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A Christmas miracle in the Ardennes

Members of the 101st Airborne Division singing Christmas Carols in besieged Bastogne at midnight on Christmas Eve (Photo: NARA)
Members of the 101st Airborne Division singing Christmas Carols in besieged Bastogne at midnight on Christmas Eve (Photo: NARA)

You have probably heard about the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 in World War I. In many sectors along the Western Front, troops spontaneously stopped fighting at Christmas and enjoyed a brief but welcome respite from the horrors of war. Such moments of humanity were largely lacking from World War II, but one notable exception occurred during the Battle of the Bulge, when seven young soldiers were spared from the fighting for Christmas Eve – all because of the love and courage of a mother.
 
That mother was Elisabeth Vincken, from the German city of Aachen near the German-Belgian border. The Vincken family's home and bakery was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in April 1944, forcing them to seek a new home. Elisabeth's husband knew of a small cottage in the Ardennes, where he had stayed on hunting weekends before the war. He had Elisabeth and their 12-year-old son Fritz move there, hoping the isolation will mean safety. He himself had been drafted into a civil-defense fire squad in the nearby border town of Monschau, some four miles from the cottage. The relative proximity allowed him to visit his family regularly, and, in fact, they were planning to spend Christmas together.

An American mortar team in Monschau, where the head of the Vincken family lived, sometime in the winter of 1944-45 (Photo: U.S. Army)
An American mortar team in Monschau, where the head of the Vincken family lived, sometime in the winter of 1944-45 (Photo: U.S. Army)

But then war intervened. On December 16, 1944, nine days before Christmas, the Germans launched Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine"), the last major counteroffensive against the Western Allies. The attack caught the Allies by surprise, and Ardennes Forest was quickly engulfed in fighting as desperate Allied units tried to repulse the equally desperate German attack. The weather turned similarly violent with bitter cold, blizzards and heavy snowfall which prevented Elisabeth's husband from returning home for Christmas. Mother and son were left alone in the cottage with a third occupant: Hermann Göring. Not the head of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, obviously; but a plump rooster that was intended to be the Christmas meal, and whom Elisabeth named after the prominent Nazi who was similarly well-fed and not very well-liked by the Vincken family. Mother and son could hear the field guns in the vicinity and the planes in the sky, and could see searchlight beams at night.
 
Sometime on the evening of the 24th, a sudden knock came on the door of the cottage. Elisabeth quickly blew out the candles. Fritz went to open the door, but her mother overtook her and opened it herself. Three young American soldiers were outside, one of them deathly pale and lying in the snow. They had been separated from their battalion three days prior, and were trying to evade German forces and get back to their own lines; one of them was shot in the leg. They didn't speak German, and Elisabeth spoke no English, but she looked at the desperate men and invited them in.

Fritz Vincken in the 1940s (Photo: unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com)
Fritz Vincken in the 1940s (Photo: unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com)

This was a dangerous act of kindness. Had the Germans found her harboring the enemy, she would have been executed. And yet she allowed them in, then sent Fritz out to fill a bucket with snow. She then had him take off the soldiers' jackets and boots and rub their frozen, blue feet with the snow to get some blood circulation going. (On a practical note, rubbing snow on frostbite was common practice in the 1940s, but is strongly discouraged by more modern medicine.)
 
One of the soldiers and Elisabeth both spoke a little French and started to communicate. The three Americans were Jim (the one who spoke French), Robin and Harry, the wounded one, who quickly fell asleep, probably in large part from the blood loss. Elisabeth told Fritz to fetch six potatoes and Hermann – the three young men needed a warm Christmas meal more than her husband.
 
Harry's leg was soon bandaged with cloth Elisabeth ripped from one of her bed-sheets, and the smell of roast chicken started filling the room. A new knock came. Fritz believed it would be more lost Americans and opened the door. This time, however, it was four young German soldiers. Seeing them, Elisabeth quickly stepped outside and greeted them with "Fröhliche Weihnachten" – "Merry Christmas." The soldiers returned the greeting, and the corporal explained their presence. They have lost their regiment and were afraid they'll freeze to death at night. They were hoping to stay at the cottage until daylight.

Young German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Young German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

"Of course" – Elisabeth replied. "You can also have a fine, warm meal and eat till the pot is empty. But we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends." Her sound turned stern. "This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here."
 
