A Rochesterian opening his or her newspaper on the morning of December 17th, 1944 read that the city was digging out from a public emergency category blizzard.
As blared in the December 17th headline, General Douglass MacArthur was steadily advancing in the Philippines, capturing a key town in the island of Mindoro.
On the western front, a D & C correspondent described American soldiers hunkered down in Holland for the winter with more creature comforts than expected. In “one very elegant dugout,” a Christmas tree complete with presents was on display.
That December day probably felt ordinary. The United States was slowly but inexorably defeating the Axis powers of Germany and Japan.
Yet, on December 17th, Rochestarians also read that in Belgium the Germans “launched a series of diversionary counter-attacks,” considered at that moment to be of secondary importance to the American capture of a historic Bavarian gate city.
By the end of that day, Rochester — and the world — realized the attacks were not diversionary at all. Instead, the attacks were the first thrusts of Hitler’s previously top secret Unternehmen Herbstnebel (Operation Autumn Mist). On December 18th, referring to the German air force that had been dormant, the D & C suddenly announced: “‘Hidden Luftwafe’ Paces Counter Blows.'”
Known as the Ardennes Offensive or, more colorfully and popularly, the Battle of the Bulge, the six week offensive is considered Hitler’s last great gambit. His tactical ambitions were grand and fantastical: recapturing Antwerp and trapping British and Canadian armies in the Low Countries and northern Germany.Hitler’s strategic dreams were even more far fetched. By late 1944, Germany’s only hope for survival was dissension within and rupture between the Allies. Hitler wishfully believed the offensive would knock Britain out of the war, manifesting in a brokered peace pitting England, the United States and Germany against the communist Soviet Union itself threatening to overrun Europe.
On the 18th and 19th, that Rochestarian would encounter ominous — and surprising — words and images of a growing German bulge in Belgium. While the Allied thrusts into Germany had slowed in the Fall of 1944, to the average American civilian at home the defeat of Nazi Germany seemed a mere matter of time, just as imperial Japan looked defeated.
Today, military historians know that by the 19th Autumn Mist was nearly doomed. The German advances were behind schedule. More importantly, the Germans failed to capture enough of the Allies’ large store of essential fuel, torched to create “flaming barricades.”
Of course, not knowing the obstacles faced by the Germans, for Rochestarians — barraged with dark news — the next days were nerve wracking and disheartening: threatened German breakthroughs, furious and pounding German offensives, German roaring, bursting, and slashing, unchecked.
Finally, on December 23rd came the first full headline of Allied triumph. The weather cleared and the RAF and the USAF launched 4,500 sorties.
Then, on Christmas Day, weary Rochesterians received some good cheer: “YANKEES HALT NAZI DRIVE.”
The battle lasted a month longer, officially declared over on January 26th, 1945. The Germans delayed the Allies advance into Deutschland about six weeks and inflicted grievous casualties. But the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were spent forces, and the remaining drama was who would reach Berlin first.NOTES: From 1943 to 1945, Italian and German POW’s were held in barracks on the slope of Cobb’s Hill. In December 1944, one German POW — as his comrades were dying in the Ardennes — created a 5 x 5 x 1-1/2 inch hinged, wooden box engraved with what appears to be a bird of peace. See War (literally) made into art at the Military History Society of Rochester
On the stories of Brighton High School graduates killed in the Second World War, see After Parkland, discovering fallen Brightonians from World War TwoBHS ’41, Edward Reginald Crone Jr. was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Crone and 150 other prisoners were dispatched to Dresden, Germany in cattle cars and then housed in a meat-packing plant. Living on starvation rations, the prisoners were forced to clear the city of rubble and bodies after the infamous Allied firebombing. Crone died less than a month before the end of the European war and was interred in Dresden. Following the war, Crone’s family brought his remains back to Rochester for interment in Mt. Hope Cemetery. Fellow POW Kurt Vonnegut eventually said Crone was the role model for the character of Billy Pilgrim in his novel Slaughterhouse Five.
On the last days of the Third Reich and an exhibit at the University of Rochester, see Celebrating 40 years of BOA editions in the Rush Rhees Friedlander Lobby. And W. D. Snodgrass’s The Führer Bunker