To the German Commander: N U T S !

The story of McAuliffe’s famous reply at Bastogne

Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe (center) and two other officers posing with Bastogne’s town sign (Photo: U.S. Army)

Nazi Germany launched a massive counterattack in the Ardennes on December 16, 1944 as its last attempt to dislodge the advancing Allied forces in the west. The Belgian town of Bastogne, defended by the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division and parts of other units, quickly became surrounded as the Germans threw heavy forces at the strategically situated town. You’ve probably already heard how Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe replied to the German demand of surrender with an irreverent “Nuts!”, which became a rallying cry for the beleaguered defenders. This article will shed light on the details of the event.

Bastogne had seven highways leading into and out of it, which made it an important location in the heavily wooded and snowed-under Ardennes, where roads wide enough for armies were few and far between. Those seven highways were closed by the attacking German forces by the noon of December 21. (Combat had already occurred just a few miles from Bastogne on the 19th.)

American soldiers in Bastogne on December 19, after getting cut off from their regiment by the advancing German forces (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
American soldiers in Bastogne on December 19, after getting cut off from their regiment by the advancing German forces (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The next morning, at around 11:30 a.m. on the 22nd, four German soldiers waving a white flag approached the lines to the south of town. The officers in long overcoats and shiny boots were Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps and Lieutenant Hellmuth Henke, operations officer of the elite Panzer Lehr Division with a briefcase under his arm; they were accompanied by two enlisted men.

Lieutenant Hellmuth Henke, the German delegation’s translator (Photo: German Army)
Lieutenant Hellmuth Henke, the German delegation’s translator
(Photo: German Army)

This section of the lines was held by F Company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The Germans walked past the first foxhole they saw, occupied by an astonished bazooka team (Read our earlier article – The Bazooka) and situated in front of the Kessler farm, and stopped at the second foxhole, where they addressed B.A.R. gunner (Read our earlier article – The Browning Automatic Rifle) Private First Class Leo Palma. Lt. Henke spoke English and declared "I want to see the commanding officer of this section." Palma was dumbfounded, but Staff Sergeant Carl E. Dickinson saw what was happening, walked out onto the road and called the Germans over. Henke explained to him that they had a written message for the American commander in Bastogne. He also said they consented to being blindfolded and brought to the officer in charge – in fact, they brought their own blindfolds just for that purpose.

Staff Sergeant Carl Dickinson (Photo: U.S. Army)
Staff Sergeant Carl Dickinson
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The two German enlisted men were left behind with the other American soldiers, and blindfolded Wagner and Henke were placed in the care of Dickinson and Private First Class Ernest Premetz, a medic who spoke German. The two officers were led to the farmhouse behind the foxholes. There the two American chaperones were instructed to take the Germans to the F Company command post, a large foxhole located in a forested area a quarter of a mile away. They were led there by a roundabout route to make sure they wouldn’t be able to find it again. The F Company Commander was Captain James F. Adams, who was out at a forward post, but was quickly notified of the messengers’ arrival.

Aerial photograph of Bastogne during the battle (Photo: U.S. Army Center for Military History)
Aerial photograph of Bastogne during the battle
(Photo: U.S. Army Center for Military History)

By the time Capt. Adams arrived back to the command post, the company’s executive officer had already made radio contact with the 2nd Battalion Command Post in the nearby village of Marvie and was reading the text of the written message into the radio. The battalion command post then notified the headquarters of the 327th Regiment in Bastogne. The regimental commander, Colonel Joseph “Bud” Harper, was out inspecting positions, but the senior officer present, Major Alvin Jones, passed the message up to the Division Headquarters. The reply from on high was to take the written message to Division HQ. Maj. Jones drove to the F Company command post, picked up the message, and headed for Bastogne. Maj. Wagner and Lt. Henke were left blindfolded in the woods outside the foxhole.
 
While this was happening, one Lieutenant Colonel Ned Moore at the Division HQ entered McAuliffe’s sleeping quarters right next to the headquarters to wake him up. “The Germans have sent some people forward to take our surrender” he said, to which McAuliffe muttered “Aw, nuts!” While McAuliffe was getting up, Moore briefed the rest of the division staff, mentioning McAuliffe’s “Nuts” remark. It should be noted that McAuliffe was not normally the overall commander in charge of the 101st Airborne Division. That position belonged to Major General Maxwell D. Taylor. Taylor, however, was at a staff conference in the United States when the Battle of the Bulge began, so McAuliffe, normally only in charge of the division’s artillery, stepped in his place.

Lieutenant Colonel Ned Moore, who woke McAuliffe up (Photo: U.S. Army)
Lieutenant Colonel Ned Moore, who woke McAuliffe up
(Photo: U.S. Army)

When Maj. Jones arrived with the written message, the staff looked at it before taking it to McAuliffe. It came on two typewritten sheets, one in German, the other an English translation. They could tell that the Germans used an English typewriter: the diacritical marks above certain German vowels were missing and written in by hand. The English version read thus:
 
"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.
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 wellknown American humanity.
The German Commander."

German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Unknown photographer, photo originally taken from a captured German soldier)
German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge
(Photo: Unknown photographer, photo originally taken from a captured German soldier)

When told about the content of the message, McAuliffe, who was still groggy from sleep and general exhaustion, first asked “They want to surrender?” When corrected and told that the Germans were demanding THEIR surrender, he took the paper, erupted in anger, saying "Us surrender, aw nuts!", and dropped the message on the floor. Maj. Jones, who brought the message, was dismissed. Having expressed his opinion and believing the business to be done with, McAuliffe left to congratulate a unit to the west of town for taking a German roadblock earlier that morning.

Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe in Bastogne (Photo: U.S. Army)
Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe in Bastogne
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Maj. Jones drove back to the F Company command post, where the two blindfolded German officers were still waiting. They told him that since the message was formal and delivered in writing, they would need to take the reply back in the same way. Maj. Jones drove back to the regimental HQ and phoned Division Headquarters about the matter.
 
When McAuliffe returned to Division HQ, he was informed about the need for a written reply. He asked that Maj. Jones’s superior, Col. Harper, be summoned to the division’s headquarters. Harper was still out on inspection, so they radioed him. When Harper was finally reached and he got to Division HQ, he was told to wait.

American soldiers in Bastogne during the battle (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
American soldiers in Bastogne during the battle
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Inside, McAuliffe was still deliberating. “Well, I don't know what to tell them” - he said to his officers. His operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Kinnard, replied “What you said initially would be hard to beat.” “What do you mean?” “Sir, you said nuts.” All staff members agreed enthusiastically, so McAuliffe had someone write up the reply.
 
He also decided to play a little joke on Col. Harper waiting outside. He called him in, showed him the German message and asked what Harper thought they should reply. Harper suggested they should reject the demand and already started drafting an appropriately formal response, when the typist brought in McAuliffe’s version. The general handed it over to Harper, asking if it would do. It read:
 
"December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander"

U.S. Generals in Bastogne after the war among celebrating civilians (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. Generals in Bastogne after the war among celebrating civilians
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Harper laughed out, and was told to take the reply back to F Company’s command post. Once he got there, Lt. Henke asked if the message was written or verbal, to which Harper replied it was written, and placed it in Maj. Wagner’s hand. Henke then asked if it was affirmative, because in that case they were authorized to discuss terms. Harper told him that the reply was decidedly not affirmative, and added “If you continue this foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous.” Henke translated this to Maj. Wagner, who nodded.

Colonel Bud Harper (Photo: U.S. Army)
Colonel Bud Harper
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The German officers were driven back to the Kessler farmhouse where they first approached American lines, and had their blindfolds removed. They read the message with their own eyes and, not understanding the slang phrase, asked for clarification. Private Premetz had rejoined them. Col. Harper suggested to Premetz to clarify the message with “Tell them to take a flying sh*t!", and Premetz translated this into German as "Du kannst zu Teufel gehen" (“You can go to the Devil”). After a few more words, the Germans stormed off angrily, Maj. Wagner throwing his blindfold away – it was picked up by the same Private Palma who first spoke to them, and who later used it to clean his weapon. The Germans returned to their lines at 14:00, about 2 and a half hours after their appearance.

Private First Class Ernest Premetz, who helped clarify the message (Photo: U.S. Army)
Private First Class Ernest Premetz, who helped clarify the message
(Photo: U.S. Army)

According Lt. Henke, they then returned to Panzer Lehr, headquartered at Lutrebois, some two miles from Bastogne.  There, hearing of the refusal, Division Commander General Fritz Bayerlein wanted to initiate the threatened artillery bombardment and started planning an attack with his tanks. He was, however, interrupted by Corps Commander General Heinrich von Lüttwitz, who happened to be present, and who informed him that the artillery pieces had already been moved away from Bastogne and closer to the frontline. He reminded Bayerlein that Bastogne was not his objective, and ordered him to circumnavigate it and move on to Rochefort, leaving the town to the 42nd Volksgrenadier Division.

General Fritz Bayerlein, who wanted to bombard Bastogne after McAuliffe’s reply (Photo: Wikipedia)
General Fritz Bayerlein, who wanted to bombard Bastogne after McAuliffe’s reply
(Photo: Wikipedia)

The news of McAuliffe’s “Nuts” reply circulated among the troops, raising their morale; the story even made it into McAuliffe’s Christmas message to the soldiers under his command, an event that was also depicted in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers when Colonel Sink reads out the message to Easy Company. For his spirited and tenacious defense of Bastogne, McAuliffe received the Distinguished Service Cross from General George S. Patton. There is also a bust of the brigadier general on the main square named after him in Bastogne.

Patton decorating McAuliffe with the Distinguished Service Cross (Photo: U.S. Army)
Patton decorating McAuliffe with the Distinguished Service Cross
(Photo: U.S. Army)

After the war, the incident inspired the Throwing of the Nuts ceremony, which is still performed at the town hall of Bastogne every year. If you wish, you’ll be able to experience this unique local custom on our all-inclusive 80th Anniversary Bulge Tour to be held in 2024. The tour will also give you an extensive understanding of the larger battle through visits to local military museums, memorials and battlefields, including the foxholes of the famous Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of “Band of Brothers” fame.

The “Throwing of the Nuts” ceremony in 2019 (Photo: Author’s own)
The “Throwing of the Nuts” ceremony in 2019
(Photo: Author’s own)

What most World War II buffs don't know is that Bastogne's connection with nuts actually goes way back farther than McAuliffe's defiant remark. The Nuts Fair of Bastogne is a tradition rooted in the 18th century. Farmhands, cowherds and shepherds in the region used to be employed by landowners for one-year periods. Eight days before Christmas, when their contracts were up, these workers went to the last market of the year in Bastogne, where employers would be hiring or rehiring people for the next season. Job seekers who found work bought expensive sugar bread and nuts to eat and share with friends, knowing that their livelihood was ensured for another year.

Christmas offer: 
Get 15% off until December 26

Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments  (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Surprise your loved ones with an unforgettable trip to historic places where American soldiers fought for our freedom. Get a 15% discount on our select tours by paying only the registration fee by December 26, 2022 and transferring the rest of the list price until January 31, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy.

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