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Opinion: Christmas 1944: A battle to be remembered

The Battle of the Bulge was fought Christmas of 1944

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In this Jan. 6, 1945, file photo, American tanks wait on the snowy slopes in Bastogne, Belgium.

In this Jan. 6, 1945, file photo, American tanks wait on the snowy slopes in Bastogne, Belgium.

Associated Press

Christmas includes the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle fought by the United States. This was hell on earth.

On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany launched an enormous offensive through the quiet, thinly defended Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Adolf Hitler and planners in Berlin achieved total surprise. German forces rapidly gained ground.

For Europeans among the Allies, the attack was reminiscent of the stunning 1940 German drive that overran France and secured Nazi domination of Europe. Among Dwight D. Eisenhower’s associates at Supreme Allied Headquarters, fear was visible with alarm.

The tide of the battle did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in Bastogne, Belgium, the day after Christmas.

Brutal fighting continued through January. However, with the relief of Bastogne, the Nazi vision of the future of Europe — and the world — failed.

Other battles in U.S. history were more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and other engagements resulted in a higher percentage of casualties among combatants.

During the Second World War, such enormous amphibious invasions as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex in logistical terms than the Bulge. In the European theatre, the scale of the war on the eastern front was much greater than in the west.

Nonetheless, in American history the Battle of the Bulge remains our biggest single land engagement. Approximately a quarter of a million United States troops were pitted against a comparable number of German forces.

Basic lessons of the Bulge included personnel, matériel and leadership. Eisenhower’s skills included getting difficult personalities to work together, constant attention to logistics and organizational genius. Both sides suffered enormous losses, in men and supplies. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.

Controversial Patton undeniably was a brilliant combat leader. At Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in early 1943, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps decimated poorly led American troops. Eisenhower put Patton in command. A month later, these same troops defeated Rommel’s troops at El Guettar.

Patton immediately and accurately evaluated the Ardennes offensive and acted fast.

During the Bulge, African American soldiers were offered combat service, previously denied, but only if they sacrificed earned military seniority. Thousands volunteered, and were vital to Allied victory.

At the tactical level, Cpl. Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, knocked out two German tanks, and then his 57-mm. anti-tank gun jammed. He was firing a pistol at a third approaching tank, when the German driver backed up and withdrew.

One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to proceed, a common reaction of German troops. American, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and continue fighting after officers went down.

Warner, killed later in combat, received the Medal of Honor.

When the Nazi Reich surrendered, Eisenhower commented the war was over but not won. True victory meant Germany embraced stable democracy.

Admirable and effective German Chancellor Angela Merkel was Time Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year.” The Allies have won the war, by Eisenhower’s demanding standard of success.

Honor contemporary Germany, which is economically strong, firmly democratic and committed to European peace.

Honor the men who faced, fought and won this battle.

Learn more: Carlo D’Este “Patton: A Genius for War,” and the movie “Patton.”

Arthur I. Cyr is and author of “After the Cold War — American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia”. Contact acyr@carthage.edu