During the opening days of the Germans’ Ardennes Offensive late in 1944, elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division [Leibstandarte] committed a series of grisly atrocities against American prisoners of war [POWs] around the Belgian town of Malmedy. These actions by Kampfgruppe Peiper, led by SS Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper led to a war crimes trial in Dachau in 1946.
Background: Nazi Germany was on the verge of collapse in late 1944, the Russian Army in the east was steadily pushing them back toward Germany and bleeding an incredible amount of casualties every day. In the west, the Allies had successfully come ashore at Normandy and once they had achieved a breakthrough in the hedgerow country, raced across France. They had penetrated the frontiers of the German border in a few places while their bombers were devastating German war industry and their cities.
Hitler developed a grandiose plan where he was going to withdraw a large part of his Panzer Army from the Russian Front and try to take advantage of the bad winter weather, which would ground Allied aircraft and punch a hole in the thinly defended American lines in the Ardennes forest. He wanted to split the Allies in two and drive to Antwerp. His generals had no delusions about making it to Antwerp. But they thought it could push the Allies back to the Meuse River it would buy them time while delaying the war.
Peiper’s attack was to be the vanguard of the left wing of the Sixth SS Panzer Army. His orders relayed to him by General Sepp Dietrich and from Hitler, himself stated that the Russian Front rules of engagement would be in effect. No quarter to be given, no prisoners taken and the Belgian citizens were to be shown no quarter either. Hitler wanted to shock and frighten the American army. It would have the opposite effect. Once the infantry poked a hole in the American lines, Peiper’s Kampfgruppe spearhead was to race his column of armored and motorized infantry thru the crossroads at Stavelot and Trois Pointes and seize the important bridge over the Meuse at Huy. The timetable for this was 48 hours maximum. This would prove to be too ambitious and the Germans would be behind their schedule almost immediately.
The Germans Attack: At 0530 on December 16, the Germans began their attack along the front. Artillery pounded US positions from between 20-90 minutes. The German Volksgrenadiers who were to punch a hole in the green American 99th Infantry Division were delayed in breaking thru. The untested and heavily outnumbered Americans delayed the German advance for four hours. The result was a huge traffic jam behind the lines for Peiper’s armored force. He didn’t break thru until after dark, far behind his timetable, but drove his men all thru the night, not stopping. He initially lost five of his tanks when they rolled over an old German minefield
Shooting of prisoners at Honsfeld and Büllingen: Peiper’s column raced as quickly as they could all night on the roads in the American rear. At dawn on the 17th, his troops surprised and took the town of Honsfeld, capturing many vehicles and anti-tank guns. They then shot down 17 unarmed Americans, the first of the atrocities committed by these hardened German troops who were accustomed to the bitter no-quarter-given battles on the Eastern Front.
Peiper’s column was already in need of fuel. He learned of an American fuel depot at Büllingen which wasn’t in his sector but the Hitler Youth [Jugend] Division’s sector. Peiper swung two miles off course and quickly captured the fuel depot and capturing 50 Americans. His men forced the Americans to fuel his vehicles and then shot them down in cold-blood, murdering them and leaving them before swinging back on his route and pushing west.
As Peiper’s men pushed west, they just missed running headlong into a column of Combat Command [Brigade] of the 7th Armored Division heading for St. Vith. Had they met a massive tank battle would have taken place, instead, the Americans passed by unaware of the armored column in their rear. Following the American tanks was a column of 125 men attached to the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion.
Malmedy Massacre: The meeting between the two columns was strictly by chance, the Americans were in unarmored trucks and the Germans disabled the first and last vehicles forcing the men to surrender. They were herded into a small field surrounded by crossroads with other POWs from earlier in the day.
Later reports had about 120 prisoners in the field. As follow-on German columns were approaching on all sides in armored vehicles, the Germans opened fire on the American prisoners. They machine-gunned them in the field. There was no escape, no one was able to run. Unlike in some films that showed Americans running into the woods, that didn’t happen.
After the troops were machine-gunned, SS troops walked thru the field and were shooting any soldier that showed signs of life and mocked Americans who cried out for their mother or God as they applied a coup de grace. 43 men survived by feigning death under the bodies of other soldiers. That was their only chance.
After the Germans moved off, the survivors in ones and twos began making their way back to the American lines. By late that afternoon, the American high command was learning of the Germans executing prisoners of war and the word quickly filtered down to the troops in the line. There would be no more surrendering. In fact, one unit posted orders that no German paratrooper or SS men were to be taken prisoner.
Reaction and Aftermath: The American army interviewed all of the survivors and their stories all matched, they knew that the Germans were conducting atrocities and were looking to gather evidence for a war crimes trial. For the average foot soldier, the feeling was payback. And that is just what they did.
On January 1, 1945, the Americans machine gunned about 30 German POWs outside of the small town of Chenogne, Belgium. It was quickly covered up and no soldier or officer was ever called to answer for their crimes.
Unfortunately, the bodies at Malmedy weren’t recovered until January 14, 1945, when the Americans finally took back the Baugnez crossroads where the massacre took place. An inspection of the dead showed many died from a pistol to wound to the head with powder burns showing execution by the SS.
Peiper’s men were accused of killing other prisoners in several other Belgian towns and the killing of 100 civilians in Stavelot.
An interesting side note to the events was the capture of an American officer, a Major Harold D. McCown of the 119th Infantry Regiment. He was captured in the fighting around Gleize. He was brought before Peiper and knowing about Malmedy, he asked about the safety of his men and himself. Peiper, according to McCown that neither he nor his men were at any risk and that he [Peiper] was not accustomed to killing his prisoners. McCown also testified that neither he nor his men were threatened in any way. McCown would later testify at Peiper’s war crime trial in 1946.
During the trial at Dachau in 1946, Peiper, his commander Sepp Dietrich and 70 subordinates were tried and sentenced for crimes against humanity. There were 43 death sentences, 22 life sentences, and several smaller sentences. No one was ever executed. All of the sentences were commuted and the last to leave prison was Peiper himself in 1956.
After the war, he moved to France where he lived quietly before being murdered by French communists in 1976. Ironically, he had just begun work on a book about Malmedy.
An excellent account of the Malmedy Massacre is the book “Fatal Crossroads” by Danny S. Parker. It can be ordered here:
Photos: US Archives