The best Christmas present in American military history

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It was the coldest Christmas season in Western Europe for 40 years. It was the intimidating and challenging environment of ice and snow that the US military faced 75 years ago in what would become its final battle test in the European theater of operations during World War II.

On the freezing and snowy Christmas Eve of 1944, the paratroopers of the US 101st Airborne Division were crouched down and surrounded by some five German tank and infantry divisions in the Belgian town of Bastogne, located in a heavily wooded and hilly area. known as the Ardennes.

In a stunning illustration of this unique American ability to maintain a sense of humor in the face of the most stressful circumstances, their commanding officer, General Anthony McAuliffe, had just radioed General George Patton reminding him that he did not. there was more than a day of shopping. until Christmas.

But it was an extremely serious matter. McAuliffe knew that Patton’s 3rd Army, relentlessly attacking the Germans from the south, was the 101st hope for salvation.

The successful D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 in Normandy marked the start of the great Allied offensive to liberate Western Europe and inflict final defeat on Nazi Germany. However, by November 1944, the advancing Allied armies had exceeded much of their supplies and had shifted to a less aggressive strategy. This pause in the Allied offensive gave the German army, on the verge of collapse, the ability to regroup and strengthen.

Adolf Hitler sorely needed a major turnaround in the fate of the war to give Germany a chance to negotiate a more favorable peace deal than the “unconditional surrender” that President Franklin Roosevelt had in mind. Hitler therefore decided to risk everything in a daring winter surprise attack on the poorly defended American front lines in the Ardennes. The objective was to divide the American and British armies and to reach the Belgian port of Antwerp on the North Sea.

Due to Allied air superiority, the Germans had to move large numbers of troops and tanks at night or in bad weather to avoid being spotted by Allied planes. In an impressive feat of stealth that marked the worst Allied intelligence failure of the war in Europe, the Germans managed to muster 250,000 men and 1,000 tanks in the Ardennes region. At dawn on December 16, 1944, the massive surprise offensive was launched against unprepared American forces.

The sparsely populated North-South American front in the Ardennes was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the German assault. The Germans hammered a “bulge” about 60 miles long and 40 miles deep into the American lines, giving the combat the name it is known for – “The Battle of the Bulge”.

Right in the middle of the bulge was the vital crossroads town of Bastogne, with its seven roads stretching out from the center of town. To properly supply their advancing army with food, ammunition and gasoline, the Germans had to take Bastogne. That would be the key to this epic battle.

Shortly after the start of the battle, General Dwight Eisenhower, the commanding general of all Allied forces, realized the magnitude of the unfolding events. He ordered the 101st Airborne Division to be loaded into trucks and quickly transported to Bastogne on December 19, where it was ordered to “hold on at all costs”.

The 101st arrived just in front of the leading elements of the German Panzers and prepared for the brutal siege. On December 20 Bastogne was completely surrounded by German forces, and on December 22 the German commander demanded the surrender of the 101st, otherwise it would be “totally wiped out”.

After a brief discussion with his staff, General McAuliffe gave his immortal response to the German demand for surrender – “Nuts”.

When Patton was made aware of McAuliffe’s response, he said: “Such an eloquent man must be saved.”

In a breathtaking display of dedication and endurance, three of Patton’s 3rd Army divisions retreated from their cold winter positions and did what Eisenhower thought was impossible: they covered nearly 100 miles north in 48 hours. without sleep or hot food and fiercely attacked the German flank on December 21.

Patton knew that the 101st encircled could not last long against all odds, and he was determined to break through in Bastogne on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, on the northern flank of the bulge, the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions were stubbornly entrenched along an area called Elsenborn Ridge. Despite the fact that they were also vastly outnumbered, they had the heights and had repelled the continued attacks of the German Panzers for several days.

The robust 82nd Airborne Division was rushed to add reinforcements on the northern flank, so that the situation on both flanks seemed precariously secure, and the large-scale German offensive was somewhat contained. The fate of the battle now boiled down to the race to Bastogne. Could Patton’s men fight their way through ice and snow and relieve the besieged 101st before it collapsed under constant German pressure?

Christmas day has dawned with a clear sky. Patton’s most daring tank commander, Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams (the namesake of today’s Abrams tank) could see American transport planes dropping supplies into the smoky ruins of what used to be the town of Bastogne.

But Abrams was angry because a strong force of Germans still stood between him and Bastogne. He took the radio and called for a heavy artillery barrage and informed his superiors that his tank battalion was launching an aggressive attack on German forces and would force its way through the German defenses to Bastogne.

He turned out to be a man of his word. On the afternoon of December 26, soldiers of the 101st had their prayers answered when they saw a column of American Sherman tanks commanded by Abrams appear in the distance on one of the roads leading to Bastogne. They watched cautiously and happily as the Shermans made their way straight through town to join the 101st and break the German siege.

Thanks to the swift response and valiant efforts of many American forces, and with Bastogne secured, the possibility of a German victory had been stopped. However, the task of withdrawing all German forces from the Ardennes would take another month of heavy winter fighting and would require the deployment of more American divisions.

The Battle of the Bulge remains the largest land battle ever fought by the US military. Some 600,000 people ended up being involved in what became America’s bloodiest battle of World War II. The losses included 19,000 killed, 62,000 wounded and 26,000 missing or captured.

In the aftermath of the decisive American victory in the Ardennes, the German army on the Western Front weakened considerably. He was too exhausted to fight to defend the German homeland. In just over three months, on May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

As we look forward to the prosperous 2019 Christmas season, think back to that anxious Christmas just 75 years ago, when the fate of the world was at stake, and give thanks for the honor and bravery of our “Greatest generation”. “They fought and won the monumental conflict that determined that the second half of the 20th century would be dominated by the spread of freedom, rather than tyranny and oppression.

And may I suggest you do as I did and give a toast to the highly motivated men of General Patton’s 3rd Army who successfully delivered the best Christmas present in US military history, even if it was a day. delay.

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