This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the last major combat encounter in the European theater of World War II, and today marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the more heinous acts of the war, the Malmedy Massacre.
During the Battle, on the second day of the breakout by German troops through the Ardennes Forest, American soldiers of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion were captured by the German First SS Panzer Division near the town of Malmedy in Belgium. The German offensive was begun during a period of weather so bad that all Allied aircraft were grounded, and the Germans were desperate to move quickly toward, and to recapture, the French port of Cherbourg while the Americans were without the close air support that could quickly destroy the German tanks. They could therefore afford no delays in their advance, and POW’s are a hindrance on the battlefield.
There are several excellent accounts of the Malmedy Massacre, and the following is taken from the one maintained HERE at the History Place:
On the second day of the ‘Battle of the Bulge,’ a truck convoy of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was intercepted southeast of Malmedy by a regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division of the Leibstandarte-SS, under the command of 29 year old SS Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper. His troops had earned the nickname “Blowtorch Battalion” after burning their way across Russia and had also been responsible for slaughtering civilians in two separate villages.
Upon sighting the trucks, the Panzer tanks opened fire and destroyed the lead vehicles. This brought the [American] convoy to a halt while the deadly accurate tank fire continued. The outgunned Americans abandoned their vehicles and surrendered.
The captured U.S. soldiers were herded into a nearby field. An SS tank commander then ordered an SS private to shoot into the prisoners, setting off a wild killing spree as the SS opened fire with machine guns and pistols on the unarmed, terrified POWs.
Survivors were killed by a pistol shot to the head, in some cases by English speaking SS who walked among the victims asking if anyone was injured or needed help. Those who responded were shot. A total of 81 Americans were killed in the single worst atrocity against U.S. troops during World War II in Europe.
After the SS troops moved on, three survivors encountered a U.S. Army Colonel stationed at Malmedy and reported the massacre. News quickly spread among U.S. troops that “Germans are shooting POWs.” As a result, the troops became determined to hold the lines against the German advance until reinforcements could arrive. Gen. Eisenhower was informed of the massacre. War correspondents in the area also spread the news.
And from the U.S. Army archives, HERE, this excerpt from the account of a survivor, Ted Paluch of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
Having dismounted the vehicles and taking cover in ditches alongside the road, Paluch recognized the troops as members of the vaunted SS by the distinctive skull and crossbones and lightning insignia on their collars. They represented the advance units of the 1st SS Panzer Division, known as Kampfgruppe (Attack Group) Peiper, after their leader, SS Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, a highly decorated veteran of campaigns in France and Russia.
“There were three of them behind the tank; they came down, and we were in the ditch, a ditch that is up to my neck,” he related. They pulled down the road here and lowered the tank gun on us, and what could you do? We had carbines, so we just surrendered.”
Paluch related that the initial treatment at the hands of the SS gave no clues about what lay in store for the prisoners, and even offered an amusing recollection. “They marched us up here to the crossroads, they searched us, they took anything of value, cigarettes, watches, and I had a pair of socks and they even took those,” he exclaimed incredulously.
Along with members of his unit and others caught off-guard at the crossroads, the group of prisoners was herded into a field at the crossroads to await their fate. They had no warning of what would transpire next.
“Then one command car came up and took a couple shots, and every tank and halftrack that came around the corner shot into the group,” he said. “I was real lucky, as I was in the front end and only got hit slightly, but I think when they came around they fired into the center of the group.”
Pausing to catch his breath, he glanced over his shoulder and hesitated, almost as if reliving the moment in slow motion, before beginning again.
“This was their front line over here at one of these houses, and then anyone that moaned, they came around and they shot. I played dead and just lay there,” he said.
The Germans murdered eighty-one Americans that day. After the war, the commander of the German First SS Panzer Division, SS Lieutenant Colonel Jochen Peiper, was caught along with most of his close subordinates. They were tried and found guilty of war crimes by a military tribunal, but sadly, they were all released in the end. There was no justice for those eighty-one American soldiers, so the least we can do today is to remember.