WE LAST VISITED the northern shoulder of the Bulge battlefield on the night of 16–17 December. There we encountered Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper, who had bayoneted his map to the wall in Lanzerath’s Café Scholzen. He was angry and frustrated at the lack of progress made by the 3rd Fallschirmjäger and 12th Volksgrenadier Divisions, commanded by Generalmajors Walther Wadehn and Gerhardt Engel, both meant to be ahead of him.
As one of the spearheads of the Sixth Panzer Army, Peiper knew that every hour’s delay translated into more coordinated American resistance. Having conferred with Oberst von Hoffmann, commander of the 9th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, Peiper pulled his Kampfgruppe out of Lanzerath as soon as he could, retaining one paratrooper battalion. He at least was now on Rollbahn ‘D’, where he was meant to be, if late. To his north, Kampfgruppen of the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend should have been advancing in parallel. Peiper’s left flank (Rollbahn ‘E’) was being covered by another 1st SS-Leibstandarte Division battlegroup, that of his colleague, Standartenführer Max Hansen. The latter’s route, which would take him to the crossroads at Poteau, was where the now-famous propaganda photographs were taken. A reconnaissance unit (Kampfgruppe Knittel), operating forward of Hansen, on Rollbahn ‘E’, would be responsible for executing the Wereth eleven.
Extremely aware of the likelihood of alert US units to his front, Peiper did not intend to let the darkness of the wintry night delay him further. With two Panthers grinding forward in the lead, he instructed the Fallschirmjäger to walk by the side of each armoured vehicle guiding his drivers under combat conditions; some of the paratroopers displayed white handkerchiefs to indicate their presence, as Peiper was determined not to show any unnecessary lights. The remainder rode on his tanks. Fähnrich (Ensign) Rolf Odendahl was one of them. He remembered that many of his fellow Fallschirmjäger leaders were ‘senior sergeants and sergeants of the Luftwaffe, who were used as riflemen without any infantry training’.1 Peiper might have chanced charging ahead with blazing beadlights, for most American defenders were, in fact, asleep.
Buchholz, with its little station, was the next village Peiper reached – at about 05.00 a.m. – and was held by two platoons of the 99th Division’s Company ‘K’ (of Colonel Don Riley’s 394th Infantry Checkerboarders). Most of its sleepy-eyed American garrison were woken by the sounds of German voices on the roads outside, or pounding at the door. They were rounded up immediately, though a few resourceful individuals escaped. Soon, thousands of GIs would be on the run, cut off from their units but determined not to surrender, dodging German patrols when they could. These opening hours were chaotic and confused, with no such thing as a front line any more. The 394th Regiment (about 3,500 full-strength) would record 959 casualties over 16–17 December, including thirty-four killed, and an astounding 701 missing – many later confirmed as taken prisoner. In Buchholz the Germans overlooked at least one American soldier, a radio operator hidden in a cellar, who began to transmit back details of Kampfgruppe Peiper. Until capture, he counted thirty tanks, twenty-eight half-tracks; thirty captured American trucks and a long column of paratroopers moving through: in fact, it would take most of 17 December for Peiper’s complete column of 800 vehicles to pass.2
PFC Don Wallace was with Company ‘L’ of the 3rd Battalion, 394th Infantry, in woods about 200 yards south-west of Buchholz station. He and the others were off the road and avoided the attentions of Peiper but were aware of the Fallschirmjägers moving about. During the night, Wallace had to take new passwords around the company. ‘But the guys will shoot anything that moves!’ he protested. Still, they had to be delivered. ‘The forest was dark and very quiet. Every step I took during my search for the company I thought to myself “Gawd, I hope I don’t step on a twig”. I was scared and in the darkness I didn’t want to make a sound. Suddenly I heard “Halt!” I remember my immediate response to this day. “Don’t shoot, it’s me, Wallace!” The guy knew me … I recognised his voice and he mine.’
