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Friday, 03 June 2011 13:00

Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe - the most famous Irish American soldier of World War II

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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With Veterans' day recently in the US and President Obama's appointment of General Martin Dempsey as commander of the US armed forces, I thought I might write this week's blog about one of the most famous Irish American soldiers of World War II, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the hero of the siege of Bastogne, fought during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945.

Anthony McAuliffe was of Irish Catholic ancestry and he was born in the US capital, Washington DC on 2 July 1898. He graduated as an officer from the West Point Academy in 1918 and steadily rose through the ranks of the US army until he became the commander of the artillery of the elite 101st Airborne division of the US army in 1944. Posted to Europe, the 101st Airborne division parachuted into France on D-Day, 6th June 1944. The 101st Airborne division also took part in the less successful Operation Market Garden drop into the Netherlands in September 1944.

By December 1944 the 101st Division was in Belgium in a quiet sector of the front and was actually relaxing and recuperating from all the fighting of the summer and autumn of 1944. The commanding officer of the division was even back in Washington in the US, reporting to his superiors. In the winter of 1944, a desperate Adolf Hitler decided to gamble all on a last ditch surprise offensive in the west, through the Ardennes forests and hills in Belgium. The Nazis secretly assembled 30 divisions and 1,000 fighter aircraft and launched their surprise attack against only five resting American divisions in what was supposed to be a very quiet sector of the front. The Germans initially had great success, creating panic in the American lines and they advanced deep into the American sector in Belgium.

The 101st Airborne division was rushed to the Belgian town of Bastogne. However, the division too was largely unprepared being short of ammuntion, food and most other supplies and the commander of the artillery, Brigadier General McAuliffe had to take over command of the entire division. Aided by elements of the 10th US armoured division, General McAuliffe set up a perimeter around Bastogne and went on to hold it as German forces advanced on all sides and eventually surrounded the town completely. Often during World War II, when troops were surrounded, particulalry if morale was not good, they quickly surrendered. However, the 101st Airborne division was an elite unit and none of its men had any intention of surrendering.

At 11.30 am on December 22nd 1944, four German soldiers approached the American lines at Bastogne, carrying a white flag and an offer to accept the Americans' surrender. General McAuliffe knew that while the Germans might be doing well in the Ardennes, their cause was doomed, and he gave a one word reply which is considered to be the most famous quote from World War II ~ 'Nuts!'. To Americans this phrase meant something like 'Go to Hell we won't give up!', but it had to be explained to the Germans and indeed to the European allies of the Americans also, who didn't understand what the American General had said. However, the one word reply became famous two days later when French newspapers carried it as their banner headline.

General McAuliffe didn't actually plan such a famous response. When told there were Germans here looking for his surrender, he was very busy and hassled and said 'Aw, Nuts!'. He then said to his staff 'What on earth shall I say?', to the German envoys. One of McAuliffe's junior officers replied 'Well, that first remark of yours would be hard to beat', to which McAuliffe answered 'What did I say?'.

By January 1945, the Nazis had reached the furthest point of their advance which then stalled and finally collapsed under American counter attack. By the time the Germans were pushed back to their starting line they had lost over 100,000 men and nearly all their tanks and airplanes. Hitler's gamble had destroyed Germany's last reserves.

Anthony McAuliffe went on to be promoted to command the 103rd US infantry division and after the war he was a distinguished American commander in Europe and Korea. He retired from the US army a full general in 1956. He died on 11 August 1975 and is buried in Arlington National cemetary alongside his wife, son and daughter.

On 14th January 1945, Brigadier McAuliffe was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from President Roosevelt 'for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Acting Commander, 101st Airborne Division, in action against enemy forces from 17 to 26 December, 1944, at Bastogne, Belgium'.

Brigadier General Antony McAuliffe carried on the distinguished military tradition of Irish soldiers serving well in foreign armies. The people of Ireland and indeed western Europe owe him and the many thousands like him, a great deal for their heroism and self sacrifice against what was truely the very evil ideology of Nazi Germany. Brigadier General McAuliffe is also an inspiration and an example for everyone of the importance of keeping a cool head and a determined outlook in the face of terrible adversity. I am not sure of General McAuliffe's exact Irish ancestry and his connection to the McAuliffes of North-West Cork, but perhaps it might be an interesting project for me sometime in the future.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 June 2011 12:57
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.


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