Christmas at the Battle of the Bulge

Posted: Dec 21, 2006 4:48 PM

"Sir, this is Patton talking ... You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You're on. You must come to my assistance, so that I may dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to your Prince of Peace ..." -- Prayer of Gen. George S. Patton, Dec. 23, 1944

It is with Patton's plea to the Ultimate Commanding General that Stanley Weintraub opens his new book, "11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944." The tale of the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge, as Weintraub puts it, is especially resonant with American troops again in harm's way on Christmas, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they call on the same resources of bravery and perseverance as their forebears.

The Allied breakout from Normandy in the summer had convinced Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that the war with Germany would be over by Christmas, but as the Allied advance slowed, the Germans hatched a plan to counterattack through the Ardennes forest. They hoped to punch though the thin Allied lines there and surround four Allied armies. In Hitler's desperate delusion, the Allies in the West would be forced to come to terms. Behind the cover of the thick forest and the horrid weather, the Germans scored initial successes, creating the "bulge" in the Allies' line.

American casualties reached at least 80,000 throughout the course of the battle. The troops fought in conditions that would, in other circumstances, have been a winter wonderland, among evergreen trees freshly covered in snow. American troops suffered frostbite, and the inclement weather favored the Germans, delaying reinforcements and neutralizing American air superiority.

Soldiers who were lucky created makeshift Christmas trees by hanging grenades on pine trees. But GIs who were captured by the Germans were packed into boxcars in unsanitary conditions and got almost nothing to eat. "They filled the time wanly singing carols," Weintraub writes. "The Germans complained that it kept them awake and threatened to shoot if the songs didn't cease."

At the front, German loudspeakers broadcast across the lines, "How would you like to die for Christmas?" Americans didn't intimidate so easily. One American soldier in the encircled city of Bastogne commented to another, "They've got us surrounded -- the poor bastards." When a German commander demanded the surrender of the Americans at Bastogne, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe famously responded in a note, "To the German Commander: 'Nuts!'"

It became clear that the Germans weren't going to achieve a quick breakout. "Even broken American divisions," Weintraub writes, "evidencing courage and resourcefulness, had slowed, if not blunted, the German offensive beyond expectations on both sides. The Bulge was producing little strategic benefit."

Gen. Patton, who had been looking forward to thrusting toward the Saar region of Germany, instead had to relieve Bastogne. Earlier, he had badgered his chaplain to pray for optimal conditions for an offensive. The chaplain noted "that it isn't a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men." Undeterred, Patton asked, "Are you teaching me theology or are you the chaplain of the Third Army?"

Patton distributed a printed prayer for good weather to his troops and made his own appeal, noted above. The weather improved, and Patton wrote in his diary, "A clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans, which seems a bit queer seeing Whose birthday it is." By early January, the Germans were forced to withdraw from the Ardennes, and the Allies were at the Rhine by March.

One schoolmaster returning to his blasted classroom after the battle found a message scrawled on the blackboard from a distraught German officer: "From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world." Unlikely as it seemed at the time, he was right. The Allied victory created the predicate for a free Europe at peace. One prays that the Christmastime exertions by today's American troops eventually create equally beneficent results.