Seventy years ago American serviceman were fighting a two front war, both in Europe and in the Pacific, against the Axis nations as the fourth and last Christmas in World War II approached. After Allied troops landed in Normandy in northern France (June 6, 1944), liberation of that country went slowly until the Germans retreated across the Seine in August, freeing Paris. Rumors the European war would be over by the year’s end circulated among American troops. However, the closer the Allies got to the German border with France, The Siegfried Line, the more the Nazis resisted. Unknown to the Allies, Hitler was planning a counter-offensive that would split the American and British armies and let the Germans capture Antwerp, a British supply base on the Belgian coast. The Germans would attack through the Ardennes and the Hürtgen Forest. The operation was finally scheduled to begin in the middle of December 1944, although the German generals in charge of the operation did not think it would succeed because elements of the Wehrmacht could not field full strength units .
In the middle of December the snow lay thick on the fields surrounding Bastogne Belgium, close to the borders with Luxembourg and France. American soldiers were serving there were caught by the surprise German offensive, launched through the Ardennes forest on 16 December, 1944. Six days later, the Americans troops were completely surrounded by the Germans. At division headquarters in France, General Patton was trying to get a Catholic chaplain to distribute a prayer for good weather so the Allies could have air support. The priest refused, saying he would not pray to God for good weather so more people would be killed. Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent a message to the American commanding general in Bastogne, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, demanding surrender to avoid more needless deaths. McAuliffe’s answer was “Nuts!” Not understanding, the Germans envoys asked if that was an affirmative, their American counterparts told them definitely not. Patton’s prayer or not, the weather cleared allowing supplies to be dropped to the troops in Bastogne. The next day, the head of a relief column broke through to end the siege. On Christmas Eve, Gen. McAuliffe sent this message to the troops under his command:
Headquarters 101st Airborne Division
Office of the Division Commander
What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Divisions glorious history but in World history. The Germans actually did surround us. their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender….
Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: Well Done!
We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.
Meanwhile, at home, Christmas gifts were hard to come by because of the rationing. Ads were suggesting giving War Bonds as Christmas presents to help war effort. Radio programming too emphasized support for the military at home and abroad at the holiday season. During the Christmas season, 1944, Americans gathered around their radios to listen their favorite stars salute the troops. For example, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s Christmas Show featured a chorus from the Great Lakes training command. You can transport yourself back to 1944 on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l20x9isbQ8o. Also on YouTube, you can watch the PBS American Experience documentary on the Battle of the Bulge, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7Qcf7h1FCg.
Take a minute this Christmas say a prayer or toast the memories of the men who gave their lives in that white Christmas in Belgium seventy years ago and the members of the military who are today spending the holidays away from their loved ones!
For Further Reading:
Gerald Astor, A Blood Dimmed Tide
Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last light, pp. 412-192.
John S. D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods
Charles B. MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets