Christmas “Nuts!” at Bastogne

Sixty-eight years ago at Christmas the American and German armies were fighting it out in the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive of the War.

Patton’s Third Army fought its way through to relieve the Americans desperately fighting to defeat the attacking German forces.  The weather was atrocious and Allied air power was useless.  Patton had a prayer written for good weather. The skies cleared after Patton prayed the weather prayer, and Allied air power was unleashed on the attacking Germans.

During the Battle of the Bulge, the 101st Airborne Division made a heroic stand at Bastogne from December 20-27 which helped turn the tide of the battle. Massively outnumbered, battle weary from already having done more than their share of fighting in Normandy and Operation Market Garden and short on food and ammo, they stopped the advancing Germans cold in their tracks.

On December 25, a packed midnight mass was held in Bastogne, with Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, who commanded the 101st troops at Bastogne, in attendance.  Afterwards the General listened to German POWS singing Silent Night, and wished them a Merry Christmas.

General McAuliffe issued a memorable Christmas message to his troops:

Headquarters 101st Airborne Division Office of the Division Commander

24 December 1944

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 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 Hombres 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 well known American humanity.

The German Commander

The German Commander received the following reply:

22 December 1944 To the German Commander:

NUTS!

The American Commander

Allied Troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies. We know that our Division Commander, General Taylor, will say: Well Done!

We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present and being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.

A. C. McAuliffe

Today we have troops serving in harm’s way.  From the bottom of a grateful heart I wish them and their families the Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest of New Years.

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10 Comments

  1. Have knoen this story for years as dad would tell it. Always enjoy the reminder of this great generation. Lord may we have the spine and the courage that is given us by the example of such as these.
    Thanks again.

    • “Lord may we have the spine and the courage that is given us by the example of such as these.”

      Amen!

  2. “Battleground” is one of the best war movies ever done. Shot and acted by people who had been in harm’s way and knew what it was like, it has that truth to life that no amount of technical skill can counterfeit – but that turns technical skill to genius when it is there. I adore the closing scene, with the ragged fighters marching away singing their ribald cadence while fresh troops come down the other way.

    • Completely agree Fabio. The ending sequence is one of my favorite scenes.

      Another is where Van Johnson, a veteran, is planning to run from a fight, until one of the replacements follows him and asks what to do. Van Johnson then leads him in a flanking attack, unwilling, even though he was terrified, to seem a coward in the eyes of one of his comrades, even one he hardly knows. It neatly encapsulated the motivation of many combat soldiers.

      • Incidentally, am I right to think that cadence singing is a specifically American army tradition? I take a certain interest in different military traditions; I am pretty sure it is unknown to the British, and I know that it doesn’t exist in the Italian army.

      • It’s a fairly recent tradition Fabio in that the first recorded one was in 1944, although my guess is that it was already pretty universal. My bet is it probably originated with black troops during the Civil War. It comes as a surprise to me that it is not universal. In the Army we never marched without doing cadences. It helped keep us in step and made the marching tolerable if not fun. Most Americans, at least white Americans, don’t do much singing, but everyone joined in with the cadences.

      • We certainly have marching songs. Here is a particularly glorious one, the regimental song of the oldest brigade in the Italian army, the Sassari, which goes back to the 1500s:

        (It’s not actually in Italian, since Sardinian is a separate language, and indeed Sardinia is to some extent a country of its own.) And here is one of the vast repertoire of the best of the best, the Alpini, the mountain men, whose choral singing is almost as legendary as their courage and discipline:

        What we don’t have is the counting and question-and-answer format. Indeed, I don’t think anyone would think of it, because we don’t count to four, but only to two.

  3. As a factual note, McAuliffe first thought the Germans had offered to surrender (due to the way communications were in those unimaginable times). When he was corrected by staff – that the Nazis wanted HIM to surrender, the General said, “Aw, nuts!”

    So when it came time to officially respond, a junior officer suggested that be his reply : “Nuts!” I am not trying to take away from the greatness of that movie… :)

    • I find that fascinating Mustang! I hadn’t heard that before.

      • I believe if you look into official US Army records, you will find the report with far more detail than I can recall at my old age. :)


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