Monday, June 25, 2012

Bastogne

If you know your history that one word says it all.

We're in the home stretch of the 30 days of kibbles & bits, and as subjects go today's 'worst Christmas ever' prompt is stretchin' it a bit -it's summer!  I'm not thinking about snow or Santa or anything Christmassy, but therein lies the challenge, right?  Very well.

Let's go back to Christmas.  Not the last one, we're looking for the worst.  Ever.  Let's go back further.  Past the any sour eggnog incidents you may have had.  Past aunt Gertie's sticky fruitcake.  That wasn't the worst ever, even if you got the piece she lost her fingernail in.  'Ewwww!' -I know.  Still not the worst.

You can go back through childhoods Christmases; wrong presents, wrong dolly, wrong color power ranger, too many clothes as gifts instead of toys, got your tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole, put your eye out with your new Red Ryder BB Gun ... might be a personal worst, but it's still not the worst.

For that we've got to go way back, before most of you were born even.

BASTOGNE 1944

December 14
The war in Europe was nearing it's end, anyone could see the 3rd Reich was teetering on the brink of collapse, and up and down the front thousands of American GI's were settling in for a picturesque snowy Christmas.  It was no different in sleepy, out-of-the-way Bastogne, Belgium.  This was olde Europe, the kind of town where Hansel met Gretel, and Red Riding Hood bought her first basket.  (It was so quiet their commander had left the continent and was back in the US for a conference.)  The line was thin here, but the war was all but over so the men were relaxed.  It was nice quiet place to spend the holidays.

On the German side, the 55 divisions (500,000+ men) of operation Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein were ready to attack.  They'd been massing in secret for weeks, stripping hundreds of thousands of men, tanks and artillery from the Russian front and sneaking them in at night to avoid detection.  Hitler, not known for his sense of humor, wasn't kidding this time either.

Their plan was to surprise the thin American line in quiet, sleepy Belgium, overwhelm them quickly and storm to the critical port at Antwerp, thereby cutting off allied supplies and splitting the US and British armies in half.  It wouldn't win the war for them, but it might force the Western allies to negotiate a peace.  Both luck and the weather were with them.

December 15
The winter storm moving in grounded most planes, negating US air superiority and further masking the German divisions.  When they struck they achieved near total surprise.  They advanced quickly and the short handed and under-gunned Americans could only manage a few brief delaying tactics.  The only American close enough to help were paratroopers.  With no heavy weapons or even winter clothing they moved into Bastogne in time to get completely surrounded by German armor.

Town got messed up a little bit.
McAuliffe, Ike, and Patton

December 21
All seven major highways leading into town were now firmly in German hands.  The siege was on.  Both sides knew there was no escape for the trapped GI's.  Both sides knew the Germans had all the heavy tanks.  Both sides knew that the intense storm would keep the American air force from providing either tactical support or supplies by air (food and ammo were both desperately short).  Logic dictated that the Americans had no options.

December 22
The following borrowed directly from Wikipedia.
General von L├╝ttwitz sent the following ultimatum to Gen. McAuliffe:
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 Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-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.

McAuliffe square near Bastogne
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.
According to various accounts from those present, when McAuliffe was told of the German demand for surrender he said "nuts". At a loss for an official reply, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard suggested that his first remark summed up the situation well, which was agreed to by the others. The official reply was typed and delivered by Colonel Joseph Harper, commanding the 327th Glider Infantry, to the German delegation. It was as follows:
To the German Commander.

NUTS!

The American Commander
The Germans took this as 'Go to hell!' -and didn't care for it much.  They began relentless attacks on Bastogne day and night.  First they shelled the American positions, then their armor and infantry stormed the positions.  Over and over.  The Americans threw them back time after time but paid in blood; 2500+ casualties not counting 500+ missing -and it went on through Christmas.  -the worst ever BTW- 

The Germans, warm in their winter gear, enjoyed steady supplies of food and ammo.  The Americans shivered in their frozen fox holes with no resupply of either.  Right through Christmas.

When the storm lifted the allies filled the skies with war planes and supply transports.  General George S Patton's 3rd army broke through the day after Christmas and finally relieved Bastogne.  Though history credits this as a 'rescue', most of the surviving paratroopers of the 101st airborne stubbornly said "We didn't need to be rescued, just resupplied."  That's guts.  Or nuts.  Or both.

It's worth noting that after their 'rescue' the 101st did not go to the rear for R&R.  They got fresh food and ammo and immediately joined the counter-offensive.  Bastogne was the centerpiece of the much larger Battle of the Bulge which was considered over and won by January 15.   Militarily exhausted, Germany surrendered in May.

I'm sure there are a lot of Christmas 'horror' stories out there; breakups, bad presents, bad eggnog, maybe a tree fire, but none of those really stack up to Bastogne '44.  Unless your story includes 55 German divisions rammed up your ass, I'm not really impressed.

9 comments:

  1. Now that's a bad Christmas. I thought you were going to tell us that McAuliffe's comment resulted in the phrase "Christmas nuts". But no. Nevertheless that was an interesting story.

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  2. The horrors of war outweigh bad presents, spoiled dinners and cancelled flights and a host of other things that can go wrong with Christmas. This was an extraordinary story and extraordinary men. God bless 'em.

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  3. I imagine there were many horror stories to be told of that Christmas and many before it. They were truly bad times.

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  4. That definitely wins (loses?) as worst Christmas ever. Have you ever seen the movie Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)? It's based on the true story of Scottish, French and German soldiers during WWI who called their own truce on Christmas day in 1914, ended up befriending each other and even warning each other of air strikes. I think you'd like it.

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  5. I never heard about that battle and didn't realize that it was the backstory of the word, "nuts."

    Amazing story. Unbelievable courage and persistence against incredible odds. Definitely a horrific Christmas. Though, Aunt Gertie's fingernail is a close second.

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  6. Nameless,
    I tried to put the jokes in early, it was a serious story by the end

    Babette,
    yes, but now we have peace on earth, right? (so it was worth it, right?)

    Nicky the picky,
    I did hear that story; the version I heard included men sharing wine and exchanging small gifts. Can't imagine that happening anymore.

    Lauren,
    I think 'nuts' was already in use as 'nuts to that!', it just became way more famous after Bastogne.

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  7. "Unless your story includes 55 German divisions rammed up your ass, I'm not really impressed."

    Me standing up and applauding!

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  8. Dang! I did see Nicky's movie and it was wonderful!

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  9. Kat,
    First, thanks! I almost included "Even Oprah at her worst couldn't fit more than two!" But why be mean?

    Linda,
    I think it relects a time when men were not so willing to lose their humanity despite finding themselves in a living hell.

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