Christmas Day US military battles remembered

We take a look back at Christmas memories that for many aren't so warm

A US Army soldier salutes after laying a wreath during the 30th annual event to lay wreaths on more than 253,000 headstones of the US military service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Reuters
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There are lots of holiday traditions around the globe this time of year. For those serving in the armed forces, however, it can be a day of ultimate sacrifices.

There a few notable military actions that have taken place on Christmas Day throughout history.

The Battle of Trenton inspired this famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River. Photo by: US National Archives

Washington crosses the Delaware

President George Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River occurred on Christmas Day, 1776. After suffering several defeats at the beginning of the American Revolution, Washington's Continental Army had been pushed out of New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

Mr Washington rallied the troops and set out on a surprise Christmas attack on the Hessians — German troops hired by the British — who were stationed in Trenton, New Jersey.

With a terrible storm brewing, they launched their boats across the icy river on Christmas night, hoping to catch them off guard. Waiting until dawn on December 26, about 2,400 freezing cold Continentals made shore where they would indeed catch their foes in a slumber, surrendering an hour and a half later.

Known as the Battle of Trenton, the Continental Army's spirits were raised and colonists had a renewed faith that they would achieve their independence.

A damaged Confederate gun at Fort Fisher, North Carolina circa 1864, after the first battle there toward the end of the US Civil War. Photo by: Timothy O’Sullivan

Battle at Fort Fisher

North Carolina's Fort Fisher saw very little combat during the US Civil War, something that would change on Christmas 1864, after the Union army decided it wanted to capture the last port the Confederates held on the Atlantic Ocean.

It didn’t go well.

Two days prior to Christmas, a Union warship had been packed with explosives in an effort to blow up Fort Fisher’s walls. Before they could be unloaded, they went off on board, not only charring the ship, but also alerting the Confederates of a pending attack.

Trying again on Christmas Eve, the Union attempted to bomb the fort with heavy gunfire, but most shots fell short or just missed the target.

On Christmas morning, Union commanders shelled an area north of Fisher to create a landing spot. Coming ashore, they found that the fort didn’t have a scratch.

In mid-January 1865, Union troops were finally able to capture the fort, effectively cutting the Confederates off from global trade and supplies. The Civil War ended three months later, helping many Christmas wishes come true.

A B-52 Stratofortress bomber takes off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in support of Operation Linebacker II in December 1972 during the Vietnam War. Photo: US Air Force

11 Days of Christmas bombings

The biggest bombing mission in military history took place in Vietnam during the Christmas season of 1972. Operation Linebacker II has largely been considered the action that ended US involvement in the Vietnam War.

After North Vietnamese delegates walked out on peace talks, president Richard Nixon ordered the bombings to begin on December 18. Nicknamed the "11 Days of Christmas," the operation consisted of 11 successive days of air raids by B-52 Stratofortress bombers flown in from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.

After days of relentless shelling, troops were given 36 hours off to celebrate Christmas. It was the only reprieve taken by both sides and Mr Nixon ordered that the North Vietnamese return to the negotiating table, which they refused.

The bombings resumed and not until four days later would the Vietnamese agree to resume peace talks, resulting in the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. The US would end its involvement in the war soon after, with the last American troops staying on for almost two more Christmases.

In the 11 days, 15,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped via 729 US Air Force sorties involving about 12,000 airmen. Defence Department records show the raids destroyed or damaged 1,600 Vietnamese structures, 500 rail targets, 10 airfields and 80 per cent of North Vietnam's electric-generating capacity.

Fifteen US B-52s were also destroyed, killing 35 US soldiers with 40 others becoming prisoners of war. An estimated 1,600 Vietnamese lost their lives, though some believe that number to be higher.

How these Christmases are remembered depends on which side one sits.

Updated: December 25, 2021, 7:11 AM