Murdered American soldiers at Malmedy on January 14, 1945.
|Location||near Malmedy, Belgium|
|Date||December 17, 1944|
|Deaths||80 American POWs|
|Perpetrators||1st SS Panzer Division|
The Malmedy massacre (1944) was a war crime in which 84 American prisoners of war were murdered by their German captors near Malmedy, Belgium, during World War II. The massacre was committed on December 17, 1944, by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper (part of the 1st SS Panzer Division), a German combat unit, during the Battle of the Bulge.
The massacre, plus others committed by the same unit on the same day and following days, were the subject of the Malmedy massacre trial, part of the Dachau Trials of 1946. The trials were the focus of some controversy.
Hitler's plans for the Battle of the Bulge gave the main goal (breaking through Allied lines) to the 6th SS Panzer Army, commanded by General Sepp Dietrich. He was to break the Allied front between Monschau and Losheimergraben, cross the Meuse River, and then capture Antwerp.:5 Kampfgruppe Peiper, named after and under the command of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Joachim Peiper, was composed of armoured and motorized elements and was the spearhead of the left wing of the 6th SS Panzer Army. Once the infantry had breached the American lines, Peiper's role was to advance via Ligneuville, Stavelot, Trois-Ponts, and Werbomont and seize and secure the Meuse bridges around Huy.:260+
The best roads were reserved for the bulk of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. Peiper was to use secondary roads, but these proved unsuitable for heavy armored vehicles, especially the Tiger II tanks attached to the Kampfgruppe.
The success of the operation depended on the swift capture of the bridges over the Meuse. This required a rapid advance through U.S. positions, circumventing any points of resistance whenever possible. Another factor Peiper had to consider was the shortage of gasoline: the fuel resources of the Reich had been greatly reduced since the fall of Romania.
Hitler ordered the battle to be carried out with a brutality more common on the Eastern Front, in order to frighten the enemy. Sepp Dietrich confirmed this during the trial for the massacre. According to some sources, during the briefings before the operation, Peiper stated that no quarter was to be granted, no prisoners taken, and no pity shown towards Belgian civilians.
Peiper's breakout and first massacres
From the very beginning, German military operations on the northern front were troubled by unexpectedly obstinate resistance from American troops. Peiper had hoped to exploit an opening as early as the morning of December 16, the offensive's first day, but he had been delayed by massive traffic jams behind the front, with the infantry which was to breach the U.S. lines waiting for him to arrive. At daybreak on December 17, after moving his Kampfgruppe into the front line, Peiper broke out toward Honsfeld, where elements of his force would kill several dozen American POWs.
After capturing Honsfeld, Peiper left his assigned route for several kilometers to seize a small gasoline depot in Büllingen, where a massacre of American prisoners would later be reported. At this point, Peiper was in the Americans' rear. Apparently unknown to him, had he advanced north from Büllingen towards Elsenborn. He could have flanked and trapped the 2nd and the 99th Infantry Divisions with possibly a vastly different outcome. However, he followed orders to stick to his Rollbahn west towards the Meuse River and captured Ligneuville, passing by Mödersheid, Schoppen, Ondenval, and Thirimont.
The terrain and poor quality of the roads made his move difficult. Eventually, at the exit of the small village of Thirimont, the spearhead was unable to take the direct road toward Ligneuville. Peiper again deviated from his planned route. Rather than turn left, the spearhead veered right and advanced towards the crossroads of Baugnez, which is equidistant from Malmedy, Ligneuville, and Waimes.
Massacre at Baugnez
Between noon and 1 p.m., the German spearhead approached the crossroads. An American convoy of about thirty vehicles, mainly elements of B Battery of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (FAOB), was negotiating the crossroads and turning right toward Ligneuville, in order to reach St. Vith, where it had been ordered to join the 7th Armored Division, to reinforce the city's defense. The spearhead of Peiper’s group spotted the American convoy and opened fire, immobilizing the first and last vehicles of the column and forcing it to halt. Armed with only rifles and other small arms, the Americans surrendered to the Nazi tank force.
While the German column led by Peiper continued on the road toward Ligneuville, the American prisoners were taken to a field, joined with others captured by the SS earlier in the day. Most of the testimonies provided by the survivors state that about 120 men were gathered in the field. For reasons that remain unclear today, the SS troops suddenly fired on their prisoners with machine guns. Several SS prisoners later testified that a few of the prisoners had tried to escape. Others claimed that a few of the prisoners had recovered their previously discarded weapons and fired on the German troops as they continued their progress toward Ligneuville. Of the 84 bodies recovered a month later, most showed wounds to the head, seemingly much more consistent with a deliberate massacre than with self-defense or with injuries inflicted on prisoners who were attempting to escape.