Shortly afterwards they pulled back, Wallace remembering, ‘We hit the ground as burp guns [German Schmeisser machine pistols] spat behind and bullets kissed the air around us.’ Early on 17 December his squad ‘spotted a large group of figures walking almost in formation along a road in front of us. They were only silhouettes, and we couldn’t tell if they were friendly troops. We lay flat, being cautious, and waited till they had passed before we moved on.’ He had made the right call, because the group were almost certainly Fallschirmjäger: the only Americans in the vicinity were by then moving cross-country, nervously, just as they were. Wallace’s group eventually linked up with their company in Elsenborn, where he was ‘so exhausted that I fell asleep on top of a pile of coal in a bin in the village’.3
While the Fallschirmjäger had been content to pause and wait for their artillery to catch up, Peiper insisted on pushing on, with his vehicles creeping forward in the pitch black. It was a hair-raising advance, tanks and half-tracks grinding through the snow, brushing past the densely packed pine trees, everyone tense and totally unaware as to the whereabouts of the next US roadblock. At some stage before 06.00 a.m., still in the dark, Peiper hit the next village – Honsfeld – a rest centre for the US 394th Regiment, his leading vehicles tagging on to a line of retreating American vehicles. This was to the complete surprise of its garrison who threw down their arms in panic as the panzers arrived. PFC Bill Hawkins from Company ‘B’ of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, hauling towed anti-tank guns, had arrived the night before and was ‘sleeping in the attic with three or four other buddies when I was awakened about daylight by one of our men and told to get up as the Germans had us completely surrounded. I kicked him downstairs and told him not to bother us anymore as I thought he was pulling a prank. Immediately one of our sergeants came up the stairs two at a time and informed us this was no prank but the real thing, at which we all jumped up and began looking out of the various windows and saw German soldiers everywhere we looked.’4
Honsfeld had been preparing for a completely different kind of visitor on 17 December – Marlene Dietrich – following her performance the night before to the 28th Division in Diekirch. Instead, it was Peiper’s Panzergrenadiers who leaped off their tanks to round up bewildered Checkerboard GIs and those of the 14th Cavalry Group, who offered little trouble when cornered by Panthers clattering down the high street. A few Americans resisted and were cut down by automatic fire. Their bodies were still visible a few hours later, some crushed by passing tanks, clustered around the village water trough, when a war photographer passed through. He took a now-famous image of Fallschirmjäger troops stripping boots from the dead GIs, presumably to replace their own inferior footwear. The village was full of abandoned US equipment, and the Kampfgruppe captured fifteen three-inch, towed anti-tank guns, eighty trucks and some assorted reconnaissance vehicles – mostly jeeps, half-tracks and M-8 armoured cars. Although some paratroopers continued to ride on the tanks of Peiper’s Spitze, the majority now returned to the command of their own division.
Peiper didn’t have everything his own way in Honsfeld, losing several armoured vehicles; moreover, the Fallschirmjäger recorded thirty-eight killed in the vicinity. Among them was Leutnant Manfred Rottenberg, who had formerly served with a Flak battalion. Rottenberg had been transferred to 9th Parachute Regiment on the eve of the offensive, 15 December, and given a company of the regiment’s II Battalion. With little experience, the young company commander – he was twenty-four – died in his first battle after less than twenty-four hours in combat.5 Frances Hayes, Reconnaissance Sergeant of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion, remembered that a German ‘jerked two 612th men out of the line of prisoners to carry a wounded SS officer to the aid station. They complied; however, the one at his head wrapped his hand around the German’s throat and strangled him as they walked. They laid him on the floor, walked back, put their hands over their heads and merged back in line.’6 During the mêlée, or afterwards, at least fifteen American prisoners and three Belgian civilians, including a sixteen-year-old girl, were mown down singly, or in small groups, in cold blood.7 Nearby, German camera crews were active from first light recording hundreds of captured GIs, many wearing Checkerboard shoulder insignia, being herded down the road to Lanzerath and into the Fatherland. Tanks bearing happy panzermen rolled in the opposite direction: it made very good film footage for the Reich.
As it grew light, on leaving the village Peiper’s column came under US fighter attack and several vehicles were lost, but not before the American aircraft were themselves ambushed by Messerschmitt 109s. Because of the atrociously slow going and with his fuel was running low, Peiper now left his assigned Rollbahn and headed for Büllingen and the hamlet of Dom Bütgenbach, where he had been alerted to a small American fuel dump. On the way, he captured eight American trucks which literally ran into his column, then attacked an airstrip at Morschneck, though eleven out of twelve tiny L-5 artillery-spotting aircraft managed to take off under fire. One was rescued by a sergeant who leaped into the cockpit, having only a few pre-war crop-dusting flying hours to his name. Büllingen, like Honsfeld, fell with little opposition at 08.00 a.m., though several of his tanks were damaged by American tank destroyers dug in west of the village. The Germans arrived so quickly that they captured a company of US 2nd Division soldiers lining up for breakfast. But others managed to hide all day and escape after dark. American prisoners were soon put to work filling the Kampfgruppe’s thirsty vehicles with some of the 50,000 gallons Peiper seized in the market square. Here, at least one wounded American was executed personally by one of Peiper’s battalion commanders, Sturmbannführer Josef ‘Jupp’ Diefenthal (who would later stand trial and be convicted of war crimes).8
The Ardennes sector was so quiet before the December offensive that soldiers amused themselves by shooting wild boar from spotter aircraft like this Piper L-4 Grasshopper. As Hitler hoped, appalling weather grounded Allied aircraft for significant periods just before and during the campaign, but it prevented Luftwaffe support too. The only US planes at risk of immediate capture were those of the liaison and observation squadrons, which greatly enhanced the work of US field artillery battalions. Early on 17 December, Kampfgruppe Peiper overran an airstrip where several of these aircraft managed to take off under fire, one piloted by a sergeant who leapt into the cockpit, having only a few pre-war crop-dusting flying hours to his name. (NARA)
In the vicinity, at 08.30 a.m., Staff Sergeant Herman M. Johnson was riding in a US 2nd Division jeep with Privates Smith and Wilson when in the morning mist they suddenly ‘rounded a curve and there was a German tank,’ remembered Johnson. ‘They took us prisoner … They asked me what unit we were from, but we didn’t tell them anything. At this point they turned the driver [Wilson, who was wearing a Red Cross brassard on his sleeve] and Smith [who was slightly wounded] loose, but kept me prisoner inside an armoured vehicle.’9
Now alerted to the presence of German forces far behind their own lines, an American artillery barrage from Bütgenbach, the next village north-west, hurried Peiper, riding up in one of his armoured half-tracks, out of Büllingen at around 10.00 a.m. At this stage all the Americans monitoring the progress of Peiper’s armoured column expected him to continue north-west along the N32, the best road to Bütgenbach, then swing due north to Elsenborn and up on to the high ground of the Elsenborn Ridge. The Americans, of course, were unaware of the Sixth Panzer army’s Rollbahn, and the German mindset of sticking to their assigned routes. Had Peiper been more cognisant of the tactical situation, and less slavishly following Rollbahn ‘D’ (even though his army chief of staff claimed the routes were only discretionary), he would no doubt have acted differently.
