Numbers of 'The Beast'; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Article excerpt

Byline: Complied by Charles Legge

QUESTION What is known of the German soldier dubbed 'The Beast of Omaha', said to be responsible for a large number of U.S. casualties during the D-day landings?

THIS was Heinz (Heinrich) Severloh (1923-2006), a machine gunner in the German 352nd Infantry Division, stationed on Omaha beach in 1944.

He manned a gun emplacement known as Widerstandsnest ('resistance nest') 62. In 1944, the German army was unable to form a full defensive line along the Normandy coast, so a string of loosely connected strongpoints was used.

WN 62 was a medium-sized emplacement, close to the present site of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer.

From this vantage point, the Allied media credited Severloh with singlehandedly inflicting 1,500 to 2,000 casualties (some said as many as 3,000) and dubbed him The Beast of Omaha.

Severloh was an unlikely warrior. By his own admission he'd evaded the draft until conscription became inevitable.

He worked first as a sleigh driver at the Eastern Front where he was severely punished for dissent, forced to perform physical exertions that left him hospitalised for six months, and was dismayed when he was eventually put on active duty, having studiously tried to avoid it.

On June 6, in WN 62, Severloh manned an MG42 under the command of Lt. Frerking, firing on waves of approaching Americans with the machine gun and two Karabiner 98k rifles, while two companions maintained a continuous flow of ammunition to him.

By 3 pm, Severloh had fired about 12,000 rounds with the machine gun and 400 rounds with the two rifles. Estimates of the number of soldiers he killed are almost certainly exaggerated.

Total U.S. casualties at Omaha beach amounted to about 2,000 dead, wounded or missing, of whom around 650 to 700 were fatalities.

Severloh probably accounted for 100 or so soldiers before he was eventually captured by the Americans. After captivity in Boston in the U.S., and in Bedfordshire, England, Severloh was released from captivity in 1947 to work on his parents' farm.

It was several decades until he was able to talk about his D-Day experience. He eventually published his story: WN 62 -- Erinnerungen An Omaha Beach Normandie, 6. Juni 1944 in 2000. He died near his home town of Metzingen in 2006.

Gilbert Strang, Newcastle.

I MET Severloh about 25 years ago when I was a member of a World War II living history re-enactment group and Heinz was a guest at one of our annual dinners.

At the time of D-Day, he was a 19-year-old conscript corporal in charge of a machine gun. The claim that he caused 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. casualties on D-Day after firing nearly 12,000 rounds is disputed.

At the dinner, he refused to touch the machine gun we had, which was similar to the one he used.

He told me that when he was nearing the end of his ammunition supply, a shell from the naval bombardment exploded nearby, causing shrapnel to strike off the rear sight of his machine gun, which hit him on the chin. As he was nearly out of ammunition, the gun was damaged and he was wounded, he decided to call it a day and went to the regimental aid post to be patched up.

When that was done, he was detailed to take two U.S. prisoners to the rear. On the way, one asked him: 'When are you going to shoot us?' He replied: 'I'm not going to shoot you. We don't do that in the German Army.'

They then asked him if he realised Germany could not win the war. Heinz agreed this was a possibility. So they said he was more likely to survive if they took him prisoner instead of him taking them. Heinz also agreed to that, which is how he became one of the few German survivors of D-Day.

He wasn't a 'beast', just a conscript doing his duty for his country like any other soldier.

Michael Lang, Salisbury, Wilts. …