Christmas in the Ardennes
December 1944 would be the fourth U.S. wartime Christmas. This Christmas would find millions of Americans overseas. For front-line troops, Christmas would be just another day of mud or snow, cold, injuries, and death. Still, on US lines, time was still made for religious services on the field, in tents, foreign churches, and abandoned buildings.
Battle of the Bulge
In the fall of 1944 the Allies had every reason to hope that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas, but on December 25, 1944, American troops found themselves stuck behind a new German line. On December 16, 30 German divisions, 10 of them armored divisions, had attacked the American Army along the Belgian-German border, achieving absolute tactical and strategic surprise. The result was the largest battle Americans have ever fought in. Some 640,000 of them took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
The original, madly ambitious German plan had been to drive through Belgium to the port of Antwerp, using captured gasoline to refuel their vehicles. If that plan had succeeded, which no one but Hitler thought possible, it would have split the American and British forces and stranded four Allied Armies behind German lines and without supply. As it was, the Germans barely got to the banks of the Meuse River, and they threw away their last reserves doing so; German casualties were probably around 100,000. The biggest shock was that the almost-beaten Germans had launched a major offensive at all, and the first reaction included some panic both on and behind the Allied lines. Two regiments of one American division were surrounded in the first attacks; nearing the end of their ammunition, food, and medical supplies, and taking casualties from artillery to which they could not reply, they surrendered.
Early on the misty winter morning of 16 December 1944, over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler's last bid to reverse the ebb in his fortunes that had begun when Allied troops landed in France on D-day. Seeking to drive to the English Channel coast and split the Allied armies as they had done in May 1940, the Germans struck in the Ardennes Forest, a seventy-five-mile stretch of the front characterized by dense woods and few roads, held by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoning.
After a day of hard fighting, the Germans broke through the American front, surrounding most of an infantry division, seizing key crossroads, and advancing their spearheads toward the Meuse River, creating the projection that gave the battle its name.
Stories spread of the massacre of soldiers and civilians at Malmedy and Stavelot, of paratroopers dropping behind the lines, and of English-speaking German soldiers, disguised as Americans, capturing critical bridges, cutting communications lines, and spreading rumors. For those who had lived through 1940, the picture was all too familiar. Belgian townspeople put away their Allied flags and brought out their swastikas. Police in Paris enforced an all-night curfew. British veterans waited nervously to see how the Americans would react to a full-scale German offensive, and British generals quietly acted to safeguard the Meuse crossings. Even American civilians who had thought final victory was near were sobered by the Nazi onslaught.
But this was not 1940. The supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower rushed reinforcements to hold the shoulders of the German penetration. Within days, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. had turned his Third U.S. Army to the north and was counterattacking against the German flank. But the story of the battle of the Bulge is above all the story of American soldiers. Often isolated and unaware of the overall picture, they did their part to slow the Nazi advance, whether by delaying armored spearheads with obstinate defenses of vital crossroads, moving or burning critical gasoline stocks to keep them from the fuel-hungry German tanks, or coming up with questions on arcane Americana to stump possible Nazi infiltrators.
At the critical road junctions of St. Vith and Bastogne, American tankers and paratroopers fought off repeated attacks, and when the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne was summoned by his German adversary to surrender, he simply responded, "Nuts!"
Within days, Patton's Third Army had relieved Bastogne, and to the north, the 2d U.S. Armored Division stopped enemy tanks short of the Meuse on Christmas Day. Through January, American troops, often wading through deep snow drifts, attacked the sides of the shrinking bulge until they had restored the front and set the stage for the final drive to victory.
Never again would Hitler be able to launch an offensive in the West on such a scale. An admiring British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill stated, "This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory." Indeed, in terms of participation and losses, the battle of the Bulge is arguably the greatest battle in American military history.
The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge
by Roger Cirillio, in the U. S. Army Campaigns of World War II series, from CMH
Bastogne The First Eight Days by S. L. A. Marshall from CMH
The German Counteroffensive in the Ardennesby Charles V. P. von Luttichau
The Rhineland Campaign, 1944 in The U. S. Army in the Occupation of Germany 1944-1946 by Earl F. Ziemke, from CMH