Up on the Elsenborn Ridge lay the twin villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, forward of which were GIs of both the US 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions. As we saw from the leadership of soldiers like Captain Charles MacDonald (in the 2nd), the Americans in the woods were putting up such a spirited defence against the units attacking on Peiper’s right – the 277th Volksgrenadiers and 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Divisions – that neither German formation was able to make any progress whatsoever. The Elsenborn Ridge – where Heydte’s paratroopers were due to land – would prove vital high ground for gun positions, which American artillery exploited to the full.
Before the attack the elevated terrain had been unoccupied: a tactical gift to the side that seized it first. Neither US division anticipated a threat from their rear and had nothing in place by way of meaningful defence, had Peiper determined to lance into their southern flank via Bütgenbach and Elsenborn. Behind the town that gave the ridge its name lay the huge military training area around Camp Elsenborn, built by the Prussians in 1895 and a ready-made logistical base for the US Army in 1944. All this could have been Peiper’s. He could have surrounded and cut off both the northern US infantry divisions on the Elsenborn Ridge, and opened the way for the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend into the bargain, had he but known that all he needed to do was turn north.
Peiper was unaware of these potential easy victories – his intelligence was poor – and he seems to have been so obsessed with following his assigned Rollbahn that, on leaving the hard-surfaced N32 which ran through Büllingen, he instead turned south-west and took a series of minor roads that ran via Mödersheid, Schopen and Ondenval to Thirlmont, which his Spitze entered at noon. From there they should have carried straight on westwards to Ligneuville, still on Rollbahn ‘D’ and where he learned an important headquarters was located. That route, however, looked equally as poor as the route he’d just driven; part of his Spitze did indeed drive straight on and became hopelessly bogged down, so Peiper instead elected to head north-west again to rejoin the better surfaced N32 at the Baugnez crossroads, and immediately turn south once more to Ligneuville.
This meandering route of Peiper’s makes little sense with hindsight. Jochen Peiper is often presented as a panzer commander par excellence, gifted with cunning and initiative, but in this instance it seems his initiative had left him. At a time when speed was essential, he was traversing perhaps thirteen miles of minor routes, making an average of under 4.5 miles per hour in appalling conditions, when he could have remained on the far superior N32, travelling a shorter distance in better conditions – and would have saved himself an hour, if not two, when every minute counted.10
The reason was partly his assigned route, to which he was adhering with unnecessary fixation (though he had deviated once already into Büllingen), but also his awareness that the N32 route was in fact Rollbahn ‘C’, which ‘belonged’ to the 12th SS-Hitlerjugend Division, whom he expected to see using it at any moment. It would make no sense for two Kampfgruppen to use the same road, and indeed cause logistical chaos, so he stuck to his original orders. Besides, he had been fired on from Bütgenbach and probably reasoned the Americans would be more alert along the N32, meaning he would have to fight for every mile. He was wrong: on 17 December there were almost no US defences along the N32 at all.
However, along the minor roads he captured two patrolling jeeps, whose crews revealed that no one knew exactly where Peiper’s column was, the general view being that his Kampfgruppe was still on the outskirts of Büllingen. That soon changed: the long-drawn-out column was soon spotted by a jeep patrol and the neighbourhood alerted, which caused near panic in Ligneuville, where the headquarters of the 49th Anti-Aircraft Brigade were quartered in the Hôtel du Moulin. All left hurriedly apart from its commander, Brigadier-General Edward J. Timberlake, who stayed with his staff to finish lunch.
In nearby Malmedy, one of the largest towns in the Ardennes, with 5,000 souls and an importance on a par with St Vith and Bastogne, concern was widespread. Like St Vith (named after the early Christian saint St Vitus), Malmedy had religious origins, with an abbey dating back to ad651.11 This meant the town had a large number of old stone buildings, and was an important crossing point over the River Warchenne – its original, Old German, name had been Malmünd (Malümund-arium being ‘a confluence of rough waters’), which had altered over time to Malmedy. On 17 December the US 30th (‘Old Hickory’) Infantry Division, formed from National Guard units from North and South Carolina and Tennessee, was transferred from Simpson’s Ninth Army to V Corps of Hodges’ First Army and rushed to the Malmedy–Stavelot area.
