Battle of Bastogne, in Belgium, was part of the larger Battle of the Bulge during WWII that left an indelible mark on this town of 15,000. A tour through Bastogne will enable the visitor to ponder the absolute devastation incurred during the siege of Christmas in 1944. Starting at Place Général McAuliffe, and ending at the Bastogne War Museum, one can only begin to imagine the horrific events that resulted in an estimated 90,000 allied casualties.
At the Place Général McAuliffe, a visitor can immediately see that this is not your ordinary town. United States Army brigadier general, McAuliffe commanded the 101st Airborne division at Bastogne during WWII. His name sits at the intersection of the more familiarly French, Rue de Neufchâteau and Rue des Ecoles. In the middle of the square is an M4A3 Sherman tank, sitting splendid and static. It stands as a testament to troublesome times 72 years earlier.
Walk west down the main road (Neufchâteau) and find on your right, the 101st Airborne Museum – Le Mess. The museum gives the more adventurous a chance to recreate the tortuous circumstances of the siege. Coupling the perspective of both the fox-holed frontline soldiers, who heroically held the Wehrmacht at bay for eight days, and the circumstances of civilians beneath the barrage of a bomb shelter, the experience provides an effective assault on the senses that resonates with realism.
Battle of the Bulge that began on December 16, 1944 is widely remembered today as the greatest battle fought by the U.S. Army during the Second World War. For many, the focal point of this remembrance remains the Belgian town of Bastogne. Bastogne was a critical regional communications hub, ultimately encircled and besieged by German forces from December 19th to the 26th. The elite U.S. 101st Airborne Division is correctly honored for playing the key role in preventing Bastogne's fall, and impeding the overall progress of the German offensive; in spite of facing relentless attacks led by the Fifth Panzer Army. Nevertheless, what must also be noted is that several other U.S. Army units bolstered the efforts of the veteran airborne troops.
In addition, to the men of the 101st Airborne, Bastogne's defenders included: the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, CCB from the 10th Armored Division and CCR of the 9th Armored Division (down to roughly 40 operational medium tanks between them as well as much reduced numbers of other AFV's from their establishment strength), the 969th and 755th Field Artillery Battalions, the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and a scattering of survivors from other units that had been swept west by the German advance.
Put together this force, in the aggregate, thus transformed the otherwise lightly armed airborne soldiers into the rough equivalent of a full strength late war panzer-grenadier division - at least in terms of armaments, if not in the coordination of arms (as the airborne troops were obviously unfamiliar with integrating tanks and other such AFV's into their operations). Nonetheless, considering that these units were fighting from within a relatively tight and cohesive defensive perimeter (in contrast to attempting to integrate operations while on the offensive), the thus reinforced 101st Airborne would be able to fuse these disparate units into a well organized defensive front. Therefore, the G.I.'s not only held Bastogne, but did so in the face of constant assaults launched by its primary antagonists; the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, elements of Panzer Lehr, the 5th Parachute Division, elements from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, and assorted supporting units.
