New book recounts the last Christmas of World War II

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Kevin_P, Oct 14, 2019.

  1. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    How was Christmas celebrated and experienced during 1944, the last year of World War II? This question is answered in the newly published book Christmas under Fire, written by the Dutch WW2 expert Kevin Prenger.


    Bastogne in Belgium, Christmas 1944. Plagued by biting cold and the nerve-wracking sound of exploding mortar bombs, American soldiers sang Christmas carols. They ate their meagre rations, yearning for well-laid Christmas dinner tables and roasted turkey. On the Eastern front, German military assembled to listen to Christmas music on the radio, if they had a little respite from the bloody battle against the advancing Red Army. After reading the latest mail from Germany, they wiped away their tears, thinking of their families back home.

    In liberated Paris as well as in other European cities, Christmas was celebrated no matter how limited the circumstances may have been. In the major cities in the western part of the Netherlands, occupied by the Germans, civilians scraped the very last bits of food together for a Christmas dinner that could not appease their hunger. POWs in camps all over the world looked forward to Christmas parcels from home. Even in Nazi concentration camps, inmates found hope in Christmas, although their suffering continued inexorably.

    Christmas Under Fire, 1944 describes the circumstances in which the last Christmas of World War II was celebrated by military, civilians and camp inmates alike. Even in the midst of war’s violence, Christmas remained a hopeful beacon of western civilization.

    • Cold Turkey in the “Bulge”: Battle of the Bulge
    • A Merry Little Christmas: Americans and the USA
    • A New and Better World: British and the UK
    • Kriegsweihnacht: Germans and Nazi Germany
    • The Pearl of the Danube: Battle for Budapest
    • Light in the Darkness: The Netherlands
    • Silent Night: POWs and concentration camp prisoners
    brithm likes this.
  2. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    The diary of a German POW in a camp in Britain reveals that they found it depressing and were glad when it was over.
    brithm and Chris C like this.
  3. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    That must have applied to most prisoners of war, German and Allied. Yet many tried to make something of it. With limited resources they celebrated Christmas anyway.
  4. GeoffMNZ

    GeoffMNZ Well-Known Member

    I found this a few years ago - my interest was the Lucca POW Hospital story, as my Dad was there.





    Last edited: Oct 16, 2019
    Tricky Dicky and brithm like this.
  5. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing!
  6. JimHerriot

    JimHerriot Ready for Anything

    Connections, connections, maybe?

    By way of thanks to both Incredibledisc (recent resource posted on this site "The Prisoner of War June 1944") and GeoffMNZ for his posts too I hope this isn't too tenuous a link (if it proves to be I will at least know my thought process, like most other things about me, has completely headed south for the winter).

    It pays to read all that we can (well I think so!)

    Kind regards, and again thanks to all who contribute here, always,


    Attached Files:

    GeoffMNZ and brithm like this.
  7. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    An excerpt from my book:

    Christmas far from home, GI’s in Europa during the Holidays of 1944

    In 1944, Christmas was celebrated for the sixth time since the Second World War had broken out on September 1, 1939. Men who often shared the same religious background fought each other to the death in sharp contrast with the old Christmas message of Peace on Earth. Christmas under Fire, 1944 tells about this last war time Christmas. Below an excerpt from this book. This part is about how American GI’s shared Christmas with the Europeans that were liberated by them and about the tragedy with the Léopoldville.

    Part of a Christmas card GI's could send in 1944 to their friends and family overseas.

    This Christmas, journalist Walter Cronkite was busier than during the previous two. Shortly after the start of the Ardennes offensive he was called to Paris to help out in the busy office of the United Press. Although he had been looking forward to a holiday celebration in the French capital, he had left for the front on Christmas Eve. Despite the cold, he was dressed in his normal clothing. Other items – long Johns, boots, gloves and a leather coat – he could not obtain before January 3rd, 1945. He worked for four days nonstop, but he judged he had little success as there were other journalists present who were better than himself. To his regret, it was only on December 27 that he managed to write a letter to his wife, telling her he had had an "awfully lonely Christmas – the worst ever, I think. I must admit that the surroundings weren't too unpleasant, but the fact that I was alone again without you made it almost unbearable." He spent Christmas Day in the city of Luxembourg which he described as "just as lovely as the post cards." At night he had a turkey dinner, along with Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and other journalists. "We had some eggnog and everyone else, except old hard-working Cronkite, who had a fistful of mediocre stories to do, got pretty well pied. I had a few drinks and filed my last story about midnight after which I was so tired I just collapsed into bed."[1]

