“What’s merry about all this, you ask?”
Thus began a Christmas Eve message from Gen. Anthony McAuliffe to his troops besieged at the Belgium town of Bastogne. Adolf Hitler had launched a desperate counteroffensive against the allies in the West in December 1944. As described in the book “No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne,” the town became a linchpin of the Battle of the Bulge.
Hitler hoped to split the Allied armies and retake the crucial harbor at Antwerp. His attack through the Ardennes forest, accompanied by a withering artillery barrage, caught the Allies by surprise and met with initial success.
But he needed Bastogne, a crossroads that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower quickly decided must be held.
The American general rushed the 101st Airborne (the “Screaming Eagles”) to the town, together with other units. Seventy years ago, the heroes of Bastogne, or, as they were fondly dubbed, “the battered bastards of Bastogne,” spent Christmas breaking the advance of the German army in one of the most storied fights in American history.
It is Bastogne that gives us some of the great statements of American military defiance. When the Germans demanded surrender of his forces, Gen. McAuliffe shot back with his famous rejoinder, “NUTS!” A soldier’s quip captured the spirit of the American defenders: “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.”
The bravado shouldn’t obscure the dire conditions. The Americans were undersupplied and outnumbered. The weather was miserable, frigid and snowy, with cloud cover denying the Allies their advantage in the air.
This had been the case for weeks, leading to Gen. George Patton’s famous prayer, reading in part: “Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies.”
When the weather cleared on Dec. 23, Allied planes attacked the German forces on the ground and dropped supplies to the besieged at Bastogne. As Christmas approached, the Americans scratched out what cheer they could. On Christmas Eve, an American officer wrote “Merry Christmas” on a map showing the Americans surrounded. There was a Christmas service, appropriately enough, in a stable, and one at an ancient chapel.
But they were still under mortal threat, and many Americans assumed, as the Germans prepared another assault, that they wouldn’t survive Christmas.
Germans launched a bombing raid on Christmas Eve that hit an American aid station. Among the casualties was the local woman Renee Lemaire, whose tender care for the wounded Americans had earned her the sobriquet the “Angel of Bastogne.” Then German armor and infantry massed for an attack early on Christmas morning that punched through American lines and came within a mile and a half of Gen. McAuliffe’s headquarters.
But it was blunted and ferociously chewed up, leaving a devastated landscape of dead bodies and burned-out German tanks, the wreckage of the Germans’ last chance to take the town. With the worst seemingly past, Gen. McAuliffe enjoyed a makeshift Christmas dinner of canned salmon and biscuits, complete with a Christmas tree fashioned from spruce branches.
The next day, Gen. Patton finally arrived to relieve Bastogne. The siege had been broken, and so had the Ardennes offensive. Hitler’s grand gambit had failed.
In his message on Christmas Eve, Gen. McAuliffe had continued: “We’re fighting — it’s cold — we aren’t home. All true.” But when the Germans had surged ahead at the start of the Battle of the Bulge, “the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in world history.”
“We are giving,” it concluded, “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.”
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.