December 22, 1944, at about 11:30 in the morning, a group of four German soldiers, waving two white flags, approached the American lines using the Arlon Road from the direction of Remoifosse, south of Bastogne. The group consisted of two officers and two enlisted men. The senior officer was a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps. The junior officer, Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section, was carrying a briefcase under his arm. The two enlisted men had been selected from the 901st Panzer Grenadier Regiment.The Americans defending in that location were members of F Company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The Germans walked past a bazooka team in a foxhole in front of the Kessler farm and stopped in front of the foxhole of PFC Leo Palma, a B.A.R. gunner. Palma described the officers as wearing long overcoats and shiny black boots. Lieutenant Henke, who spoke English said, "I want to see the commanding officer of this section." Palma was at a loss for words, but Staff Sergeant Carl E. Dickinson who had been manning a position nearby walked out to the road and called the group over to him. The Germans explained that they had a written message to be presented to the American Commander in Bastogne.Henke said they would consent to being blindfolded and taken to the American Commanding Officer. In fact, they had brought blindfolds with them. Henke blindfolded Wagner and Dickinson blindfolded Henke. As the blindfolds were being applied, Dickinson was joined by PFC Ernest Premetz, a German-speaking medic of his platoon who offered to serve as an interpreter. However no interpreter was needed.Dickinson and Premetz left the two German enlisted men there and took the two German officers to the Kessler farmhouse. Tech. Sgt. Oswald Y. Butler, Acting Platoon Leader of the 1st Platoon, and Lt. Leslie E. Smith, Platoon Leader of the Weapons Platoon, told them to take the blindfolded officers to the F Company Command Post. They took the two German officers on a roundabout route to the Command Post of F Company, 327th GIR, which was a large foxhole located in a wooded area about a quarter mile away. Shortly after arriving at the command post, they were joined by Capt. James F. Adams, the F Company Commander, who had been at a forward observation post when he was notified of the arrival of the Germans.When Adams arrived, 1st Sgt. Constantine A. Pappas informed him that the German major had already presented a written message. The F Company Executive Officer, Lt. William J. Herzke, was on the phone, reading the message to their Battalion Command Post in Marvie. The 2nd Battalion Command Post then notified the 327th Regimental Headquarters in Bastogne. Col. Bud Harper, the 327th Regimental Commander, was not there; he was out inspecting his unit's positions. The senior officer present was the Regimental Operations Officer, Major Alvin Jones. Maj. Jones notified the Division Headquarters in Bastogne and asked for instructions. He was told to retrieve the message and bring it to the Division Headquarters. He drove to the F Company Command Post and was given the message. The two blindfolded officers were kept in the woods adjacent to the foxhole Command Post.Upon receiving Maj. Jones' phone call at Division Headquarters, the Acting Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Ned Moore entered Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe's sleeping quarters adjacent to the communications center. Moore wakened McAulliffe and told him, "The Germans have sent some people forward to take our surrender." Moore recalled that Brig. Gen. McAuliffe, still half asleep, said "Nuts!" and started to climb out of his sleeping bag.Moore then went back out into the Communications Center where he briefed the rest of the Division staff of the on-going situation, including telling them of McAulliffe's remark of "Nuts!"When Maj. Jones arrived with the message, the staff looked at it before taking it in to McAulliffe.The German surrender demand was typewritten on two sheets. One was in English, the other in German. They had been typed on an English typewriter as indicated by the fact that the diacritical marks required on the German copy had been entered by hand. This is the English version of the message:"December 22nd 1944To 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 strongGerman armored units. More German armored units have crossedthe river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche andreached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet.Libramont is in German hands.There is only one possibility to save the encircledU.S.A troops from total annihilation: that is the honorablesurrender of the encircled town. In order to think it overa term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.If this proposal should be rejected one GermanArtillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are readyto annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. Theorder for firing will be given immediately after this twohours' term.All the serious civilian losses caused by thisartillery fire would not correspond with the wellknownAmerican humanity.The German Commander."The Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard recalled that McAulliffe initially asked, "They want to surrender?" Moore told him, "No sir, they want us to surrender." McAulliffe arose and erupted in anger, which shocked those looking on. He took the paper, looked at it, said "Us surrender, aw nuts!" and dropped it on the floor. Maj. Jones was dismissed. McAulliffe then left the Headquarters to go congratulate a unit on the Western perimeter that had successfully taken out a