The town was well over double its usual population, including 6,000 refugees, and had already received long-range German shelling on 16 December, killing and wounding civilians. Passers-by remembered a teenage girl lying in a pool of blood next to her severed legs, still shod in pretty red laced shoes. Allied flags were hidden away and explosions echoed as GIs blew up stores; the local section of the Belgian Red Cross and US units there – including the 47th Field Hospital, 546th Ambulance and 575th Ambulance Companies, a GI reinforcement depot, the civil affairs section and a host of administrative staff – packed up, took to their vehicles and pulled out west, in the direction of Stavelot. The streets were jammed with queuing vehicles and over 4,000 civilians who’d decided to leave: the remaining inhabitants and soldiers were lucky that Peiper’s Kampfgruppe was not interested in Malmedy but in the Meuse, for there would have been little with which to defend the town on that fateful Sunday, 17 December.12
Shortly after 12.45 p.m., Peiper’s column reached the N32, turned west for a few yards and, before they reached the Baugnez crossroads, his Spitze spotted a small American convoy. It included about thirty 6 x 6 trucks, Dodge weapons carriers and jeeps driving up the hill from Malmedy and turning south at the junction. They belonged to Battery ‘B’ of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion and were redeploying south to Luxembourg City. Peiper’s men opened fire on the American column from the east – a range of about 800 yards across the fields – completely surprising their opponents. Some GIs at the front and rear escaped. A few were killed or wounded, but the majority abandoned their vehicles and took cover in roadside ditches. Peiper, close to his Spitze, arrived at the crossroads and gave the order to cease fire. He was in desperate need of undamaged American vehicles. There had been little resistance from the GIs. What happened next remains highly controversial and is the grimmest event connected with the Battle of the Bulge.
An unknown number of Americans were killed in the fire-fight and the remainder surrendered. They were searched and gradually herded into a field by the crossroads. Peiper sent a situation report, giving his location to his divisional commander, Mohnke, and had a few words with Pötschke. He may have rebuked him for the halt, for the destruction of useful American vehicles, or for wasting time. He may have ordered him to shoot the prisoners. We simply do not know for certain what passed between the pair. At this stage, Pötschke tried to recruit some American drivers for the undamaged US vehicles from among the prisoners, shouting ‘Chauffeur? Chauffeur?’ to the prisoners, who completely ignored him. This may have helped to seal their fate. Motioning Jupp Diefenthal to follow him, at about 1.30 p.m., Peiper set off to catch up his Spitze. It had just started heading south to Ligneuville, the location of the ‘important’ American HQ. Peiper knew that an American general (Timberlake) might be quartered there, was keen to capture him and therefore impatient to move on. Meanwhile, several other US vehicles, including ambulances, had also driven out of Malmedy. Some halted at the rear of the stationary convoy, and their crews were taken prisoner. In all, some 113 Americans, including medics and troops from other units, were left under guard in the field. Between 2.15 and 2.30 p.m., pistol shots rang out, followed shortly afterwards by fire from several machine guns. The prisoners were cut down in cold blood.
Those who were still alive were despatched by head shots at close range. All the while, the long armoured column of the Kampfgruppe drove past. Despite the killings, more than fifty GIs had survived, shamming death. Sometime between 3.00 and 4.00 p.m., they made an escape attempt but were spotted and more were killed.13 In addition, the widowed owner of the Café Bodarwe, on the crossroads, was shot and her house burned to the ground. This was despite the fact that she had at first welcomed the Germans with gifts of cigarettes and liquor. She considered herself German, as did her neighbours (the local menfolk had fought for the Kaiser in the First World War). Madame Bodarwe’s two sons were Wehrmacht soldiers. Other Belgians overheard passing SS men asking their officers if they could execute the civilians who had witnessed the shootings.14PFC Homer ‘Bud’ Ford, a military policeman on point duty at the Bodarwe Café, was rounded up with the rest and shot in the left arm when the firing began. He threw himself into the snow and lay still. ‘I started to shiver from the cold. I was afraid they would see me shivering, but they didn’t. I had my head down and couldn’t see, but could hear them walking around. I heard them shoot pistols next to me. I could hear them pull the trigger then the click. I also heard their rifle butts hit the heads of the wounded.’15
At dusk, about 4.00 p.m., the CO of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Pergrin, based in nearby Malmedy (which, surprisingly, never fell to the Germans), heard the firing and moved up on foot to investigate. He encountered three of the survivors, rushed them back into Malmedy and reported to First Army headquarters that there had been some kind of massacre of American prisoners. ‘SS troops vicinity [map reference] L 8199 captured US soldier, traffic MP, with about two hundred US soldiers. American prisoners searched. When finished, Germans lined up Americans and shot them with machine pistols and machine guns. Wounded informant who escaped and more details follow later.’16 One of Pergrin’s men, watching the survivors coming down, recalled, ‘It shocked us badly and we vowed that if the Krauts were taking no prisoners, we would take none ourselves.’17
