Just as Skylighters did last year, we're presenting our second edition of "Christmas 1944," our look at the last Christmas of the War in Europe. This year, we'll be featuring stories from throughout the European Theatre of Operations that either lent a magical air to the season in spite of the war or struck a more tragic chord owing to the fact that it was Christmas and horrors were still continuing. For many, though, it was just another day of war. It is the wishful thinking of mortals that death and destruction take a holiday at such times, and because we never really expect them to, we are always surprised by isolated acts of kindness that occur and never surprised by the horrors that do. It is never easy to reconcile the meaning of the season in times of war, but during WW II (all theatres) there were moments of sanity and sensitivity that prevailed just as surely as there were episodes of sheer, relentless brutality.|
The great goal of the Allied coalition in 1944 was to end the war by Christmas. It would be symbolic, heroic. It was the timing that Hollywood movies were made of. To return soldiers to their near and dear ones to celebrate the holiday hearthside certainly was in the minds of field commanders. British Field Marshal Montgomery had tried to accelerate the destruction of Nazi Germany by throwing British paratroopers across the Rhine at Arnhem. American General Patton claimed he could do it by thrusting a fully-supplied armored spearhead into the weak underbelly of the Saar, but never got the chance. To end it by December 25, 1944 would somehow cast the New Year as the end of many dark years of struggle on the Continent, as the beginning of a new era of Peace. It would make the white snows of that winter a purifying blanket that would cover the scars of combat cut into the countrysides of England, Russia, and the occupied nations.
But images of the horror linger despite the lofty poetics of what Christmas '44 might have meant: The stiff, frozen corpses of murdered GIs laying in the snow-covered field outside of Malmedy, their bodies tagged with numbers. The men of the U. S. 66th Division drowning in the icy waters of the English Channel as the Leopoldville sunk off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve. The inmates at dozens of slave-labor and concentration camps dying by the thousands in the bitter cold throughout the Greater German Reich. (Dr. Victor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, noted that the death rate in the week between Christmas 1944 and New Year's Day 1945 was the highest in the concentration camp system, yet the camp conditions were the same during this period as any other time. The workload of the prisoners was not unusually high either. Dr. Frankl attributes the increase in death rate to the loss of hope. To many prisoners, somehow the dawn of a new year spelled hope of freedom and a new beginning. But when the hope was not realized with the German counterattack on December 16, resistance broke down, leading to despair and death.) Still were heard the endless barrages of artillery on both sides of the gunsights, the antithesis to "Silent Night." Still visible the poignant "mounds of snow" in fields visible from the air over the Western Front, betraying the locations of the snow-covered dead of both sides.
But there are other images too. Parcels arriving from home in time for the holidays. Canadian seamen decorating a tiny (but real) Christmas aboard their ship in the middle of the fierce North Atlantic. The weather clearing in the Ardennes just before Christmas Day, allowing Allied air power to be exerted, finally, against the attacking Germans after nine days of retreat during the first phase of what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
In addition to stories of Christmas '44, we'll also be serving up a collection of vintage images of Christmas cards, Holiday V-Mail, sheet music, and other holiday ephemera from the war years.
Please select a story:
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