[Oversaeaview]Christmas in wartime
The Christmas season, devoted to charity and peace, is also the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. Since the United States’ national election in November, President-elect Obama has reiterated campaign pledges to withdraw forces from Iraq, while devoting renewed effort to the vexing insurgency in Afghanistan. Do lessons of the Second World War apply to these current conflicts? Absolutely.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany began an enormous armored military offensive, in bitter winter weather, through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. This had been a very quiet sector of the western front. Adolf Hitler and his planners in Berlin achieved total surprise and initially German forces gained considerable ground.
For many Europeans among the Allies, the attack was eerily reminiscent of the German drive in 1940 that overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent.
At Supreme Allied Com-mander Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters, fear and alarm were visible.
The battle had important implications for all fronts in the Second World War. Had the German drive succeeded in taking Antwerp, Brussels and the giant port of Rotterdam, enormous supplies - including vital fuels - would have been seized. With the western allies thrown back on the defensive, a great many more German divisions would have been freed to launch a counterattack against the enormous Soviet forces on the eastern front.
In Asia, Imperial Japan still occupied a very large number of islands as well as substantial portions of China.
A German victory at the Bulge would have greatly delayed Allied reinforcements from Europe to the battle fronts in the Pacific theatre.
The tide of the Battle of the Bulge did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in the crossroads town of Bastogne, on the day after Christmas. The overall battle continued into the New Year before the Allies could claim clear victory and begin the final strategic drive into Germany.
Other battles in U.S. history were in certain respects 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 logistically than the Bulge. In the European theatre, fighting on the eastern front generally dwarfed that in the west.
Nonetheless, in American history the Battle of the Bulge remains our largest single land battle. Approximately a quarter of a million United States troops were engaged against German forces.
Casualties on both sides were enormous, in both men and material. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.
Perhaps the basic lesson of the Bulge is the essential need for realism in addressing the enormous strain of war. Eisenhower’s skills included remarkable capacity to get disparate and difficult people to work together, plus constant attention to logistics and supply.
Patton was always controversial, in part for demanding strict discipline. Yet he immediately, instinctively recognized the great threat represented by the Ardennes attack, and Third Army troops performed with monumental ability, moving rapidly over difficult terrain in terrible winter weather.
At the tactical level, Corporal Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium knocked out two German tanks, and then his weapon jammed. Warner fired his pistol at a third approaching tank when the German driver suddenly backed up and withdrew.
One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to continue, a common reaction by German and Japanese troops.
American, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and carry on after their officers were hit. Warner, who was killed in later fighting, received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Great material and individual human resources continue to characterize the United States, and our leaders should be evaluated in part by how they appreciate and employ them in current military efforts. Meanwhile, this holiday season we should give thanks we are not facing threats on the scale of those of that earlier war.
The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War”. He can be reached at email@example.com.
by Arthur I. Cyr