Survivors trickled into Pergrin’s headquarters through the night; in all, forty-six managed to escape from the field, of whom four died later.18 Pergrin’s message was received at Hodges’ First Army HQ at 4.50 that afternoon, around two and a half hours after the event. By sheer coincidence a jeep containing Hal Boyle of Associated Press and Time magazine’s Jack Belden had arrived in Malmedy almost as Pergrin submitted his report. Without reference to Eisenhower or Bradley, let alone Washington, First Army headquarters took the decision to give the story the very widest publicity, with an alacrity that would shame modern military-media operations personnel.19 Hodges’ chief of staff, Major-General Bill Kean, wrote in his diary that evening, ‘There is absolutely no question as to its proof – immediate publicity is being given to the story. General Quesada has told every one of his pilots about it during their briefing.’20
Hal Boyle – fortuitously in the right place at the right time – set to work on his typewriter and his copy was transmitted to the United States the same night – passed, somewhat to his surprise, without censorship or delay. With Eisenhower’s blessing, Boyle’s material rose above this. By the following evening the story hit the American press. The Abilene Reporter News, for example, led with the headline ‘Germans Mow Down Americans’, the Kansas City Star, ‘Kill GI Wounded’. Boyle’s news story, from ‘An American Front-Line Clearing Station, Belgium, Dec 17’, began,
American dead, mostly from Battery ‘B’ of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, lie where they were gunned down in cold blood by Kampfgruppe Peiper on 17 December 1944. The location was just south of the Baugnez crossroads, but the massacre has taken the name of the nearby town – Malmedy. The Germans made no attempt to conceal what they had done, suggesting this was the way they routinely operated on the Eastern Front, using terror as a weapon. The atrocity was immediately given maximum publicity by Hal Boyle of Associated Press and Time magazine’s Jack Belden, who happened to be in the vicinity. It stiffened American resolve to resist. Note how the censor has concealed the face of the GI in the foreground. (NARA)
‘Weeping with rage, a handful of doughboy survivors described today how a German tank force ruthlessly poured machine gun fire into a group of about 150 Americans who had been disarmed and herded into a field in the opening hours of the present Nazi counteroffensive. “We had to lie there and listen to German-non-coms kill with pistols every one of our wounded men who groaned or tried to move,” said T-5 William B. Summers, of Glenville, W. Va., who escaped by playing dead … “We just hoped and prayed while we lay there listening to them shoot every man that moved,” said T-5 Charles F. Appman, of Verona, Pa. The survivors lay in tense, rigid silence in the freezing mud … Jack Belden, of Time magazine, and I rode back to this clearing station with the first survivors picked up by our reconnaissance jeeps.’21
It was a master stroke of news management and galvanised the US Army into action in a way nothing else could have done.
The SHAEF Public Relations Division (PRD), which included over a hundred official news censors, had relocated gradually from London to Paris in the autumn of 1944. Initially, there were news blackouts and delays imposed by the PRD during the early stages of the Bulge. For example, no one was allowed to report the estimated 8,000 casualties and prisoners lost by the 106th Golden Lions Division on 17–20 December for at least a month. By 1 January 1945, there were 924 Allied war correspondents and photographers accredited to SHAEF Public Relations. Although most of these, like Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Hal Boyle or Ernest Hemingway, were attached to units in the field, who acted as their ‘minders’, the task of providing censorship guidance and onward communication of news copy filed through SHAEF was the responsibility of its Public Relations Department, commanded by a former intelligence officer, Brigadier-General Frank A. Allen, Jr.
By way of illustration of the volume of press material it processed, in February 1945 alone, SHAEF censors passed 13,075,600 words written by correspondents; its public relations officers wrote 9,529,345 words of ‘good news’ stories for domestic consumption; they analysed 44,221,377 words which appeared in Allied and Axis newspapers; and scrutinised 1,089,155 still pictures and 39,000 feet of film footage.22
Most GIs in the Ardennes were made aware of the Malmedy story within the following twenty-four hours, and reacted accordingly: typical was the Frago (‘Fragmentary Order’), issued by the 328th Infantry of the 26th Division, for an attack in Luxembourg on 22 December: ‘No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner, but will be shot on sight.’23 Master Sergeant and combat historian Forrest C. Pogue, whom we have met already, recorded on 20 December: ‘[V] Corps is publicising killing of 200 [sic] prisoners taken first day by Germans. Are said to have stood them in a field. Killed them with [fire from] tanks as they came by.’
