|Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006
The delightful Belgian town of Malmédy will forever be associated with the most infamous massacre of American troops in World War II. And yet, but for the presence of an Associated Press correspondent there in early January 1945, it is doubtful that this terrible incident would have ever achieved international notoriety. ‘Nazis Turned Machine Guns on GI POWs wrote Hal Boyle in his January 1945 Stars and Stripes article, and from that first graphic account sprung a plethora of books and articles about the so-called Malmédy Massacre. Few of these accounts are based on fact, and most are embellished and inaccurate.
It is unlikely that we shall ever know the precise sequence of events at the Baugnez crossroads, near Malmédy, on December 17, 1944, or the reasons for them. The secret lies with the guilty and the dead. Nevertheless, many corroborated facts are known and a careful analysis of these facts can bring us closer to the truth of what happened.
On December 16, 1944, the day Adolf Hitler’s great Ardennes offensive began, Captain Leon Scarborough, the officer commanding Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, was told that his battery was being transferred from VII Corps to VIII Corps at 0600 hours the following day and that he was to report to his new headquarters at St. Vith in the Ardennes. Before leaving Schevenhutte, near Aachen, Germany, Scarborough instructed Lieutenant Ksidzek, his executive officer, to move the unit to the new area on the 17th. Scarborough took five members of the battery with him. A route-marking truck commanded by Lieutenant Gier was to precede the battery by about two hours with another five men.
On reaching the VIII Corps artillery headquarters at 0900 on the 17th, Scarborough was told to check in with the 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion for a survey and other data relating to his new area of operations. He was then to report to the 4th Infantry Division artillery headquarters in Luxembourg. He left instructions for his battery to be redirected to join him.
Battery B left Schevenhutte at 0800 on 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. This operation, known as Greif, was commanded by the famous Colonel Friedrich von der Heydte. It is sadly ironic that had the paratroopers landed as planned and not been dispersed over a wide area, Battery B 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.
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 bugged out to the west in the face of the German offensive, Pergrin had decided to stay and defend the vital road center until reinforcements could arrive. He had only one company of engineers available to him. 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 Lieutenant 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, their place on a designated route and, perhaps most important of all, they knew that two of the men with the route-marker truck were farther down that route and that they were due to pick them up. Ignoring Pergrin’s warning, the battery proceeded on its way. However, four vehicles at the rear of the convoy did not follow immediately. Owing to the sickness of a corporal who appeared to have food poisoning, Ksidzek in the battery commander’s car, the battery maintenance and wire trucks and the route markers’ pickup truck diverted to the 44th Evacuation Hospital in Malmédy to obtain medical treatment. These four vehicles carried a total of 27 men.
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 44th Evacuation Hospital. Following it were four more ambulances, three from the 575th and one from the 546th Company.
The junction of the N-23 and N-32, less than two miles southeast of Malmédy, was known locally as the Baugnez crossroads. Since it was the junction of five roads, the Americans called it Five Points. Standing at the crossroads at about midday on December 17 was a Battery B route marker and a military policeman whose job was to direct the remaining serials of the 7th Armored Division. The only buildings near the crossroads in those days 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 150 yards and the other just over half a mile south of Five Points.
At about 1245 the military policeman and route marker waved Mills and Lary’s jeep through Five Points in the direction of Ligneuville and St. Vith. The visibility was good, the temperature just above zero and there was no 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 the point of Kampfgruppe (KGr.) Peiper, the leading formation of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. This division, the premier in the Waffen SS, together with its twin, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, had been given the honor of spearheading the Sixth Panzer Army’s attack toward the Meuse River. They were the only formations in the Wehrmacht to bear the Führer‘s name, and they enjoyed a fearsome reputation–both had already been accused of various war crimes and of killing prisoners in cold blood.
The commander of KGr. Peiper was SS Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, a former adjutant to Heinrich Himmler and holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Through his service in France and on the Eastern Front he was renowned as a brilliant soldier and commander, but on this particular day he was tired and frustrated. Due to tougher than expected opposition by the U.S. 99th Infantry Division against the formations ordered to create a gap for his 117 tanks, 149 armored personnel carriers, 24 artillery pieces and some 40 anti-aircraft guns, he was already more than 12 hours behind schedule. Peiper had so far suffered few casualties, 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 Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw.) Mk. IV tanks and two halftracks.
