Christmas 1944 – Noel! Noel! – The Christmas Eve Bombing of Malmedy, Belgium

The story behind the letter sent home on Christmas by Lenny Miller in “We Are Going To Be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Letters

On January 11, 1945 the serviceman’s newspaper, STARS AND STRIPES, printed a little two inch item:

U.S. Held Malmedy
Bombed by Mistake

“The Belgian town of Malmedy, occupied by American troops was bombed by mistake by six medium bombers and 18 Eighth AF heavies during the counteroffensive on Dec. 23 and 24, USSTAF revealed yesterday.”

The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive campaign of WWII. The goal was to surprise the Allies by cutting through the dense forests of the Ardennes and splitting the Allied forces, and then forcing a negotiated peace on the Western Front.

The attack came through the Ardennes, the same route the Germans had taken to successfully cut off the Allies at the start of the war in 1940. The 29th and 30th Divisions were rushed back into Belgium. It took a day to get there. The Battle of the Bulge had begun. Lenny’s 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, was rushed to Malmedy, Belgium, on the hills on the northeast side of the Bulge.

Letter below from “We Are Going To Be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Lettersby Elizabeth Fox, Boulder, Colorado (New York State University Press – SUNY) available on Amazon.

Dec 25, 1944, Belgium

Dearest,

We will never forget this Christmas. In the bright sunny afternoon yesterday, we talked about preparing a little festivity for the evening, but in one short evil moment all was changed – only a minute, then came the new job (so many strange new jobs since we came here) of going out on errands of mercy, for the saving of lives. And when the serene white moon came out shining on the white frosted piney hilltops, and all should have been suited for Christmas Eve, we stood & watched the city of Malmedy suffer, as too many cities have suffered in wars past and present, an awesome thing to see. There were lots of newly made refugees, and I as interpreter, got called on many times, but that was welcome.

Dearly beloved, it is good you & Betty are safe at home – only now I begin to realize the horrors the Nazis brought the world.

Lenny 

“We will never forget this Christmas ….” Behind these brief couple of lines in the above letter by Lenny to Diana, lies a story:  

On Christmas Eve, 1944, Lenny and his buddies were in the center of Malmedy, when the second of three successive waves of Allied bombers, returning from missions, December 23rd, 24th, and 25th, mistakenly dropped some of their bombs on Malmedy, with great destruction to the town, and loss of U.S. soldiers and civilian life.  The Christmas Eve bombing was the worst.  Almost the entire center of the town was reduced to rubble by the bombing and the subsequent resulting raging fires.  Miraculously, the beautiful Cathedral survived in the destruction of most of the town’s central square.

Lenny details his personal experience of the bombings in his unpublished memoir, “Rifleman’s Road.” 

Noel! Noel!

It was the day before Christmas.

We desperately wanted a respite from the havoc and the horror. On top of the calamities and the casualties in the first week of the Ardennes battle, there had been the shock of an air raid by big bombers which had taken a heavy toll of our men on December 23.

Lenny’s Squad

A couple of us tried to shake off the leaden cheerlessness by planning a party for the night. We had found some books of Christmas carols abandoned by rear echelon men in their flight, and a volume of Dickens’ Christmas stories, and we had enough eats on hand from our Holiday packages.

It was a bright and sunny day but we stayed in the cellar of a school building, preferring its security from enemy artillery and airplanes. About three o’clock we began to hear the unpleasant hum of heavy bombers overhead.

We stopped talking, and waited the wait of men who are doomed. For infantrymen it is only a question of the particular time, no matter how many lucky escapes one has had. Then the dreaded swoosh-swoosh came and put an end to our waiting. A tremor ran through the ground, an unnatural wind came through the solid walls and fanned our faces.

We wondered how close the bombs had fallen. Strange about the big blockbusters. They don’t make any of the racket that mortar and howitzer shells do. There is only a swish like the breath of tank shell passing over.

Wis, who always ran, had to run somewhere, so he ran up the coalpile on one side of the cellar. Hodges turned waxy-white and took off to the aid station; they shipped him back for combat fatigue. The rest of us ran to join the rescue work, picking up stretchers from the medics as we went.

The extent of the destruction appalled us, familiar as we were to scenes of desolation. Whole blocks of houses had been destroyed. There is something especially terrible when a street of homes is squashed like so many cheap matchboxes. The mind can understand a wall torn open by shells, or a charred ruin left by a fire, but the change from a hotel or a home to a dusty heap of rubbish in one swishing second is fearfully unreal and unnerving.

We had hardly run a few hundred yards when we heard screams from an alley. We turned and saw a couple of elderly men and a young woman frantically struggling with a tangled mass of wreckage.

“Five people in the cellar,” they signaled to us. We could not hear any life from below but we fell to, lifting away the smashed beams and shingles. It was almost unbelievable. A three story building was reduced to a five foot pile of coarse dust and splinters. The planking had been torn up, shredded and then woven by the power of the bomb.

The two old men, half out of their minds, hindered far more than they helped, but wouldn’t be shooed away. We tore our hands and wrenched our backs, but gradually a cavity began to appear as we got down into the debris. We heard faint cries from below, and tried to answer them.

Redoubling our efforts, we dragged big beams loose from the choking powdered plaster and the restraining laths. A pit was opening, and a clutching wrinkled sooty hand thrust forth in wild impatience.

