The second of our series of extracts from Those Who Hold Bastogne focuses on the most well-known anecdote of the siege: General McAuliffe’s one word response to a German surrender request. We rejoin the action as the German Wehrmacht commanders ponder what to do with the now-encircled American force holding Bastogne.
Taking stock of the situation on Friday, the Germans were fairly optimistic that Bastogne was ripe for the taking. Judging from a letter written by a lieutenant that day, troop morale remained high. “Always advancing and smashing everything,” the officer told his wife. “The snow must turn red with American blood. Victory was never as close as it is now.” Field Marshal von Rundstedt, commander of the German forces on the Western Front, was convinced the time had come for Bastogne to be crushed. The road junction was urgently needed to help support von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army, as his force was now spearheading the drive for the Meuse and Antwerp. Von Manteuffel, in turn, put pressure on his subordinate von Lüttwitz. XLVII Panzer Corps commander von Lüttwitz had just had a visit from General Erich Brandenberger, who had assured him that the Seventh Army, and the 5th Parachute Division in particular, were steadily strengthening their shield south of Bastogne. This meant that, for the time being, von Lüttwitz could focus on Bastogne without looking over his shoulder to see where Patton’s Third Army was.
At the same time, however, von Lüttwitz was well aware that the force he had at his disposal to “crush” Bastogne was not a very strong one. The Führer himself had made clear that the armored divisions of his XLVII Panzer Corps were to head for the Meuse and leave Bastogne behind. The result was that now only a single regiment of Panzer Lehr remained near Marvie, southeast of Bastogne. The main effort would have to be made by the 26th Volksgrenadier Division; but Kokott’s troops had already been dealt heavy blows east of Bastogne. Two divisions were said to be on the way as reinforcements. For the moment, however, they were nowhere to be seen.
Von Lüttwitz felt he was not yet ready for an all-out assault. He was loath also to squander more troops in piecemeal attacks. That may have been why he decided to engage in a round of bluff without consulting von Manteuffel. With the help of a translator from Vienna, his staff hastily put together a surrender ultimatum in German and English, to be delivered to “the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.” The message put pressure on the surrounded defenders by threatening to have German artillery “annihilate the U.S.A. troops.” They warned that this would result in serious civilian losses, too, and at the last minute decided to add to the message that this “would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.”
A major delivered the message to Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr headquarters. The translator from Vienna did not make it there in time. Bayerlein therefore ordered Lieutenant Henke from his operations staff to accompany the major. Bayerlein knew that Hellmuth Henke had been in the import business and was fluent in English. When the two officers arrived in the sector of the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment near Marvie, its commander, Paul von Hauser, a seasoned veteran decorated with the Iron Cross, joked that if enemy soldiers ever handed him a similar message, he would “immediately place them against a wall.”
Not exactly reassured by this, Lieutenant Henke and the major were driven to the front line at a point where it was cut by the road from Arlon. Just before noon, they took off their pistols and put them in the vehicle. A nearby mortar platoon was drawing American fire, and it took the officers some time to convince the gunners to silence their weapons and give up two enlisted men to strengthen the delegation. Preceded by the two soldiers waving white flags, the officers crossed no man’s land in a “tense dead silence.” Then, suddenly, American airborne troops rose from foxholes near a farm. Lieutenant Henke explained to the Americans that they carried a message for Bastogne’s commander. Both officers were blindfolded and driven away. After a short distance, they were ordered out of the jeep. An officer told them he would take their written message to the town commander, and the German officers were left standing in the cold. The wait, Hellmuth Henke recalled, lasted “an incredibly long time.” Unable to see, but acutely aware of being gazed at by enemy soldiers, “our courage began to fail us.” All that Henke and the major could do was remain silent, avoid any movement, and take in the sounds of battle all around them.
What the German officers did not know was that General McAuliffe was asleep when the message arrived at his underground headquarters. He had been up and about for several days and nights now, and his staff had insisted he take a daytime nap while they took care of minor emergencies. They wanted him rested for the next real crisis. It took McAuliffe’s staff some time to understand that the message was serious, and that the Germans were really trying to convince the elite unit to surrender. When they finally woke their commander to explain the situation, a dazed and incredulous McAuliffe mumbled, “Aw, nuts!” Minutes later, when McAuliffe seemed unsure about how to word his rejection of the ultimatum, one of his staff officers suggested that “Nuts!” might sum it up best.
Lieutenant Henke was relieved to hear a vehicle approach. Americans quickly spirited the Germans back into a jeep. “We had the impression,” observed Henke, “that the Americans were less polite now.” After an abrupt halt, the Germans were made to clamber from the vehicle. They were nudged along for a small distance, and then told they could remove their blindfolds. An American officer handed them McAuliffe’s written reply. Lieutenant Henke asked him if he could disclose the nature of the content, as they had been granted authority to negotiate some aspects of the surrender on the spot. The answer was, the American replied, “Nuts!” Lieutenant Henke was so puzzled by the reply that he simply repeated the word. “It means,” the officer clarified, “go to hell.” Lieutenant Henke turned to the major to explain. “We should go,” the major snapped.
Bastogne’s commander rejected the surrender ultimatum “with remarkable brevity,” Kokott commented dryly when corps headquarters notified him of the answer. Von Manteuffel on his part was furious when he received word that von Lüttwitz had allowed the Americans to make such a fool of them all.
Extract taken from ‘Trapped’, Chapter 4 of Those Who Hold Bastogne.