    Tragedy with the Léopoldville
    Walter Cronkite and his colleagues in Luxembourg had no idea that on Christmas Eve, a tragedy unfolded off the Normandy coast that would be kept under lock and key by the American army until 1959. The disaster took place in the English Channel where the Belgian troop transport vessel Léopoldville was on its way from Southampton in Great Britain to the European continent. The ship carried 2,223 American soldiers of the 66th Infantry Division who were to strengthen the forces in the Ardennes. The steamer, built in 1929, had been used for luxury cruises before the war, but nothing of that could be seen. Anything considered superfluous was removed in order to carry more passengers. Nevertheless, the vessel with 2,223 soldiers and a crew of 237 was overcrowded,[2] especially in the hold where soldiers made the journey, lying in hammocks and sitting at picnic tables in the passageways. "The stench aboard was really intense," passenger Vincent Codianni recalls. "Down below we were packed like sardines in a tin."[3] Far away from home on Christmas Eve, in heavy seas en route to a war zone, the spirit aboard was tense and depressed. If it wasn't fear or nostalgia the men felt, it was sea sickness. In these circumstances the trip was far from pleasant, but it would get much worse.

    Somewhere near the Belgian vessel, the German U-486, commanded by Kapitän Gerhard Meyer, was lying in wait for prey. Aboard, the U-boat’s cook had made all preparations for Christmas. "He had baked a pie for everyone," according to a crew member. "The cream had been whipped. ... We had good food. We were ready for Christmas."[4] Suddenly all men were called to their battle stations. A convoy, including the Léopoldville, was spotted. Sinking an Allied ship justified postponing the Christmas celebration. Aboard the Belgian vessel, there was hardly any Christmas spirit. Despite the cold, some 20 soldiers had opted to leave the hold to sing Christmas carols in the fresh air on deck. To avoid being spotted by the enemy the vessel was darkened. The lights of Cherbourg, the ship's destination, were blinking in the distance, making the men feel at ease now that the journey would soon be over.[5] Suddenly, passengers and crew were shocked by a massive bang. In the hold, men were flung from their hammocks, and the crew called to them in Flemish to come up on deck.[6] Meanwhile, the U-boat that had fired the torpedo which struck the Léopoldville amidships descended to the seabed where she remained unseen and safe from depth charges.

    As the freezing sea water rushed in below deck, everything that could go wrong did go wrong aboard the vessel. Panic broke out and the men had to struggle to get out of the ship's hold. Once on deck, they made the terrible discovery that the crew had already abandoned ship with all of the lifeboats, of which far too few had been aboard. Swimming vests were not available in sufficient numbers and safety instructions had not been given.[7] "I heard all kinds of yelling," Ed Phillips later declared about the situation on board. "I heard many boys calling for their mother. I did so too because the one person I really cared about was my mother."[8] Some men plunged into the freezing water while others jumped aboard the H.M.S. Brilliant, one of the escorts which had come alongside the Léopoldville. Hank Anderson, who had directed the singing of the Christmas carols on deck, watched some men stiffen at the prospect of having to jump. "These guys were paralyzed. They just would not jump. And they had seen some jump, and not made it. So it was quite a jump across. And I remember getting over there and sliding across what little deck there was, slammed into the bulwark that was there; staggered back up to the rail. And the sight that I had made it enabled them then to start jumping." He was safe but others misjudged their jump, landed between the vessels and were crushed.[9]

    The Léopoldville sank around 20:45. Some 500 men had managed to board H.M.S. Brilliant safely while others still floated in the water. One of them was Ed Phillips who had to beat off several men to prevent him from going under. He was to be picked up by one of the vessels that had come to the rescue from Cherbourg, a mere 6.5 miles away.[10] Through miscommunication, the rescue operation had gotten under way far too late, resulting in numerous unnecessary victims.

    Hank Anderson, who attributed his survival partly to the fact that he had left the hold to sing Christmas carols, told how he and the other survivors were taken care of in Cherbourg by black soldiers. "They surrounded us and sang Christmas carols. And I, I was so stunned."[11] A total of nearly 800 Americans would lose their lives either from drowning aboard the vessel, from hypothermia or from injuries sustained after they had jumped overboard. Captain Charles Limbor went down with his vessel too. A Belgian crew member and three Congolese also lost their lives.[12] This was not only a personal tragedy for passengers, crew and their next of kin but also a painful loss for the American war effort, yearning for reinforcements to be deployed in the Ardennes. Many of the rescued men were no longer fit for duty but had to recuperate in French hospitals from hypothermia or injuries.

