Part 1. Malmedy Massacre and the Battle of the Bulge

bulge1Malmedy, Belgium… At the end of the First World War, Malmedy was separated from Germany and annexed to Belgium on March 6, 1925. Historically, Malmedy gained its fame when it became the focal point of a massacre that was committed on December 17, 1944, by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper (part of the 1st SS Panzer Division), a German combat unit commanded by Regimental Commander, Colonel Joachim Peiper, during the Battle of the Bulge.

Many have written about the Malmedy Massacres, but as we have seen throughout history, memories seem to be short lived and often those of succeeding generations fail to learn from the past. With this in mind and following on the heels of Veteran’s Day, I have been prompted to re-visit of one of the worst war atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis on American soldiers during World War II during the Battle of the Bulge.

Malmedy is a small Belgium town which today numbers about 12,000 inhabitants, is locate about 40 miles northeast of Bastogne and located in the north sector of the Ardennes Forest. The site of the massacre was located at the Baugnez Crossroads just a couple of miles southeast of Malmedy. The Baugnez Crossroads was known as Five Points by the American troops.

Historically the Ardennes was the site of three major battles during the world wars – the Battle of the Ardennes in World War I, and the Battle of France and Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Many of the small towns and villages of the region were badly damaged during the battles which occurred there giving testimony as to the ferocity of each of the Ardennes campaigns…none were “simple battles”.

bulge2In both World War I and World War II, the Germans used the Ardennes Forest route from Germany to successfully move into France to wage war. Nations are slow to learn from history which was illustrated by the French in defense of their country. The route through the Ardennes Forest is not seemingly, conducive to massive troop movements because of the narrow roadways and unpredictable weather. Hitler predicted light opposition against his German forces as the Allies were looking at a lull in the European War as the Germans had been defeated soundly in the summer months in France.

To understand the events which lead to the worse atrocity perpetuated against American troops in World War II, it is best to set the stage…Allied leadership was content to take a break as they laid plans for the final push into Germany, while the troops looked forward to writing letters home for Christmas and a chance for a hot holiday meal. Like the stunning ease the Germans had in dispatching the French in previous battles by attacking through the Ardennes, one would think the Allies would have been better prepared for a German onslaught or counterattack with Hitler facing imminent defeat on German soil when weather improved in the early spring of 1945.

Even with its history, the Allied commanders considered the Ardennes area to be unsuitable for a large-scale German attack, mainly because of the weather, roads and forested terrain issues. U.S. intelligence reports suggested that only broken and weary German divisions were stationed in the area opposite the Allied troops, and in the period prior to Hitler’s assault, no one saw reason to believe that an attack was imminent. Bastogne however was a town that commanded several important roads in the area and was defended mainly by the U.S. 28th Infantry Division and light armor. The 28th Infantry Division had been in fierce battles almost continually from the summer to late fall in 1944 and were assigned to the Bastogne region which was relatively quiet. Allied leadership felt that if any fighting were to incur, it would be limited in scale.

This error in judgment by the Allies was what Hitler was counting on and could have cost them the war. Bastogne, Belgium is a traffic hub in Belgium. There are seven roads in and seven roads out of the town. Since WWI these roads were important for the movement of German armor, making Allied retention of the roads imperative. Like the French, the pathway through Belgium was not taken seriously by the Allies or it would have been defended by a much larger force. In addition, many of the soldiers were comfortably taking a break from the war in Paris and the towns and villages of the region… To many the war was temporarily forgotten.

The stage was set for one of the most significant battles in the European theater of the war and paved the road to the biggest atrocities committed by the Germans to the American military. Understanding many of the historian revisionists, Nazi sympathizers, and anti-American spinmeisters tend to varnish over the violations of the Geneva Convention and other rules governing war by civilized societies, the Malmedy Massacre, and subsequent prosecution of the German war criminals responsible, began with the desperate Hail Mary Pass that Hitler designed in a effort to thwart the defeat of Germany’s Nazism.

Hitler contrived the Ardennes counteroffensive, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, after the collapse of his army in France during the summer of 1944, kicked off by the beach landing of Allied forces at Normandy. He received inspiration from a similar operation through the Ardennes region to take France in 1940. This time, Hitler’s goal would be to disturb communication lines and transportation centers of the Allied forces in Liege and retake the port city of Antwerp.

If the attack were to succeed in splitting the U.S. Twelfth Army and the British Twenty-first Army Group, and then capture Antwerp, four complete armies would be trapped without supplies behind German lines. Hitler believed the Americans were incapable of fighting effectively because of the strenuous trek across France, the difficulty in resupplying the forces and the war weariness on the American home front was likely to crack upon hearing of a decisive American loss. Hilter’s concept was brilliant.

The major reasons stated by Hitler for his selection making his offense move through the Ardennes are listed below.

