In 11 Days In December, master historian and biographer Stanley Weintraub tells the remarkable story of the Battle of the Bulge as it has never been told before, from frozen foxholes to barn shelters to boxcars packed with wretched prisoners of war.
In late December 1944, as the Battle of the Bulge neared its climax, a German loudspeaker challenge was blared across GI lines in the Ardennes: "How would you like to die for Christmas?" In the inhospitable forest straddling Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, only the dense, snow-laden evergreens recalled the season. Most troops hardly knew the calendar day they were trying to live through, or that it was Hitler's last, desperate effort to alter the war's outcome.
Yet the final Christmas season of World War II matched desperation with inspiration. When he was offered an ultimatum to surrender the besieged Belgian town of Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe defied the Germans with the memorable one-word response, "Nuts!" And as General Patton prayed for clear skies to allow vital airborne reinforcements to reach his trapped men, he stood in a medieval chapel in Luxembourg and spoke to God as if to a commanding general: "Sir, whose side are you on?" His prayer was answered. The skies cleared, the tide of battle turned, and Allied victory in World War II was assured.
Christmas 1944 proved to be one of the most fateful days in world history. Many men did extraordinary things, and extraordinary things happened to ordinary men. "A clear cold Christmas," Patton told his diary, "lovely weather for killing Germans, which seems a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is." Peace on earth and good will toward men would have to wait.
11 Days in December is unforgettable.
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November 06, 2006
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Excerpt from 11 Days in December by Stanley Weintraub
PARIS FOR CHRISTMAS! FOR MEN OF THE 101ST AIRBORNE Division barracked in Reims, in a camp once occupied by German infantry, the opportunity seemed alluring. Nothing appeared likely to spoil it. As Currahee, a postwar regimental publication, recalled, "Thru it all like a bright thread ran the anticipation of the Paris passes. Morning, noon and night, anywhere you happened to be you could hear it being discussed." Dwight D. Eisenhower, his headquarters nearby, was more avid for evenings of bridge with high-brass cronies. That a German general far on the other side of the forested line also had bridge on his mind would have surprised the Supreme Commander.
Generalfeldmarschall Hasso von Manteuffel was rethinking Hitler's risky strategy to surprise the Americans and retake the initiative long enough, at least, to forestall their expected victory in the West. "What we are planning here, General," Mantueffel explained cautiously to Generalfeldmarschall Walther Model, borrowing a metaphor from bridge, "is a 'grand slam' in attempting to go all the way to Antwerp. I do not think we hold the cards. I would like to see the bid reduced to a 'little slam.' " With an adversary less than alert at the holiday season, Manteuffel saw a promising, if not a decisive, hand to play.
Disguising himself as an infantry colonel, he had done some covert reconnoitering, asking returning patrols, "What are the habits of the Amis?" He learned that the forested Ardennes was considered "a quiet sector" by the other side, almost a rest area. Forward troops withdrew from their isolated outposts at night. Nothing much seemed to happen from darkness until dawn.
That would change in mid-December. For American soldiers, Christmas 1944 would prove the most bitter since Valley Forge. Christmas itself was almost obliterated. What happened was almost completely unanticipated. Breakthroughs into Germany and across the Rhine were in preparation, the Allies awaiting a turn in the weather. Army post-exchange officials, even more confident than frontline troops that the war with Germany would be over before the holiday season, had distributed a memorandum announcing prematurely that Christmas presents already in the European mail pipeline would be returned to the United States.
A year earlier, the Supreme Commander in the West, General Eisenhower, wagered General Bernard Law Montgomery, whose abrasive vanity he detested, pound 5 that Germany would surrender by Christmas 1944. Troops under Eisenhower had crossed from Sicily into the boot of Italy the month before, and Benito Mussolini's faltering government had collapsed. Arrested on the orders of his puppet king, the Duce had to be rescued at Hitler's instructions by an airborne commando squad led by Major Otto Skorzeny. It appeared that Germany, under enormous pressure from Russian counterattacks, and now facing a new front on the European continent in France, would gradually disintegrate.
Ike's Christmas bet of October 11, 1943, looked like a sure thing after D-Day in June 1944, when Allied forces landed across the Channel in Normandy, again under Eisenhower and once more with a British army under Montgomery, soon to be elevated to field marshal. Six weeks later, a bomb plot against Hitler by dissident officers seeking a way out of the war that would preserve Germany failed. The alleged conspirators were executed wholesale. But the Fuhrer had been impaired physically and psychologically. At fifty-five he was now a bent, somewhat deaf, yet intense old man with tremors and a lame arm he tried to conceal.