70 years ago today American troops found themselves engaged in the second largest battle in its history.* Over half a million American troops eventually fought the Nazis during that Battle of the Bulge but in its early days the odds were very much in the Germansd favor.
From the city of Bastogne emenated major highways critical to the German’s advance and tight timetable. Realizing its strategic importance the 101st division was taken out of strategic reserve while recuperating from Operation Market Garden. Short winter issue in the coldest winter in Belgium in almost a century, ammo, medical supplies and even key commanders, the 101st was rushed in cattle cars driving all night to reach Bastogne before the Germans did.
The 101st along with a hodgepodge of units defended Bastogne on the losing end of five to one odds against units of the XLVII Panzer Corps starting on 20 December 1944. On the morning of the 22nd four Germans approached the American lines under white flags to deliver a message to the 101st’s Division Commander. Blindfolded, two German officers were taken to a regimental headquarters while the message was taken to the Division command post.
The message read:
“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
All the serious civilian losses caused by this
artillery fire would not correspond with the wellknown
The German Commander.”
Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe was roused from his sleeping bag after two days of establishing and conducting the defense of Bastogne against parts of the German Panzer Lehr Division, 2nd Panzer Division, 5th Parachute Division and 26th Volksgrenadier Division. Upon being shown the German letter McAuliffe initially asked if the Germans were surrendering. When informed the Germans were asking for the Americans surrender the General replied “Us surrender, aw nuts!” and drop the letter to the floor and left the CP to congratulate a unit that had taken a German road block that morning.
The German officers waiting at the regimental headquarters expected a written response to the German’s written request. Gen McAuliffe asked his Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard what to say to which he responded the General’s initial response would be hard to beat. It was typed up:
“December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander”
COL Bud Harper, the 327th Regimental Commander personally delivered the letter to the German officers who before opening asked if the answer was “affirmative or negative”. COL Harper said, “The reply consists of a single word, NUTS!” The German lieutenant, not understanding, asked, “Is that reply negative or affirmative?” COL Harper said, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative”, adding, “If you continue this foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous.”
The Germans were then escorted to the front line where they opened the letter and read it. Still not understanding they asked for a further explanation. Harper said to German speaking PFC Ernest Premetz , “Tell them to take a flying s**t!” Premetz paraphrased the Colonel’s response and said, “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen” or “You can go to Hell.”
The response would make its way through the grapevine throughout the 101st raising the spirits of the surrounded troops and eventually to the whole front. It has since become a piece of American martial folklore and appropriately punctuates the highly unlikely and extremely rare achievement of shivering paratroopers, their boots wrapped in blankets responding and eventually repelling German armored in classic “grunt” style.
*The Battle of France was the largest US ground battle.