On December 16th 1944 the German Army launched an assault in the Ardennes Forrest completely surprising the thinly spread American VIII Corps. The German 6th Panzer Army, 5th Panzer Army and 7th Army attacked and forced the surrender of 2 regiments of 106th Infantry Division, mauled the 28th Division in the center of the American line while battering other U.S. forces. To the north the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions were tenaciously defending Elsenborn Ridge while to the south the thinly spread 4th Infantry and 9th Armored Divisions resisted the 7th Army advance. As elements of the two German Panzer armies advanced west Eisenhower dispatched his only reserves the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to meet the threat. The 82nd moved to the town of St Vith to aid the 7th Armored Division while the 101st was dispatched to hold the key road center of Bastogne.
By the 22nd the besieged American defenders of Bastogne were causing Hasso Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army headaches. Manteuffel’s leading Panzer units of the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr had been thwarted from taking the town by a Combat Command of 10th Armored Division and lead elements of the 101st. After failing to take the town the Germans invested it with the 26th Volksgrenadier Division and a regiment of Panzer Lehr while 2nd Panzer and the bulk of Panzer Lehr continued their westward advance.
Cut off from any other American forces the 101st and a collection of stray units including CCB 10th Armored Division and remnants of CCR 9th Armored Division, three 155mm artillery battalions including the African American 969th Field Artillery Battalion held out. By the 21st of December they were completely surrounded.
The Commander of the American garrison was Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. McAuliffe was the acting commander of the 101st and normally was the commander of the Division Artillery. Major General Matthew Ridgeway and many key commanders and staff were away from the division when it was hastily deployed to the Bulge to combat the German offensive. McAuliffe commanded a division short of ammunition, food and cold weather gear.
The German forces surrounding the city were commanded by the veteran General Der Panzertrüppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz commander of XLVII Panzer Corps. Lüttwitz believing that resistance was futile sent the following message under a flag of truce to McAuliffe:
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
McAuliffe’s response has become one of the immortal responses to a surrender demand in military history. According to staff members present when he received Lüttwitz’s note he simple said “nuts.” One of his staff officers suggested that he use “nuts” as his official reply to Lüttwitz and the following reply was typed:
To the German Commander
The American Commander
The reply was delivered by the commander of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harper and his S-3 Major Alvin Jones. When Harper delivered the message he told the German delegation that in “plain English” it meant “Go to hell.” The scene has been immortalized on film in the movie The Battle of the Bulge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73OiRZf7DsM
The garrison held out until it was relieved on December 26th by the 4th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Despite that the situation remained tenuous and the town was the scene of much hard fighting over the next two weeks.
McAuliffe went on to command the 103rd Infantry Division by the end of the war. He returned to Europe as Commander of 7th Army in 1953 and U.S. Army Europe in 1955. He retired in 1956 with the rank of General. He died in 1975 at the age of 77. His adversary Von Lüttwitz died at the age of 72 in 1969.
As we remain engaged in the current war it is always worth our time to remember the heroism, courage and faith of those that served before us.
Post Script: To read more about the Battle of the Bulge on this site go to Wacht am Rhein: The Battle of the Bulge