A look at Nazi atrocities at the Bulge.
The route of atrocities at the Bulge.
World War II buffs have likely heard of the Malmedy Massacre committed by SS soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The phrase, however, refers not to a single incident, but a whole string of atrocities.
The massacres were committed by soldiers of Kampfgruppe (fighting group) Peiper, a unit forming part of the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler,” an elite division originally founded as Hitler’s personal bodyguard. As indicated by the group’s name, it was led by SS colonel Joachim Peiper, a veteran of the Russian front.
During preparations for the German surprise attack in the Ardennes, Hitler ordered commanders to terrify the enemy by conducting the battle with cruelty typical of the Eastern Front but previously unpracticed in the west. Kampfgruppe Peiper was acting as one of the spearheads of the German advance, their ultimate goal to divide Allied lines by breaking through them and capturing Antwerp. The unit quickly learned that the mountainous backroads assigned to them were barely capable of supporting their heavier vehicles such as Tiger II tanks and that several important bridges were out, some blown up by the Germans themselves during their retreat earlier that year. Quickly falling behind schedule due to tenacious defense by Allied soldiers, massive traffic jams behind the frontline and precariously low fuel supplies, the soldiers were getting ever more frustrated.
In addition to frustration and Hitler’s orders, there was also a rational if inhumane logic behind the massacres committed by the Kampfgruppe: during most of the battle, they had no time or facilities to secure POWs and any civilians observing their movements could have informed Allied troops later.
Whatever their motivations, the massacres began in the early morning of December 17, 1944, with the 1st SS Panzer Division already 16 hours behind schedule. Peiper’s unit deviated from its planned course to capture a small fuel depot in Büllingen, where they executed 59 captured soldiers and a civilian.
Between noon and 1 p.m. the same day, the group came upon an American convoy of about 30 vehicles, mainly transporting members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, at the Baugnez crossroads two miles from the city of Malmedy. German tank fire quickly immobilized the first and last vehicles, trapping the rest on the road and prompting the passengers’ surrender.
Peiper’s tank column moved on, leaving behind some soldiers to guard the approximately 120 American POWs. The captives were herded into a field, where SS men cut them down with machine guns. Some were able to run away and hide at a nearby café, but the Germans set fire to the building and shot anyone coming out. Eighty-six POWs were murdered, but another 43 managed to run into the forest and eventually made contact with other U.S. units. By late evening, news of Germans massacring captives started circulating among forward American divisions. At least one unit issued an order to kill SS soldiers and German paratroopers as reprisal instead of capturing them.
Of Kampfgruppe Peiper’s further massacres, the ones occurring at and around the town of Stavelot stand out with the murder of around a hundred civilians and eight POWs in total. On one particular occasion, some 20 civilians, mainly women and children, were hiding in the cellar of a building that was later chosen by Allied troops as a defensive point. After the Allies were defeated, the Germans tossed two grenades down the cellar door. The explosion only wounded a single person but the screams of panic alerted the soldiers. They herded the civilians up and out of the house, claiming that they must have been firing at them before. The victims, 23 in number, were lined up against a hedge and shot, with only a German-speaking woman and her daughters being spared.
Another massacre, smaller in scope and largely forgotten until the 21st century, was that of the Wereth 11. These eleven U.S. soldiers were African American men from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated unit highly regarded for the combat experience they gained since D-Day. On December 17, 1944, Battery C of the battalion was overrun by the Germans, with most defenders killed or taken captive. Eleven men, however, managed to get away and made it to the village of Wereth after six hours of marching in freezing rain. A friendly couple there offered them shelter and hot food. Wereth, however, had been part of Germany before World War I and some families were German sympathizers. An unknown local alerted nearby German forces of the presence of the African American soldiers and a patrol soon arrived to capture them. The men were forced to run to a nearby field with the Germans following them in a car and were not seen again until two months later.
When the bodies were found, they bore signs of torture. Some had their legs broken and skulls cracked by rifle butts. Others had fingers cut off or eyes gouged out. Still others had multiple stab wounds. Today, a memorial honors the sacrifice of these men, thanks in no small part to the then-12-year-old son of the couple who sheltered them, who tracked down the victims’ names in the 1990s.
According to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report, 362 POWs and 111 civilians were murdered by the SS in the series of killings, though other sources claim more victims, possibly 500-750 POWs alone. No Nazi was ever executed for their role in the massacres of Kampfgruppe Peiper. After the war, 43 men were sentenced to death, 22 to life imprisonment and 8 others to lesser sentences. The death sentences, however, were commuted to lesser ones after it came to light that several confessions were extracted under torture. Moreover, the Cold War was already underway, and it became politically desirable to not alienate West Germany with a mass execution of former Nazi soldiers.