German road block earlier that morning.When Jones left the Headquarters, he went back to the F Company Command Post and spoke with the two German officers. When he returned to his Regimental Headquarters, he phoned the division headquarters.Upon returning to the division headquarters, McAulliffe was informed that Jones had phoned to say that the two German officers were still waiting at the F Company Command Post. Since they brought a formal demand they felt they were entitled to a formal reply and they were to return to the German lines two hours after delivering their message.McAulliffe asked that Col. Harper be summoned to the Division Headquarters. Harper, who was still inspecting his units' positions, was contacted by radio.When 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, 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."The reply was typed up, centered on a full sheet of paper. It read:"December 22, 1944To the German Commander,N U T S ! The American Commander"McAulliffe dismissed the staff and asked that Harper come in. McAulliffe initially toyed with him by having him stand in front of Higgins and himself. McAulliffe showed him the surrender demand and asked if he had already seen it. Harper said no. McAulliffe asked him to read it and suggest how it should be answered. Harper was surprised by the request and quickly tried to draft a reply in his head. At that moment, a clerk-typist entered the room and handed McAulliffe a sheet of paper. He looked at it and then showed Harper the typed "NUTS" reply, asking him if he thought that was a proper reply. Harper read it and started laughing. McAulliffe asked Harper to personally deliver the reply to the Germans, cautioning him not to go into the German lines.Harper took the reply and drove to the F Company Command Post. Harper told Henke that he had the American Commander's reply. Henke asked if it was written or verbal. Harper answered it was written and he put it in the hand of the blindfolded German Major. Henke asked about the contents of the reply because if it was affirmative, they were authorized to negotiate further. Harper said, "The reply consists of a single word, NUTS!" Henke, not understanding, asked, "Is that reply negative or affirmative?" Harper said, "The reply is decidedly not affirmative", adding, "If you continue this foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous." Henke translated for the Major. The Major nodded.The two blindfolded German officers were then driven, again by a roundabout route, back to their entry point at the Kessler farm. At the farm, the group was rejoined by PFC Premetz. The blindfolds were removed and the Germans opened and looked at the reply. They asked, "What does this mean?" They obviously didn't understand the American slang. Harper and 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." Henke replied, "We will kill many Americans. This is war." Harper then said, "On your way Bud, and good luck to you." After Henke translated, the major acknowledged. They saluted and the Germans started to walk away. Harper angrily called out to them, "If you don't know what I am talking about, simply go back to your commanding officer and tell him to just plain, 'Go to Hell'." After Henke translated, the major got angry and stormed off. As he passed Palma's position, he threw his blindfold and Palma caught it. Palma wrote that he didn't realize the historical importance of that blindfold. He later used it to clean his B.A.R. and threw it away!The German party returned to their lines. Capt. Adams recorded the time as 1400 hours.While watching the Germans leaving, Harper began to regret losing his temper, fearing that his attitude may increase the intensity of the attack on his positions. Fortunately, the threatened artillery barrage never happened. Instead, the German Luftwaffe was added to the attack, bombing the town at night.According to a narrative written by Hellmuth Henke, when the German officers returned to their vehicle, while they were putting their pistol belts back on, Maj. Wagner removed his pistol from his trouser pocket and placed it in its holster, stating that he wasn't going to get caught without protection.The two German officers then drove to the 901st Panzer Grenadier Regimental headquarters in Lutrebois. After reporting in, they left to go to the Panzer Lehr Division headquarters located about a mile further south. Just before reaching the Panzer Lehr Headquarters, they saw the car of General von Manteuffel parked by a thicket of trees. Maj. Wagner stopped and reported to the General. They then proceeded to the Panzer Lehr headquarters. General von Luettwitz, the Corps Commander, happened to be there. They presented the "NUTS" reply. Upon hearing the negative reply, General Bayerlein, said it was time to start striking out with the heavy artillery located behind the hill. He was interrupted by General von Luettwitz who stated that the heavy artillery was no longer located there, it had been moved to forward positions past Bastogne. Bayerlein then started to explain how he would attack Bastogne without the heavy artillery, but was again interrupted by von Luettwitz. Von Luettwitz reminded Bayerlein that Bastogne was not his objective and ordered the Panzer Lehr Division to proceed around Bastogne to Rochefort and leave Bastogne to the 26th Volksgrenadier Division.Editors Note: This story retraces the events of December 22nd, 1944 at Bastogne, Belgium; the day we received German surrender ultimatum and issued the subsequent "Nuts!" reply. Its author, Kenneth J. McAuliffe, Jr., is the nephew of Brig. Gen. Anthony 'Tony' McAuliffe who commanded the Division during the defense of Bastogne.