Straining at the splintered boards, we cleared a space a foot or two wide. Kneeling to the orifice, we hoisted out an old woman. Her face was blackened by the dust and her hair was matted in blood. She was hysterical.

Vic and I put her on a stretcher and ran with her to the battalion aid station. Already some forty soldier and civilian casualties lay there, some past helping, some with tourniquets above amputated arms and legs. The medics were hustling like nothing we had ever seen before.

We set the old woman down, seized another couple of stretchers and ran back. As we turned into the alley the boys were lifting out a little girl of seven or eight. She was terrified but apparently unhurt. Some neighbor woman appeared from somewhere, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her off to their shelter.

Continuing to enlarge the opening we soon were able to release the girl’s mother. She too looked to be unhurt, but as she came out into the light she let out a heartrending scream, “Anni, Anni is dead!” We handed her down from the debris to her neighbors, who led her away still shrieking, “My baby! My baby!”

From the little girl we had learned that the missing two, Anni and a ninety year old grandmother, had not been in the cellar but by the kitchen stove when the bombs fell. It took some figuring out to determine the altered position of the kitchen. The two men argued over its former location. We finally traced it by the crumbling chimney bricks. As we began to dislodge the fragments, we heard the din of more bombers coming over. We froze as we saw a bright gleaming metallic mass drop from one after another. Then we breathed again. They were slowfalling clusters of anti-radar foil.

Presently we reached close to where the bodies lay and saw enough to know there would be no life there. Anni, by the way, was not an infant, as we thought from her mother’s cries, but a teen age girl.

Preferring to go someplace else where there might be a chance of saving life, we alibied to the old man that the engineers would be needed to move the heavy beams, and that we would send them to retrieve the bodies. The old men kept nibbling at the mound of rubble.

We went down the avenue towards the Cathedral, in front of which there were lying a large number of stretcher cases on the ground, waiting to be loaded on jeeps for evacuation. We pitched in. As the last ones were moved out a flight of five bombers flew over. We stood up to take a good look. We wanted to see them clear. Then again came the rushing swish of the dropping bombs. People scattered to the four winds.

I looked to see if anyone was hurt, but these bombs had fallen at a distance from us. Then I saw that a great panic had begun at the mouth of the great dugout at the foot of the mountain behind the Cathedral. Instead of staying inside the air-raid shelter, people were running out. With a couple of other GI’s I ran over and we drove them back under cover. The cave was jammed to standing room only, but it was safest for them. We talked to them in French and in German, but they were an unwilling audience. Some order reestablished, I went back to the street and found a couple of my squad mates. We went back to the company to see where else we might be needed.

By dusk most of the buried-alive had been rescued, if there was anyone to notice that they were trapped. There were some, like four good men of our outfit, who had left our company by jeep in line of duty just before the first wave came over. They were not missed until many hours later when it was learned that they had not reached their destination. Then it was too late to look for them, or to recover the bodies of the dead, because of the fire.

Some small fires had broken out during the afternoon.  Of all times for the ever-cursed rain to stop, it had to be this week. The air was clear and dry and windy. The flames sprang from house to house, engulfing many that had escaped the bombing. Soon there was a flaming cauldron from opposite the Cathedral to the Place du Commerce, a mile long.

So Malmedy burned on Christmas eve. The tongues of flame lapped hundreds of feet in the air. Around the base of the leaping fire the flames beat like roaring waves. A crucible heat dispelled all the December cold.

At night in the dark there was no dark. The flames reflected and glistened in the frost of the hilltops around the valley. The smoke billowing for acres and acres rose above the burning city like a vast luminous veil, all gauze and transparency like a resplendent bridal train spun of fine gold gossamer and spangled with tens of thousands of dancing incandescent gold sparks.

In the rage of the fire roofs cracked and fell, walls buckled and crashed, and ever and again a new geyser of flame would spurt up as another furnace was exposed to the sky.

It had become impossible to fight the fire with water. The engineers set about dynamiting a corridor around the blaze. From time to time the earth shook with their detonations.

Now the homeless, foodless and clothesless folk began to flee from the city. Where they disappeared to, we didn’t know. Many were absorbed into the surviving outlying houses and farms. Some managed to go crosscountry to towns in the rear.

Our own cellar was full of these poor refugees, huddled together in dazed hopelessness. They were quiet, more stunned than calm, but one hysterical girl among them wouldn’t be stilled. Repeatedly she upset the children, and then the whole crowd broke down.

From one of them we learned there was a big safe cellar in the Sparkasse, the bank across the street, but some woman managing it had barred the refugees. Vic and I picked up our rifles and went over. We beat on the door with our rifle butts demanding entry. We informed Madame in plain words that the building was hereby declared a public shelter and no more nonsense from her. We housed a hundred fleeing people there that night.

We had no Christmas party. We threw the books of carols into a dark corner of the cellar, and sat around feeling sick and helpless. It was good when Andy brought out a little gimcrack game called “magic race”. Around a smoky Kerosene lamp, we laid mythical bets on the speed of horses represented by a cigarette glow singeing lines across a strip of impregnated paper.

Later through the night we stood guard in hushed awe and watched the city die, while in the sky the serene white moon came out and shone down on the white frosted piney hilltops. It was Christmas.

About Liz Fox

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