Friday, December 10, 2021

What we need . . .

‘For the second time our aeroplanes have dropped bread. How much help is that? It is like a drop in the ocean. What we need is (1) supplies being transported by train via Kosiolsk, (2) catching up with the motorized troops, (3) petrol.’ This is from the diaries of Gotthard Heinrici, a German general who fought in both world wars, and who died 50 years ago today. According to Johannes Hürter who edited the diaries, Heinrici’s papers are ‘one of the largest and richest sources left by any of the Wehrmacht [German army] generals’.

Heinrici was born in Gumbinnen, Germany, in 1886, the son and grandson of theologians. However, on completing his school years, he joined the army, as a infantry division cadet, attending a war college during 1905 and 1906. He fought in the German invasion of Belgium in WW1, and he earned an Iron Cross (2nd class) in 1914 before being transferred to the Eastern Front, where he was awarded an Iron Cross (1st Class). In 1917, he was posted to the German General Staff, and later served as a staff officer with VII Corps and the VIII Corps. In early 1918, he was posted to an infantry division, serving as a staff officer responsible for operations. In this position, he was awarded the Prussian Knight’s Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords.

After the war, Heinrici remained in the army. He married Gertrude, who had a Jewish parent, and they had two children, later labelled by the Nazis as mischlinge. Heinrici also refused to join the Nazi party, which led to clashes with Hitler. Nevertheless, Heinrici received a German Blood Certificate from the leader himself, which validated the supposed Aryan status of his children and protected them from discrimination.

In WW2. Heinrici commanded the XII Army Corps which was part of the 1st Army. His forces succeeded in breaking through the Maginot Line (built in defence of France) south of Saarbrücken in June 1940. And, in 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, he served in the 4th Army under Günther von Kluge as the commanding general of the XXXXIII Army Corps during the Battle of Białystok-Minsk, the Battle of Kiev and the Battle of Moscow. Over the next two years, he developed successful defensive strategies against the Red Army (building a reputation as a defensive specialist), and, after briefly being relieved of his command for failing to set fire to Smolensk as ordered, he was appointed commander of the 1st Panzer Army. He went on to succeed Heinrich Himmler as Army Group Vistula. However, in April 1945, he again went against orders, this time to defend Berlin, from Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and was relieved of his command. He gave himself up to British forces on 28 May.

Heinrici was held at a British prisoner of war camp in Wales (Island Farm) until his release in May 1948. In the 1950s, he helped create the Operational History (German) Section of the US Army Center of Military History, established in January 1946 to harness the operational knowledge and experience of German prisoners of war for the US Army. He was also featured prominently in Cornelius Ryan’s 1966 book, The Last Battle. Heinrici died on 10 December 1971 in Karlsruhe, and he was buried with full military honours. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Spartacus-Educational and Island Farm

The German historian Johannes Hürter first edited Heinrici’s papers for publication in 2001. They were then translated by Christine Brocks for an English edition (Pen & Sword, 2014 and 2021) with the title A German General on the Eastern Front: The Letters and Diaries of Gotthard Heinrici, 1941-1942.

According to Hürter, Heinrici’s private papers form ‘one of the largest and richest sources left by any of the Wehrmacht generals’. ‘Thus’, he adds, ‘it is all the more surprising that Heinrici is one of the forgotten generals of the German-Soviet war. His numerous, at times daily, personal notes on the course of the campaign give us a rich and authentic picture from the perspective of a senior officer, which no other corps and army commander has provided.’

13 September 1941
‘We came through Chernigov yesterday, arguably the city that has been hit the hardest by the destructive forces of the war. Literally everything is in ruins. Only some churches are left, but their interiors are completely destroyed. Such a destruction of the cities as in this eastern war is probably comparable only with the Thirty Years War.

Colonel-General von Schobert hit a mine and was killed. Manstein is his successor. Schobert was not a bright man, but very ambitious and vain, yet also very brave.’

19 October 1941
‘It has been raining for the whole day. Supplies cannot get through because every vehicle gets stuck. Even at the General Command bread rations are cut. We have found flour in the city and started to bake bread in the kolkhoz bakery.

From now on we are assigned to the Panzer Group Guderian. It is located in Orel. We are not exactly happy about the separation from the 2nd Army, since with the Panzers we are only a fifth wheel. Under the current circumstances and due to the given distances we cannot even reach them. The 2nd Army also regrets us leaving. When I gave notice of our departure over the phone, the Colonel-General [von Weichs] cordially thanked us and mentioned the ‘great victories’ the corps has achieved. We are also reluctant to separate from the 2nd Army because they have always supported us in the best possible way.’

1 November 1941
‘For the second time our aeroplanes have dropped bread. How much help is that? It is like a drop in the ocean. What we need is (1) supplies being transported by train via Kosiolsk, (2) catching up with the motorized troops, (3) petrol.

We will not get all of it. We cannot even get a Storch here. We have no connection to the divisions. We are in a fix, helpless. We have never experienced a situation like this. The weather does not change at all. It is warm and wet all the time. We hope for frost, but it is always raining. Then the roads are impassable at once. We’ve been stuck in this bloody backwater for eight days. Bugs and lice are our roommates. There is no hope for an improvement of supplies. We live from the land. We bake our own bread. What the men miss most is that they no longer have any drink rations like coffee or tea, and they have to survive on soups. Otherwise they are not too bad. They just eat everything they find here. But this, again, is limited. Some items are already running short, for instance oats.’

21 January 1942
‘In the morning I drove to the army. 42° below freezing. Rollbahn [roadway] clear. Dead Russians, broken vehicles lying at the edge of the road, covered with snow. The continuous and extreme cold weather is unusual even here. Met General Kübler. He has lost his command, because he told the Fuehrer that he did not believe it possible to hold the rollbahn and Yukhnov with the army. Maybe he will be proved right. But because he did not show unconditional faith and said so, they sent him away! Situation of army is tense. Thank God that we can still hold the rollbahn, which is our only transportation route for provisions and supplies.’

27 January 1942
‘This morning bad news: the rollbahn was disrupted and the road to Gzhatsk closed by the enemy northwest of Yukhnov. Both two deadly threats. At the rollbahn the situation has been getting worse during the day. We were successful in reconquering a village in the north. In the evening both roads were still closed. And the enemy was pressing against the rollbahn from the north out of the forest . . . In our rear he landed airborne troops. We did not have anyone, because all our troops are tied up in fighting at the existing front line. The closed roads mean the end of our provisions. Only two days and the army will start starving to death.

Our forces to win back the roads are extremely meagre and motley. We do everything to increase them. But where do we get them? It is enough to drive one to despair. And Field Marshal Kluge reminds us that the Fuehrer demands we hold the position east of Yukhnov under all circumstances. It is by no means to be given up. And yet we are encircled in this very position. There is no other way to put it. It will depend on tomorrow if we can get free at the rollbahn. I fear not.’

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