be measured for a new uniform?” Heinrici had looked at Von Bila over the top of his reading glasses and had asked mildly, “Do you really think so, Bila?” For just a moment Von Bila thought he had succeeded. Then the Giftzwerg asked icily, “What for?” Von Bila had not raised the question since.

But if Heinrici did not look the part of a general, he acted like one. He was every inch the soldier, and to the troops he commanded, particularly after his stand at Moscow, he was a legendary one.

In December, 1941, Hitler’s massive blitzkrieg offensive into Russia had finally ground to a frozen halt before the very approaches to Moscow. All along the German front more than 1,250,000 lightly clad troops had been trapped by an early and bitter winter. As the Germans floundered through ice and snow, the Russian armies that Hitler and his experts had virtually written off appeared as if from nowhere. In an all-out attack, the Soviets threw one hundred divisions of winter-hardened soldiers against the invaders. The German armies were thrown back with staggering losses, and for a time it seemed as if the terrible retreat of Napoleon’s armies in 1812 would be repeated—on an even greater and bloodier scale.

The line had to be stabilized. It was Heinrici who was given the toughest sector to hold. On January 26, 1942, he was placed in command of the remnants of the Fourth Army, which, holding the ground directly facing Moscow, was the kingpin of the German line. Any major withdrawal on its part would jeopardize the armies on either flank and might trigger a rout.

Heinrici took over on a bitterly cold day; the temperature stood at minus 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Water froze inside the boilers of locomotives; machine guns would not fire; trenches and foxholes could not be dug because the ground was like iron. Heinrici’s ill-equipped soldiers were fighting in waist-deep snow, with icicles hanging from their nostrils and eyelashes. “I was told to hold out until the big attack that this time would surely take Moscow,” he later recalled. “Yet all around me my men were dying—and not only from Russian bullets. Many of them froze to death.”

They held out for almost ten weeks. Heinrici used every method available to him, orthodox and unorthodox. He exhorted his men, goaded them, promoted, dismissed—and again and again defied Hitler’s long-standing and inflexible order, “Starre Verteidigung”—stand fast. That spring it was estimated by the staff of the Fourth Army that during the long winter the Giftzwerg had at times been outnumbered by at least twelve to one.

Outside Moscow Heinrici had developed a technique for which he became famous. When he knew a Russian attack was imminent in a particular sector, he would order his troops to retreat the night before to new positions one or two miles back. The Russian artillery barrages would land on a deserted front line. As Heinrici put it: “It was like hitting an empty bag. The Russian attack would lose its speed because my men, unharmed, would be ready. Then my troops on sectors that had not been attacked would close in and reoccupy the original front lines.” The trick was to know when the Russians were preparing for an attack. From intelligence reports, patrols and the interrogation of prisoners, plus an extraordinary sixth sense, Heinrici was able to pinpoint the time and place with almost mathematical precision.

It was not always possible to employ these methods, and when he did, Heinrici had to use great caution—Hitler had imprisoned and even shot generals for defying his no-withdrawal order. “While we could hardly move a sentry from the window to the door without his permission,” Heinrici was later to record, “some of us, where we could, found ways to evade his more suicidal orders.”

For obvious reasons Heinrici had never been a favorite of Hitler or his court. His aristocratic and conservative military background demanded that he faithfully observe his oath of allegiance to Hitler, but the call of a higher dictatorship had always come first. Early in the war Heinrici had fallen afoul of the Führer because of his religious views.

The son of a Protestant minister, Heinrici read a Bible tract daily, attended services on Sundays and insisted on church parades for his troops. These practices did not sit well with Hitler. Several broad hints were dropped to Heinrici that Hitler thought it unwise for a general to be seen publicly going to church. On his last trip to Germany, while on leave in the town of Münster, Westphalia, Heinrici was visited by a high-ranking Nazi Party official sent from Berlin specifically to talk with him. Heinrici, who had never been a member of the Nazi Party, was informed that “the Führer considers your religious activities incompatible with the aims of National Socialism.” Stonily Heinrici listened to the warning. The following Sunday he, his wife, son and daughter attended church as usual.