As soon as the SS machine gunners opened fire, the American POWs panicked. Some tried to flee, but most were shot where they stood. A few sought shelter in a café at the crossroads. The SS soldiers set fire to the building, and shot all who tried to escape the flames. Some in the field had dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead when the shooting began. However, SS troops walked among the bodies and shot any who appeared to be alive.
Later, a few survivors emerged from hiding and returned through the lines to nearby Malmedy, where American troops held the town. Eventually, 43 survivors found refuge, some with the help of Belgian civilians. Testimony from the survivors was taken hours after the massacre. All the accounts were similar and corroborated each other, though the men had no opportunity to discuss the events. An account of one survivor is recorded in Medicine Under Canvas, on page 141 of the second edition, which also offers details of 77th Evacuation Hospital's role in notifying Army Intelligence and their questioning of the wounded man.
The first survivors of the massacre were found by a patrol from the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion at about 2:30 p.m. the same day. The inspector general of the First Army learned of the shootings some three or four hours later. By late evening of the 17th, rumors that the enemy was killing prisoners had reached the forward American divisions. One U.S. unit promptly issued orders that "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight.":261–264 There are claims that some of the American forces killed German prisoners in retaliation—e.g. in the Chenogne massacre, on January 1, 1945.
Because the Baugnez crossroads had been in no-man's-land until the Allied counter-offensive, it was not until January 14, 1945, that U.S. forces reached the massacre site and conducted an investigation. The frozen, snow-covered bodies were photographed where they lay, then removed from the scene for identification and detailed post mortem examinations. The aim was gathering evidence to be used as part of the prosecution of the apparent war crime. Seventy-two bodies were found in the field on January 14 and 15, 1945. Twelve more, lying farther from the pasture, were found between February 7 and April 15, 1945.
The autopsies revealed that at least twenty of the victims had suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the head, inflicted at very close range. These were in addition to wounds made by automatic weapons. Another 20 showed evidence of small-calibre gunshot wounds to the head without powder-burn residue; 10 had fatal crushing or blunt-trauma injuries, most likely from rifle butts. Some bodies showed only one wound, in the temple or behind the ear. Most of the bodies were found in a very small area, suggesting the victims had been gathered together just before they were killed.iii[›]
Peiper moves on
The opening forced through the American lines by Kampfgruppe Peiper was marked by other murders of prisoners of war, and later of Belgian civilians. Members of his unit killed at least eight other American prisoners in Ligneuville.
Further massacres of POWs were reported in Stavelot, Cheneux, La Gleize, and Stoumont, on December 18, 19, and 20. Finally, on December 19, 1944, between Stavelot and Trois-Ponts, German forces tried to regain control of the bridge over the Amblève River in Stavelot, which was crucial for receiving reinforcements, fuel, and ammunition. Peiper’s men murdered about 100 Belgian civilians.
American Army engineers blocked Peiper's advance in the narrow Amblève River valley by blowing up the bridges. Additional U.S. reinforcements surrounded the Kampfgruppe in Stoumont and la Gleize. Peiper and 800 of his men eventually escaped this encirclement by marching through the nearby woods and abandoning their heavy equipment, including several Tiger II tanks.:376ff
On December 21, during the battle around Gleize, the men of Kampfgruppe Peiper captured an American officer, Major Harold D. McCown, who was leading one of the battalions of the 119th Infantry Regiment.:365ff Having heard about the Malmedy massacre, McCown personally asked Peiper about his fate and that of his men. McCown testified that Peiper told him neither he nor his men were at any risk and that he (Peiper) was not accustomed to killing his prisoners. McCown noted that neither he nor his men were threatened in any manner, and he testified in Peiper's defense during the 1946 trial in Dachau.
Once re-equipped, Kampfgruppe Peiper rejoined the battle, and other killings of POWs were reported on December 31, 1944, in Lutrebois, and between January 10 and 13, 1945, in Petit Thier. The precise number of prisoners of war and civilians massacred attributable to Kampfgruppe Peiper is still not clear. According to certain sources, 538 to 749 POWs had been the victims of war crimes perpetrated by Peiper's men. These figures are, however, not corroborated by the report of the United States Senate subcommittee that later inquired into the subsequent trial; according to the Committee, the number of dead would be 362 prisoners of war and 111 civilians. According to this report, the count of POWs or civilians killed at different places is as follows:
|Place||Prisoners of war||Civilians|
Aftermath and trial
On January 13, 1945, American forces recaptured the site where the killings had occurred. The cold had preserved the scene well. The bodies were recovered on January 14/15, 1945. The memorial at Baugnez bears the names of the murdered soldiers.
The size of the massacre, which apparently is the only one perpetrated on such a scale against American troops in Europe during World War II, caused an uproar at the time. However, the number of victims was quite low, compared to other German atrocities.
