American Commander in Bastogne to German Commander: Nuts

Snow fell on the morning of December 22, 1944, covering Belgium in a whiteness that muffled the wooded land in a serene and unworldly silence. Looking out from their positions, the men of F Company, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division waited and strained their ears for noise from the woods beyond. The men had arrived in Bastogne on December 19, after a hundred mile truck ride from France. They had been in France for a rest, after combat in Holland when news came of the massive German breakthrough in the Ardennes forest.

The objective of the German advance was to cross through the dense, wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and reach the port of Antwerp. The German path led itself to Bastogne, the town where all seven major roads in the Ardennes forest passed. Without Bastogne, the Germans would have to make their way through the wooded mountains in the forest, which would slow their advance to a crawl. Only the 101st Airborne Division, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division and some tank destroyers of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion stood in their way.


Soldiers of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment

By the time the snow came, the Germans had surrounded the Bastogne area, cutting it off from rescue. In their attacks on the town, the Germans suffered heavy losses against the Americans. The Germans needed the town and could not afford to squander time, resources and men on a long siege.

On mid-morning of December 22nd, The Americans fired three shots at movement in the German lines. Four men popped out waving two white flags. The Americans were ecstatic, with three shots they had induced four men to surrender. More thoughtful soldiers wondered why men 400 yards away would be so quick to surrender. The Germans approached, expecting the two white flags they waved in the air to keep them safe from nervous American riflemen. The two Germans officers wore long overcoats, with proud and shiny boots of men on the command staff. Leading the Germans was Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Korps. With him was an English speaking Lieutenant named Hellmut Henke and two enlisted men.

From the road, Wagner could discern the American positions as he got closer to them. He took in the white sheets laid out on positions for camouflage, the disrupted dirt where men had dug themselves in a landscape of powder snow. The Americans were dirty; in baggy green clothing that contrasted with his shiny boots and proper uniform. Wagner marched his men passed a bewildered bazooka team and stopped in front of the first man who looked like he had some kind of authority: Private First Class Leo Palma, a B.A.R. Man.

Wagner nodded to Lieutenant Henke who addressed the American in English saying “According to the Geneva and Hague conventions we have the right to deliver an ultimatum” then they demanded to see the commanding officer”. Palma, was not sure what to make of the situation and even less sure how to respond. Staff Sergeant Carl Dickinson came over and the message was again conveyed to him.
With Bastogne encircled, the Germans asked to see the commanding officer, to give him the chance of honorable surrender. They Americans, the Germans reasoned, must realize their position was hopeless, and that militarily and tactically, only surrender would save them from slaughter. The Germans were so prepared for the asking of surrender they even brought blindfolds with them so the Americans would not have to worry about their positions and defenses being compromised.

101st Airborne Division Bastogne

General Anthony McAuliffe in Bastogne

The two German officers were taken to F Company’s command post: a foxhole in the woods. Their message was presented and then it was sent up the chain of command to 2nd Battalion Headquarters, then to Regimental Headquarters and finally to Division Headquarters. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe , the acting divisional commander was awakened and told of the situation. The General originally envisioned it was a German offer of surrender. When McAuliffe read the message from the German Commander General der Panzertruppe Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, he was disappointed. The message read:

“To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.”

When McAuliffe was realized that the Germans actually wanted his surrender he said “nuts”.

Not knowing how to respond to the Germans, McAuliffe’s staff thought his first reaction was a great answer. McAuliffe gave his reply to the Germans.

“To the German Commander.


The American Commander”

The commander of the 327th Glider Regiment, Colonel Joseph Harper was given the task of relating the message to the German officers still waiting at F Company’s command post. When Harper gave Major Wagner and Lieutenant Henke the message they did not understand what the message meant. They asked if it was an affirmative or a negative. Colonel Harper replied, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative – in plain English, it is the same as go to Hell”.

On December 25, 1944, General McAuliffe sent out printed Christmas letters to the men of the 101st Airborne Division. He asked them what was so Merry about their Christmas and reminded them that they had stopped everything the Germans had thrown at them. McAuliffe told the men under his command what the Germans had said to him and his reply and that their holding out in Bastogne meant the success of the Allied armies.

The 101st Airborne Division’s defense of Bastogne became one of the US Army’s most legendary actions of World War 2. It made 101st Airborne the first unit to be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation as a Division and earned them the nickname the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”. General McAuliffe’s “nuts” and will to fight spoiled what little chance the Germans had of success. By the time the Battle of the Bulge was over, Germany had suffered too many casualties to ever be able to launch an offensive again.

Here in its entirety, is the Christmas letter from Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe to his men fighting off the German onslaught in Bastogne, Belgium in 1944:bastogne nuts letter

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