The son of a Lutheran minister, Heinrici was a religious man who attended church regularly. His religiosity made him unpopular among the Nazi hierarchy and he was on unfavourable terms with Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler. This was probably due to his refusal to join the Nazi Party.
On 26 January, 1942, Heinrici was given command of the German Fourth 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. Heinrici managed this even though his forces were sometimes out-numbered 12 to 1. During this time, Heinrici developed one of his most famous tactics: when he sensed 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.
In the summer of 1944, after eight months of enforced retirement, Heinrici was sent to Hungary and placed in command of the German First Panzer Army and 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.
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.
Led by Marshals Georgi Zhukov (1st Byelorussian Front) and Ivan Konev (1st Ukrainian Front), the Soviets had advanced rapidly west from the USSR and had been stalled east of the Oder for months. As Anglo-American armies approached Berlin from the West, however, 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 architect Albert Speer and Lieutenant General (Generalleutnant) Helmuth Reymann to discuss the scorched earth policy (see Nero Decree) that Speer and Heinrici were against. At that time, Reymann was the commander of the Berlin Defense Area. Although Reymann refused to side with Speer, he did promise to confer with Heinrici before destroying vital city infrastructure.
On 16 April, the first stage of the Battle of Berlin, the Battle of the Oder-Neisse, began. Combined, the Soviets attacked with over 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 Center further south. By 19 April, the Soviets had broken through and the Battle of the Oder-Neisse was over. Now began the second stage of the Battle of Berlin, the battle for the city itself.
About 21 April, Hitler learned of a proposed retreat of Army Group Vistula only after a puzzling request by General Heinrici. Heinrici requested permission from Hitler to transfer the headquarters of his army group to a new site. Hitler was only able to find Heinrici's proposed headquarters after much searching on the map. Hitler then saw to his dismay that the site was to the west of Berlin and, thus, further from the Soviets than Hitler's own headquarters in the Führerbunker. Hitler was furious.
By late April, Heinrici realized that Army Group Vistula could not halt the advance of the Soviets. After days of intense fighting, he ordered the retreat of his army group from Wollin. He ordered his men to fall back across the Oder River. Heinrici ordered this despite Hitler's orders that no retreat could be authorized without his personal approval.
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. . 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 in Austria 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.
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. Heinrici told his superior officer, "Marshal Keitel, if you want these men to be shot, will you please begin!"
Keitel then relieved Heinrici of his command. Heinrici's command was offered to von Manteuffel, but von Manteuffel not only declined the promotion, he protested the treatment of Heinrici. Kurt von Tippelskirch was named as Heinrici's interim replacement until General Kurt Student could arrive and assume control of Army Group Vistula. But Student was captured by the British before he could take command.
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 defense 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 Gnl. Gotthard Heinrici. He was also featured prominently in Cornelius Ryan's book, "The Last Battle."