hat differentiates a hero from a villain? On one side someone who has inflicted 1000+ casualties might be revered as a hero due to his service to his country; on the other, the same man might be seen as a beast, a savage, who mowed down defenseless troops in a bid to save one of the most despicable ideologies to ever influence our world. Today we will look at one such situation by talking about Heinrich Severloh, a German Wehrmacht soldier which served on the Omaha beach during Operation Overlord.
Before the War
Severloh was born into a farming family in Metzingen, Lüneburg Heath situated in North Germany. He did not lead a remarkable life in his younger years, with his family benefiting from Hitler’s push to rearm which led to much money being poured into farmers such as Severloh’s family. Like most other men of fighting age, Severloh was conscripted into the Wehrmacht on July 23, 1942, at the age of 19. Severloh was assigned to the 19th Light Artillery Replacement Division in Hanover. He was then transferred to France in August to be trained until December after which he was sent to the Eastern Front where he was assigned to drive the sleighs of his division.
Later into his service on the Eastern Front, he would become dissatisfied with the life of a Wehrmacht soldier leading to him making “dissenting remarks” which led to him being forced to perform strenuous physical tasks which left him with permanent health problems and put him in hospital for the next 6 months.
After leaving the hospital, he took a break to help his parents with the 1943 harvest. This break wouldn’t last long as he would be immediately recalled for service in Normandy where he would make his name well known to the Allied troops.
9 Hours of Non-Stop Firing
On the 6th of June 1944 at around 5 a.m. the first shots started to ring out across Omaha beach. Wave after wave of American Higgins Boats landed on the beach. Severloh would take the initiative here with his Lieutenant telling him not to stop firing until they ran out of ammo. The defense was hectic with Severloh manning an MG42 which was supplied with ammunition by a sergeant that Severloh didn’t know.
Between the waves of American troops, the barrel of his MG42 had to be swapped out with one of the 3 spare barrels he cycled throughout the defensive; often the just-used barrel would burn the grass that it was rested on due to the sheer amount of ammunition which passed through it. As well as letting the barrel cool down in between waves of troops Severloh would take breaks and shoot at the oncoming wave with his Karabiner 98k to allow the MG to cool down.
Overall after 9 hours of continuous fighting Severloh would fire 13,500 bullets out of his MG42 with another further 500 fired out of two Karabiner 98k rifles. In this time he killed an estimated 1000+ American soldiers with some estimates putting that number up as high as 2000.
Hero or Monster
This is why I mentioned at the beginning of the article that there is a clear difference between who we call a monster and a hero depending on what side we are on. If you were on the German side at the time of this attack, you would think of Severloh actions as the actions of a hero. Not only did he stay back and defend his section of Omaha beach even past the point where the rest of his compatriots ran away, but he also showed resilience towards a task set to protect the interests of his home nation.
On the other hand, he mercilessly mowed down up to 2000 young people with no repercussions as he would later be captured by the allied troops in a retreat with no one knowing of his deeds until his statement was given in a book called “Sie Kommen! Die Invasion der Amerikaner und Briten in der Normandie 1944”. The winner of the war always dictates history. This is why we see someone like Severloh as a beast compared instead of a hero. If an allied soldier did the equivalent,, he would be revered in the army community as a hero, like how many pilots look up to aces from the wars. A great parallel would be Simo Häyhä who killed 500+ Soviet soldiers during the winter wars and is now seen as the height of combat sniping skill. Context always matters, so remember to look at both sides before you call someone a hero or a monster!