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Gen. Courtney Hodges, commanding First U.S. Army, asked Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding 12th Army Group, for permission to use the two airborne divisions that constituted the theater reserve. Agreeing with Hodges' concerns, General Dwight D. Eisenhower on 17 December released the 101st Airborne Division, then resting and refitting at Camp Mourmelon, France, for movement to Belgium. Hodges sent the 101st to VIII Corps, under command of Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton. VIII Corps had taken the full force of the 5th Panzer Army's attack, and on 17 December the Germans stood within eleven miles of the crucial road and rail junction of Bastogne.
The commander of the 101st Airborne, Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, was at that time in the United States, and his deputy, Brig. Gen. Gerald J. Higgins, was in England. Command thus devolved on Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, the divisional artillery commander. McAuliffe went ahead of the division to Bastogne where he conferred with Middleton, who was preparing to move the corps headquarters from the city. By the slenderest of margins, the 101st reached the city before the advancing Germans and immediately began to construct a defense during the night of 18 December and morning of 19 December. Understanding that the Germans needed Bastogne and the complex of roads radiating from it in order to continue their attack to the west, Middleton on 19 December gave McAuliffe a single terse order: "Hold Bastogne." To achieve this, Middleton attached a number of units to McAuliffe's division. In addition to the 805 officers and 11,035 enlisted men of the 101st Airborne, McAuliffe also commanded forty tanks of Combat Command B, 10th Armored Division; a tank destroyer battalion; two battalions of 155-mm artillery; and a collection of soldiers from many units -- dubbed Team SNAFU -- and available as replacements.
Progress of the Defense: None of the German divisions attacking Bastogne was at full strength, and some were considerably depleted. Panzer Lehr had only 40 percent of its tanks, 60 percent of its guns, and 60 percent of its authorized strength. Because of previous battle losses, the 26th Volksgrenadierdivision was lacking one regiment. The 2nd Panzerdivision was at 80 percent strength, but one of its regiments of grenadiers was on bicycles and therefore unfit for offensive operations; that regiment was used only for replacements. Units that later reinforced XLVII Panzerkorps ranged in strength from 50 to 70 percent.
At Gen. Middleton's orders, Col. Robertson had already constituted three teams from Combat Command B and dispatched them to defend villages to the southeast, east, and northeast of Bastogne. Team Desobry pushed to Noville; Team Cherry to Longvilly, and Team O'Hara to Marvie. All promptly came under heavy pressure. McAuliffe organized the 101st Airborne into regimental task forces and distributed them to the perimeter of Bastogne. By 20 December, German attacks had constricted the perimeter around Bastogne and encircled the town on the next day. Lacking enough strength to overwhelm the defenders, Lüttwitz sent a note to McAuliffe on 22 December, demanding his surrender. On hearing about the demand, McAuliffe's immediate reply was "Aw, nuts." When discussing what sort of reply to send to the Germans, Lt. Col. Harry W. O.
Kinnard, G3 of the 101st, suggested that McAuliffe simply repeat his earlier remark. German attacks continued through the day, although not well coordinated and only in company strength against various parts of the perimeter.
On 23 December the weather cleared and American airpower began to play a part, parachuting vital supplies, including artillery ammunition, to the defenders, while fighter-bombers attacked German armor. Thus strengthened, American morale stiffened, and the defenders repulsed renewed attacks by additional units of XLVII Panzerkorps on 24 and 25 December. The day after Christmas, the Germans attacked again with battalion-sized infantry and armor teams, but were held off by American defenses arrayed in depth and by heavy artillery concentrations. At 1600 that afternoon, American tanks of the 4th Armored Division broke through to relieve the town. Fighting continued over the next two days as the Germans attempted, but with no success, to crush the corridor that Gen. George S. Patton's troops had opened to Bastogne. In the end, the 101st Airborne Division, Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, and their attached units suffered just over 2,000 casualties in the defense of Bastogne, while attacking German forces lost 7000 killed in action and more than 200 armored vehicles.
Significance of the Action: Most of the fighting in defense of Bastogne was, like elsewhere in the Battle of the Bulge, a series of small unit actions. The 101st Airborne had the advantage of fighting on interior lines of communication, so that it could rush reinforcements to any threatened part of its perimeter. The Germans, on the other hand, were operating on inadequate roads that made it difficult to concentrate force and more difficult to keep the forward units supplied. Tactical organization played its part as well. Organizing the defenses as teams of infantry, armor, and artillery gave the 101st great flexibility. More important was the greater firepower that the defenders enjoyed. When alerted for movement to Belgium, the divisional artillery took much more ammunition than it normally would have planned for. Once in Bastogne, the divisional artillery was reinforced by a number of other battalions, so that McAuliffe could usually plan on using up to ten artillery battalions, although the need to conserve ammunition remained acute throughout the siege. The principal use of artillery was against armor. On 20 December, for example, seven battalions fired 2,600 rounds solely at German armor, and artillery fired both indirect and direct fire missions against tanks throughout the battle. Aggressive infantry patrolling gave good early warning of German attacks, and any tanks that penetrated the American defenses were destroyed after they were separated from their supporting infantry. By comparison, the Germans had very little artillery to support the attack and never really attempted to silence the American artillery through counterbattery fire.
