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Heinrich “Hein” Severloh: The Penitent Butcher of Omaha Beach

Heinrich Severloh was just a common soldier. However, fate placed him in a particularly horrible place.

Heinrich “Hein” Severloh should have been a farmer. Born on June 23, 1923, in the town of Metzingen in Northern Germany, Heinrich was a man of the earth. However, in the Summer of 1941 his country called. Conscripted into the Wehrmacht, Severloh was trained as a dispatch rider and assigned to the 3d Battery of the 321st Artillery Regiment. By the Winter of 1942 he was on the Eastern Front.

This was the massacre at Malmedy. As horrific at that was, the Ostfront was worse.

Our war was in Western Europe. D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Husky, and the assault on the Rhine are the tales American GIs brought home. As bad as that was, however, the war in the East was something altogether more horrible. Those four years of frenetic pitiless combat saw more than 35 million dead. We honestly cannot imagine.

These poor slobs were freaking miserable.

Severloh should have been one of the lucky ones. He was posted in the Division rear as a sleigh driver moving supplies. However, something unexpectedly bad happened. Severloh was accused of making “dissenting remarks” about the company cook, whatever that really means. His resulting physical punishment and some associated frostbite resulted in a six-month hospital stay. The Nazi military was a tough place to serve.

Severloh was fortunate to have survived his time in combat on the Eastern Front against the Russians.

Hein Severloh received a hardship deferment to go home and assist with the annual harvest, but the exigencies of total war soon intervened. Despite his past infraction, he was posted for training as an NCO. The pending Allied invasion cut those plans short. By November of 1943, Severloh was assigned to the 352d Infantry Division tasked with the defense of the Normandy coastline.

The Killing Field

The Normandy beaches were apportioned by nationality.

The Allies divided the Normandy beaches targeted during the D-Day invasion into Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Utah and Omaha belonged to the Americans, the British got Gold and Sword, and the Canadians took Juno. Of the five, Omaha was by far the bloodiest.

This is a German machine-gun position overlooking the Normandy landing areas. The Wehrmacht had been preparing for the invasion for months.

Omaha Beach is fully five miles long stretching from Vierville-sur-Mer in the west to Sainte-Honorine-des Pertes in the east. The defensive array included 8 massive concrete bunkers equipped with artillery of 75mm or larger, 35 reinforced pillboxes, 18 emplaced antitank guns, 6 mortar installations, 35 Nebelwerfer multi-barrel rocket artillery pieces, 85 well-sited machinegun nests, and 6 decapitated tank turrets set in concrete. Supporting all this were five companies of infantry.

Gefreiter Severloh’s Resistance Nest overlooked arguably the most strategically significant real estate of the invasion.

The infantry contingent was deployed in fifteen separate strongpoints called Widerstandsnester or “Resistance Nests.” These emplacements were numbered WN-60 through WN-74. Heinrich Severloh’s duty station was WN-62. Allied commanders had divided Omaha Beach into ten discrete sectors. WN-62 enjoyed a commanding vista overlooking Easy Red and Fox Green sectors.

This is the view of WN-62 today.

WN-62 was nearly square at 324 meters wide and 332 meters long. It was oriented between 12 and 50 meters above beach level. Severloh’s specific gun emplacement sat 170 meters from the shoreline during the tide state on the morning of June 6th, 1944. The first wave of Higgins boats landed some 450 meters distant. All this was well within the effective range of Severloh’s weapons.

Tactical Details

This is a photograph of the pre-invasion contingent of German defenders at WN-62. The gun is a repurposed 75mm field piece.

There were 40 German soldiers manning WN-62 at the time of the invasion. 27 Landsers were assigned to the 716th Infantry Division, while the remainder belonged to Severloh’s 352d. Their primary task was to direct the fire of the heavy 10.5cm howitzers sited some 5 kilometers inland. 

This is the primary casemate of WN-62. Ample scars remain from the pre-invasion bombardment.

WN-62 was well-designed and well-equipped for the mission ahead. There were two heavily-reinforced concrete casemates. One included a 50mm antitank gun, a 75mm artillery piece, a brace of 50mm mortars, a twin MG34 antiaircraft mounting, and a pair of obsolete Polish water-cooled machineguns. A final 50mm gun was sited to the rear. The other casemate had apparently not yet been fully outfitted. The entire facility was liberally protected with barbed wire and antipersonnel mines.

1LT Frerking had been a teacher before the war. He and Gefreiter Severloh were close.

Gefreiter (Corporal) Severloh’s specific job was as an orderly for First Lieutenant Bernhard Frerking. 1LT Frerking’s mission was coordinating artillery support. In the chaos that ensued Heinrich Severloh found himself behind an MG42 GPMG (General Purpose Machinegun).

The Fight

This is the view from Hein Severloh’s machine-gun position overlooking the invasion beaches.

Pre-invasion preparation of the landing beaches via air support and naval gunfire had been most liberal. However, the combination of the innate inaccuracy of these systems and the exceptional effectiveness of German preparations meant that most of the German defensive combat power remained intact. The first American troops hit the beach at 6:30 in the morning.

Thanks to a truly tragic darkroom accident, most of the combat images of the D-Day invasion were destroyed. Relatively few survived the war.

I had a friend who was there. He was a member of the 5th Ranger Battalion assigned to the 116thInfantry, and he hit the beach in the first wave. It was his specific unit that was depicted in the Steven Spielberg war epic Saving Private Ryan. Though he told me numerous stories about his experiences during the war, he never elaborated on D-Day. He did admit just before he died at age 84 that he still had nightmares about that horrible morning.

Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the invasion was a slaughterhouse.