In addition to the effect the event had on American combatants in Europe, it seems that news of the massacre also greatly affected the United States. This explains why the alleged culprits were deferred to the Dachau Trials, which were held in May and June 1946, after the war.
In what came to be called the "Malmedy massacre trial", which concerned all of the war crimes attributed to Kampfgruppe Peiper during the Battle of the Bulge, the highest-ranking defendant was General Sepp Dietrich, commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army, to which Peiper’s unit had belonged. Joachim Peiper and his principal subordinates were defendants. The tribunal tried more than 70 persons and pronounced 43 death sentences (none of which were carried out) and 22 life sentences. Eight other men were sentenced to shorter prison sentences.
After the verdict, the way in which the court had functioned was disputed, first in Germany (by former Nazi officials who had regained some power due to anti-Communist positions with the occupation forces), then later in the United States (by Congressmen from heavily German-American areas of the Midwest). The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which made no decision. The case then came under the scrutiny of a sub-committee of the United States Senate. A young Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy (who was Irish-American but represented a heavily German-American ethnic constituency), used it as an opportunity to raise his political profile. He stated that the Court had not tried the defendants fairly.:24
This drew attention to the trial and the judicial irregularities that had occurred during the interrogations that preceded the trial. But, before the United States Senate took an interest in this case, most of the death sentences had been commuted, because of a revision of the trial carried out by the U.S. Army. The other life sentences were commuted within the next few years. All the convicted war criminals were released during the 1950s, the last one to leave prison being Peiper in December 1956. There was a schism within the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars because World War II veterans who were members protested McCarthy's defense of the convicted. The leadership consisting of the earlier World War I veterans was reluctant to criticize him, because of his anti-communist stance. Critics of the post-war trials of Japanese military personnel have cited the release of these war criminals as an example of the racism that characterized the difference in treatment. Japanese military personnel who were convicted of killing prisoners as a matter of policy were executed per international law and custom.
The turmoil that followed the Malmedy trials and the early release of the condemned has been used as an example of biased post-war justice applied at the discretion of the victor.
A distinct lawsuit about the war crimes committed against civilians in Stavelot was tried on July 6, 1948, in front of a Belgian military court in Liege, Belgium. The defendants were 10 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper; American troops had captured them on December 22, 1944, near the spot where one of the massacres of civilians in Stavelot had occurred. One man was discharged; the others were found guilty. Most of the convicts were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment; two officers were sentenced to 12 and 15 years.
Death of Peiper
Peiper lived in France following his 1956 release from jail. In 1974 he was identified by a former Communist resistance member of the region who issued a report for the French Communist Party. In 1976 a Communist historian, investigating the STASI archives, found the Peiper file. On June 21, tracts denouncing his presence were distributed in Traves. A day later, an article in the Communist publication L'Humanité revealed Peiper's presence in Traves, and he became the subject of death threats. Upon the death threats, Peiper sent his family back to Germany. He himself stayed in Traves. During the night of July 13/14, 1976, a gunfight took place at Peiper's house. Further, his house was set on fire. Peiper's charred corpse was later found in the ruins, with a bullet in the chest. The perpetrators were never identified, but were suspected to be former French Resistance members or Communists. Peiper had just started writing a book about Malmedy and what followed.
Retaliation against German prisoners
Knowledge of the massacre "led to considerable retaliation against German prisoners of war during and after that battle." Few Waffen-SS soldiers came to be taken prisoner by units such as the 3rd Armored Division. An example of the aftermath of the massacre is the written order from the HQ of the 328th US Army Infantry Regiment, dated December 21, 1944: "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight." ii[›] A possible example of a related large massacre against Germans is the Chenogne massacre.
At the Saar river the 90th Infantry Division "executed Waffen-SS prisoners in such a systematic manner late in December 1944 that headquarters had to issue express orders to take Waffen-SS soldiers alive so as to be able to obtain information from them."
In popular culture
The massacre has been dramatized in three films: Judgment at Nuremberg, in which Marlene Dietrich plays the widow of a fictional German general tried and put to death for the massacre, the Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Saints and Soldiers (2004). The trial was also dramatized in the play Malmedy Case 5-24 by C.R. (Chuck) Wobbe, published by the Dramatic Publishing Company (1969). It was also alluded to in Hart's War (2002), where the eponymous hero discovers the bodies of the victims.
The main villain in the manga and anime Hellsing is a SS-Major who took part in the Malmedy Massacre.
^ i: In Cole's history of World War II, footnote 5 on page 264 reads, Thus Fragmentary Order 27. issued by Headquarters, 328th Infantry, on 21 December for the attack scheduled the following day says: "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight."
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- Wholesale Slaughter at Baugnez-lez-Malmedy, Willy D. Alenus
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- Fatal Crossroads: The Untold Story of the Malmédy massacre at the Battle of the Bulge, Book by Danny S. Parker, November 2011