One the 16th of December, 1944, a major German offensive was launched into the poorly defended Ardennes area of France. The goal was to split the Allied positions in the area and to capture the port city of Antwerp.
The initial German attack consisted of:
- Josef Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army with two SS Panzer divisions.
- Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army
- Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army in the South
- Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army in the North
These 30 divisions mostly consisted of old and young men that were not eligible to drafted earlier in the war.
On the 18th of December, the very under geared 101 Airborne division rushed into the Belgium town of Bastogne. Bastogne was the major crossroads in the Ardennes forest. Six different roads crossed through this town making it a sudden strategic choke point.
18,000 men from the 101st Airborne Division and parts of the 10th Armored Division surrounded and defended the town of Bastogne.
On the 21st of December three German divisions totally 45,000 men surrounded the defenders of Bastogne.
About 11:30am on December 22, 1944, four German soldiers waving white flags approached the American lines being defended by F Company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. These four Germans –Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corp, Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section, and two NCOs from the 901st Panzer Grenadier Regiment—stopped in front of the foxhole of PFC Leo Palma and asked to see the commanding officer of the area.
Poor Private Palma, I can’t even imagine what that must have been like to have the enemy walk up to you and ask in your own language to see the commander.
The two German officers agreed to be blindfolded –even producing their own blindfolds—and taken to see the F Company commander. They were eventually brought to Lt. Colonel Harry Kinnard, the Division G-3 (Assistant Chief of Staff – Operations and Plans) these are his words.
While we were still surrounded, on the morning of December 22, a German surrender party, consisting of two officers and two NCOs, and carrying a white flag, approached our perimeter in the area of our Glider Regiment, the 327th. The party was taken to a nearby platoon command post. While the enlisted men were detained the officers were blind folded and taken to the command post of the 327th where they presented their surrender ultimatum. The ultimatum in essence said the 101st’s position was hopeless and that if we elected not to surrender a lot of bad things would happen.
They took the message to acting Chief of Staff Division Lt. Colonel Ned Moore who then took the message to acting Division Commander General Tony McAuliffe. Colonel Moore explained that they had a surrender ultimatum from the Germans, and at first General McAuliffe thought the Germans wanted to surrender.
When General McAuliffe learned that it was the Germans seeking the American’s surrender his response “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”
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 honorable 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.
General McAuliffe realizing that a response was expected, counseled with his staff officers about what his response should be.
But then McAuliffe realized that some sort of reply was in order. He pondered for a few minutes and then told the staff, “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” He then asked the staff what they thought, and I spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat.” McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” I answered, “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” All members of the staff enthusiastically agreed, and McAuliffe decided to send that one word, “Nuts!” back to the Germans. McAuliffe then wrote down: “To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”
Colonel Harper was asked to deliver the message and the German officers back to where they came from. The Germans asked if the reply was written or verbal, Colonel Harper replied that it was written and he would deliver it into their hands.
The Germans were confused by the response and asked what was meant by it. Colonel Harper starting to loose his patients replied to the German Captain:
“If you don’t know what ‘Nuts’ means, in plain English it is the same as ‘Go to Hell’. And I’ll tell you something else, if you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city.”
“We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas,” noted McAuliffe. When Joseph Harper delivered the message to Luttwitz and Lieutenant General Bayerlein, the German commanders were rather confused at the meaning of the American slang (so were the British, in fact) but the arrogance in McAuliffe’s response was undeniable; the Germans took no time in pressing on their attacks.
It took Patton’s Third Corps only 48 hours to arrive on the edge of the battle, surprising even the American commanders.
The 101st took a beating and fought valiantly and the battle was over by the first week of January 1945.
The actions of the 101st resulted in the very first Presidential Unit Citation.