Many Americans thought their sons and daughters would be home by Christmas Christmas 1944. It was an anxious time for World War II families. There were many Americans at home who thought the war was over, or would be over, by Christmas. Those in the trenches, however, knew differently. The war was not over, and there was uncertainty as to just how and when the Germans would surrender. They were worried about a possible winter battle in the freezing forests of Belgium. The weather was a concern, but the rumors about the Nazis possibly having a secret weapon bothered them more. There was good reason to be concerned. In the summer of 1944 the Germans had introduced their V-1 buzz bombs and damaged London so badly that the city was partially evacuated. It was felt by many, that if Germany had had buzz bombs earlier, D-Day may not have been possible.
Generals Patton (U.S) and Montgomery (UK) also felt that Germany’s complete surrender was within reach, and by Christmas. Other commanders weren’t so sure, and were concerned that the American public had already written off the war as having been won. Despite the division of opinions the excitement continued to build, and the overflow was filling the American press that the Nazis could, and would, be defeated, and soon.
The December 11, 1944 issue of Life Magazine contained ads that showed servicemen at home by Christmas. In one, a serviceman and his wife lovingly embrace with the caption “Back Home for Keeps.” In the same issue, two of the letters to the editor were worded as if the war was over. One writer went as far as to say “having just finished a costly war”, and another letter argued the point of what to do with the defeated German people. Considering the stark realities facing our servicemen, many stateside Americans were simply worlds apart in their thinking about the war and Christmas.
Even the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow was feeling a bit optimistic about the end of the war. In a radio broadcast from London a few weeks before Christmas he stated “There is a dim light in Europe now. The blackout is gradually lifting. And when I leave this studio tonight I shall walk up a street in which a light, not much, but more than there has been for five and a half years.” Murrow was suggesting that he too felt that the end of the war was near.
Many religious services were conducted by pastors who told their congregations that American and their Allies had already paid the price for peace, and that soon peace would come. Sadly, that was not true, and there was more sacrifice to come.
In mid- December a number of war correspondents tried to shake the public from their fantasy land belief that the war was essentially over. The articles informed them of a likely winter battle in Western Europe, and the heinous possibilities awaiting our troops. According to one article, the Nazis might have the “atomic weapon” and continued to frighten the readers with, “not knowing of what the Germans are brewing in their witches’ cauldrons behind the Rhine.”
If the Germans did not have secret weapons, it was thought unlikely that their once powerful army, now just a shadow of itself, could put together an offensive. And the writers were so wrong. On December 16, 1944, in the freezing and foggy Ardennes forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, the German army launched a surprise attack on the Americans with more than 250,000 German troops and hundreds of tanks.
Between December 16, 1944 and January 16, 1945 the Battle of the Bulge went back and forth, many times depending on the blizzard-type weather and the resources available. The ambush on the 16th allowed the Germans to capture a number of Americans POW’s. The next day (December 17, 1944) German soldiers murdered 84 American POW’s in the Belgium town of Malmedy.The news of the heinous war crime spread through the American army, and the resolve of the Americans to defeat the Nazis was cemented. On December 21st the Germans surrounded the heavily outnumbered Americans in the small Belgian town of Bastogne. They demanded unconditional surrender – and expected it. The American commander, however, General McAuliffe responded simply with “Nuts!” The Americans had no intentions of giving up, and the General’s well-known response represented American grit and determination.
Besides the Americans’ refusal to give up, the Germans were not able to protect their fuel resources. The Third Reich’s feared tanks, the Panzer and Tiger, needed large amounts of gas to operate. Although the Germans had set aside 5 million gallons of gas for this offensive, much of the fuel was never used, because of bad weather making the roads inoperable. Caught off guard, and lacking resources, the American resistance eventually stopped the Germans, but not before over 80,000 American servicemen were killed or wounded. On January 16, 1944 the battle was over and the defeated German army retreated into their Motherland. The German army was finished and three months later Berlin was captured and Germany surrendered ending the war in Europe. Winston Churchill called the Battle of the Bulge “the greatest American battle of World War II.”
At times we want to believe in something so much that we ignore the truth. In December 1944, Americans were in love with the idea of the war being almost over, so much so that many pretended that it was.
For additional readings, check out: Charles MacDonald’s “A Time for Trumpets, the Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge.”