From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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Christmas Night Climax
Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

Published in a 1945 issue of the Worcester Sunday Telegram [Mass.]


At 5:40 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, three crack Nazi armies drove deep into a thinly held sector of the American line in Belgium, and began the powerful counter-attack which was headlined as the "Battle of the Bulge." Actually, it should have been called the Great Christmas Offensive.

A fact that few people recall, is that this desperate lunge of armor began on the date of the beginning of Europe's old Christmas novena, which lasted from Dec. 16 to Jan. 9. It is entirely possible that the German High Command was aware of this and was actually attempting to present a stunning victory as a Christmas present to Adolf Hitler. At the time, captured Nazis stated that one of their aims was the liberation of Aachen by Dec. 25, as a gift to their fuehrer.

Instead, of course, the great offensive shuddered to a fatal halt deep within Allied lines. The old novena period, Dec. 16 to Jan. 9 saw a complete reversal of the fortunes of war. First, Hitler's storm troopers blasted their way out of the high Schnee Eifel Mountains to go pounding into Belgium, sweeping everything before them. American forces were smashed and disorganized. Several of our divisions were practically wiped out in the vicious fighting of those first terrible days.

Then, as General Eisenhower regrouped his armies and crack American divisions were hurled in to blunt the point and hold the flanks of the German attack, von Rundstedt's legions slowed. Finally, after a climax of fighting more bitter than any the world has ever known, the Nazi juggernaut crashed to a halt.

Ironically, that climax of heavy action - and the end of forward movement for Germany - came on Christmas Day of 1944.

Up in the Siegfried Line, just south of Aachen, in mid-December, my outfit, the 3rd Armored Division, was inching ahead toward the muddy plain of Cologne. The fighting had developed into a more or less static situation and we were all looking forward to a quiet Christmas.

The spirit of Christmas was in the air in spite of the fact that heavy shells arched overhead and the nervous machine guns of the front line still chattered back and forth. Division chaplains planned their holiday services and the cooks were informed that truckloads of dressed turkeys were on the way to the front.

There was no indication of the coming storm; at least our division intelligence had been given no warning of imminent action. At the time, I was attached to the 3rd Armored Division's G-2 section as a publicity writer, my articles going to Stars & Stripes, Yank, and to other American news services.

Later, historians agreed that General Eisenhower and his staff recognized and were taking a "calculated risk" in the high Ardennes, where four divisions held a long front line. They were the 4th, 29th, 99th and 106th infantry divisions. The 106th, alone, was attempting to hold down a 27-mile front and the youngsters of this outfit had never seen action until von Rundstedt's seasoned SS and Panzer troops came swarming through the misty dawn on Dec. 16.

On our division maps that day the situation was confused. Col. Andrew Barr, the canny G-2 officer, pursed his lips thoughtfully but only admitted that some sort of an attack was developing south of our salient.

As the great German offensive gained momentum, American army groups were shifted to meet the threat. There was then no doubt in anyone's mind that this was the supreme, last-ditch effort of the enemy. Hundreds of buzz bombs racketed over our positions. Jerry jet fighter planes howled across the shifting front. Nazi paratroopers in American uniforms came down behind our lines and we learned, to our sorrow, that the Kraut was employing captured tanks and armored cars in an effort to deceive defenders.

My old unit, the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, was immediately detached from the 3rd Armored Division and ordered to the extreme right flank of the bulge, high in the Schnee Eifel Mountains. Although I had no right to do so, I packed my typewriter into one of the supply trucks and went back to company duty with the tank destroyers.

The rest of the division moved deep into Belgium where it suffered heavy casualties and inflicted equally heavy losses on the driving enemy. Among other Worcester {Mass.] men who participated in that fight, I recall Bill Gleason, who was with the armored anti-aircraft battalion; Gerald Hebert, a member of our Signal Company; Bob Gray, an armored infantryman; as well as Tommy Powers and Stanley Reska, who were with the tank destroyers. There were undoubtedly hundreds of others. Almost all of the fighting divisions on the western front had some part in Ardennes fighting.

We had a white Christmas in Belgium but there wasn't any peace on earth. Attached to the famous First Infantry Division, our battalion found itself in heavy action. The Germans were irresistibly battering forward and, no matter how dear a price we made them pay, they still came on. In many places the fury of the fighting surpassed intensity of Normandy battles. Extreme cold and clinging frost, high winds and deep snow made for greater misery than we had ever experienced on the western front.

During those first weeks, doughboys and tankers came out of the line with feet frozen so badly that they had to be amputated. Land mines were everywhere. Shell and mortar fire raked our positions and the big Jerry tanks kept rumbling forward. The approach of Christmas, in 1944, was a bitter period for men of the American armies.

On Christmas Eve, our tank destroyer company was attempting to hold a section of front line near Malmedy. The forward command post was located in a little Belgian town within mortar range of enemy positions and, as we celebrated the birth of Christ, German explosives crumped in the icy night outside.

But we did celebrate. Tommy Powers of 39 Beaver Street [Worcester], who was our supply sergeant, had begged or stolen enough rations to make the occasion memorable. We didn't have any roast turkey, but we had plenty of canned C-rations and wine.

There was a family living in the cellar of the house we occupied. They were Germans, for this was border country and, for all we knew, they might have been Nazis. Yet, there were several children among them. There were the parents, too, and an old grandmother. They were all very poor - for the war had swept through this area - and they had very little to eat.

So, naturally, we collected together all our chocolate bars and candy for the children. We gave cigarettes to the elders and we slipped them a few gallon cans of C-ration meat and vegetable stew.

The Germans were still driving ahead on Christmas Eve but, between guard stints out in the frigid night and occasional dives for the floor when a shell came screaming in, we presented our small gifts to the children of the house and drank toasts with the elders. They couldn't speak English or French, so all our conversation was in halting German.

Down toward the point of the great Christmas offensive, Germany's panzer armies were piling their dead against a steel wall of Allied resistance, but they were still taking ground, yards at a time. On Christmas Day heavy fighting was in progress everywhere. The artillery of both sides hammered a ceaseless, drumfire barrage.

Christmas was clear and cold, brilliant with sunlight and drifted snow. It was a beautiful day, but we felt the terrible depression of all soldiers who fight with their backs to the wall. It seemed that the enemy would never break and we were bone-weary with cold and battle.

The only cheering note on Christmas Day was the sight of American bombers passing overhead to blast the enemy. Thousands of Fortresses and Liberators, in tight formations, like shoals of tiny silver fish, coursed over the blue, inverted bowl of the sky.

It was a stirring Christmas present from the Air Forces to the struggling ground commands.

On Christmas night the Nazis redoubled their efforts to blast through the American lines. On the 3rd Armored Division front, waves of fanatic enemy troops, supported by artillery and tanks, surged forward only to break in confusion at the last. One of our infantry battalions beat back twelve separate attacks that night. Bob Gray of 11 Winthrop Street [Worcester], can tell you all about it, if he chooses, because he was there with nothing but an M-1 rifle between him and the fanatic soldiers of the SS.

The Christmas offensive came to a crashing climax on Christmas night. German dead were piled in the snow in front of American positions but, at long last, the Allies held firm. By dawn of December 26, Kraut armies were digging in. They were finished and there was nothing for them but the long, terrible road back to ultimate defeat.

It was another two weeks before the "bulge" was deflated, but the last tide of Nazi conquest turned on Christmas Day, and the offensive that was meant to win a smashing victory as a gift to Adolf Hitler, came to an abortive end.

Christmas, in 1944, must have been a bitter day for the fuehrer.

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