This year, many families will spend the holidays with family members away, in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s tough being on the battlefield at any time of year, but during Christmas it’s especially hard. We talk to a historian and author about one Christmas, in 1944, when American soldiers spent a freezing holiday in the Ardennes forest, fighting for their lives against Hitler’s army during the Battle of the Bulge; and how a general’s prayers could have been the key to turning the tide in the Allies’ favor.
- Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts & Humanities, Penn State University, and author of 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944
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16-51 Christmas at the Battle of the Bulge
Gary Price: This Christmas, like so many before it in the U.S., thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines will spend their holidays away from home in service of their country. Those serving in combat are foremost on the minds of the folks back home just like they’ve been in generations of U.S. struggles since the war for independence. Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University has written several books about battlefield life during the holidays. General Washington’s Christmas Farewell followed Washington on his journey home to Mount Vernon in the winter of 1783. And Silent Night related the story of the WWI Christmas truce between British and German troops. His book, 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge 1944 relates the events surrounding the famous Battle of the Bulge, a battle that came when Weintraub says the Allies figured they had the war won.
Weintraub: It looked as if the Germans were finished. The Russians were moving quite rapidly into what was the boundaries of Germany as winter began in December 1944. But the winter was so tough, so difficult that the offensive bogged down, and that gave the Germans the opportunity of taking some of the troops off the frozen Russian front and slipping them across to the Western front to surprise the Americans, which they did.
Price: The area where the battle took place was important for the success of the war. Although the British had been fighting northern Belgium, Weintraub says they didn’t do enough to secure the port for the allies.
Weintraub: General Montgomery, by that time made Field Marshall Montgomery, had done a very sluggish job of clearing out that northern part of the French and Belgian front, and the result was that we couldn’t bring in supplies through Antwerp, which was the big Belgium port. It was closed to us, and since that was closed to us supplies, especially fuel couldn’t get into our front lines. Tanks had no fuel for example. We ran out of artillery ammunition. We were getting short in food, so we were bogged down not only by weather, but bogged down by logistics, by the difficulties of transportation across long distances.
Price: Why was this decisive battle called the Battle of the Bulge? Weintraub says it’s because of the influx of German soldiers that pushed forth into Allied lines during those 11 days that December.
Weintraub: The Ardennes forest was not the Bulge until the Germans penetrated it and created a bulge into our lines. This was an intelligence failure. The Americans were over confident. They thought the war was about to end, the Germans would collapse, and Christmas was coming and they were relaxing again about it. The Ardennes forest seemed like a good place to relax as snow began to fall. We did not know that the Germans were building up for a surprise offensive on the other side of the forest. And so they were able to plunge a bulge into our lines, which we worried was going to break our lines and go all the way to Paris.
Price: Hitler was desperate for a win in the Ardennes. He was terrified that the Allied troops would make it through Belgium and France and into Germany. So he ordered that fliers be sent out asking for English speaking volunteers to infiltrate the U.S. lines — fliers that were picked up by US, intelligence, but dismissed as disinformation.
Weintraub: He wanted English speaking volunteers so that they could infiltrate our lines with captured uniforms and captured vehicles, which they did. And we didn’t know about it, and when we finally found out about it we had to use different password techniques to identify who these people were. So we would ask soldiers, who won the World Series last year? Or questions like that that the Germans couldn’t possibly have been prepared for, but this was part of the intelligence failure. We did not know that they were going to be doing this. We were so overconfident that the Army’s mail service decided not to send any Christmas mail to Europe because the war would be over. That gives you an idea of the wholesale failure of knowledge about what was going on across the front.
Price: The German plan was in the works through November and December. However, the British and U.S. brass were unconvinced that they could lose the war at this point. Weintraub says they were busy planning their own Christmas holidays far from the battlefield.
Weintraub: Eisenhower had bet Field Marshal Montgomery five pounds that the war would be over by December, by that very month of the Battle of the Bulge. And Montgomery, who knew very well how sluggish he was, although he pretended otherwise, said of course it wouldn’t be over by then, and he won his bet. But he was also involved in that intelligence failure in the sense that he didn’t think anything was going to happen, so he prepared to go back to England and play golf during Christmas. He didn’t get there because suddenly everything changed. But the result was that many of our frontline troops were surprised and the generals of course particularly surprised. One of our leading generals then, General Hodges, fled his command post with the Christmas tree still sitting there and gifts under the tree and fled back into Belgium. Many of our leading generals fled. Eisenhower was never even there. He was in Versailles near Paris having a good time drinking champagne and never once got to the Bulge.
