10 Things You Might Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images
Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images

On October 11, 1943, Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery made a bet about the future of World War II. The war, Ike wagered, would be over by Christmas Day 1944—and he put £5 on it (which would be just under $100 in today's dollars). A year later, he must have felt pretty good about his chances: The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 had paved the way for a series of other Nazi defeats in France and neighboring countries; meanwhile, the Soviet Army was hammering away on the eastern front. Hitler's army was caught in a vice, and the screws were tightening.

Ultimately, however, Ike lost. On December 16, 1944, Hitler’s last major offensive campaign against the Western Allies began with a vengeance. Exploiting the weakly-defended Ardennes forest, the Nazis carved out a triangular slice of former Allied territory in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. Hitler’s men wouldn’t be pushed back to their start point until January 25, 1945. By then, the Americans and Germans had respectively suffered around 81,000 and 100,000 casualties. Hitler had thought this attack might force the western Allies out of mainland Europe, allowing him to concentrate on beating the Soviets. Instead, it strengthened Allied resolve. Read on to find out more about what we in the States call “the Battle of the Bulge.”

1. REPORTER LARRY NEWMAN COINED THE NAME “BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”

Larry Newman was a war correspondent working on behalf of United Press International and the International News Service. On December 30, 1944, he met with American General George Patton to talk about the German counterattack. Newman wanted to give the fight a catchy name that wasn’t too formal. While looking at some war maps, he was struck by the bulging swell of German troops and coined the phrase Battle of the Bulge. Other journalists (particularly those working in the U.S.) were quick to adopt the new name. Germany’s military referred to their campaign as “The Ardennes Offensive”; the Allies officially called their response “The Ardennes Counteroffensive.”

2. HITLER’S ADVISORS THOUGHT IT WAS MISGUIDED.

The Führer’s ambitious goal was to sweep through the Ardennes and then take the port city of Antwerp, Belgium—and along the way, his advancing men would cut the Allied forces in half while decimating their ranks. Hitler believed he could negotiate favorable terms for an armistice with Britain, France, and the U.S. once Antwerp fell.

It wasn’t a foolproof strategy. Field Marshall Walther Model didn’t think the Germans had enough troops for the assault. Privately, he said the plan “doesn’t have a damned leg to stand on.” Others warned that Antwerp would be almost impossible to defend even if it was somehow captured. Hoping to change Hitler’s mind, Model and his fellow Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt suggested that he try to take back Aachen—a German city under Allied occupation—instead of going after Antwerp. Hitler ignored them.

Military historian Peter Caddick-Adams says the dictator’s choice was politically motivated. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg almost did the Führer in by hiding a bomb at one of Hitler’s strategy meetings. Though Hitler survived, he worried that the assassination attempt had raised questions about his competence as a leader—and believed that a decisive win over the Allies would heal his reputation. “The genesis of Hitler’s plans to launch the Bulge is his grappling to retain control of the direction of military affairs and prove to the Third Reich that he’s still the man at the top,” Caddick-Adams said in an interview with National Geographic.

3. GENERAL PATTON’S INTELLIGENCE OFFICER SAW IT COMING.

The narrative spun in most history books is that Germany’s Ardennes Offensive caught the Allies completely by surprise—but that’s not quite accurate.

While it's true that Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley later admitted they hadn’t foreseen the scale of Hitler’s massive attack, there was one U.S. intelligence officer who did anticipate the blow: Colonel Oscar W. Koch. A member of General Patton’s staff, Koch had been keeping track of German tank divisions throughout the winter of 1944. The colonel knew there were 15 such divisions in total, but only five of these were accounted for in early December. Where were the others? At a December 9 briefing, Koch told Patton that the Germans might be planning a huge counteroffensive through the Ardennes, just to the north of Patton’s Third Army. When the Ardennes Offensive started, Patton was ready for it and had his men pivot northwards, hammering Germany’s southern flank.

Other American generals in the region were totally unprepared. Koch’s fellow intelligence specialists had access to the same facts, but they interpreted them differently. Since Hitler had been losing ground in France and Belgium for so long, it was assumed that his western forces were basically spent. Other than Koch, almost no one thought Germany was able or willing to mount a large-scale offensive campaign. Years later, Koch wrote, “The Allied failure leading to the tragedy of the Bulge, was in evaluation and application of the intelligence information at hand.”

4. BASEBALL TRIVIA WAS SERIOUS BUSINESS AT AMERICAN CHECKPOINTS.

Both prior to and during the battle, English-speaking German troops disguised themselves in pilfered Allied uniforms and snuck behind enemy lines—and when the scheme was discovered, panic rippled through the American ranks. So at checkpoints, U.S. army units would quiz each other with pop culture questions like “Who plays center field for the Yankees?” and “What’s Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend’s name?” General Bradley once had to prove his identity by “naming the then-current spouse of a [movie star] named Betty Grable,” and another time nearly got in trouble when he correctly identified Springfield as the capital of Illinois—because the questioner was holding out for Chicago. On another occasion, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke was detained after he misidentified the Chicago Cubs as an American League baseball team.