  1. The enemy front in the Ardennes sector was very thinly manned.
  2. A blow there would strike the seam between the British and Americans, which would lead to political as well as military disharmony between the Allies.
  3. The distance from the jump-off line to a solid strategic objective, the port city of Antwerp, was not too great and could be covered quickly, even in bad weather.
  4. The configuration of the Ardennes area limited the ground for maneuver, thus requiring the use of relatively few divisions.
  5. The terrain to the east of the break-through sector was very heavily wooded and offered concealment from allied air observation during the buildup for the assault.
  6. An attack to regain the initiative in this particular area would erase the enemy ground threat to the Ruhr. Hitler knew that the terrain would be an important factor in his offensive battle, and while he believed the overcast weather would offer an additional degree of protection for his advancing force, particularly from Allied air power, he underestimated the effects of weather.

Hitler was aware of the German’s tank superiority in both armament and firepower which far outgunned the Sherman tanks America had in its arsenal because the Sherman, which sported far less armor and carried only a 75mm gun was no match for the German tanks. Plain and simple, the 75mm gun could not penetrate the German tank’s armor, and even a minor hit by the German’s 88mm gun anywhere on a Sherman would leave little less than a pile of rubble. His intelligence reports said the pathway through the Ardennes was lightly defended with support from the Army’s tank forces made up of Shermans, which would mean a huge advantage if and when resistance was encountered. To Hitler the pathway to Antwerp looked to be “all but undefended”, and victory a certainty.

Hitler’s plans for the Battle of the Bulge: The main goal of breaking through Allied lines was assigned 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 shutting off Allied access to resupply from this northern port of Belgium. The Fifth Panzer Army, led by General Hasso von Manteuffel, was to attack the center of the American forces, capture the  strategic road and rail center of St Vith and then drive on to Brussels. The Seventh Army, led by General Brandenberger, was to attack the southern flank, as designated by Hitler, and  create a buffer zone to prevent American reinforcements from attacking the Fifth Panzer Army.

Kampfgruppe Peiper, under the command of Joachim Peiper was composed of armored 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 and seize/secure the Meuse bridges around Huy. The Fifteenth Army was to be held in reserve to counter any Allied attack if and when they took place.

The 1st SS Panzer Division (SS Oberfuehrer Wilhelm Mohnke) was the strongest fighting unit in the Sixth Panzer Army. It was undiluted by any large influx of untrained replacements, possessed most of its tactical organization, and included a full complement of seasoned officers. It also had an available armored strength reported at about a hundred tanks, equally divided between the Mark IV and the Panther, plus forty-two Tiger tanks belonging to the 501st SS Panzer Detachment.

Hitler was confident of his plan, and despite several of his top generals who had reservations, he made the decision to implement the plan…but there was a fly in the ointment… As stated above, the roads in the Ardennes Forest were not major thoroughfares but instead narrow macadam roadways (compressed gravel and concrete agents) that would not permit the Sixth Panzer Army the movement needed to react swiftly if a complete commitment of the 1st SS Panzer as a division was needed. This hindered what could have been the overwhelming, all-out assault needed to defeat the Allies.

Even if two of the five roads allocated the army were employed, the division had to be divided into four columns or marching groups: the first, commanded by Peiper, which contained the bulk of the 1st Panzer Regiment represent the armored spearhead of the division; the second, made up from the division’s Reconnaissance Battalion; while the third and fourth comprised armored infantry and attached heavy weapons. The heavy Tiger Tank detachment was left to be fed into the advance as occasion warranted.

According to military archives and as most military men recognize, the plans of battle often change in mid-stream depending on conditions as they develop: “The original route assigned Peiper’s Kampfgruppe to Schoppen was a poor road, bogged with mud from the winter rains, and since the 12th SS Panzer Division had not yet arrived, Peiper pre-empted the 12th SS Panzer’s paved route through Büllingen. Also he had been told that there were fuel stores in Büllingen. Since they had expended a great deal of fuel jockeying around the poor road running through Losheim, Peiper opted to go to Bullingen to refuel.

Sure enough, the gasoline was found as predicted. Using American prisoners as labor, the Germans refueled their tanks, and secured as much other booty as they could carry and destroyed a number of artillery and planes on a nearby field. When American gunners commenced to shell the village, it was reported that Peiper’s troops indiscriminately shot the American prisoners of war in the first of several atrocities that would ensue. Peiper was already on the move, and suffered only minor casualties. By this time Peiper’s staff believed German breakthrough was complete; no American troops appeared on the sensitive north flank, and only an occasional jeep scuttled away to the west of the column”.

Around noon on the 17th of December, the second day of the German offensive, on the road between Modersheid and Ligneuville, the German advance guard ran into to remnants of an American truck convoy moving south from Malmédy in the area of Five Points (Baugnez Junction). This was the ill-fated Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, which had taken to the woods and ditches when Pieper’s tanks opened fire with pinpoint accuracy, leading to their surrender.

Part 2 will discuss the fate of Battery B, which led to the war crimes trials.

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