The German corporal asked if the men inside were Americans. Elisabeth replied. "Listen, you could be my sons, and so could they in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life, and his two friends, lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night, this Christmas night, let us forget about killing."

An American convoy in Belgium, bringing fresh troops into the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
An American convoy in Belgium, bringing fresh troops into the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
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The corporal just stared at her for a few long seconds, and it was up to Elisabeth to break the dangerous silence. She clapped her hands, told the Germans to leave their weapons on a woodpile outside and come in. While the four Germans disarmed themselves, she quickly retreated inside and told Jim what had transpired. The Americans also turned their guns over the Elisabeth, who took the weapons outside.
 
The first few moments of the meeting were tense for both sides, but Elisabeth took control and started to arrange her guests on the three chairs around the dinner table and the side of her bed. She whispered to Fritz to quickly get more potatoes and some oats to make more food: "These boys are hungry, and a starving man is an angry one."

A U.S. soldier taking the time to get shaved despite the cold during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Time & Life Pictures)
A U.S. soldier taking the time to get shaved despite the cold during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Time & Life Pictures)

One of the young Germans spoke fairly good English, and it turned out he used to study medicine. He put on his glasses and examined Harry's leg wound. He explained to him that the cold prevented infection, and he needs rest and food for his blood loss.
 
The men started to relax on both sides. Two of the Germans, Heinz and Willi, were both 16 and hailed from Cologne. Their corporal was 23. They produced a bottle of red wine and a loaf of rye bread and shared it with the Elisabeth, Fritz and the Americans. Half of the wine was set aside for Harry to help him recover.

Corporal Wally Branson teaching a Belgian family the American custom of toasting marshmallows on Christmas Eve (Photo: National Archives)
Corporal Wally Branson teaching a Belgian family the American custom of toasting marshmallows on Christmas Eve (Photo: National Archives)

Elisabeth said grace at the table, and Fritz saw that the guests, Americans and Germans alike, had tears in the eyes. For just one evening, they could be something other than soldiers fighting a terrible battle. For one night, they were young men, barely more than children, lost in the woods far from home, taken in by a kind woman.
 
The two groups spent the night in peace and prepared to part ways in the morning. Harry was given some broth and a drink made from the German wine, some sugar, and the only egg in the household, while the others had oatmeal. Two poles and Elisabeth's best tablecloth were used to fashion a stretcher for Harry.

Troops attending Christmas Day services in a dockside warehouse in Antwerp, Belgium (Photo: National Archives)
Troops attending Christmas Day services in a dockside warehouse in Antwerp, Belgium (Photo: National Archives)

Before departing, the German corporal showed his map and compass to the Americans, explaining how to get to the nearest American-held area. He also warned them to avoid the town of Monschau, which had been retaken by the Germans over the past couple of days. Elisabeth then gave the soldiers their weapons back and watched them disappear into the forest in opposite directions.

The details of this story have survived thanks to young Fritz Vincken. Later in life, he moved to Honolulu, opened a European-style bakery and became an American citizen. He tried to track down the American and German soldiers who have spent that miraculous Christmas night with him and his mother, but with no luck for a long time.

A grown-up Fritz in front of his bakery in Honolulu (Photo: findagrave.com)
A grown-up Fritz in front of his bakery in Honolulu (Photo: findagrave.com)

The story had not been forgotten entirely, and President Ronald Reagan made a reference to it in 1985 in a speech he gave in Germany about peace and reconciliation. Ten years later, in 1995, the TV program Unsolved Mysteries broadcast the story. A volunteer chaplain at a nursing home in Fredrick, Maryland, was watching the program and recognized the story – one elderly resident by the name of Ralph Blank regularly told the story to anyone who would listen. (Fritz's original recollection mentioned no Ralph, but he probably just misremembered a name.) The chaplain contacted the TV show, which, in turn, contacted Fritz Vinckel. Fritz and Ralph had a telephone conversation, and met in 1996 for a joyous reunion. Later on, Fritz also managed to find one of the other two American soldiers.

Fritz Vincken (right) with Ralph Blank (Photo: Wright Museum of World War II)
Fritz Vincken (right) with Ralph Blank (Photo: Wright Museum of World War II)

Fritz gave an interview to a local student in 1997, and said the following: "Many years have gone since that bloodiest of all wars, but the memories of that night in the Ardennes never left me. The inner strength of a single woman, who, by her wits and intuition, prevented potential bloodshed, taught me the practical meaning of the words: 'Goodwill Toward Mankind'."

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