Tag Archives: War at Christmas

A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.

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‘Nuts’ – The Siege of Bastogne, Christmas 1944

‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ is a perennial theme of Christmas. But throughout the years soldiers have spent Christmas in terrible conditions, far from their homes and loved ones. The Second World War lasted for six long years and some people didn’t see their loved ones during all that time. Christmas 1944 was one such time for American soldiers with the armies in northern Europe.

The Siege of Bastogne, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge, took place in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate push towards the harbour at Antwerp. The seven major roads in the Ardennes area of Belgium all converged on Bastogne so Hitler saw control of this town as vital to his plans to divide and defeat the advancing Allies.

bastogne_map_december_19-23_1944

In the early hours of 16th December German infantry forces were ferried across the river Our; two hours later they began to advance under cover of artillery which knocked out the American lines of communication. The Germans had overwhelmingly superior numbers but were held up by a single company of Americans who fought fiercely, holding up the German plans to cross the Clef River for two days. On 19th December the American command post of the 28th Division moved to Bastogne where the Division put up a strong defence, but the 500 men were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat by the evening.

The German offensive had taken the Allies completely by surprise, and by the end of the second day the 28th Infantry was close to collapse. Reserves were hurriedly pushed forward and units diverted from their assigned targets in order to hold back this last ditch effort by the Germans to retake land lost since D Day and push the Allies back into France. But although the attack had been unexpected the Americans moved quickly, thanks in part to the fast moving M18 Hellcats, and a tank battle was soon in progress, inflicting heavy losses on the German armour.

American M18 Hellcat
American M18 Hellcat

The 101st Airborne formed a perimeter around Bastogne, and three artillery battalions, each with twelve 255mm howitzers, were able to provide firepower in all directions although they were limited by lack of ammunition. The force was enough, however, to worry General von Luttwitz who did not want to have such numbers to his rear so was forced to slow his advance towards Antwerp and encircle Bastogne. On the night of 20th the Germans began an attack which was stopped by the Americans, although all of the seven roads into Bastogne were finally cut by the German forces leaving the Americans totally cut off.

Outnumbered 5 to 1, lacking cold-weather equipment, short on ammunition, medical supplies and food, and with most of the senior officers elsewhere, the situation for the Americans looked desperate. Worse still, there was no chance of re-supplying the forces from the air due to the worst winter weather in living memory. This also made it impossible for the Americans to offer tactical air support. The men on the ground in Bastogne were forced to hunker down in freezing conditions and pray for an improvement in the weather. The situation looked hopeless.

General McAuliffe (on the left)
General McAuliffe (on the left)

On 22nd December von Luttwitz sent a message to Brigadier General McAuliffe who was leading the defence of Bastogne;

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 honourable 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.

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.

McAuliffe’s reply is one of the most well know military communications of the Second World War:

To the German Commander.

NUTS!

The American Commander

After the response had been translated for von Luttwitz the attacking forces began preparations for their final assault. Bombers attacked during the night whilst panzers attacked from the west where the defences were penetrated at one point. German infantry poured through the breach but were halted by the Americans. Major attacks continued to take place all along the defensive lines, with no break in hostilities to celebrate Christmas Day.

American infantry near Bastogne
American infantry near Bastogne

Patton’s Third Army finally arrived near Bastogne on Boxing Day. After fierce fighting communications with the besieged Americans were restored and supplies began to get through to the cold and hungry soldiers. The 101st expected to be relieved and sent back down the line after such a hard-fought defence but instead were ordered to resume the offensive against German forces. The wider Battle of the Bulge continued unabated into 1945.

Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C-47s drop supplies on Boxing Day 1944
Troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C-47s drop supplies on Boxing Day 1944

One of the main characters in my novel, Heronfield, is caught up in the siege of Bastogne. I wrote about this battle as I wanted to portray the courage and fortitude of the men involved, men who fought against overwhelming odds – vastly superior numbers, cold and hunger – yet refused to give in. Their bravery helped to bring about one of the major turning points of the war. So whilst you enjoy your Christmas celebrations please spare a thought for these men, and all others who have fought and died on many Christmas Days in the past to preserve the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.

Members of C Company, 9th Engineers, conduct a memorial service for those killed during the siege, 22 January 1945.
Members of C Company, 9th Engineers, conduct a memorial service for those killed during the siege, 22 January 1945.