Christmas at Bastogne: 1944

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During the Battle of the Bulge, the 101rst Airborne Division made a heroic stand at Bastogne from December 20-27 which helped turn the tide of the battle.  On December 25, a packed midnight mass was held in Bastogne, with Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, who commanded the 101rst troops at Bastogne, in attendance.  Afterwards the General listened to German POWS singing Silent Night, and wished them a Merry Christmas.

General McAuliffe issued a memorable Christmas message to his troops:

Headquarters 101st Airborne Division
Office of the Division Commander

24 December 1944

What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the North, East, South and West. We have identifications from four German Panzer Divisions, two German Infantry Divisions and one German Parachute Division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were headed straight west for key points when 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. The Germans actually did surround us. their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance.

December 22nd 1944
To the U. S. A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U. S. A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hombres Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U. S. A. Troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U. S. A. Troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.

The German Commander

The German Commander received the following reply:

22 December 1944
To the German Commander:


The American Commander

Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: Well Done!

We are giving 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.

A. C. McAuliffe

Today we have troops serving in harm’s way.  From the bottom of a grateful heart I wish them and their families the Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest of New Years.

Update: Hattip to commenter T. Shaw for reminding me of this scene from the movie Battleground (1949), from which the initial clip at the beginning of this post is taken, where a Lutheran chaplain gives a sermon to troops of the 101rst.

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  1. Ourstanding war film! There is another scene in the same movie where a chaplain delivers an excellent sermon.

    Here is a verse by a troop who spent Christmas 2009 in Afghanistan and expects to spend Christmas 2011 there: ” . . . asks you remember the ones who fell, the pain of detachment a veritable hell. While you sleep on soft bed in this happy, free land remember the warrior asleep in the sand. While you celebrate with loved ones on this Christmas day, send thought and a prayer to those in harm’s way.”

    Bless them all.

  2. Interestingly, just as you post this article, the Ardennes is experiencing its worst (best?) snowfall since that battle back in ’44.

    My father-in-law was a 6-year-old boy living in a farmhouse just outside Bastogne at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. His family was “host” to a young German soldier – just a teenager. He vividly remembers the battle, as his family hid in the cellar while it raged above them. During the battle, his house was occupied by both German and American troops. After the battle, he remembers the dead, frozen bodies in the countryside.

    The following spring – in ’45 – he and his older brother would find weapons in the forest, including grendades which they hid from his father. The boys used them in the streams and small rivers to kill the fish.

    Today, there is a huge monument – the Mardasson Memorial – overlooking Bastogne. The monument is free to visit, but the museum/interpretive center requires a (somewhat pricey) fee; however, it is worth it.

    My grandfather ended up serving in the Ardennes after the battle, but – as far as I know – he never ran into my in-laws. There’s a whole ‘nother part to that story, however, that shows exactly how God was working in my life, even before I was born. But, it’s off-topic, so I’ll save it for another day.

    (By the way – if you make your way there, in addition to the famous Belgian beer, you’ve got to try some of the awesome ham – the Noix d’Ardennes – and wild boar sausage – saucisson de sangliers.)

  3. My late father was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. He got severe frostbite in both his feet from the long hours of standing in the snow and later they began to get infected and gangrenous. The military doctors wanted to amputate his feet, but he refused, so they just kept pumping him with penicillin until the infection cleared up and he was able to walk again. That was just one of several instances in his life in which it seems that his guardian angel worked overtime to keep him alive and in one piece!

  4. With a bunch of friends we biked some of the Ardennes back in 1996, in the summer. To actually go on some of the roads, and trails, the steep UPS and DOWNS, it really allows you to put into perspective what a battle it was to hold on to territory, let alone advance.

    That was a great movie. Thank-you for sharing clips from it.

  5. I have not seen the movie ” Battleground”, but there was a good coverage of the Bastogne engagement in Spielberg’s excelent WWII series, “Band of Brothers”.
    One thing I was surprised about during that series concerning Bastogne was that there appeared to be very little air support. The aliies by that stage had air superiority, and fighters could easily reach that area.
    Do I have the wrong impression, or did the 101st have air support which enabled them to withstand the German onslaught, but it was not shown much on the doco. Perhaps someone may be able to enlighten me.

  6. So, I got onto my favorite military history website
    which details all the wars NZ has been involved in from the Boer War in South Africa up to the Korean War.
    Anyway, I got my answer. The weather was so atrocious that planes were generally grounded till Dec. 23rd. NZ squadrons were attached to 2nd T.A.C ( which I presume is Tactical Air Command). 75 squadron – heavy bombers flying Lancaster and Halifaxes were bombing in Germany. All squadrons in the RAF starting with 4(00) were NZ squadrons, and it appears that 9 of the 25 mosquito atacking German lines were from our 488 squadron, and were flying close air attack on 23rd, 24th, and 25th. December. There’s a whole lot more, but I got my question answered – gotta keep reading. 🙂

  7. I don’t recall what unit it was, but I know it was part of General Patton’s Third Army (which doesn’t narrow things down very much).

  8. Ummm……..( :blush: )
    Got my stories mixed. :mrgreen:

    The 25 mosquitoes, 9 from 487 squadron attacked and destroyed Gesatpo headquarters in Aarhus, Denmark the previous month in a low level precision attack.
    488 squadron was flying along with all the other airforces in the Battle of Ardennes, and around Bastogne (couldn’t refind the reference) on the days mentioned and whenever the weather broke.
    But, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  9. Back in the late 40s I dated a young man who had been in the battle of the bulge. He had terribly frost bitten feet that gave him trouble the rest of his life. He would never talk about his experiences except to comment on the children who were German snipers and the difficulty in killing them. He also went into Berlin and of course the Russians were there. Again, he wouldn’t speak much of his experiences, except that he hated the Russians, apparently based on their actions (gang rape, etc.).

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