| This year's return to Christmas 1944 takes us to the Belgian town of Bastogne through a series of photographs taken during the seige. (For an historical overview of the defense of the town, read S.L.A. Marshall's BASTOGNE: The Story of the First Eight Days; for more on the Battle of the Bulge, visit American Experience: Battle of the Bulge.)|
Anyone who was in Belgium, Holland, or France on Saturday night, December 16, 1944, heard about the German breakthrough in the Ardennes after midnight. The messengers were usually MPs who were out in force clearing GIs out of bars, bistros, and bordellos to get them back to their units.
The 101st Airborne Division left Camp Mourmelon about at 1700 hours on Monday, December 18, many of the men riding in open "cattle" trucks. They arrived early Tuesday morning, December 19, in the dark. Using various pieces of farm equipment and other materials, elements of the division began establishing road blocks around the town. (The painting of the town's main street, at left, by Olin Dows captures the somber atmosphere that settled over Bastogne during the quieter moments before the town was encircled).
By Wednesday, December 20, the weather turned colder and it began to snow, and by the next morning the whole area was covered with a heavy blanket of white. Two days, later, on the 22nd, the Germans realized the dire situation of the 101st Airborne Division, completely surrounding the paratroopers. Under a white flag, a group of two German officers accompianied by two soldiers approached the lines of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry, and issued an ultimatum. This ultimatum was simply signed by "The German Commander," and described the success of the German spearheads in the west and demanded the Americans to honorably surrender the encircled town within two hours or be annihilated by German artillery. The message was quickly forwarded to division where General Anthony McAuliffe was just leaving his headquarters to congratulate the defenders of a roadblock who had beaten back a German attack. He read the message, said "Nuts," threw it to the floor, and left. Upon returning, McAuliffe was reminded about the ultimatum. After giving it some thought, he asked his staff how they thought he should reply. The senior operations officer commented that "That first remark of yours would be hard to beat." "What did I say?" asked McAuliffe. When he was told, McAuliffe had a formal response typed on bond paper that read: To the German Commander: Nuts! From the American Commander. The note was then delivered to the German officers waiting at the 327th's main line of resistance by Colonel Joseph Harper. Of course, the Germans were unfamiliar with the American slang and arrogantly demanded Harper explain the note's meaning. He did: "If you don't understand what 'Nuts' means, in plain English, it is the same as 'Go to hell.' 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 vigil of Christmas, December 24, began rather badly. That night the Luftwaffe bombed Bastogne twice, yet that night an unforgettable mass that took place in town. Wounded airborne soldiers shed tears listening to the strains of "Silent Night." German POWs were visited by Gen. McAuliffe as they were singing "Stille Nacht" and "O Tannenbaum." He wished them a Merry Christmas! By nightfall, 40,000 Germans, about 17,000 Americans, and 3,000 Belgian civilians were destined to spend Christmas Day under seige.
"They got us surrounded again, the poor bastards," said Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams upon learning of the initial German success.
Click on the arrows below to enter the Battered Bastion of the Bastards of the 101st! [NOTE: Click here to play the theme music in a new window while you browse the Christmas '44 pages.]