After the brief encounter with Battery B’s small convoy of jeeps and trucks Sternebeck’s two tanks turned left from N-32 and began heading south onto N-23, pushing the abandoned U.S. jeeps and damaged trucks from the roadway. The surrendered U.S. troops gave up their small arms and lined up alongside the road to begin walking back down the road toward the Five Points junction. A few of managed to escape into the woods.
As the U.S. troops began to “route-step” march (route-step marching is walking unsynchronized at spaced intervals in at-ease fashion) down the roadway, Sternebeck halted his tank near the head of the convoy to await further orders from Peiper. While awaiting orders, the SS troops began inspecting which of the jeeps and trucks could be commandeered for their use, and many were put to use by the Germans.
When Peiper arrived at the junction he was upset because they were off-schedule by about 12 hours due to mounting delays and ordered Sternebeck’s tanks to proceed without haste toward Ligneuville, while Peiper dispatched a squad of SS to deal with the U.S. prisoners. Following that order the full German column, with the exception of the “SS death squad”, followed after Sternebeck.
As Peiper’s column moved out, the American prisoners were taken to a field adjacent to Café Bodarwé, and were joined with other POW’s captured by the SS earlier in the day bringing the total number to about 120 (NOTE: the exact count was not known as the Germans did not keep records of prisoners who were executed, but from the war crimes trial testimony most of the survivors calculated the total number to be around 120-140).
For reasons that remain unclear today, through the actions of Peiper to leave behind a squad of SS “to deal with the prisoners”, was the basis of Allies assertions that the massacre which was about to occur, was deliberate since no provisions were made to deal with captured prisoners in the first place. The mentality of the SS troops who were so indoctrinated to Hilter’s insane view of German superiority and desire for global dominance, I am sure Peiper gave little thought to the outcome that was to follow by leaving that squad of SS behind.
Once gathered in the field the SS troops suddenly fired on their prisoners with machine guns. Nazi sympathizers and historian revisionists have all kinds of thoughts regarding the willful disregard to human life and the facts. To justify why the SS troops opened fire, several of those who were interrogated upon capture by the end of the war, claimed that several of the U.S. POW’s had tried to escape. Even a bigger stretch of the imagination posed by some of the SS troops and later jumped on by Nazi sympathizers was that a few of the prisoners had recovered their previously discarded weapons and fired on the German troops first. Contrary to this thought is that the U.S. troops surrendered their weapons back down the road on N-23 when they were forced to surrender.
There was an explanation told by Peiper’s adjutant, Hans Gruhle, who said, “that there was a gap of about 10 minutes between Sternebeck and the command group leaving Baugnez and the arrival of the first elements of the main body of the Peiper’s Panzer Kampfgruppe. During this time the Americans were left to their own devices and, since they were not marching toward the east as would have been expected of normal POWs, the newly arrived elements mistook them for a combat unit and opened fire”. Gruhle’s account would have little credibility with anyone studying the event since, by his own admission, he was allegedly traveling at or near the rear of the Peiper’s column.
Additionally from the Axis Forum discussions regarding the command given by Hitler to “take no prisoners”, Gruhle contradicted his own account when recalling the events leading to the massacre…
“Peiper knew nothing despite all the allied efforts to pin some blame on him for ordering the incident, nothing concrete could be found”. Additionally, Peiper testified that on 14 Dec 1944 he visited the LAH headquarters (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler) and was given an order, signed by SS-Oberstgruppenfuehrer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, which Peiper described as follows:
“I can remember that in this material, among other things, was an order of the Sixth SS Panzer Army, with the contents that, considering the desperate situation of the German people, ‘a wave of terror and fright’ should precede our troops. Also, this order pointed out that the German soldier should, in this offensive, recall the innumerable German victims of the bombing terror. Furthermore, it was stated in this order that German resistance had to be broken by terror. Also, I am nearly certain that in this order was expressly stated that prisoners of war must be shot where local conditions should so require it. This order was incorporated into the Regimental Order.” (quoted in Charles Messenger’s “Hitler’s Gladiator: The Life and Times of Oberstgruppenfuehrer and Panzergeneral-Oberst der Waffen-SS Sepp Dietrich,” Brassey’s, London: 1988, p. 178)
Dietrich testified that he had indeed given such an order, because the Ardennes offensive represented “the decisive hour of the German people.” (Messenger, p. 179). …and then went on to say:
“The Fuehrer said we would have to act with brutality and show no humane inhibitions. He also said that a wave of fright and terror should precede the attack, and that the enemy’s resistance was to be broken by terror.” (Richard Gallagher, “Malmedy Massacre,” Paperback Library, New York: 1964, p. 111).
Gruhle, confirmed the existence of the order, and Peiper’s battalion commander Josef Diefenthal admitted that, pursuant to this order, he had told his men to execute captured American troops. (Messenger, p. 179). Four other witnesses at the Malmedy massacre trial, who were not defendants, testified that Peiper told his troops:
“Drive on recklessly, give no quarter, and take no prisoners.” (Gallagher, p. 111).
Even though Peiper and Dietrich later retracted their statements, saying that they made them as the result of depression, the testimony of other witnesses corroborated the original confessions, and as a result Peiper and Dietrich were convicted during the war crimes trial.
