Part 2. Malmedy Massacre and the Battle of the Bulge

blg1Malmedy, Belguim will forever be remembered as the most infamous massacre of American troops in World War II. The siege at Bastogne would have overshadowed the Malmedy Massacre had not the Germans committed more than a dozen unwarranted killings of both prisoners of war (POW) and civilians during the siege of Bastogne which began on December 16, 1944 and ending on January 25, 1945, and were it not for the presence of Associated Press war correspondent, Hal Boyle.

“The Nazis turned machine guns on GI POWs”, wrote Boyle, in his January 1945 Stars and Stripes article. It was from this first account graphic account that word spread through the ranks of the war correspondents that lead to a plethora of books and articles about the so-called Malmédy Massacre, many of which were incorrect with embellishments and inaccurate statistics.

There is no doubt that the murders at Malmedy would not have received such notoriety, without the accurate account documented by Boyle and the accounts of eye witnesses shortly after the event, which were mostly verified during the war crimes trial that followed in 1946. This terrible incident represented the only organized killings of POWS by either side during the Battle of the Bulge, however there were reports and rumors that American troops, following the word of the massacre, might have taken liberties themselves in acts of revenge with captive SS Troops.

The Commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army, SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Dietrich, said under oath during the war crimes trial, that he was acting on Hitler’s orders that German troops should be “preceded by a wave of terror and fright, and that no human inhibitions should be shown”.

Hitler’s order to take no prisoners was widely circulated among the German SS Troops…

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“Lt. Col. George Mabry, commander of the 2d Battalion, 8th Infantry, has stated that his unit captured a German colonel from the German Seventh Army who had such an order and some of Col. Peiper’s subordinates accepted the killing of prisoners as a command. On at least one occasion Peiper himself gave such an order. Why Peiper’s command gained the bestial distinction of being the only unit to kill prisoners in the course of the Ardennes is a subject of surmise.

Peiper had been an adjutant to Heinrich Himmler and as a battalion commander in Russia is alleged to have burned two villages and killed all the inhabitants. The veteran SS troops he led in the Ardennes had long experience on the Eastern Front where brutality toward prisoners of war was a common-place. On the other hand Peiper’s formation was well in advance of the German attack and was thus in position the to carry out orders of the “waves of terror” tactic-which might be excused, or so Peiper claimed, by the rapid movement of his forces and its inability to retain prisoners under guard”.

On the American side, the First Army learned of the shootings three or four hours after it happened, and by the late evening of December 17, the rumor that the enemy was killing prisoners had reached as far as the forward American divisions. It has been alleged, mostly by Nazi sympathizers that there were American commanders who orally expressed the opinion that all SS troops should be killed on sight. It is probable that SS Troops who attempted to surrender in the days immediately after the Malmedy Massacre ran a greater risk than would have been the case during the balance of the campaign that lasted until January 25, 1945. There is no evidence, however, that American troops followed such orders, implicit or explicit, to kill their SS prisoners.

It is unlikely that history will ever know the precise sequence of events at the Baugnez crossroads, just south of Malmédy, on December 17, 1944, or the reasons for them, other than the orders Hitler is said to have given his troops to carryout a “wave of terror” and that no prisoners should be taken. The secret lies with the guilty and the dead. The facts described hereunder can bring us closer to the truth of what actually did happened.

On December 16, 1944, the day the Ardennes offensive began, Captain Leon Scarborough, the officer commanding Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, was told that his artillery battery was to report to his new headquarters at St. Vith, and that it was being transferred from VII Corps to VIII Corps at 0600 hours on December 17th. Scarborough instructed Lieutenant Ksidzek, his executive officer, to move the unit to the new area on the 17th. Captain Scarborough took five members of the battery with him and dispatched a route-marking truck commanded by Lieutenant Gier to precede the battery by about two hours with another five men.

“Battery B left for St.Vith at 0800 on the morning of the 17th. The convoy consisted of 30 jeeps, weapons carriers and two-and-a-half-ton trucks, and was divided into two serials–the first led by Lieutenant Virgil Lary and the second by Lieutenant Perry Reardon. For reasons unknown, the battalion’s executive officer, Captain Roger Mills, accompanied the battery and traveled in the lead jeep with Lary. Two other members of Headquarters Battery, a technical sergeant and a medical corporal, were also attached to Battery B. Why Lary and not Lieutenant Ksidzek led the convoy is a mystery. Ksidzek traveled in one of the trucks at the rear of the column.”

The initial part of the journey lay through Eynatten and Eupen, and then, just to the north of Malmédy, the battery passed through the Baraque Michel, a high moorland area that was the designated drop zone for a German parachute operation designed to disrupt American reinforcements from the north. Unfortunately the German paratroopers had not landed as planned or on time and were dispersed over a wide area, otherwise they would have engaged the American convoy and the Malmedy Massacre would not have occurred.

blg3It is important to understand this part of Hitler’ Plan designated Operation Greif , which was headed by Germany’s top commando, Colonel Otto Skorzeny and designed to confuse and disorient American troops which might be headed to reinforce the Allied troops. Skorzeny was shocked at being selected by Hilter to head this very important part of the German battle plan mainly due to the fact that Hitler had previously issued his infamous Commando Order which ordered the immediate execution of any enemy commandos or special forces, particularly those disguised as German soldiers. Skorzeny’s orders included disguising themselves as U.S. Soldiers to deceive the Allied troops.

