“December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander”
The Germans didn’t know what to make of it. But to the American soldiers on whose behalf it was issued on today’s date, December 22 in 1944 by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe (above) the meaning of that one syllable reply was more than clear enough. It summed up the courage and fighting spirit of the American soldier, and their determination to stand fast against overwhelming odds.
The War in Europe in December, 1944
By the autumn of 1944, the morale of the Allies (the United States and Great Britain) was riding high. The summer of bloody fighting that began with the Invasion of Normandy, and the static fighting for yards at a time in the Hedgerow country* had given way to the breakout which had the Allies making a clean sweep across France. Paris had been liberated on August 24 to wild cheering and celebration (below).
Since then, the Allies had pushed the reeling Germans back to the very borders of their own country. By mid-December the Allied line ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border But one section was considered quiet, and was lightly guarded by the 106th Infantry Division of the United States Army. This was an 80 mile section running from southern Belgium to central Luxembourg, which made up the thickly wooded Ardenne Forest. Because of the presence of the Ardenne, it was considered impassable by an Army with heavy equipment such as tanks.
The Surprise Attack, Bastogne, and “the Battle of the Bulge”
Little did the Allies know that under the greatest secrecy, and against the advice of his generals, the German leader Adolf Hitler had for months been diverting men and material from the Eastern (Russian) front, and bringing them west to make one last attempt to drive the Allies back. He had assembled 25 Divisions, including 250,000 men and over 340 Tiger Tanks. The Tiger (below) was a fearsome weapon
which packed an 88 mm cannon, and was heavily armored. But it used up a lot of fuel, on which the Germans were short. The objective of the attack was to split the Allied forces in two, and then push on to the Belgian port of Antwerp, and cut off the supplies which flowed to the Allies from that source. The attack was unleashed on Dec. 16 under the command of Field Marshall Walter Model. The Allied Generals, primarily Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were taken completely by surprise, and it wasn’t until the 17th that they fully realized their dire situation. They had only four and a half divisions in place to face the surprise attack. So they gathered up their only reserves, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and rushed them into a small town named Bastogne which stood at the confluence of several of the only passable roads through the Ardenne. This whole engagement came to be called “the Battle of the Bulge”, because of the bulge which the German attack made in the American lines (see map below, click on to enlarge).
Bastogne is Surrounded; McAuliffe Speaks!
In spite of hard fighting on the part of the American troops, by December 20, the Germans had surrounded Bastogne. At 11:30 a.m. on the morning of today’s date, a group of four German soldiers approached the American lines under the cover of a white flag. One of them, Lieutenant Hellmuth Henke, had a briefcase under his arm. They said that they had a message for the American Commander. They were blindfolded and taken to the Headquarters of the 101st Airborne’s acting commander, General McAuliffe. Their message from the German commander read in part:
“December 22nd 1944
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… 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. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.
The German Commander.”
General McAuliffe was awakened from a nap to be told of the Germans and their “offer”. At first, coming out of his nap, he misunderstood and though that the Germans were offering to surrender to him. When their actual mission was explained, the General in frustration yelled “Us surrender? Awww, NUTS!” They discussed their situation for some time. Finally, the General was told that the Germans, having presented a formal written offer, were expecting a formal written reply. The story, as told by Kenneth J. McAuliffe on the U.S. Army’s website (listed below) then continues:
“When (Col Bud) Harper arrived at the Headquarters, he was asked to wait outside of the closed door to McAulliffe’s quarters. Inside, in the presence of his staff, McAulliffe wondered aloud, “Well, I don’t know what to tell them.” At that point, (Lt. Col. Harry) Kinnard said, ‘What you said initially would be hard to beat.’ McAulliffe asked ‘What do you mean?’ Kinnard, said, ‘Sir, you said nuts.’ All members of the staff enthusiastically agreed, so McAulliffe wrote it down on a message pad and said, ‘Have it typed up.'”
This reply, given at the top of this posting left the Germans confused.
“…the Germans opened and looked at the reply. They asked, ‘What does this mean?’ They obviously didn’t understand the American slang. Harper and (PFC Ernest) Premetz discussed how to explain it. Harper suggested, ‘Tell them to take a flying s**t!’ Premetz thought about it, then straightened up, faced the Germans and said, ‘Du kannst zum Teufel gehen.’ He told Harper it meant ‘You can go to Hell.’ Then Harper said, ‘If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.'”
And that is how the story has come down to us. The Battle of the Bulge would go on for over a month, although General Patton’s Third Army, having pulled out of it’s own eastward attack to move 100 miles to the north an relieve the 101’st, did in fact break through to Bastogne on
December 26. Eventually the poor weather which had been protecting the German tanks cleared and left them exposed to Allied air attack. This and a huge amount of ground fighting by exhausted American infantry finally broke the back of the German offensive. And by January 25, the Germans had finally been pushed back to where they started. General McAuliffe’s defiant and very terse reply to the Germans has since become the stuff of folklore… except that it really happened!!
“American Experience: Battle of the Bulge” Prod. by Thomas Lennon, written by Thomas Lennon and Mark Zwonitzer. Found at the following web address =