As Sternebeck moved north on the road from Thirimont to Bagatelle on the N-32, 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, on Peiper’s order, moved as fast as possible to Bagatelle, where they turned left and proceeded to Five Points, then turned left again onto the N-23. There they were confronted by the abandoned vehicles of the American convoy–some burning, some shot up, others in the ditch or crashed into each other. The exact number of vehicles along the road is unknown, but many were fit enough for use by the Germans after the incident.
After turning onto the N-23 Sternebeck’s PzKw. Mk. IV 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 told the author that he did this to encourage the GIs to surrender and, since the Americans had no heavy weapons at their disposal, the tactic soon 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. These were not long in coming. Peiper was furious at the delay the incident had caused, and, after transferring to his infantry commander’s halftrack, he drove up to Sternebeck and ordered him in no uncertain terms to move on toward Ligneuville. Then, together with a PzKw. Mk. V Panther tank and the halftracks of the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Company, Peiper followed Sternebeck. The time was about 1330 hours.
While the survivors of Battery B were being assembled in a field immediately adjacent to, and south of, the Café Bodarwé, three trucks from Company B of the 86th Engineer Battalion came up the hill from Malmédy and, after halting behind the ambulances at the rear of Battery B, were fired on by the Germans. Five of the men in these trucks managed to get away, although one of them was wounded and a sixth was captured.
The last four Battery B vehicles under the command of Ksidzek, having dropped off the sick corporal, also approached Baugnez at about this time, but they heard the shooting and realized they were running into trouble. Ksidzek wisely turned around and got back to Malmédy without loss.
By about 1400, 113 Americans had been assembled in the field by the Café. They 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 KGr. Peiper before reaching Baugnez–eight from the 32nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, two from the 200th Field Artillery Battalion and a sergeant from the 23rd Infantry Regiment.
In addition to these 113 prisoners, a further 26 men were involved in this tragic meeting with KGr. Peiper. 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 more, plus three men from the 32nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, were forced to drive some of the serviceable American vehicles for the Germans and became POWs. However, 11 Battery B men were killed either during the initial clash or in unknown circumstances–their bodies were not found until February and April 1945–and in addition, two men from the 197th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion were killed when their jeep, which was presumably 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.
At approximately 1415, soldiers of KGr. Peiper opened fire on the American prisoners in the field next to the Café. The entire episode lasted no more than about 15 minutes. While the shooting was taking place, vehicles of the Kampfgruppe continued to drive past on the N-23. By 1500 Baugnez was quiet, and it was shortly after this, and certainly before 1600 hours, that 61 Americans who somehow 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 15 were killed. Three more died later, and one was never seen again.
Lieutenant Colonel Pergrin, standing outside his headquarters in a house in eastern Malmédy, heard the firing by Sternebeck’s tanks and guessed that that little FAOB outfit must have run into that column of German tanks. 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.
The bodies of those who had died at Five Points on December 17 lay in what became a virtual no man’s land from that day until January 14, 1945. Despite the fact that there was clear evidence from the many survivors that some sort massacre had taken place, the Americans made no attempt to recover the bodies before the 30th Infantry Division retook the area.
By a strange quirk of fate it was one of Pergrin’s engineer companies that, with the aid of mine detectors, uncovered the snow-covered bodies of 71 victims of the massacre. Then, between January 14 and 16, Major Giacento Morrone, Captain Joseph Kurcz and Captain John Snyder, all doctors at the 44th Evacuation Hospital, 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. It should be noted, however, that both before and during the American advance from Malmédy in January 1945, artillery from both sides hit the Baugnez area, and the autopsies confirm that at least 15 of the bodies had been hit by shell and mortar fragments after death. 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. While anything is possible, it seems unlikely that even the most depraved or crazed soldier would carry out such an act and, as often happens when bodies are left for long periods in the open, crows or similar birds of prey were the more likely culprits. What is certain is that terrible and usually fatal injuries were administered to the victims at close range.