Price: Conditions in the Ardennes were brutal. Snow, wind, cold, and the Germans advancing towards U.S. troops. Weintraub says Hitler conceived and executed a clever plan that nearly foiled the Americans who were caught unawares.
Weintraub: The weather had a lot to do with it. All the trees looked like Christmas trees. They were covered with snow. Some of the troops actually hung hand grenades on Christmas trees they saw there, on trees, because they were like Christmas walls. That was their Christmas. They didn’t have much of anything else.
Price: But contrary to what the soldiers thought, Christmas in this winter wonderland wouldn’t end up being a piece of cake.
Weintraub: They suddenly discovered that they were overwhelmed by Germans who came through the night, came through paths that they didn’t think troops could get through, came through roads that they didn’t think tanks could get across. But the Germans had planned this very carefully, and they literally had officers being used as traffic policemen guiding the tanks through the night to get through. And as I said, we were very surprised.
Price: Weintraub says that one American general didn’t dismiss the threat that the Germans posed in the Ardennes and came to the aid of the US, troops. General George Patton.
Weintraub: Patton who was reviled as much as he was admired depending on whether you served under him or whether you got his reputation from secondhand. Patton is the one who came in and did what everybody said couldn’t be done. He turned his troops around who were headed toward Germany and went back toward the Bulge to try to relieve the one town that was in the German’s way, and that was Bastogne, a Belgian crossroads town. Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne when everything came apart. The 101st Air Division came of course without parachutes. They were foot soldiers and they had to be trucked into Bastogne. They were surrounded for much of that period. Patton determined that he was going to extricate them by Christmas. He couldn’t quite do it, but he did manage to get his troops to penetrate the siege by the day after Christmas.
Price: Patton might have been able to get them out by Christmas except for one thing – the weather. Weintraub says even the legendary general couldn’t do anything about it except negotiate with a Higher Power.
Weintraub: So he went to the chapel, took off his helmet with the three stars and got on his knees and he prayed for better weather. And he prayed in the kind of idiosyncratic way that you would expect Patton to do so. He began by saying, “Sir,” as if God were a senior general. “Sir,” he said, “Whose side are you on? Things aren’t going very well for us.” He said, “The last 14 days have been straight hell. Rain, snow, more rain, more snow. I’m beginning to wonder what’s going in your headquarters. Whose side are you on anyway?” And he went on in this way, and finally he said, “I don’t have any more faith and patience. You’ve got to make up whose side you’re on. You must come to my assistance so I can dispatch the entire German army as a birthday present to your Prince of Peace. I’m not an unreasonable man,” he said, “I’m not going to ask you for the impossible. I don’t even insist on miracles. All I want are four days of clear weather.” He meant for the planes to fly. And whether his message got through we don’t know, but he got four days of clear weather. The planes flew. They supported our troops, and he was able to send his tanks into Bastogne.
Price: General Patton had a reputation for being a cold and unfeeling commander. But Weintraub says it wasn’t true. In fact, he cared deeply for his troops and showed it after the battle had ended.
Weintraub: Some of them had a delayed Christmas that is when Bastogne was relieved and when there was a little more relaxation. They were brought in the food they they couldn’t get earlier. General Patton went around to all his troops to see that they all were fed. Some of them got hot turkey sandwiches as their Christmas dinner. But he made sure that they got something. He was an amazing guy.
Price: Weintraub says war is always unpleasant, but during the holidays it’s especially tough on troops in combat. It’s not just being away from family and friends during this time that’s sad, but as General Patton wrote, the job they’re doing on the battlefields seems so out of character with the season.
Weintraub: It was Christmas, but it was not a holiday from war. Patton said for example in his diary, “It’s a clear cold Christmas lovely weather for killing Germans, which seems a bit queer seeing whose birthday it is.” You can read about that holiday season during World War II in Stanley Weintraub’s book, 11 Days in December, Christmas at the Bulge 1944, available at bookstores and online. For more information about all of our guests log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Sticher. I’m Gary Price.