    A GI opens the Christmas package received from his wife. His buddies share the treat. European Theater, 1944. (Source: U.S. Army)

    Unaware of the sinking of the Léopoldville, American military personnel shared the festivities with civilians in various locations in Europe. In Savere in Alsace, liberated for the most part in November 1944 by American and French troops, Private First Class Peter Feyen played Santa Claus for 150 children, mostly orphans. Although he was in his usual battledress and he had a three-day stubble instead of a long white beard, the candy he distributed was no less tasty for the boys and girls who had not celebrated Christmas for four years. Men from his liaison unit with the air force had given the local youth their chocolate rations and candy from their Christmas parcels. In addition, they had brought toys from Paris and oranges from North Africa to hand out. "Some of the youngsters had never seen an orange before and weren't quite certain whether to eat the fruit or bounce it," reporter Seymour Korman wrote. The children experienced another first by watching a Mickey Mouse movie. The mayor of the village expressed his gratitude for what the Americans had done and added that the Germans had never made a gesture like that during the occupation.[13]

    Oranges also played an important role in the recollections of Christmas 1944 of 1st Lieutenant Robert J. Fisher. Posted to the 544th Bomb Squadron, 384th Bomb Group, he was stationed at R.A.F. Grafton Underwood. He and his bombardier had been invited to Christmas dinner by an English family in their home in Northampton, 25 miles southeast of the base. As he did not want to come empty-handed, for a few days beforehand he and his mate each set aside the orange that came with their breakfast. Some of their friends donated their oranges too; so eventually they had collected some fifteen oranges as a hostess gift. When they handed the bag of oranges to their grateful hostess, she immediately put all but two or three of them into a beautiful bowl which she placed on the mantelpiece. She and her husband next peeled the oranges she had kept apart. "The lady then asked her husband to go get the neighborhood children and bring them over to the house," Fisher said years later. "When the children arrived, the wife and her husband gave each child a section or two to eat and let them smell and feel the peeling. We thought this a little strange and asked them why they did it that way. They explained that they just had to share with the neighborhood children because most of them had never even seen an orange before, let alone tasted one!" Fisher was happy his present had been received so well. He was pleased "to witness an outstanding example of the true Christmas spirit. I will never forget Christmas of 1944."[14]

    First Christmas
    In Paris, the Americans distributed champagne and cognac among the citizens. In their haste to leave town, the Germans had left thousands of cases of these beverages behind. For many of the youngest children in France this was the first time they celebrated Christmas after an occupation of four years. Over those years, their parents had had neither opportunity nor means to celebrate Christmas.[15]

    Nicole, about eight years old, did not know what Christmas was all about either. She was the daughter of the resistance couple with whom 20-year-old soldier Vernon Alexander from Arkansas and his mate Paul had moved in. Alexander was a machine gunner in the 2nd Battalion, 411th Regiment. In the French village where his unit had been quartered he had selected the small family house as their shelter because it had a large bay window which offered a clear view of any Germans who might approach. Communication between the French and the Americans proceeded laboriously as they did not speak each other's language. The Frenchman, Nicolas, was recuperating from a groin injury he had sustained from an exploding grenade, and his wife Lucy was afraid of what might still be in store for her family. For yet another year, a somber Christmas awaited their little daughter, but the Americans refused to let that happen. "She needed an American Christmas," Vernon stated years later.

    After Nicole had tasted chocolate for the first time thanks to the Americans, Vernon and Paul now went out of their way to let her celebrate a real Christmas. She had not experienced this before or she could not remember it. They left the safety of the village to cut down a tree which they decorated with garlands made with wrapping paper from parcels from the USA. In their camp they found two dolls which they wrapped up for the girl. For Nicole's father, who was risking his life sheltering Americans, they found a box of cigars and tobacco. While Paul distracted the mess sergeant, Vernon stole fried ham, flour, sugar and some fruit from the mess tent. They smuggled the food and the Christmas tree into the home of the French family.