Pogue went on to note: ‘Photographs were taken of the dead men and circulated to the lower commands with instructions that all units be made aware of the nature of the enemy they were now facing … An armored infantry lieutenant, noting my surprise [at his instructions to execute a troublesome sniper], said that his outfit had captured enemy soldiers on a recent occasion and, after saving two for questioning, disposed of the rest. His excuse was that, being tankers, they couldn’t handle the others.’ Ironically this may have been the exact same reason that Peiper’s men committed their atrocity, and Pogue, for one, may have realised this. He certainly paused to muse on paper, ‘A massacre like the one at Malmedy is brutal only because it is larger or calculated to provoke terror.’24
There are several interpretations of the atrocity. That all were victims of the initial fire-fight was immediately disproven, even by SS witnesses, who conceded foul play from the beginning. A premeditated massacre was considered unlikely – as many prisoners captured earlier in Honsfeld had already been sent to the rear. Staff Sergeant Johnson’s two jeep companions, captured at 08.30 a.m., had been released unharmed almost immediately. There was a possibility that once the initial pistol shots were heard, the American prisoners panicked and tried to escape, unnerving the German guards and prompting them to open fire. Subsequent eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence contradicted this, because of the number executed at point-blank range. Alternatively, the need to keep the battlegroup moving was at odds with keeping so many prisoners, and a snap decision was taken to shoot them. The fact that seven GIs survived – volunteering to drive the Kampfgruppe’s newly acquired US vehicles – also suggests a spontaneous German decision, rather than premeditation. None of this, however, obscures the fact that at the Baugnez crossroads on 17 December 1944, there were some who contravened all rules of war.
The area remained contested and US forces made no attempt to recover the bodies until the 30th Infantry Division retook the area. On 14–16 January 1945, seventy-one American bodies were recovered from under the deep snow of the Baugnez crossroads area, where they had lain for a month, frozen stiff and fully clothed. Photographers were on hand to record the crime scene, as each GI was removed from his snowy grave. Major Giacento Morrone and Captains Joseph Kurcz and John Snyder, all doctors with the nearby 44th Evacuation Hospital, carried out full autopsies. Most of the dead GIs still possessed watches, rings, money and valuables. Forty-three had died from gunshot wounds to the head, at least six had been clubbed to death and nine still had their arms raised above their heads. In other words, no attempt had been made to conceal the dead, or the nature of their deaths, in any way at all. A major crime had nonetheless been committed and from 16 May to 16 July 1946 the US Army held a special two-month trial in the former concentration camp at Dachau. Seventy-five defendants appeared before a military court. The trial was widened to include all those US victims executed along the route of Kampfgruppe Peiper.25
There was no doubt as to who had fired the first pistol shots at Baugnez – the ‘hot-headed’ Romanian volunteer, Georg Fleps, a panzer crewman, who admitted the deed. The Dachau trial was filmed, and watching the footage today is chilling. The blond-haired Fleps stands to attention, emotionless. When found guilty and sentenced to death, Fleps nods in full comprehension, like a loyal foot soldier accepting a minor admonition.26 However, finding out who had ordered the killings was more problematical. Among those indicted was the Sixth Army’s Dietrich and his chief of staff, Krämer, and Priess of the 1st SS Panzer Corps; the Leibstandarte’s commander, Mohnke, was at this stage a ‘guest’ of the NKVD in Moscow.
Attention focused on four officers, specifically: Peiper, as leader of the Kampfgruppe who perpetrated the massacre; Werner Pötschke, in charge of the 1st SS Panzer Battalion; Jupp Diefenthal, leader of the 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Battalion (whom a GI had already witnessed executing a prisoner earlier that day in Büllingen); and Obersturmführer Erich Rumpf, leading the 9th SS-Pioneer Company. Pötschke had died in combat in March 1945, but the others were present at Dachau in May 1946.
It appears that Rumpf, who had dismounted from his half-track and was watching, gave the command to members of his pioneer company to ‘bump off’ the American prisoners. He had been ordered to do so by either Diefenthal or Pötschke. Fleps, the loader of a tank passing at the time and motioned to pull over, leaning out of his turret hatch, fired the opening shots. They were followed immediately by the crews of several armoured half-tracks parked by the side of the road, firing their machine guns. Several of Rumpf’s men were then ordered into the field to ‘finish off’ any surviving GIs.
Whether Peiper had directed the massacre was never established, as he was well past the spot by the time the firing started. However, even if he didn’t give the order, he certainly knew what would happen. The later GI testimony was hazy, because those clustered in the field were far more concerned for their lives than in remembering German faces. During interrogation the Waffen-SS closed ranks and several different versions of the events emerged, but generally adhered to the narrative here.27Obersturmführer Hans Hennecke, for one, never told me that he had seen the GIs lying dead or wounded in the field after the shooting, while driving past in his Panther, followed by the rest of the 1st Panzer Company.28
Apart from settling the scorecard for Allied bombing raids on German cities, such as Düren, as we have seen, it was clear that the Leibstandarte intended to fight in the Ardennes as they had done in Russia, with complete disregard for their opponents. In the Soviet Union, Peiper and other SS commanders had regarded it as a ‘badge of honour’ to burn down entire Russian villages, shooting every inhabitant.29 Just before Herbstnebel began, Peiper – who had commanded der Lötlampe Abteilung (the ‘Blowtorch Battalion’) in the east – had briefed his men: ‘In the coming operation, the regiment will have the duty to attack recklessly. No consideration will be paid to man or machine. The coming mission will be the last chance to win the war. The enemy must become totally crazed with fear that the SS is coming. That is our obligation.’30
It was never proven whether the decision to kill prisoners was made at the Baugnez crossing, or before Herbstnebel began, but the context was clear to all – Peiper’s men were to treat GI prisoners as they had done surrendering Russians (few of whom ever survived) and use fear as a weapon in itself. There had been no consequences or reprisals from their behaviour in the east, and they assumed – because they would win – there would be none from such behaviour during Herbstnebel. Peiper and Mohnke, and their superiors, were guilty of encouraging this mentality.
