by Keith F. Davis, 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion
When the Allies planned the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe, they chose the Normandy Coast of France for their landing site and they were code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The English, French, Canadians, and others landed on Sword, Juno, and Gold, and the Americans landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
I went ashore on Utah Beach and the beach was secure and the fighting was a few miles inland. We were near the town of St. Mere Eglise. We fought in the hedgerows, the towns and villages, and fought our way to the huge Nazi submarine base at Brest, France. The Artillery fired on this base from the land, the Air Force bombed it from the air, and the Navy fired on it from the sea. After much fire-power, the base surrendered.
I was in the 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. We were the eyes and ears of the Field Artillery. We fought our way through St. Lo, up to and through Paris, to the border of Germany. On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Field Marshall Von Rundstedt made a counter-attack on a 50 mile front in this area. He came through with the 5th Panzer Army, the 6th Panzer Army and the 7th German Army. We were right in the center of this attack. I was in the area of St. Vith and Bastogne. They really clobbered us. Thousands of Americans and Germans were killed in this breakthrough (later known as the Battle of the Bulge).
It took Gen. George Patton two days to bring in the 101st and 82nd Airborne and the 6th Infantry Division to help reinforce our position. One paratrooper asked me where the frontline was. I told him, “You are standing on it.”
The Nazis destroyed much Army material and killed many men. The German High Command sent an ultimatum to our Gen. McAuliffe at Bastogne, and told him to either surrender or be annihilated. Gen. McAuliffe sent a reply with one word: “NUTS.” The Germans did not know what to think of (or understand) the word “NUTS.” This was his American slang way of saying, “In no way will we surrender.”
The weather was very cold and the fog was over the whole battlefield. The Nazis pushed us back from the German border, back through Belgium, Luxembourg and into France. The fog was so thick, we could not tell if an American Sherman tank or a German Tiger tank was coming toward us. Two weeks after the Bulge started, the fog began to lift and the sky was clear again. At this time the Air Force sent hundreds and hundreds of fighter planes over the frontlines and they flew thousands of sorties, destroying supply lines, gun emplacements, infantry, tanks and everything they could see. We began to hold our position and slowly, very slowly, advanced again toward Germany. The Nazi SS troops captured the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Our 16th FAOB was to meet up with the 255th,regroup and form a new battalion. This never happened. The SS herded almost 100 men of the 285th into a snowy field and machine gunned them down in cold blood. This was not war, this was murder. This was later known as the Malmedy Massacre.
One January 25, 1945, we were at the same position we were when the Bulge started on Dec. 16, 1944.
I was on an observation post in the city of Koblenz, Germany, and 12 Catholic nuns came up to me and in perfect English asked me to tell them when the war would be over. How would I know?
I watched the Army Engineers build a pontoon bridge over the Rhine River. The river was fast, deep and over a mile wide. It was scary to watch our heavy Sherman Tanks and Heavy Artillery guns being pulled by large prime movers and Army trucks loaded with supplies and soldiers cross this bridge. The bridge held, and supplies and men continued to cross the Rhine River.
I was at the liberation of the Ohrdruf Nazi Concentration Camp, just near Ohrdruf, Germany. The sights we saw were horrible and the smell was only a smell that can be made by torture and death. The Nazi guards fled the camp and machine-gunned many prisoners in the courtyard. I looked closely at a naked body with four bullet holes in it, with not a drop of blood coming out the bullet holes. They were starved to skin and bones. Bodies were stacked like cord wood. The live ones, with large eyes and sunken stomachs, reached out to us.
We fought our way through Nuremberg, and the smell of death was everywhere. We zig-zagged back and forth through Germany and fought in the Sudatenland, and fought our way into Czechoslovakia, where we met the Russian army. This is where we heard the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945.
From the time I went ashore on Utah Beach until we met the Russians in Czechoslovakia, I was on the frontline. I know that “Freedom is not free.”
To listen to a BBC audio interview with Keith Davis, go to: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02f8lvh