Back to the massacre as it took place…The last four and trailing trucks from Company B, which had followed the Battery B convoy under the command of Lt. Ksidzek had made a brief detour to the 44th Evacuation Hospital to get treatment for a sick corporal, and was coming up the hill from Malmédy. They were about a quarter mile behind the ambulances from the 575th and 546th Companies, which had been following Battery B to the crossroads when Sternebeck’s tanks open fire on the lead units of Battery B. Lt. Ksidzek heard the shooting and realized they were running into trouble. They wisely turned around and got back to Malmédy without loss.
According to civilian witnesses, at around 1400 (2 PM), American Prisoners of War had been assembled in the field by the Café. The total number is in question because of conflicting reports, however it has been documented that among those POW’s, “were included 90 members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (all except three from Battery B), 10 men from the five ambulances, the military policeman who had been on traffic duty at Five Points, the 86th Battalion engineer and 11 men who had been captured by Peiper before reaching the Baugnez Crossroads–eight from the 32nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, two from the 200th Field Artillery Battalion and a sergeant from the 23rd Infantry Regiment”.
The most fortunate were five members of Battery B who managed to escape from the front of the convoy, and another from the last truck who succeeded in hiding until he was able to make a safe getaway. Four or those not murdered by the SS, plus three men from the 32nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, were forced to drive some of the serviceable American vehicles the Germans had salvaged from their encounter with B Battery, and became POWs. From the roster of Battery B, 11 men were killed either during the initial event or in unknown circumstances, but their bodies were not found until February and April 1945. Two men from the 197th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion were killed when their jeep, which was in front of the Battery B convoy, ran into Sternebeck’s vehicles just to the east of Five Points. According to a young Belgian boy who witnessed the incident, they were shot in cold blood after being ordered out of the ditch in which they were hiding.
The entire tragic episode of the massacre lasted about 15 minutes. While the shootings were taking place in the field, Peiper’s vehicles nonchalantly continued to drive past the field on the N-23 and by 1500 (3 PM) the Baugnez Crossroads was silent. Witnesses stated that SS troops walked among those POWs machine-gunned down in the field and shot anyone in the head appearing to have survived. Like most of what the Waffen SS had done during the war, they were woefully inefficient at soldiering, and were disengaged with the task at hand. Many Americans pretended to be dead and at around 1600 hours (4 PM), 61 who were still alive in the field of death next to the Café attempted their escape. Unfortunately, there were still a few Germans in the vicinity, and they opened fire as the escapees ran to the west and northwest. At least 18 of those were killed by the remaining Germans.
Lt.Col. Pergrin, who was manning the crossroads at Malmedy and had advised the officers of Battery B, Captain Mills and Lt. Lary, not to proceed in the direction of the Baugnez Crossroads, and advised them to turn around and go to St. Vith via Stavelot, Trois Ponts and Vielsalm because of reported German tank movements, heard the firing by Sternebeck’s tanks and guessed that that Battery B must have run into them. “Sometime around 1500 he decided to make a reconnaissance toward Baugnez to investigate the noise. After passing through one of the eight roadblocks his men had mounted on all the approaches into Malmédy, Pergrin and one of his sergeants dismounted from their jeep at Geromont and continued on foot in a southerly direction. Suddenly they encountered three of the escapees from Five Points. They were hysterical and kept shouting, ‘The Germans killed everybody’! Pergrin rushed them back to Malmédy, and at 1640 sent a message to the chief engineer officer at First Army headquarters saying there had been some sort of massacre of American prisoners near Malmédy”.
Those Americans slaughtered at the Baugnez Crossroads remained buried in the snow until January 14, 1945. The Americans had made no attempt to recover the bodies despite the clear evidence that the massacre had taken place. It was on January 30th that the 30th Infantry Division retook the area, and ironic that members of Lt. Col. Pergrin’s engineers began uncovering the bodies of those killed in Baugnez field. With the autopsies conducted January 14-16 by the doctors of the same 44th Evacuation Hospital that rendered aid to the corporal of Battery B, taken there by Lt. Ksidzek, the gruesomeness of the atrocity was brought to light.
Doctors, Major Giacento Morrone, Captain Joseph Kurcz and Captain John Snyder, carried out autopsies, “on the bodies, which were frozen stiff and fully clothed on arrival at the hospital. The vast majority still had rings, watches, money and other valuables on them, which contradicts the statements of most survivors who said the Germans stole everything worthwhile from them before they were driven into the field. An analysis of the reports, all extremely disturbing to read, shows that 43 of the bodies had gunshot wounds to the head, at least three had suffered severe blows to the head, three had been crushed, two had received some form of first aid before death and nine still had their arms raised above their heads. There is also evidence to show that in at least five cases eyes had been removed from their sockets–and in one case the report suggests that the man was still alive when this happened”.
Malmedy was a prelude to the killing of POWs by the Waffen SS during the final battles of World War II. In Part 4 we will discuss some of the other known instances of atrocities that occurred during the Battle of the Bulge and discuss how a civilized society deals with such brutality and mayhem. Though the results of the Malmedy War Crime Trials were far from satisfactory for many of those intimately associated with the massacre, the trials did pave the way for future war crimes tribunals that were to follow.