As one can see from this frame of mind, every SS Soldiers appears to have been given the same order of “take no prisoners”. The orders given Skorzeny and his two parachute battalions, which included both a tank and communications company. They were to destroy American fuel and ammunition dumps; use the reconnaissance group for reporting enemy movement to the German command, and a lead commando group which would be in charge of cutting telephone wires, disrupting enemy communications and reversing road signs. Had they been in place and on schedule, the entire outcome of the battle of the Bulge might have turned out differently.

NOTE: The significance or Skorzeny’s operation was best summed up by Gen. George Patton in his unsettling report to Eisenhower: “I’ve never seen such a goddamn foul – up! The Krauts are infiltrating behind our lines, raising hell, cutting wires and turning around road signs!”

Moving on to the sequence of events…From military historical documents: “Additionally, had Skorzeny been able to engage Battery B, they would have been forced to take a different route and the massacre would never have happened. As it was, the battery reached Malmédy without incident at about 1215 and found various serials of Combat Command R of the 7th Armored Division crossing the town from north to south on their way to St. Vith. The Battery B route-marking truck had already passed through and was south of Malmedy.

At the east end of Malmédy on the main N-23 St. Vith road, the leading jeep was stopped by an engineer, Lt. Col. David Pergrin. His 291st Engineer Combat Battalion had been stationed in the area since early November, and while most of the troops in Malmédy had moved west in the face of the German offensive, Pergrin and one company of engineers had decided to stay and defend the vital road center until reinforcements could arrive. The rest of his battalion was scattered throughout the northern Ardennes on various winterization duties. His appeals for reinforcements had fallen on deaf ears.

Pergrin had no idea of the extent of the enemy’s strength, but one of his own jeep patrols had warned him that a German armored column was approaching the area to the southeast of Malmédy. He therefore warned Captain Mills and Lt. Lary not to proceed in that direction, and advised them to turn around and go to St. Vith via Stavelot, Trois Ponts and Vielsalm. But the artillery officers would not listen. They had their orders, perhaps most important of all, they knew that two of the men with the route-marker truck were farther down that route and they were due to pick them up.”

Ignoring Lt. Col.Pergrin’s warning, Battery B proceeded on its way. Preceding the Battery B convoy on the N-23 was an ambulance of the 575th Ambulance Company, returning to its base in Waimes after a visit to the same 44th Evacuation Hospital. Following it were four more ambulances, three from the 575th and one from the 546th Company. In short, Pelgrin’s decision to stay and defend this vital junction was important to direct the flow of traffic in all directions and act to forewarn convoys of potential dangers ahead.

The junction of the N-23 and N-32, less than two miles southeast of Malmédy, was known locally as the Baugnez crossroads, or as the Americans called it, Five Points, because it was the intersection of five main roads south of Malmedy. Waiting at Five Points was the Battery B route marker and a military policeman whose job it was to direct the remaining 7th Armored Division vehicles which were moving through Stavelot en route to Vielsalm. The only buildings near the crossroads were the Café Bodarwé, on the southwest side of the junction with two farms beyond it, another farm on the north side, and two small houses on the east side of the N-23; one was about 150 yards off the main road and the other just over half a mile south of Five Points.

At about 1245 the military policeman and route marker waved Capt.Mills and Lt. Lary’s jeep through Five Points in the direction of Ligneuville and St. Vith. The visibility was good, the temperature just above zero with little snow on the ground except for a light covering in places untouched by the sun. Shortly after this, with the lead jeep about half a mile south of the crossroads and the last vehicle of the battery just short of the Café Bodarwé, the column came under fire from two German tanks some 800 to 1,000 yards to its east. These tanks were part of Kampfgruppe Peiper’s forces, the leading formation of the 1st SS Panzer Division.

One would say, the German commander, Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, was not happy in the way things were going for his forces. He was frustrated due to tougher than expected opposition by the U.S. 99th Infantry Division against the formations he ordered to create a gap for his forces which included, 117 tanks, 149 armored personnel carriers, 24 artillery pieces and some 40 anti-aircraft guns, He was already more than 12 hours behind schedule, and had so far suffered fewer casualties than expected, but his lead element, under the command of SS Lieutenant Werner Sternebeck, had been reduced from its original seven tanks and a platoon of engineers in halftracks to two Mk. IV tanks and two halftracks.

As Sternebeck moved north on N-32 (the road from Thirimont to Bagatelle), he saw the Battery B convoy moving south on the N-23 to his left. It was an inviting target, and he immediately opened fire with his own 75mm gun and ordered his accompanying tank to do the same. Each tank fired about five or six rounds and then, Peiper ordered them to moved on toward Bagatelle. They turned left and proceeded to Five Points, and turned left again onto the N-23. There they were confronted by the abandoned vehicles of the American convoy–some burning, others in the ditch or crashed into each other. The exact number of vehicles along the road is unknown, but many were still operable and were commandeered by the Germans.

Now on N-23 Sternebeck’s tank moved south, pushing abandoned vehicles out of the way and firing its machine guns at the ditches in which most of the Americans had taken cover. Sternebeck later said he did this to encourage the GIs to surrender and, since the Americans had no heavy weapons at their disposal, the tactic worked. He then waved his arm in the usual manner to indicate to the surrendering Americans that they were to march back down the road toward Five Points, and halted his tank near the head of the convoy to await further orders from Peiper.

In Part 3, we will detail the massacre at Malmedy and look at the other dozen murders of U.S. troops and civilians that were spurred by Hitler’s orders.

Read Part 1 here

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