Thereafter, he was promoted slowly and reluctantly. Promotion might have been denied him entirely except for his undeniably brilliant leadership, and the fact that the various commanders under whom he served—particularly Field Marshal Günther von Kluge—kept insisting on his promotion.

Late in 1943, Heinrici incurred the enmity of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, once again on religious grounds. Goering vehemently complained to Hitler that during the retreat of the Fourth Army in Russia Heinrici had failed to carry out the Führer’s scorched-earth policy. Specifically he charged that the General had deliberately defied the orders “to burn and lay waste every habitable building” in Smolensk; among other buildings left standing had been the town’s great cathedral. Heinrici explained solemnly that “had Smolensk been fired I could not have withdrawn my forces through it.” The answer failed to satisfy either Hitler or Goering, but there was just sufficient military logic in it to prevent a court-martial.

Hitler, however, did not forget. Heinrici, a victim of poison gas in World War I, had suffered ever since from various stomach disorders. Some months after the incident with Goering, Hitler, citing these ailments, placed Heinrici on the non-active list because of “ill health.” He was retired to a convalescent home in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, and there, in Heinrici’s words, “they simply let me sit.” A few weeks after his dismissal, the Russians for the first time broke through his old command, the Fourth Army.

During the opening months of 1944, Heinrici remained in Karlsbad, a remote spectator to the apocalyptic events that were slowly bringing Hitler’s empire down in ruins: the invasion of Normandy by the Western Allies in June; the Anglo-American advance up the boot of Italy and the capture of Rome; the abortive plot to assassinate Hitler on the twentieth of July; the overwhelming offensives of the Russians as they drove across eastern Europe. As the situation grew increasingly critical, Heinrici found his inaction unbearably frustrating. He might have had a command by entreating the Führer, but that he refused to do.

At last, in the late summer of ’44, after eight months of enforced retirement, Heinrici was ordered back to duty—this time to Hungary and command of the hard-pressed First Panzer and Hungarian First armies.

In Hungary Heinrici resumed his old ways. At the height of the battle there, Colonel General Ferdinand Schörner, Hitler’s protégé, and Heinrici’s superior in Hungary, issued a directive that any soldier found behind the front without orders was to be “executed immediately and his body exhibited as a warning.” Heinrici, disgusted by the command, angrily retorted: “Such methods have never been used under my command, and never shall be.”

Although he was forced to retreat from northern Hungary into Czechoslovakia, he contested the ground so tenaciously that on March 3, 1945, he was informed that he had been decorated with the Swords to the Oak Leaves of his Knight’s Cross—a remarkable accomplishment for a man who was disliked so intensely by Hitler. And now, just two weeks later, he was rushing to Zossen, with orders in his pocket to take over the command of Army Group Vistula.

As he watched Reichsstrasse 96 rushing away beneath the wheels of his speeding Mercedes, Heinrici wondered where it would ultimately lead him. He remembered the reaction of his staff in Hungary when his appointment became known and he was ordered to report to General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff of OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres)—the Army High Command. They were shocked. “Do you really want the job?” asked his chief of staff.

To his worried subordinates, the outspoken Heinrici seemed headed for certain trouble. As the commander of the Oder front, the last major line of defense between the Russians and Berlin, he would be constantly under the supervision of Hitler and the “court jesters,” as one of Heinrici’s officers called them. Heinrici had never been a sycophant, had never learned to varnish the facts; how could he avoid clashing with the men around the Führer? And everyone knew what happened to those who disagreed with Hitler.

As delicately as they could, officers close to Heinrici had suggested that he find some excuse to turn the command down—perhaps for “health reasons.” Surprised, Heinrici replied simply that he would follow his orders—“just like Private Schultz or Schmidt.”

Now as he approached the outskirts of Zossen, Heinrici could not help remembering that at his departure his staff had looked at him “as though I was a lamb being led to the slaughter.”

*Unser Giftzwerg literally means “our poison dwarf”—and the term was often applied to Heinrici in this sense by those who disliked him.

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