    The next morning, about a week before Christmas, when Nicole saw the tree with the presents under it, she shrieked with joy. Her mother used the food from the mess to prepare a delicious holiday dinner. "We had ourselves a Christmas dinner and it was absolutely tops," Vernon said. "Little Nicole was beside herself. She had never had a doll before." The little girl's joy distracted the soldiers from the war which still had many horrors in store. A few months later, Vernon Alexander would witness the liberation of concentration camps. After the war, the images of stacks of emaciated corpses would often haunt him, but he cherished the memory of Nicole's first Christmas.[16]

    Christmas under Fire, 1944
    The Last Christmas of World War II
    ISBN: 9781087410616

    1. Cronkite IV, W. & Isserman, M., Cronkite's War: His World War II Letters Home, pp. 267-269.
    2. Weintraub, S, 11 Days in December, p. 142; Ambrose, S.E., Citizen Soldiers, pp. 273-273.
    3. Kerst aan het front, EO Tweede Wereldoorlog documentaires, 2005.
    4. Kerst aan het front, EO Tweede Wereldoorlog documentaires, 2005.
    5. ‘Minn. Church Recalls How Christmas Carols Saved Some U.S. Lives in World War II’, PBS Newshour, 23 Dec. 2011.
    6. Weintraub, S, 11 Days in December, p. 142.
    7. Ambrose, S.E., Citizen Soldiers, pp. 273-273.
    8. Kerst aan het front, EO Tweede Wereldoorlog documentaires, 2005.
    9. ‘Minn. Church Recalls How Christmas Carols Saved Some U.S. Lives in World War II’, PBS Newshour, 23 Dec. 2011.
    10. Kerst aan het front, EO Tweede Wereldoorlog documentaires, 2005.
    11. ‘Minn. Church Recalls How Christmas Carols Saved Some U.S. Lives in World War II’, PBS Newshour, 23 Dec. 2011.
    12. Allen, T., ‘The Sinking of SS Leopoldville’, 14 Apr. 2000,
    13. Korman, S., ‘Chicago Santas give Party for Tiny Alsatians’, Chicago Tribune, 24 Dec. 1944.
    14. Fisher, R.J., ‘A Gift of Oranges’, America in WWII, Dec. 2010.
    15. Bruyere, A., ‘Many Children See First Joyful Yule’, Chicago Tribune, 25 Dec. 1944.
    16. Beilue, J.M., ‘World War II soldier brought American Christmas to French child’, Amarillo Globe-News, 20 Jul. 206.
  8. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    My aunt spent Christmas 1944 with SHAEF advanced HQ in Paris. As a commercial artist she produced a number of Christmas cards
    Chris C likes this.
  9. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    Interesting, Robert. Have these cards been preserved?
  10. Kevin_P

    Kevin_P Member

    This Christmas I want to share another excerpt from my book with you all. Have a merry Christmas!

    American soldiers celebrated Christmas in a Dutch cave in 1944

    In 1944, Christmas was celebrated for the sixth time since the Second World War had broken out on September 1, 1939. Men who often shared the same religious background fought each other to the death in sharp contrast with the old Christmas message of Peace on Earth. Christmas under Fire, 1944 tells about this last war time Christmas. Below an excerpt from this book. This part is about how American soldiers celebrated Christmas with Dutch monks in a cave in the liberated part of the Netherlands.

    It was cold in the military vehicles that were driving towards the Mount Saint Peter near Maastricht in the evening of December 24, 1944. The American soldiers inside felt the biting cold on their hands and feet. On the way to their final destination, they got lost on the dark roads which made them afraid of being too late. They arrived ahead of time, however, and they would never forget the experience of that night. "We never had such a lovely Mass in a most appropriate place for a Christmas Mass," one of them stated.[1]

    Maastricht had been liberated by American troops on September 14, 1944. The Dutch city in Limburg Province was spared a battle as most Germans had already disappeared. Some 800 Americans were tasked with maintaining public order and security. Catholic chaplain Dobrzynski saw to the spiritual wellbeing of the troops. With Christmas on the horizon, he came up with the idea to celebrate the Holy Mass in a special place. He had selected a marl cave under the Sint Pietersberg as its location. It was owned by the Friars of Maria Immaculate Conception, a monastic order founded in 1840 which is better known in Maastricht as the Brothers of the Beyart.

    The marl cave was named De Schark after the country estate to which it belonged. Following the liberation of Maastricht, soldiers were billeted in the country house of the monks. A large hall was in use as a mess. Two soldiers slept in a tent outside in the bitter cold to guard the ammunition. Other Americans were billeted in a school where monks were also housed in the cellar because a wing of the monastery had been destroyed by bombs on September 17, 1944. Consequently, the Americans and the monks were no strangers to each other, and it probably took the American priest only a little persuasion to get the monastic order to support his idea. Magister Lidwino de Koning, the superior, gave his permission. The responsible American general also approved, although the Mass nearly had been cancelled, because of the Ardennes offensive that had erupted on December 16th. During the service, two soldiers would stand guard for security reasons.[2]

    One corridor in the cave had been prepared by the monks for the gathering. An altar had been constructed from marlstone with a mural behind it depicting shepherds receiving the message of the birth of Jesus from the angels. An American soldier drew a picture of the liberation of Europe on another wall. A third wall was reserved for the Americans to write their signatures at the end of the mass. To complete the interior of the temporary chapel, an organ was moved from the monastery to the cave. During the celebration, the instrument would be played by monks as well as by an American soldier. Towards 23:00 hours, the monks were collected by two army trucks, escorted by MPs on motorcycles, two up front and two in the rear. It was pitch dark and desolate in the city. While on the road, the air raid siren sounded. The convoy was stopped twice by military for inspection.

    Corporal Allan J. English of the 127 AA Battalion, an anti-aircraft unit, and his mates were also on their way to the cave on this cold and dark night. Despite his fears of being late, he arrived fifty minutes ahead of time for the service. In a letter to his mother, written a day later, he described how he entered the cave and reached the subterranean chapel, illuminated with small bulbs, through long corridors. He was impressed by "the beautiful charcoal murals on the walls and the sculptured pillars, corridors, rooms, and the whole place seemed like a piece of art. ... It was a place not to be found anywhere else in the world."[3]

    English was one of about 260, mostly young, Americans who met in the cave. Some soldiers had been transferred from the front to recuperate for a while. "They were all armed, their guns at the ready," Friar Lucianus, one of the almost thirty monks present, declared in the Limburgs Dagblad in 2012. "It might just happen they had to scramble. We were also told beforehand that the service might have to be aborted in the middle of the celebration. You did feel the pressure of war." As they entered, the choir of young monks sang the Christmas carol "Adeste Fideles," better known in English as "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." After opportunity had been given for confessions, the real celebration began. "It was a superb gathering," Friar Lucianus said. "A magnificent atmosphere. So quiet, so intense. It was so… so real. It is about the birth of Christ and then you find yourself in a cave! It was romantic but we also were well aware of the seriousness of the matter."[4]

    At the conclusion of the religious service, an American played the American national anthem, followed by other songs which, according to one of the friars, had little to do with Christmas. Next, the Americans wrote their names or signatures with charcoal on the designated wall. At the end of the service, their general entered the cave and also signed his name on the wall. He was not a Catholic. That would also have applied to others of those present, yet they all enjoyed this special Christmas celebration which, according to one of the Americans, was reminiscent of the Christmas celebration at home. Apart from the soldiers, two boys from Maastricht had been present at the Mass although this was actually forbidden. According to one of the friars, at the end the participants were treated to "a mug of hot coffee and cream, a spoonful of powdered sugar and a large, nutritious doughnut." Some Americans had left immediately after Mass and so they missed out on these treats.[5]

    American military write their names on the wall of the Schark Cave. (Photo: U.S. Army via:

    When the service was over, the soldiers went back to their quarters, as did the monks, who went on to celebrate the Midnight Mass once more in their monastery. Some soldiers, who had come from the Ardennes in their trucks, were driven straight back to the front after Christmas Eve. Today, the chapel in the cave is an official American memorial site. Apart from the wall with names, there are some reliefs and a plaque in memory of the Second World War. Over the years since the war, various American veterans have returned to the cave to remember the Christmas celebration they looked back on with warm feelings.[6]

    [1] English, E., Letter to his mother, 25 Dec. 1944,
    [2] E-mail from Mr. Jons van Dooren, chairman of SHAK44, 11 Mar. 2018.
    [3] English, E., Letter to his mother, 25 December 1944,
    [4] Bartholomeus, V., ‘Ondergronds kerstfeest’, Limburgs Dagblad, 22 Dec. 2012.
    [5] E-mail from Mr. Jons van Dooren, chairman of SHAK44, 11 Mar. 2018; Anoniem, ooggetuigenverslag Amerikaanse kerstviering 24 Dec. 1944, SHAK.
    [6] Budzyna, T., ‘Relive Christmas 1944 in special De Schark Cave service’, website U.S. Army, 12 Dec. 2011.

Share This Page