Today there are 84 names on the Belgian memorial at the Baugnez crossroads. Some are misspelled, and Private Louis Vairo’s name was mistakenly deleted a few years ago. The name of Private Delbert Johnson of the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion appears on the memorial, but this is also a mistake–he was not present at Five Points on December 17, but was killed in the same area during an attack toward Hedomont on January 3, 1945. Not surprisingly, when his body was found on January 14 it was assumed that he was a victim of the massacre. This mistake and the fact that men from seven units other than the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion were recovered from Five Points have led to the suggestion that bodies unconnected with this incident were deliberately placed in the field by U.S. authorities after December 17. This is one of a number of spurious arguments presented by Nazi apologists over the years in their efforts to prove that no massacre took place or that, at the very least, the Americans tried to make the incident look much worse than it really was.
The Malmédy Massacre continues to provoke as much argument today as it did during the subsequent war crimes trial at Dachau in 1946. Most Americans take the view that it was probably a premeditated act or at best a spur of the moment shooting of defenseless men. Those Germans who were involved and others who take an interest in the affair, and various pro-Nazi American and European writers, naturally attempt to provide some sort of justification for the shooting.
Twenty-one American survivors made statements to U.S. authorities in Malmédy on December 17, the same day as the massacre, and on the following day–long before there was any possibility of collusion or anybody putting ideas into their heads. They all told essentially the same story: After surrendering to a German armored column and being disarmed, they were assembled in a field just south of the crossroads. The Germans then opened fire on them with machine guns and rifles. In most cases, the survivors mentioned two pistol shots before the main shooting started. They said that soldiers then entered the field and shot anyone who showed any signs of life and that many of the bodies were kicked or prodded in order to get a response. Following this, the German column continued to drive past, with some of the vehicle crews taking potshots at the bodies lying in the field. All but one of the survivors insisted that no attempt to escape had been made before the Germans opened fire, and that the escape attempt came at a much later stage when they thought the Germans had left the area.
Media interest in the affair, particularly in later years, has led to this relatively simple story being embellished, even by some of the victims. One survivor told the author in 1989 that he saw SS General Josef Sepp Dietrich, commander of the Sixth Panzer Army, goose-stepping past the massacre field as the Americans stood there. And the only surviving officer, Virgil Lary, talked of Tiger tanks, 88mm guns and large numbers of tanks forcing his men to surrender. Such exaggerations inevitably played into the hands of those who wished to cast doubt on the survivors’ original version of events.
Apart from some minor inconsistencies, such as Lieutenant Lary saying on December 18 that after escaping from the field he got a lift into Malmédy in a truck, but later changing his story to one of two Belgian women helping him to get there on foot aided by a makeshift crutch, the only real point in contention is whether or not there was any attempt to escape that might have caused the Germans to open fire.
Peiper himself, as previously stated, had allegedly left the Baugnez area before the shooting started. After the war he described how he had seen three groups of Americans before he moved on to Ligneuville–those with their hands up, those lying on the ground and in the ditches either dead or pretending to be dead, and a third group who, after pretending to be dead, got up and tried to run to nearby woods. He said his men fired warning shots at the latter two groups.
Most German apologists, and certainly many former members of Leibstandarte, subscribe to the explanation given 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 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. How Gruhle could have known what happened on that tragic afternoon, however, is a mystery since he was allegedly traveling at or near the rear of the column!
With the passing of time this story, too, has been embellished to a point where the surrendered Americans, having recovered their weapons, actually opened fire on the main body of the Kampfgruppe. It is hard to comprehend how supposedly intelligent people can advance a theory that green and terrified soldiers who had already surrendered would pick up their rifles and pistols–they had nothing larger–which hardened Waffen SS soldiers had left lying around, in order to engage tanks and halftracks.