5. WHEN ASKED TO SURRENDER, BRIGADIER GENERAL ANTHONY MCAULIFFE REPLIED WITH A FOUR-LETTER WORD.

By December 22, German forces had surrounded the town of Bastogne, Belgium, trapping 14,000 American soldiers and about 3000 civilians. At roughly 11:30 a.m., Nazi General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent four men to deliver a message to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, head of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. Explaining that the town was encircled by “strong German armored units,” Lüttwitz gave McAuliffe two hours to surrender peacefully. When he learned that the Germans wanted him to raise the white flag, McAuliffe grumbled “Nuts!” This amused some of his staffers, who persuaded him to put that little interjection in his formal reply. Here’s McAuliffe’s actual written response to General Lüttwitz:

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S!

Signed,

The American Commander.”

Lüttwitz’s messengers didn’t understand the slang and were told McAuliffe was basically saying “Go to hell.” The isolated Americans in Bastogne held off the German siege until General Patton forced his way into the city with reinforcements on December 26.

6. COLD-RELATED INJURIES HIT EPIDEMIC LEVELS.

Members of the American 82nd Airborne Division trudging through the snow behind a tank during the Battle of the Bulge
Keystone/Getty Images

“I was from Buffalo, I thought I knew cold,” Warren Spahn, a baseball Hall of Famer who served in WWII, later said. “But I didn’t really know cold until the Battle of the Bulge.”

The weather for most of the battle was, in a word, brutal. Hitler saw it as a strategic opportunity: He timed his Ardennes offensive for mid-December, to coincide with an outbreak of freezing rain, subzero temperatures, and dense fogs—conditions that would make it difficult for the Allies to use their aircraft to attack German ground divisions.

Many U.S. troops found themselves ill-equipped for the frozen hellscape. Standard-issue American combat boots were not waterproof and keeping one’s socks dry could be a challenge. (Frozen soil was another problem for Allied troops who had been ordered to dig out trenches.)

Altogether, the U.S. ranks saw more than 64,000 cases of “cold injuries” like trench foot and pneumonia during the brutal European winter of 1944-1945. Thousands of these occurred in the Bulge.

7. KURT VONNEGUT WAS CAPTURED IN IT.

Like the protagonist of his most famous book, Vonnegut—then a 22-year-old private with the U.S. 101st infantry division—was captured at the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, then taken to Dresden, where he was imprisoned at a facility called Slaughterhouse Five. “Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of [General Courtney Hodges’s] First Army,” he recalled in a letter to his family. “The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it.” While at Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut—again, like Billy Pilgrim—survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

8. PATTON SENT OUT THE MOST FAMOUS CHRISTMAS CARDS IN MILITARY HISTORY.

On December 14, 1944, just two days before the battle started, General Patton summoned Reverend James H. O’Neill, Chaplain of the Third Army, to his office in Nancy. By then, murky skies and heavy precipitation had reached the Ardennes and Patton recognized them as a military disadvantage. So the general asked O’Neill to come up with “a prayer for good weather.” According to Patton's memoirs, O’Neill resisted at first. “It usually isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men,” O’Neill allegedly said. To this, Patton replied “Chaplain, are you trying to teach me theology, or are you Chaplain of the Third Army? I want a prayer.”

O’Neill retold the story differently. He claimed that a week earlier Patton had called and asked for a prayer, and O’Neill accepted the challenge at once. When O’Neill couldn’t find an existing prayer that fit the circumstances, he penned a new one. “Almighty and most merciful father,” it began, “we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle.” Patton had this printed on around 250,000 Christmas cards for his men. Each one also bore the following note from the General: “To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God’s blessing rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day.”

The cards went out on December 22. Within 24 hours, the skies had cleared well enough for the Third Army to proceed toward Bastogne (though there was still plenty of snow). A grateful Patton proclaimed, “That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” The next day, Patton presented O’Neill with a Bronze Star Medal.

9. DURING THE BATTLE, THE SOVIETS LAUNCHED A MAJOR ATTACK ON HITLER’S EASTERN FRONT.

At its zenith, the German “bulge” into Allied terrain was around 50 miles deep and 70 miles long. Hitler’s men—despite their impressive start—would lose every inch of ground they’d gained by the battle’s end date: January 25, 1945. A costly aircraft raid on New Year’s Day contributed to their defeat, as did fuel shortages and shifts in the weather. While the Bulge was shriveling away, the Red Army began its Vistula-Oder Offensive in Eastern Europe. The campaign kicked off on January 12, 1945 and would last through February 2. In it, over 2 million Soviets moved westward, taking cities like Warsaw and Krakow out of the Third Reich’s hands. The Red Army came within 50 miles of Berlin itself—and on January 27, it liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Unable to endure sustained pressure from the Soviets and Western Allies, Germany surrendered without condition on May 7, seven days after Hitler took his own life.

10. THE U.S. MILITARY EXPERIMENTED WITH INTEGRATION.

Some 1.2 million African-Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. They performed a wide range of duties, but in most circumstances, black combat troops weren’t permitted to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with their white counterparts. However, in response to personnel shortages in the Ardennes, General Eisenhower invited black soldiers to volunteer for service on the front lines. More than 2200 soldiers who took him up on the offer were chosen to fight. During the battle, the army set up companies consisting of both white and African-American platoons. Segregation would be reinstated once the Bulge came to a close, and Truman wouldn’t commit the armed services to integration until 1948.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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