This interpretation is confirmed by what happened next on the Kampfgruppe’s march. Peiper continued south from the Baugnez crossroads to Ligneuville, where they arrived at around 1.45 p.m. General Timberlake’s lunch in the Hôtel du Moulin had been interrupted by an American soldier running down the road from Baugnez, probably a survivor from Battery ‘B’, shouting that the Germans were just behind him. Lunch was abandoned. Peiper arrived minutes later and captured the village. Here he met up with his Spitze, which had halted at the small stone bridge over the Amblève river to check for demolitions. Machine-gun and anti-tank fire was exchanged with other GIs in Ligneuville – administrative troops including a mess sergeant named Lincoln Abraham. The Germans lost a Panther and a half-track, the Americans a couple of armoured vehicles under repair in the village.
More than twenty GIs, including Abraham, were captured in this encounter and placed under guard in the hotel.31 Peiper’s Spitze were angry because of the casualties they had just received in Ligneuville. After the war, Oberscharführer Paul Ochmann detailed how he and Sturmmann Suess lined up seven prisoners by the roadside at the top of a bank. ‘Thereupon I shot the first American from a distance of about 20cm. I shot him in the neck from the rear … All told, I myself shot and killed with my pistol four or five. Sturmmann Suess shot the others in my presence.’32This was a very different kind of atrocity from that which was about to happen up the road at Baugnez in the forthcoming minutes. The motivation seems to have been revenge for those in the Panther and half-track who were killed or injured, and had nothing to do with the ‘inconvenience’ of holding prisoners of war – as the remaining GIs in the hotel were spared.
A memorial now details the seven Americans, one of whom was Abraham, murdered in Ligneuville, an event witnessed by at least one local civilian.33 At this stage, the Leibstandarte’s commander, Mohnke (who would have by then been aware of the Baugnez massacre, having driven past it), came forward to the Hôtel du Moulin, where he set up his forward HQ. The Spitze of Peiper’s Kampfgruppe had, meanwhile, pushed on at around 5.00 p.m. – well after dark – towards Stavelot. Along the way they ran into a jeep carrying the US 7th Armored Division’s chief of staff, Colonel Church Matthews, who was killed, and further on, in the hamlet of Vau Richard, a memorial records where three local villagers and twelve GIs were murdered by the SS. Beyond Vau Richard, sometime after 7.30 p.m., the Germans encountered a twelve-man roadblock set up by Lieutenant Pergrin’s 291st Engineer Combat Battalion on the eastern approaches to Stavelot. After an exchange of fire, the Americans escaped and Peiper ordered his column to pause for the night of 17–18 December. It had been a long day.
The Leibstandarte’s actions at the Baugnez crossroads thus needs to be seen in the wider context of the way Kampfgruppe Peiper treated their prisoners of war and civilians all along their line of march.
However, such excesses were not confined to Malmedy, or to the Waffen-SS; neither was there a coordinated German approach to terror. It was driven by personality and circumstances. In the later stages of the campaign, Sergeant Hobert Winebrenner, from Merriam, Indiana, of the 90th Division’s 358th Infantry, was on a reconnaissance mission near Bras-Haut, on the outskirts of Libramont and fifteen miles south-west of Bastogne. He ‘noticed several large lumps in the snow. I scooped and scraped to uncover a handful of dead GIs. Clearly they were not killed in action, but afterward, execution style. The enemy apparatus took issue with their carrying German sidearms as souvenirs. Although top brass warned us of the dangers, we all did it. The captors had stuck a pistol in each prisoner’s mouth and fired, then left the weapon and horrible expression behind, both frozen in place and time on each murdered man’s face … I advised my team to ditch any and all German paraphernalia.’34 There were no Waffen-SS units recorded in the area, and it seems likely that these GIs were murdered by an ordinary Volksgrenadier unit. Hauptmann Kurt Bruns, who ordered the execution of the two Jewish GIs of the Golden Lions’ IPW Team at Bleialf on 20 December, was similarly a Volksgrenadier, not a Waffen-SS, officer.
Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in time of war, the life of man [was] ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.35 It certainly was for the infantry of both sides during the Ardennes. Captain Charles MacDonald of the US 2nd Division recalled taking a German prisoner, who ‘wore no cap or helmet, but a dirty, blood-stained bandage stretched across his forehead’. ‘I have no gun. My comrades have left me when I am wounded’, the German had told him. MacDonald detailed two men to take him back for interrogation. ‘The two men … had made a quick trip. “Did you get him back OK?” MacDonald asked. “Yessir,” they answered and turned quickly toward their platoons. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Did you find Company ‘A’? What did Lieutenant Smith say?” The men hesitated. One spoke out suddenly. “To tell you the truth, Cap’n, we didn’t get to Company ‘A’. The sonofabitch tried to make a run for it. Know what I mean?” “Oh, I see,” I said slowly, nodding my head. “I see”.’36
Prisoners in the Ardennes, particularly after the Malmedy massacre, held an ambiguous status. Sometimes they were seen purely in terms of their utility rather than as fellow warriors. On Christmas Eve in the woods around Verdenne, as a squad in Company ‘K’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) was ‘herding its prisoners to the rear, one of the [American Sherman] tankers suddenly took out his .45 and shot two of the Germans … The men grabbed the tanker before he could fire again, but the GIs understood the man’s rage. “Those tankers had just lost one of their friends,” said one. Another barked at the tankers, “You dumb sons of bitches,” he told their lieutenant. “Now we’re going to get some more of our guys killed going out and trying to get more prisoners”.’37 A GI of the Checkerboard Division witnessed something similar when clearing the town of Höfen on 20 December. Seven Germans had emerged from a cellar with their hands up. ‘Suddenly one of the Americans, a private, screamed, “You wounded my sergeant!” He started firing an automatic weapon and, before anyone could stop him, all seven Germans lay lifeless on the ground. There were no repercussions I know of for the private.’38
Injured opponents posed the greatest challenge – on logistical grounds, as well as humanitarian – as paratrooper Donald R. Burgett explored in his honest memoirs, Seven Roads to Hell. The Screaming Eagle remembered the aftermath of a brutal hand-to-hand fight in the Bois Jacques woods overlooking Foy, on 21 December, when he came across two wounded Volksgrenadiers. The first was ‘an older German sitting in the snow with a torn pants leg and a blood-soaked bandage tied to his left thigh. He caught my eye and waved weakly. I motioned him to come forward, and he struggled to his feet and limped painfully over to me … he appeared to be a mature, distinguished man. He had graying hair at the temples, giving him the appearance of a businessman, a father or a grandfather, rather than that of a soldier.’ Before Burgett could do anything, another paratrooper ‘who must have been a 3rd Platoon replacement because I didn’t recognise him as being one of their men’ shot the old man. ‘“He was my prisoner”, I snarled, turning to face the other man. I stared directly into his eyes, pressing a finger into his chest. “If you ever shoot another of my prisoners, I’ll blow your f***ing head off”.’39
Burgett’s second German from the same engagement was also wounded, lying on his back in the bottom of a slit trench. ‘He was unarmed … Tears streamed down his cheek “Nicht schiessen!”, he babbled, “Bitte, bitte! Nicht schiessen!”’ (‘Don’t shoot! Please, please! Don’t shoot!’). Burgett was pointing his .45 pistol at the German, when he was asked by a buddy what he was doing. ‘Just getting ready to kill the Kraut,’ Burgett replied. ‘Leave him here,’ his friend replied. “‘But we can’t take him with us”, I argued, “We have no guards for them; we can’t feed them. Hell, we don’t have enough food for ourselves. We don’t have medics – they’ve all been killed or captured. We can’t even take care of our own wounded properly. We just can’t take any prisoners right now”. “I know,” he replied, “but the only Krauts left alive are the badly wounded and they’ll die tonight.” It was cruel. We had no choice. We had to leave them there. The temperature was well below zero. There would be no survivors. I holstered my forty-five, turned, and walked away from the man in the hole.’40
Reactions differed according to personalities, not units. Within a day or so of the massacre at Malmedy, George W. Neill of the 99th Division, up on the Elsenborn Ridge (and possibly fighting SS troops), recorded that a friend of his got lost in the dark and stumbled on a German position. ‘I said I was an unarmed Amerikanser medic. The voice in the darkness replied in broken English: “You are lost. Go back the way you came”.’41 Meanwhile, Kurt Gabel, a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division, remembered his shock on hearing the command ‘Fix Bayonets’, with all its merciless implications for close fighting. ‘I felt the shock of it jerk my body. Surely this was some kind of psychological game they played in Company ‘F’! Fix bayonets? That’s World War I stuff. Bayonets were for opening C-ration cans. Sometimes you threw them at trees while imitating Errol Flynn or John Wayne, and of course in basic training you had to pretend how fierce you were as you thrust them into sandbag dummies. But here?’42Though no GI realised it, ground combat had become far more extreme since Normandy, and troops on both sides were becoming inured to brutality.
Raymond Gantter, a graduate of Syracuse University, served as a private in the 1st US Infantry Division before being awarded a Silver Star and, later, a battlefield commission. When quartered in a requisitioned house near Waimes (very near Peiper’s route), just after the massacre, he witnessed twenty-four German soldiers being ‘questioned’ in the alley next to his billet. ‘It sickened me because I knew it was wrong and there was nothing I could do about it. Killing is clean … but torture is dirty … ugly, foul, twisted, debasing both the victim and the wielder of the whip … Some of the prisoners were beaten, slugged by hard American fists, kicked in the testicles by hard American boots, knocked to the ground and trampled upon. Most of them were young, seventeen, eighteen … some were crying, helplessly, like children. And their crime? The American cigarettes in their pockets, the small items of GI equipment they wore? Nine out of ten of us wore or carried some article of German issue … Brutality, however sweetened by the hot justice of the moment is brutality still.’43