June 18, 2024


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Grit and guts at the German line

Few American generals can boast a more eloquent quote than General Anthony McAuliffe said to the Germans who had surrounded his troops in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.  

McAuliffe was born in Washington, D.C. on, July 2, 1898. He attended West Virginia University and then transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in an accelerated program, graduating just after World War I ended. He was commissioned as an Artillery Officer and spent the years between the wars in various peacetime assignments. Gaining ranks was slow then, in the downsized U.S. Army, and by 1935 he was just a captain. 

He was selected to attend the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Then, in June 1940, McAuliffe graduated from the United States Army War College. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1941 just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Early in the war McAuliffe was assigned to the Pentagon and was dealing with logistics. But he volunteered for airborne duty and joined the 101st Airborne Division. Airborne warfare was a new development and the United States initially fielded two divisions in Europe, the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions. Both would play key roles in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).

At the time of the D-Day landings, McAuliffe was a Brigadier General and the commander of the Division’s artillery. During the invasion, however, the Assistant Division Commander, BG Donald Pratt died in Normandy. McAuliffe was elevated to his position. McAuliffe then jumped into Holland (his second combat jump) with the 101st as part of Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was a failure and the airborne forces all took a beating in the ill-fated operation that was supposed to “end the war by Christmas.” 

After the 101st was pulled off the line in Holland to refit, rest, and bring in replacements, McAuliffe became the acting division commander as MG Maxwell Taylor was in Britain. It was then that the Germans made the counterattack in the Ardennes, committing all of their armored reserves. The Germans’ initial gains were significant, creating a gigantic bulge in the Allied lines.

After the Germans shocked the Americans, by attacking and overrunning the thinly held part of the American line held by the green troops of the 106th Division, the veteran and battle-tested 101st Airborne Division was rushed to the front to hold the vital crossroads of Bastogne in Belgium. Soon after arriving, the 101st and a Combat Command of the 10th Armored Division were surrounded by vastly more numerous forces. The orders for McAuliffe and the paratroopers were that Bastogne must hold.

The Germans needed to capture the town. On December 22, 1944, around 11:30 in the morning, four German soldiers, waving two white flags, approached the American lines south of Bastogne. The senior officer was Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps. The junior officer was Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Division.

The Germans stopped in front of the foxhole of PFC Leo Palma, a B.A.R. gunner with the 327th Glider Regiment. Lieutenant Henke, who spoke English said, “I want to see the commanding officer of this section.” The Germans said that they had a written message for the American Commander in Bastogne.

Word was passed up the line to the 327th Glider Regiment’s headquarters. The senior officer present was the Regimental Operations Officer, Major Alvin Jones. Jones, after notifying Division Headquarters, was told to retrieve the message and bring it to the Division Headquarters. The two blindfolded German officers were guarded right behind the line.

The German message was right to the point:

“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. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe 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.

‘Surrender to the Germans? Nuts!’

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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-hour term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.”

Learning of the developing situation, the Acting Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Ned Moore, entered B.G. 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.”

“They want to surrender?” McAuliffe asked, still groggy from sleep. An aide replied, “no, sir, they want us to surrender.” McAuliffe rose, and dropping the sheets to the floor replied with the now-famous… “Aw nuts.”

Moore then informed the rest of the staff of the German surrender demand and of McAuliffe’s response. McAuliffe left to congratulate a group of soldiers who had destroyed a German roadblock. When he returned, he received a phone call informing him that the two German officers were still waiting for an answer. 

“Well, I don’t know what to tell them,” he said. At that point, LTC Harry Kinnard, the Division’s Operations Officer said, “Sir, what you said initially would be hard to beat.” McAulliffe asked, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied, “Sir, you said ‘nuts.’” All members of the staff agreed, so McAulliffe wrote it down on a message pad and said, “Have it typed up.”

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S!

The American Commander”

McAuliffe’s written reply was delivered back down to the command post where the blindfolded German officers awaited their answer. Asking if it was written or verbal, the German officer was told the message was written. He was told that it consisted of a single word, “Nuts!” Unaware of American slang, the German officer was confused. “Is that reply negative or affirmative?” The Americans said, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative.”

The Germans, after returning to the front lines, were still confused and again asked what the reply meant. An American soldier who spoke German said, “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen” (“you can go to Hell.”) Then the officer present said to the Germans, “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.” The American officer Major Harper then said, “On your way, Bud,” and without thinking, added, “and good luck to you.” The Germans saluted and 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.’”

The Germans continued to pressure Bastogne, but their window of opportunity had passed. Soon afterward, the skies cleared and the Allied mastery of the air showed once and for all that the gamble was going to be a costly one for the German Army. American fighters and bombers began ripping into German armored formations, while C-47s began airdropping supplies and ammunition to the men of the 101st. 

On the afternoon of December 26th, the first tanks of the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division of the Third Army under General Patton broke through the German encirclement. They opened a tenuous lifeline through which the most seriously wounded paratroopers could be evacuated. The American lines were restored and the 101st was no longer encircled. Getting back the terrain lost took another month. As the Third Army widened the lifeline into Bastogne, General Patton awarded McAuliffe the Distinguished Service Cross. 

The German counterattack at the Western front had failed at a tremendous cost. All three German reserve armor divisions had been smashed and there were no more to replace them. With the Russians pushing from the east and the Western Allies squeezing them from the west the Nazis were finished. 

McAuliffe earned his second star on January 14, 1945, and was given command of the 103rd Infantry Division. They fought across the Rhine Valley, and in April 1945, the division took Landsberg, and they liberated the Kaufering concentration camp, a sub-camp of Dachau. 

McAuliffe and the 103rd crossed the Danube River near Ulm on April 26. On May 3, 1945, the 103rd captured Innsbruck in Austria, with little to no fighting. It then seized the Brenner Pass and met with the 88th Infantry Division of the U.S. Fifth Army at Vipiteno, Italy, thereby joining the Italian and Western European fronts. The war in Europe was over. 

McAuliffe would continue to rise in the post-war years serving as the Chief Chemical Officer of the Army Chemical Corps, and G-1, Head of Army Personnel. He returned to Europe as Commander of the Seventh Army in 1953, and then became Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army Europe in 1955, earning his fourth star. 

He retired from the Army in 1956 and worked in the private sector until 1963, retiring for good in Chevy Chase, MD. McAuliffe died from leukemia at Walter Reed Army Hospital on August 11, 1975, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

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