“McAuliffe realized that some kind of answer had to be offered and he sat down to think it over. After several minutes he admitted to his officers that he did not know what to say in response.”
By Gary Sterne
IT WAS MID-morning on Dec. 22, 1944 when U.S. troops manning the defences of the besieged Belgian town of Bastogne watched as four German soldiers – a major, a captain and two enlisted men – approached under a large white flag.
The U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division had established a perimeter there just two days earlier to halt Hitler’s surprise offensive through the Ardennes. By that point, 400,000 German troops supported by more than a thousand armoured vehicles had smashed though the American lines and were driving on the port of Antwerp in hopes of splitting the Allied forces. Bastogne was right in their path. Seven major roads led into and out of the city; capturing it was critical to the German advance.
The four-man enemy delegation called on all U.S. forces in Bastogne to surrender within two hours or face “total annihilation” by German artillery.
Technical Sgt. Oswald Butler and Staff Sgt. Carl Dickinson of F Company, 327th Glider Infantry, and medic Pfc Ernest Premetz stepped out to meet them.
The German captain told Butler in English: “We are parliamentaires.” It was a somewhat stilted reference to the act of negotiating: to parlay.
The men blindfolded the Germans and escorted them to an abandoned house serving as F Company’s command post.
Company commander Captain James F. Adams passed along news of the surrender terms to 2nd Battalion headquarters in Marvie. Commanders there in turn notified the 327th regimental headquarters in Bastogne who sent it up to the 101st Division.
When presented with the surrender demand, the 101st commander, Brigadier General Anthony C.McAuliffe, laughed at very notion of surrender. In his opinion his men were giving the Germans “one hell of a beating” and felt the enemy demand was out of line with the existing situation.
“Aw, nuts,” he blurted out.
Nevertheless, McAuliffe realized that some kind of reply had to be made and he sat down to think it over.
After several minutes he admitted to his officers that he didn’t know how to respond.
One officer, a lieutenant-colonel named Harry Kinnard, offered a suggestion.
“You said ‘Nuts!’” he observed, suggesting that be the reply.
The idea drew applause from everyone present. And so McAuliffe decided to send that very message back to the Germans: “Nuts!”
A colonel named Harper eagerly volunteered to deliver it to the German officers in person.
“It will be a lot of fun,” he said.
Harper found the two German negotiators standing in the wood blindfolded and under guard waiting to be sent back to their lines with the American answer.
“I have the commander’s reply,” he said giving the enemy delegates the note.
“If you don’t understand what ‘nuts’ means, in plain English it’s the same as ‘go to hell,’” Harper explained wryly. “And I will tell you something else – if you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city.’
At that, the German major and captain saluted very stiffly and turned to leave.
“We will kill many Americans,” the junior of the two officers said as they left. “This is war.”
Historians believed that it was the German high command sent their officers to Bastogne with the surrender demand. Yet in unearthed interviews with Allied interrogators, General Hasso von Manteufel, commander of the 5th Panzer Army, admitted that was not the case. In fact, he was surprised to learn that the ultimatum was even offered.
“Panzer Lehr Division sent a parlementaire to Bastogne without my authorization,” von Manteufel would later say. “The demand to surrender was refused, as was to be expected. I did not authorize the surrender demand which was made of the Bastogne garrison, and I am still not sure exactly who did authorize [it].”
The 2nd Panzer Division had taken Foy during the course of the day. The enemy there had actually withdrawn in the direction of Bastogne.
The 2nd Panzer Division had then, in accordance with instructions, turned in to the west and, with its bulk, was rolling in a westerly direction. Only weak security detachments had been left behind near Foy.
In the course of the morning, corps had informed the division that, by orders of corps, a negotiator of the Panzer Lehr Division would be dispatched to Bastogne – who would ask the enemy forces there to surrender.
News arrived from corps to the effect that the commander in charge of the Bastogne forces had declined a surrender with remarkable brevity. This response was fully in accord with the stubborn tenacity displayed by the defending forces.
Two days later, Christmas Eve, General McAuliffe wrote an inspired communiqué in which he told his men about the German demand for surrender, along with his answer to them.
His Christmas message read as follows:
“What’s merry about all this,” you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold, we aren’t home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armoured Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west. We have identifications from four German panzer divisions, two German infantry divisions and one German parachute division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were heading straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance.
How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our division’s glorious history, but in world history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Allied troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied armies. We know that our division commander, General Taylor, will say: “Well done!” 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.
Privately, on the phone that night to General Middleton, McAuliffe expressed his true feeling about Christmas in these words: “The finest Christmas present the 101st could get would be a relief tomorrow.”
After a week of attack, the Germans too were nearing the end of their endurance. According to Major Percy Ernst Schramm of the of the Wehrmacht operations staff, fuel was running low.
Genfldm Keitel was the man who was responsible for the quantities of POL (petrol and oil), which were made available to Army Group for the offensive,” he recalled. “[He] received some very urgent requests to release POL stocks because the prevailing shortage was expected to have the most serious consequences. The Chief of Staff of OKW granted these requests only very slowly, and then only for the smallest possible quantities which amounted to only a few thousand cubic metres.
And so, the German army ground to a halt around Bastogne – without fuel and without sufficient reserves to replace their losses – the battle the Germans were engaged in was already lost, just as General McAuliffe had predicted days before.
On Christmas Day, reinforcements arrived to shore up the defences around Bastogne and soon, American forces began to push the Germans back across the Ardennes and into Germany itself.
Gary Sterne is the author of The Americans and Germans in Bastogne: First-Hand Accounts from the Commanders Who Fought. A co-founder of The Armourer and Skirmish magazines, he operates a museum in Normandy, France built on the site of a German gun emplacement near Pointe du Hoc known as the Maisy Battery. Sterne’s re-discovery of the position in 2006 made headlines around the world. The site is now one of the major Normandy D-Day attractions.
“Nuts!” – The Story Behind the Famous American Reply to the German Surrender Ultimatum at Bastogne. Anthony McAuliffe (centre) and his officers in Bastogne, Belgium, December, 1944.Who responded Nuts to the Germans? ›
Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard, a paratroop officer who suggested the famously defiant answer "Nuts!" to a German demand for surrender during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, has died. He was 93.What did the general at Bastogne say that made him famous? ›
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.Why was Bastogne so critical for the Americans to protect and for the Germans to take? ›
Bastogne provided a road junction in rough terrain where few roads existed; it would open up a valuable pathway further north for German expansion. The Belgian town was defended by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, which had to be reinforced by troops who straggled in from other battlefields.When did General McAuliffe say Nuts? ›
Editor's Note: In honor of Christmas, we proudly publish the text of Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's 1944 Christmas letter to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.How fast did Patton get to Bastogne? ›
George Patton. As soon as the three-star general had his marching orders, he made a beeline to the Bulge in Belgium — and in seven days rescued the trapped Americans in Bastogne while decking the Nazis.