Christmas 1944 saw immense, world-altering heroism
Christmas season this year falls on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle in the history of the United States. On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany launched an enormous offensive through the quiet, thinly defended Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Adolf Hitler and planners in Berlin achieved total surprise; German forces rapidly gained ground.
For Europeans among the Allies, the attack was reminiscent of the stunning 1940 German drive that overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent. Among Dwight D. Eisenhower’s associates at Supreme Allied Headquarters, fear was visible along with alarm.
The attack was an enormous risk for Germany but conceivably could have succeeded. Had a major breakthrough occurred, the crucial port of Antwerp and nearby fuel and supply reserves could have been captured. The Western allies would have suffered a major setback. German hopes of breaking Allied unity were unrealistic, but the war could have ended with the Red Army in control of nearly all of Germany.
The tide of the battle did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in the crossroads town of Bastogne, on the day after Christmas.
Brutal fighting continued through January. Nazi hopes of breaking the Western Front, and the Anglo-American alliance, were defeated.
Other battles in U.S. history were in certain respects more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and other engagements resulted in a higher percentage of casualties among combatants. During the Second World War, such enormous amphibious invasions as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex in logistical terms than the Bulge. In the European theater, the scale of the war on the eastern front was much greater than in the west.
Nonetheless, in American history the Battle of the Bulge remains our biggest single land engagement. Approximately a quarter of a million U.S. troops were pitted against a comparable number of German forces.
Basic lessons of the Bulge include personnel and materiel. Eisenhower’s skills include remarkable capacity to get difficult personalities to work together, plus constant attention to logistics. Casualties on both sides were enormous, in both men and supplies. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.
Flamboyant Patton was controversial for harsh discipline and extreme language. Yet he immediately, instinctively recognized the great threat of the Ardennes attack, and Third Army troops performed with monumental ability, moving rapidly over difficult terrain in terrible winter weather. Patton had led and trained this army, which fought heroically, and sensed the importance of the German attack before others did.
African American soldiers, generally prohibited from serving in combat, manned the Red Ball Express, a gigantic truck convey system that supplied the front. Under the enormous pressures generated by the Bulge, they were offered the opportunity to serve in combat units but had to sacrifice earned military seniority.
Thousands volunteered on these terms, and were vital to Allied victory.
At the tactical level, Cpl. Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, knocked out two German tanks, and then his 57 mm. anti-tank gun jammed. He was firing a pistol at a third approaching tank when the German driver backed up and withdrew.
One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to proceed, a common reaction of German troops. American, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and continue fighting after their officers were hit. Warner, killed later in combat, received the Medal of Honor.
When the Nazi Reich surrendered, Eisenhower commented the war had not yet been won. True victory would require Germany to embrace democracy and the rule of law.
Admirable and effective German Chancellor Angela Merkel was selected 2015 “Person of the Year” by Time magazine. The Allies have won the war, undeniably. Honor Merkel. Also honor Ike, who always got the job done.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”