Ten Higgins boats were swamped in the initial assault. All but two of the amphibious Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) tanks that were supposed to support the initial attack floundered and sank. By the time the American assault troops made it to the beaches they were severely seasick and utterly terrified. Once the ramps dropped and the Allied grunts poured onto the beaches, Gefreiter Severloh went to work.

Severloh’s position was perfect for the dark work at hand.

Severloh was armed with his MG42 and two bolt-action Kar98k rifles. A German NCO he did not know ran back and forth between his firing position and the nearby ammunition storage bunker to keep him supplied. Severloh ran his machinegun and those two rifles from 0630 in the morning until 1530 in the afternoon.

Each Higgins boat carried thirty troops. Severloh later stated that it took a 3-second burst from his MG42 as soon as the ramp dropped to neutralize a boat’s load of soldiers. That’s sixty rounds. I just cannot imagine.

Severloh later reported that he burned through 13,500 rounds of belted 7.92x57mm ammunition in his MG42 and another 400 through his two rifles. Of the 34,000 American troops who landed on Omaha Beach, some 2,400 were killed, wounded, or declared missing. By the end of the day US forces had moved 1.6 miles inland, but it came at a horrible cost.

The Gun

The MG42 GPMG was designed to balance effectiveness against ease of manufacture. It took roughly half as long to build an MG42 than it did to craft the previous MG34.

The MG42 has been described as the finest GPMG of World War 2. German troops frequently called it the “Spandau.” Allied forces referred to the weapon as “Hitler’s Zipper” based upon the ripping sound it made when fired.

The MG42 was a true General Purpose Machine-gun. It could be fired from a bipod, a tripod, or from the hip on an assault by one man if need be.

The MG42 was an evolutionary development of the previous revolutionary MG34 GPMG. The engineers who first imagined the MG42 had previously produced pressed steel railway lanterns and had never before designed a firearm. This meant they came to the table with no preconceptions. Dr. Werner Gruner attended a German Army machinegun course and conducted extensive interviews with Wehrmacht troops before designing a pressed steel weapon that was to become legendarily reliable and effective.  

The MP5 submachine gun uses the same basic action as the MG42.

Where the MG34 represented a breathtaking exercise in precision industrial machining, most of the MG42 was formed from inexpensive stamped steel components spot welded in place. The action was a roller-delayed blowback that has since seen much success in the HK MP5 and G3 weapons. This mechanism is both easy to produce and unusually reliable. The MG42 cycled at 1,200 rounds per minute. By contrast, the American M1919A4 was roughly half as fast.

American and German machine-gun doctrine differed in several subtle ways. The Germans wanted a fast-firing weapon that would saturate a target area as quickly as possible. The MG42 was perfectly designed for the bloody defense of Omaha Beach.

German doctrine held that targets on the modern battlefield would be fleeting. Dr. Gruner therefore envisioned a weapon that would put the maximum number of rounds on target in the minimum amount of time. While keeping such a weapon fed in action was a Gordian challenge, there is no disputing the MG42’s effectiveness.

The Rest of the Story

Gefreiter Severloh was fortunate to have escaped his bunker on D-Day alive. A great many of his comrades did not. After the war, Severloh remained close with the Frerking family as well as with the French family who had forcibly hosted them in the lead-up to the invasion.

Later in the afternoon, Gefreiter Severloh retreated to Colleville-sur-Mer along with comrades Franz Gockel and Kurt Warnecke. They surrendered to advancing American forces the following day. Severloh’s commander, 1LT Frerking, died in place alongside more than 4,000 of his fellow soldiers.

Gefreiter Severloh was one of thousands of German POWs taken during the Normandy invasion.

Severloh was shipped to Boston and then to Florida as a POW but was subsequently moved to Bedfordshire, England, in December of 1946. While imprisoned there he was utilized in road construction. Severloh’s father wrote to the British authorities requesting his release so he could help with the harvest on the family farm. Hein Severloh returned to Germany in March of 1947.

Severloh’s was the only machine-gun to have remained operational throughout the day at WN-62. He therefore personally accounted for hundreds of Allied casualties. Chaplain David Silva was one of them.

Cornelius Ryan’s book The Longest Day has long been considered the seminal commercial work on the D-Day invasion. Years after the war, Heinrich Severloh read the book and learned of an American chaplain named David Silva who took three rounds to the chest during the invasion of Omaha Beach but survived. In the 1960’s Severloh contacted Silva, and the two men began a most curious friendship.

An American soldier who survived D-Day and the German Landser who shot him enjoyed a lifelong friendship after the war.

Severloh and Silva met multiple times, to include during a 2005 reunion of combatants on the D-Day beaches. In 2004 filmmaker Alexander Czogalla created a documentary movie about their relationship titled “Mortal Enemies of Omaha Beach–The Story of an Unusual Friendship.” In 2000 Severloh published his own memoir of his wartime experiences.

Hein Severloh shot one American soldier who was carrying a flamethrower through the head with his Kar98k rifle during the assault on the Normandy beaches. This more than anything else from that horrible day haunted him. He later admitted to having nightmares about that particular moment for the rest of his life. War is the most repugnant of human pursuits.

During a subsequent 2004 interview while talking about the men he had killed on D-Day Severloh stated, “It was definitely at least 1,000 men, most likely more than 2,000. But I do not know how many men I shot. It was awful. Thinking about it makes me want to throw up.” 

Like so many of his generation, Hein Severloh became a pacifist after the war. He actually joined an organization of conscientious objectors. A veteran pal once said, “Everyone that goes to war dies. You either die inside or you die for real.”

While these numbers are obviously not accurate through the lens of history, Severloh can be forgiven his mistake considering the extraordinary circumstances. Heinrich Severloh died of natural causes in Lachendorf, Germany, at age 82. Severloh’s wartime experience and subsequent fellowship with his enemies stands as a powerful story of redemption. 

About the author:
Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains.
Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

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