On this, the 70th anniversary of the greatest military operation in world history, the ranks of grizzled veterans visiting those time-hallowed Normandy beaches and burial grounds will have been thinned by the inexorable cascading of time. Now well into their 90s, their numbers will be few. Among those D-Day veterans who faithfully made that annual pilgrimage for most of a lifetime, one of this year’s absentees will be Heinrich Severloh, who left this world for a better place in 2006 at age 81.
Virtually everyone who participated in and survived that historic event carried with them deeply-imbedded and often life-changing memories and emotional scar tissue; the “baggage” of brutal and very personal combat. In each individual veteran’s case, the exact imprint of his experience and its impact on all the years following will vary in incalculable ways and degrees, with the largest percentage finding ways to bury the worst of it in the mere living of a life. That being so obvious a truth, one may wonder why I should take the time to single out one soldier’s story today.
For Heinrich Severloh, a 20-year-old German soldier, assignment to the Wehrmacht’s 716th Infantry Division on the Normandy Coast of France was a breath of fresh air after a tour in the East and the sheer savagery of the Russian Front. A “reluctant” conscript as a farm boy from the village of Metzingen in the Swabian section of Germany’s southwest, “Hein” had escaped the vicious Russian campaign thanks only to a hospitalization for severe frostbite. Duty in the Norman hamlet of Colville, where he and fellow-soldiers of the Reich were treated to the kindness of French villagers who would (to the surprise of some former Allies) become lifelong friends was a pleasant change.
While the Allies exact plans for “Operation Overlord” remained one of history’s best-kept secrets right up to the morning of June 6th, 1944, the enemy had had years to prepare in depth for a cross-channel assault on the channel coast of occupied France. Overlooking the 3.7 miles of Norman coastline designated by the Allies with the code name “Omaha”, 15 defensive strong points embracing artillery, observation and machine-gun emplacements stretched along the high ground, designated with numbers from WN-59 to WN-73. At what was destined to become the most deadly obstacle to the men of the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions that day was WN-62 with its handful of 27 German defenders and a soldier named Hein Severloh with an Infantry weapon known as Maschengwehr 42.
An upgrade to the Mauser-inspired M-34 machine gun, the M-42 manufactured by Daimler-Puch and others by the hundreds-of-thousands was possibly the deadliest infantry weapon of WWII, with a cyclic rate of fire of up to 1500 7.92X57mm rounds-per minute. An ingenious design feature facilitated continuous barrel-replacement taking as little as seven seconds. The sound of an M-42 was likened to a “buzz saw” or the ripping of a sheet.
In the hands of Pfc. Severloh, during a period of nine hours of combat, more than twelve thousand rounds poured into the U.S. troops wading ashore and forming unfortunate “clusters” between arriving LSTs and the upper tide line, where a pre-placed red flag (unwisely) designated the target landing point for Easy and Fox Companies. Where individual targets presented themselves, Severloh’s rifle accounted for another 400 carefully-placed rounds. Although there is lots of room for debate, forensic historians believe this one German soldier may have accounted for 3,000 casualties on Omaha Beach on June 6th.
Having read and re-read Hein Severloh’s book – A German Soldier’s Memories – along with the added insights of several D-Day historians who knew and associated with him over many years, I believe this common but loyal German soldier carried with him throughout his life a heavy sense of responsibility for the unwanted role his duty hung upon him that day on Omaha Beach. I am particularly struck by his reaction to the sight of those thousands of ships, planes and manpower he saw approaching as daylight parted the mists that fateful morning: “I knelt in my foxhole and prayed quietly. . .”.
Severloh became a U.S. POW shortly after D-Day, and spent more than three years in military prisons in the U.K., Scotland, and hard-labor camps in Belgium and the U.S.A., understandably silent on the subject of the experiences which haunted him until after his repatriation in 1949. He devoted much of his later life to maintaining the U.S. cemetery, the Normandy museum and meeting with veterans of that event with whom he pursued a lifelong fellowship.