HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE AND THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE: 75 YEARS AGO
On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, had arrived in Strasbourg with the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. Eight days earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had begun, and the 42nd Division, along with others, supplied much-needed reinforcements to the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II involving American forces.
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 very much needed. 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. Frostbite was rampant.
Of all the uniformed American troops in the world at that time, 1/8th participated 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.
It had been occupied and transformed into a German town for four years, from 1940-1944. 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 at the time he arrived in Strasbourg on that Christmas Eve in 1944. The 42nd Division had landed at the French port of Marseilles on December 8 or 9 from America. 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 to prevent the Germans from smashing through the Alsace-Lorraine region in January of 1945.
The rest of the 42nd moved east to continue through Germany. It was first in its corps to enter Germany, first to penetrate the Seigfried Line, and first into Munich.
Through 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 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, 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 that 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.
It might have worked. 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. 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 forces in this area. The Battle of the Bulge was to be the last major German offensive campaign along the Western Front in Europe during WWII.
But the price was dear; 100,000 Americans were either killed or injured. This represented a tenth of all American casualties in World War II.
My father told me only 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, three-quarters of a century later, remember to hold your loved ones close in the warmth of your love.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian