darkest christmas Second World War

Eighty Years Ago – Christmas at War, December 1943

Peter Harmsen, author of Darkest Christmas, reflects on how a world at war celebrated the year’s most important holiday.

Walter Cronkite, a 27-year-old American correspondent assigned to the US Army Air Force in Britain, had not been looking forward to Christmas 1943. It was the second consecutive year that the war separated him from his wife Betsy, and he felt progressively worse as the holiday approached. “This is a lonely day, brightened only by the stack of wonderful gifts you all sent me,” he wrote to her on December 25, thanking her for a fruit cake she had shipped across the Atlantic. “I wish you could be here to share it with me. Or even without a fruit cake, I wish you could be here.”

War correspondent Walter Cronkite, fourth from left, assigned to cover the US Army Air Force operations in Europe. (Source: United States Army Air Force)
War correspondent Walter Cronkite, fourth from left, assigned to cover the US Army Air Force operations in Europe. (Source: United States Army Air Force)

Cronkite, later to become one of the most influential journalists of the 20th century, was in the same situation as millions of others that sinister December eighty years ago. Around the world, men and women on both sides of the global conflict were passing Christmas, many of them in uniform and dispatched to locations thousands of miles from home. It was the fifth war Christmas in Europe, and fighting was raging on several fronts. In frozen Russia, the Soviet army unleashed a crushing winter offensive, while in Italy, Allied forced were working their way up the mountainous peninsula, mile for bloody mile.

In the port city of Ortona on the Italian east coast, Canadian soldiers were engaged in fierce combat with tough German paratroops. Amid the carnage, the Canadian units were pulled out of the fighting one after the other so they could rest briefly at the Church of Saint Mary, protected by its thick, ancient walls. Here they were served a meal of soup, roast pork, vegetables and Christmas pudding along with a bottle of beer, while a pipe major played his pipes, sometimes even succeeding in drowning out the din of battle raging just a few blocks away.

For many of young soldiers, this was to become their last meal. “The spirit of the occasion, the look on the faces of those exhausted, gutsy men on entering the church is with me to-day and will live forever,” company commander S. W. “Syd” Thomson wrote later.

In Germany, the war now had serious consequences for most people, military personnel as well as civilians. In the night between December 23 and 24, more than 350 Allied bombers raided Berlin. Hundreds of citizens were killed, and tens of thousands lost their homes. A vicious mood spread among the population, and furious family fathers who had lost everything openly declared that Allied pilots who fell into their hands would probably not survive. Faced with growing discontent, the regime desperately struggled to boost morale. At the train station in Dessau, north of Leipzig, members of the Wehrmacht who had been allowed home on Christmas leave disembarked to be greeted by members of Bund Deutscher Mädel – the girls’ version of the Hitler Youth – who were standing ready with homemade toys. “Soldier, do you have children?” they asked. “If so, you shouldn’t go home empty-handed!”

The Nazi propaganda also served up Christmas entertainment on the radio, but the attempts to improve the mood felt more and more strained, according to Herman Stresau, a publisher who lived a life of obscurity in the Third Reich because he was not sufficiently supportive of the government. “One is reminded of the old joke from the army about the Prussian laugh, which has to be drilled in military fashion: haha – two-three! haha – two-three!” he wrote in his secret diary, which would have sent him straight into captivity had it been found. Meanwhile the young soldier Friedrich Grupe passed the holiday with his wife and parents in a village in central Germany. When the small family saw the snow glisten “like in a fairytale” in the forest outside, they thought not about the need to fight for final victory, as the Nazis wanted them to, but were filled with a much more basic yearning: “Peace on Earth.”

darkest christmas walter cronkite
Divine service on board air craft carrier USS Enterprise on December 25, 1943. (National Archives)

Read more about Christmas around the globe during World War Two in Peter Harmsen’s Darkest Christmas: December 1942 and a World at War.

Peter Harmsen, PhD, studied history at National Taiwan University and has been a foreign correspondent in East Asia for more than two decades. He has focused mainly on the Chinese-speaking societies but has reported from nearly every corner of the region, including Mongolia and North Korea. His books have been translated into Chinese, Danish and Romanian.

Books by Peter Harmsen!