HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE AND THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE: 79 YEARS AGO
On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, entered the frontline at Strasbourg with the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division in 20-degree weather. Eight days earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The 42nd Division, along with others, supplied much-needed reinforcements to the most extensive and bloodiest battle of World War II involving American forces. 610,000 Americans, 55,000 British, and 72,000 Free French troops were involved in this battle.
The German Wacht am Rhein “Watch on the Rhine” offensive had begun a week before my father arrived. By Christmas Eve, the American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had taken heavy casualties, and reinforcements were invaluable. The bad weather had weakened the American supply lines. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in recorded history; temperatures averaged 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite was rampant.
Of all the uniformed American troops in the world at that time, 1/8th took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
The town of Strasbourg, located on the French-German border, had just been liberated from Nazi control by the French 2nd Armored Division forces only a month previously.
During the War, it was occupied and transformed into a German town for four years, from 1940 to 1944. The French had begun evacuating it in 1939 when War was declared upon Germany by France and England following the German attack on Poland.
42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division
My father was 23 years old when he arrived in Strasbourg on that Christmas Eve in 1944. The 42nd Division had landed at the French port of Marseilles from America on December 8 or 9. They were called Task Force Linden, under the command of Brigadier General Henning Linden, and they marched from the coast up to the German-held French region of Alsace as part of the 7th Army. The 42nd Division took up a 31-mile sector along the Rhine River defensive lines. They exchanged machine-gun fire with the Germans on Christmas Day. The Germans tried to send a boat across the river but were turned back by automatic weapons fire.
From there, on December 26, some of the 42nd Division would move north and west to the Battle of the Bulge. Others moved to the major battle Operation Northwind (sometimes called “the Other Battle of the Bulge”) to prevent the Germans from smashing through the Alsace-Lorraine region in January 1945.
The rest of the 42nd Division moved east to continue through Germany. It was:
- First in its corps to enter Germany
- First to penetrate the Seigfried Line
- First into Munich.
Though the Rainbow Division only fought for 106 days, German soldiers came to respect the Rainbow Division and fear its patrols and raids.
”Is your Division a part of Roosevelt’s SS?”
asked one German soldier when captured.
As I describe elsewhere, the 42nd was among the first to liberate 30,000 inmates of the Dachau Concentration Camp. The next day, following the Liberation, my father captured the Nazi General in charge of the anti-aircraft artillery in south Munich.
Battle of the Bulge
Adolf Hitler‘s offensive intended to smash through Allied lines in the Belgian Ardennes Forest and race to the Atlantic coast, almost three hundred miles away. This strategy had worked before when the Nazis had broken through French lines and cornered British forces on the coastal town of Dunkirk, forcing a massive sea evacuation from the continent to England.
Hitler believed it would take two weeks for the Americans to coordinate a response with the British. He hoped to split the Allied forces and close the port of Antwerp, the largest held by the Allies on the continent, by using a “bulge” through Belgium. The attack came as a complete surprise.
The Nazis made progress for almost three weeks. They vastly outnumbered the Allies, with over 400,000 of Germany’s best troops committed. But by the turn of the New Year, the Allied front became stable, supply lines firmed up, and reinforcements swelled the US troops to 600,000 with 400,000 supporting them.
General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, using all the troops at his disposal, recognized the enormity of the impending battle. In his order dated December 22, 1944, he said:
“But we cannot be content with his mere repulse. By rushing out from his fixed defenses the enemy may give us the chance to turn his great gamble into his worst defeat.
So I call upon every man of all the Allies, to rise now to new heights of courage … with unshakable faith in the cause for which we fight, we will, with God’s help, go forward to our greatest victory.”
The German commander Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz demanded the American troops surrender at the town of Bastogne. The US Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe replied:
“To the German Commander.–The American Commander.”
Many other Divisions participated, including the famed 101st Airborne Division, popularized by “Easy Company” in the HBO TV series Band of Brothers.
By the end of January, the Allied forces had recaptured all ground taken by the German troops in this area.
“This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.” – Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister
The Battle of the Bulge was to be the last major German offensive campaign along the Western Front in Europe during WWII. It lasted nearly 40 days until January 25, 1945.
But the price was dear. There were about 90,000 American casualties, including 19,000 killed, 47,5000 wounded, and 23,000 missing or captured. This represented a tenth of all American casualties in World War II.
The motto of the Rainbow Division is:
A Personal Reflection
At this time every year, the movie White Christmas reminds me of this battle as it too opens on Christmas Eve 1944 with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye at an advanced enemy position.
My father told me just one story of his time in that area that I can share only in part. He and his squad had camped at night in the snow. They defended their patch of land as American soldiers around him fell in battle.
On this Christmas Eve, over three-quarters of a century later, remember to hold your dear ones close in the warmth of your love.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian