By MICHAEL D. HULL
Allied hopes for a victory over Nazi Germany by the end of 1944 were dashed by the failure of Operation Market-Garden, the massive airborne invasion of Holland, that September.
But the enemy forces in Western Europe, while fighting stubbornly, were nevertheless on the retreat as the British, U.S., and Canadian armies pushed doggedly eastward. A sense of euphoria persisted in the Allied headquarters, and many soldiers — generals, field marshals, and men on the front lines — still clung to the hope that the European war might be over by Christmas.
Such optimism then vanished abruptly early on the morning of Saturday, December 16, 1944, when 25 German armored and infantry divisions rolled through thinly held American lines in the snow-clad, foggy Ardennes Forest, punching a 50-mile bulge in a bid to split the U.S. and British Armies and seize the strategic port of Antwerp. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s last major offensive threw the Allied command into disarray for several critical hours and ensured that a yuletide victory had been nothing more than a pipe dream. GIs’ plans for well-earned furloughs in Paris were shattered.
After the initial panic and confusion in Belgium and Luxembourg when many American troops fled, abandoning their positions and weapons, the Allied forces regrouped and fought back. Elements of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army wheeled in to stiffen the units in the Bulge, Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks’ British 30th Corps defended the strategic River Meuse, and the German thrust was eventually blocked.
In the Bulge, American soldiers now fought valiantly while enduring miserable weather and deprived of air support and vital supplies. Thoughts of any respite and cheer during the coming festive season had been rudely interrupted, but the GIs nevertheless set up makeshift Christmas trees in command posts and foxholes, sang carols, prayed with visiting chaplains, and shared the contents of their packages from home with local children.
A bleak yuletide faced the residents and American defenders of Bastogne, a small town in southeastern Belgium that was the junction of seven highways and lay on the center line of the German advance. It became a vital objective for both sides. Men of the 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagle) Division stood firm there for six days as three German panzer and grenadier divisions surrounded them. The defenders were outnumbered four to one as Bastogne was hammered by artillery, mortars, and bombs.
After famously saying “Nuts!” to a German surrender demand on December 22, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. “Old Crock” McAuliffe, the scrappy little deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division, declared, “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.”
As Christmas 1944 approached, Allied forces were battling forward on all fronts.
The Canadian First Army cleared the Scheldt Estuary; Patton’s Third Army crossed the Saar and Moselle Rivers; Royal Air Force Lancaster heavy bombers sank the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord; U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers began bombing Tokyo; the British Second Army reduced the German pocket west of the River Maas; Gen. Sir William Slim’s “Forgotten” British Fourteenth Army overwhelmed fanatical Japanese forces at Arakan, Kohima, and Imphal in Burma. And U.S. Navy ships started softening up Iwo Jima for an invasion; British troops vanquished Communist insurgents in Greece; the British Eighth Army opened a three-corps offensive in Italy, and the long-awaited liberation of the Philippine Islands by Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur’s U.S. armies was underway.
Meanwhile, powerful RAF Bomber Command and U.S. Army Air Forces formations intensified their pounding of Nazi targets in Europe, and the Red Army advanced into Hungary and Czechoslovakia while relentlessly pushing the frayed Wehrmacht back toward its homeland.
In the United States, families chafed at the rationing of sugar, meat, coffee, gasoline, and rubber, but cheerfully prepared for Christmas and prayed for peace. They hung holly wreaths on front doors and blue-and-gold-star banners in windows denoting that fathers, sons, and brothers were in uniform and far from home. They sat around living-room radios and listened to Ozzie and Harriet Nelson debuting on CBS and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
In cinemas that festive season, Americans found escape from their cares by watching Frank Capra’s whimsical Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre; Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck; Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in the comedy, Casanova Brown; John Cromwell’s Since You Went Away, the sensitive story of a family at war, starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, and Monty Woolley, and Vincente Minnelli’s captivating period musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Tom Drake, and Mary Astor.
On Broadway, theatergoers saw the opening of On the Town, a musical about sailors on leave in New York, later to become a vibrant MGM film starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Vera-Ellen.
In his fourth wartime Christmas Eve address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said he found it “not easy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to you, my fellow Americans, in this time of destructive war.” Surrounded by relatives and friends at his Hyde Park, N.Y., estate, he sat before a radio microphone and declared, “Here, at home, we will celebrate this Christmas Day in our traditional American way — because of its deep spiritual meaning to us, because the teachings of Christ are fundamental in our lives, and because we want our youngest generation to grow up knowing the significance of this tradition and the story of the coming of the immortal Prince of Peace and goodwill.”
Across the Atlantic, where December 1944 brought hoarfrost, fog, and low temperatures to Britain, the archbishop of York was hopeful in his yuletide message. “This is the sixth Christmas of the war,” he noted. “But it will be happier for most of us than the preceding five. The danger of invasion has passed, and the worst of the air raids are over. With quiet confidence we see the end in sight.”
But British families, exhausted and dispirited from more than five years of bombings, military setbacks, severe rationing, and the loss of many loved ones, faced a frugal and joyless yuletide. The Ministry of Food eased restrictions slightly on sugar, margarine, meat, and candy for the Christmas period, but shortages remained acute and corned beef had to substitute for turkey on many dinner tables.
W.J. Wheatley recalled later, “Nineteen forty-four was a strange Christmas. After the success of the [Normandy] invasion and the advance through France, you would have thought the mood would have been cock-a-hoop, but it was not. . . . Many had thought the war would be over by this Christmas, but it still dragged on.”
The Germans dropped less than 2,000 tons of bombs on Britain in 1944, but they resumed their assault that June with V-weapons — deadly V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs that fell without warning and caused widespread devastation. At least 100 V-2s landed on Britain in December, and almost 8,500 civilians had been killed by Christmas.
Courage And Faith In God
The 1944 birthday of Jesus Christ was clouded by two tragedies that would stun millions in the Allied family of nations.
While approaching the port of Cherbourg on Christmas Eve, the troopship Leopoldville, carrying 2,000 American reinforcements to the Battle of the Bulge, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Crippled in heavy, icy seas, the ship sank in two and a half hours. Almost 800 GIs perished.
Just after 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the BBC interrupted a broadcast to announce that Major Glenn Miller, famed leader of the Army Air Forces Band, was missing over the English Channel. Miller, whose music did much to lift Allied morale, had left foggy England on December 13 for a Christmas concert in Paris.
Despite their many tribulations, stoic Britons “carried on” as they had for five years. They cheered themselves with seasonal pantomimes, parties, soccer and rugby matches, and BBC variety shows and comedy. In the cinemas, they watched Lancashire comedian George Formby in He Snoops to Conquer; Abbott and Costello in In Society; Christmas Holiday, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly; Laurence Olivier and Robert Newton in the epic Henry V, and Western Approaches, a classic documentary about the Merchant Navy.
Inland churches were allowed to light up their stained-glass windows for the first time since the outbreak of war, and King George VI sought to hearten the people with his traditional Christmas afternoon message.
“The defeat of Germany and Japan is only the first half of our task,” he said. “The second is to create a world of free men untouched by tyranny. I wish you, from my heart, a happy Christmas, and, for the coming year, a full measure of that courage and faith in God which alone enables us to bear old sorrows and face new trials, until the day when the Christmas message — peace on earth and goodwill towards men — finally comes true.”