Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This Day in World War II History (“Nuts!” to Nazis, at Battle of the Bulge)

December 22, 1944—General Anthony McAuliffe’s one-word response to a German surrender ultimatum—“NUTS!”—might have confused the Nazi commander battling him for control of the town of Bastogne, but it rallied the spirits of his rank-and-file soldiers who were then surrounded at this crucial point in the Battle of the Bulge. Since then it has entered American military legend as a symbol of blunt defiance.

McAuliffe (in the image accompanying this post) and the 101st Airborne Division, like the rest of the American forces on the Western front in Europe these last six months, had anticipated at least some R&R during the Christmas season. Pressed from the east and west, the Nazis appeared unable to strike any blow.

The Ardennes Forest—located at the thinnest point in the Allies’ broad front in the West, between Britain’s Bernard Montgomery to the north and American George S. Patton to the south—was, notes military historian Geoffrey S. Perret in There’s a War to be Won, where Omar Bradley “sent green divisions to get their first taste of war and a kind of rest area where badly mauled divisions took a breather.”

Having fought in the Normandy and Operation Market Garden campaigns, the 101st should, by all rights, have fallen into the second of these categories. Bastogne, in the midst of hilly, heavily forested terrain and a network of rural roads, was considered as unlikely a spot for action as there could be.

Instead, the 101st had been ordered by Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower right into the center of hell: Adolf Hitler’s surprise counteroffensive, the largest German offensive of the war along the Western Front. A quarter of a million Nazi troops were flung across an 85-mile stretch of the Allied front, from southern Belgium into Luxembourg, creating a 50-mile pocket or “bulge” in the Allied defenses.

Today, visitors to Bastogne will find, in the town square—named after McAuliffe—a Sherman tank and bust of the plain-spoken general. The commander had a good deal of confidence in himself, but even more in his men. They were about to prove him a good judge of their abilities once again.

The battle had begun on the 16th, when Hitler—aided by both a dearth of informed intelligence about the state of his forces in Germany, as well as by Allied commanders’ near-total disbelief that his troops were even capable of offensive action at this point—sent every fresh soldier he could scrape up through the thin point of the Allied front at Bastogne. Once he punched through that, the dictator believed, he could turn toward Antwerp and drive a wedge between the Americans and their German allies.

Much of the Battle of the Bulge was fought amid clouds and fog—a good meteorological metaphor for the diminished vision held by those who issued the orders in this campaign.

British and Americans underestimates of the Third Reich’s remaining fighting capacity had left them vulnerable, but Hitler held his own illusions. He wasn’t entirely wrong about the disagreements between Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, but he mistakenly thought that they would refuse to fight together after this—and completely erred in believing that the U.S. would buckle after one heavy blow. (As Gerhard Weinberg points out in his epic history of WWII, A World at Arms, the exact opposite was true, as America had suffered the least of the Allies in the war to date.)

Hitler achieved the first thing he wanted—surprise—as American G.I.s at Bastogne soon found themselves completely surrounded by young, strong, well-fed opponents. In the wake of Operation Market Garden, they were:

* not at full strength;
* low on ammunition;
* short of winter clothing and footwear;
* unable to protect their field hospital from German attack;
* deprived of airborne supplies because of the terrible weather; and
* facing an enemy that outnumbered them by four times.

What the Americans had in their favor, because of their stiff resistance, was time. The German counteroffensive needed speed to exploit the advantage they had gained by surprise. Instead, the 101st Airborne had forced them to wait for two days for fresh artillery to arrive. And now General Patton, dying to convert a desperate situation into a ferocious counterpunch, was moving his troops into position to relieve the beleaguered troops.

That was the situation on the morning of December 22, when two German officers and two non-commissioned officers approached the American perimeter carrying a white flag. Blindfolded and taken to the command post of the 327th “Glider” Regiment, they presented the German ultimatum.

If the American commander did not respond affirmatively to the ultimatum within two hours, the note threatened, “one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne,” with concomitant civilian casualties.

The soldiers immediately sent it up the chain of command to General McAuliffe, the Acting Division Commander. He thought at first that the Germans were getting ready to surrender. Upon being informed otherwise, he reacted with a disbelieving laugh: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

He knew what he was going to do, but not how he would say it. Lt. Col. Henry Kinnard prompted him with, "That first remark of yours would be hard to beat." McAuliffe’s staff officers heartily agreed, whereupon the general sat down and wrote: "To the German Commander, 'Nuts!' The American Commander."

McAuliffe’s response puzzled the German officers deputized to receive it. An American colonel provided a translation--"If you don't know what 'Nuts' means, in plain English it is the same as 'Go to Hell'.” Then the colonel, annoyed by his visitors’ arrogance, added a gloss upon the text that was shortly borne out in action: “I'll tell you something else, if you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city."

A day later, clear skies enabled airdropped supplies to McAuliffe’s hard-pressed men. By the 26th Patton’s men had arrived to lift the siege at Bastogne. A month later, the Allies had gained back all they had lost, though at the cost of 76,000 killed, wounded or captured.

The Germans did not lose that much more, but proportionately, their losses were worse, because they could not replace their casualties. Moreover, Hitler’s push to the West left the Third Reich vulnerable to advances by the Soviet Army.

Yank Magazine correspondent Ed Cunningham painted an unforgettable picture of lost G.I. illusions, bitter sense of waste—and hard-bitten resolution to see the job through—following the battle in this look back in March 1945:

“Now you start to think about the people who said so confidently that the European war would be over by Christmas, and when you think about them you begin to laugh. You can laugh now—in spite of the ack-ack Christmas tree before you, the little blonde girl who cries at the sound of bombs, the old men pushing rickety carts on a convoy road running west, the Americans in crash helmets and combat overalls who ride east, and the people of the evacuated town that gives you the same feeling you get at a wake.”

1 comment:

Michael said...

That was a very informative read, Mike

Mike Smith