Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

The Beast of Omaha Beach

On 6 June 1944, the Allies commenced “the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time.”

For whatever reason, this 2002 National Geographic article, titled “Untold Stories of D-Day,” left a lasting impression on me. Particularly haunting was this account:

German Pfc. Hem Severloh was crouching behind a machine gun at Widerstandsnest 62 and watching rows of men on the ramps of a landing craft. “My order:’ he recalls, “was to get them when they were still in one line, one after the other, before they started spreading. So I did not have to swing my gun sideways?’ Severloh later wrote that he saw how the water sprayed up where my machine gun burst landed, and when the small fountains came closer to the GIs, they threw themselves down. .. . Very soon the first bodies were drifting in the waves of the rising tide.. . . In a short time, all GIs down there were shot.”

SEVERLOH ESTIMATES that he fired 12,000 rounds from his machine gun and 400 from his carbine. But the Americans kept coming, and at the end of the day, Severloh surrendered, hoping the Americans would not know he was the German who had fired what was probably the deadliest machine gun on Omaha Beach. Sometime that day, Sgt. Valentin Lehrmann died gazing at a picture of his wife. By late afternoon Widerstandsnest 62 was empty) all its men dead, wounded, captured, or running for their lives.

I found it jarring being put into that perspective—I would have been only a few years older, in a foxhole up on the bluffs, wielding technology of unprecedented sophistication (though it wasn’t so sophisticated that I wasn’t the one actively, with no computational abstraction, aiming at the moving bodies of human beings), mowing down lines of GIs on behalf of a regime I would later (as I imagined it) find out was responsible for the Holocaust, and doing so with more efficacy than any other Nazi gunmen similarly positioned.  And ultimately surviving.

~

From the wikipedia entry on Severloh:

The “Beast of Omaha Beach”… rose to notoriety as a gunner in a machine gun emplacement known as “Widerstandsnest 62”, whose position enabled him to inflict 1500-2000 casualties while American soldiers were landing on Omaha Beach as part of Operation Overlord.

Severloh was born into a farming family in Metzingen (now Eldingen) in the Lüneburg Heath of north Germany, close to the small city of Celle.

At the time of his conscription, Severloh had never had any intention of joining the war. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht on July 23, 1942, at the age of 19. He was assigned to the 19th Light Artillery Replacement Division in Hanover-Bothfeld. On August 9, he was transferred to France and joined the 3rd Battery of the 321st Artillery Regiment, where he was trained as a dispatch rider, among other things. In December 1942, he was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was assigned to the rear of his division as a sleigh driver. In punishment for dissenting remarks, Severloh was forced to perform physical exertions which left him with permanent health problems. The immediate consequence was a six month convalescence in a military hospital, which lasted until June 1943. Upon discharge from the hospital, he was given several weeks leave (partly because of the need for manpower during the harvest). In October 1943, Severloh was sent to junior officer training in Braunschweig, but after his unit, which had suffered heavy casualties, was transferred back to France, he was obliged to break off his training to rejoin it. In December, Severloh did rejoin his unit, which in the meantime had been reclassified as the 352nd Infantry Division and was stationed in Normandy. Severloh’s service in the Wehrmacht ended on June 7, 1944, when he was taken prisoner by the American forces.

For decades, this epithet was hurled at the unknown German soldier who had impeded the invading GIs at “Easy Red” with such terrible effectiveness. These thousands of slaughtered soldiers had fallen victim to the misplaced assumption that this section of the beach and all of the Wehrmacht’s emplacements had already been cleared away before the invasion. The “Beast of Omaha Beach” would remain more or less unknown until the last memorial reunion commemorating the landing of the Allies in Normandy.

When Severloh was taken captive, he thought that he could tell nobody, not even his comrades, how many men he had probably killed during the landing. He thought that he might be murdered if the Americans ever found out what he had done.

Severloh kept his battle memories buried until one day a reporter who had discovered that Severloh was thought to be the (in)famous “Beast of Omaha”, confronted him. It was a relief to Severloh, by this time an old man, to be able to break his silence, and he recounted what he had done on the day of the invasion. He went on to write a book about it.

Most American war veterans who took part in the landing in Normandy have forgiven Severloh, or recognize that his actions were robot-like, consistent with his belief: “If I don’t shoot them, then one of them will shoot me”. In contrast, criticism and even open animosity towards Severloh is to be found amongst the descendants of the American soldiers, both those who perished and those who survived. Others feel that Severloh was a soldier doing exactly what a soldier is expected to do in wartime, and would have been remembered as a war hero if he had been on the victor’s side.

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4 Responses to “The Beast of Omaha Beach”

  1. perhaps if politians were made run up an bullet soaked beach they wouldnt be so quick
    to send their boys away to die in far flung dumps

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