Fortunately for the defenders, German attacks throughout the siege were piecemeal and conducted without great vigor. In part, this was a reflection of the fact that few senior German commanders really believed in the plan they were trying to carry out. In part, it was a consequence of the inadequate road network that slowed down the German advance and made it hard to concentrate force at the decisive moment, and then to resupply the forward units when they needed it. In part, it was a result of the secrecy with which Hitler had carried out his plans, since the German tactical commanders only knew their missions a couple of days before the attack. Thus they had inadequate time to conduct reconnaissance and consider both what might go wrong and how they would respond to it. Finally, it was also partly due to the generally lower state of training and generally lower morale of the German forces employed at that point in the war.
For the Americans, the successful defense of Bastogne and the link-up with elements of Third Army attacking from the south spelled the end of the German offensive effort in the Ardennes.
Denied the road net of which Bastogne was the center, and delayed so long that the overall plan for the dash across the Meuse River and on toward Antwerp became impossible to execute, the German commanders finally persuaded Hitler to allow them to withdraw toward the Siegfried Line, salvaging what they could of the forces they had thrown into battle.
At 1130 on 22 December, four Germans, a major, a captain, and two enlisted men, came up the road to Bastogne from Remoifosse carrying a large white flag. They were met on the road by T/Sgt Oswald Y. Butler and S/Sgt Carl E. Dickinson of Company F, 327th Glider Infantry, and PFC Ernest D. Premetz of the 327th Medical Detachment.
Premetz could speak German. The captain could speak English. He said to Butler, “We are parlementaires”.
The men took the Germans to the house where Lieutenant Leslie E. Smith of Weapons Platoon, Company F, 327th Infantry, had his command post. Leaving the two German enlisted men at the command post, Smith blindfolded the two officers and led them over the hill to the command post of Captain James F. Adams, commanding officer of Company F. Adams called 2d Battalion headquarters in Marvie, Battalion called Regiment in Bastogne, and the 327th Headquarters called the 101st Division, relaying the word that some Germans had come in with surrender terms. The rumor quickly spread around the front that the enemy had had enough and that a party had arrived to arrange a surrender. Many of the American defenders crawled out of their cover.
Major Alvin Jones took the terms to General McAuliffe and Lieutenant Colonel Ned D. Moore who was acting Chief of Staff. The paper called for the surrender of the Bastogne garrison and threatened complete destruction otherwise. It appealed to the “well known American humanity” to save the people of Bastogne from further suffering. The Americans were to have two hours in which to consider. The two enemy officers would have to be released by 1400 but another hour would pass before the Germans would resume their attack.
Colonel Harper, commanding the 327th, went with Jones to Division Headquarters. The two German officers were left with Captain Adams. Members of the staff were grouped around General McAuliffe when Harper and Jones arrived. McAuliffe asked someone what the paper contained and was told that it requested a surrender.
He laughed and said, “Aw, nuts!”. It really seemed funny to him at the time. He figured he was giving the Germans “one hell of a beating” and that all of his men knew it. The demand was all out of line with the existing situation.
But McAuliffe realized that some kind of reply had to be made and he sat down to think it over.
Pencil in hand, he sat there pondering for a few minutes and then he remarked, “Well, I don’t know what to tell them”. He asked the staff what they thought and Colonel Kinnard, his G3, replied, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”.
General McAuliffe didn’t understand immediately what Kinnard was referring to. Kinnard reminded him, “You said ‘Nuts!’”. That drew applause all around. All members of the staff agreed with much enthusiasm and because of their approval McAuliffe decided to send that message back to the Germans.
Then he called Colonel Harper in and asked him how he would reply to the message. Harper thought for a minute but before he could compose anything General McAuliffe gave him the paper on which he had written his one-word reply and asked, “Will you see that it’s delivered?”.
“I will deliver it myself”, answered Harper. “It will be a lot of fun.” McAuliffe told him not to go into the German lines.
Colonel Harper returned to the command post of Company F. The two Germans were standing in the wood blindfolded and under guard. Harper said, “I have the American commander’s reply”. The German captain asked, “Is it written or verbal?”. “It is written”, said Harper. The German captain translated the message. The major then asked, “Is the reply negative or affirmative? If it is the latter I will negotiate further.” All this time the Germans were acting in an arrogant and patronizing manner. Colonel Harper was beginning to lose his temper. He said, “The reply is decidedly not affirmative!”. Then he added, “If you continue this foolish attack your losses will be tremendous”. The major nodded his head.
Harper put the two officers in the jeep and took them back to the main road where the German privates were waiting with the white flag. He then removed the blindfolds and said to them, speaking through the German captain, “If you don’t understand what ‘Nuts!’ means, in plain English it is the same as ‘Go to Hell!’. And I will tell you something else – if you continue to attack we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.”. The German major and captain saluted very stiffly. The captain said, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” It was then 1350. “On your way, Bud”, said Colonel Harper, “and good luck to you”. The four Germans walked on down the road. Harper returned to the house, regretting that his tongue had slipped and that he had wished them good luck.
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 Armored 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 headed 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. Their
Commander demanded our surrender in the following impudent arrogance:
December 22d 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 HompreSibret-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.