On the other side of the coin, many Americans subscribe to the theory that orders had been issued at the highest level that no U.S. prisoners were to be taken and that the offensive was to be conducted in a wave of terror. This latter point is correct. Hitler used those words in an address to his senior commanders only four days before the attack. However, the fact that Peiper’s men sent scores of prisoners to the rear in the normal manner during their advance earlier on the 17th belies the no-prisoners theory, and attempts by the Americans to produce written evidence of such an order for use at the Dachau war crimes trial came to nothing.
It has to be noted that Peiper’s men faced a very real problem in deciding what to do with the large number of prisoners taken in the Baugnez area. According to all German reports, Peiper was in a hurry to get to Ligneuville and capture the U.S. headquarters there, and he ordered the rest of the Kampfgruppe to follow up as quickly as possible. Faced with mounting delays and an irate commander, what were those at the crossroads to do with the prisoners? Armored columns had no spare manpower to look after POWs, and none of the follow-up infantry formations were anywhere near Five Points at the time. More than 100 men, even if they have surrendered and been disarmed, cannot be left to their own devices for long. Nor could they be ordered to start marching to the rear into captivity, as is usual in such circumstances, because there was a simple problem of geography. Peiper had penetrated the American lines on a very narrow front–a single road–and this meant that as far as the Germans were concerned the enemy lay along the N-23 to the northwest in Malmédy, the N-32 to the northeast in Waimes and the N-23 to the south in Ligneuville. There was therefore no road along which they could order the prisoners to set off. And it was more than possible that American combat units would move south out of Malmédy at any moment.
A combination of all these factors–an angry SS lieutenant colonel in a hurry, no spare men to guard the prisoners, no easily available route to the rear and the possibility of American combat troops arriving at any moment–must have created a nightmare scenario for the officer in charge. It is therefore quite possible that he decided to take the simplest and most practical way out of his dilemma by giving an order to shoot the prisoners. And it is certainly possible that Peiper himself gave such an order before he moved on. But if it was not Peiper, who could it have been? Among those present at Baugnez at the relevant time, there are several possibilities: Major Werner Poetschke, commander of Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Battalion; Lieutenant Erich Rumpf, commander of the 9th SS Panzer Pioneer Company; Lieutenant Franz Sievers, commander of the 3rd SS Pioneer Company; and, in view of his later statements about events at the crossroads, it would be unwise to exclude Peiper’s adjutant, Gruhle. There are even some, such as Lieutenant Friedrich Christ, commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Company, and a Sergeant Beutner of the 3rd SS Pioneers, who were later accused by their own comrades of having given orders to open fire on the prisoners.
But what of the possibility that the Germans opened fire on the prisoners because there was an escape attempt? It is after all legal to shoot at escaping POWs, and there is evidence to support this theory. In October 1945 one of the American survivors, in a sworn statement countersigned by one of the chief prosecuting officers, Lieutenant Raphael Schumacker, and witnessed by Sergeant Frank Holtham, said: I decided to try to get away and walked slowly northwardly, but upon reaching a little dirt road or lane decided not to cross the lane or go around it. Sergeant Stabulis, Flack and I were together on this proposition. We turned around, slowly retraced our steps….The group of soldiers in front of me were standing still and I walked slowly southwardly towards the fence at the south end of the field, more or less using the men in front as concealment. I know that Sergeant Stabulis and Pfc Flack were behind me. About two-thirds of the way towards the fence there were no more men to provide concealment so when I reached this point I ran towards the fence as hard as I could, crawled through it and turned to my right and headed for the woods west of the field as fast as I could. Machine gun fire was opened up at me but I was lucky enough to make it to the woods without getting hit and was picked up by the 30th Division a couple of days later….I would like to add that as I came out from behind the crowd into the clear and headed for the south fence, two single shots were fired, which were either pistol or rifle in my opinion.
Flack’s body was found in the field with a bullet hole in the head. Stabulis’ body was not found until April 15, 1945, but since it was more than half a mile south of the field, his initial escape bid was presumably successful.
It would seem therefore that there was a minimum of one successful escape from the field before the main shooting started, in addition to the five men who got away from the front of the Battery B convoy soon after it came under fire from Sternebeck’s tanks. It is also clear from various survivors’ testimonies that there was quite a lot of movement and jostling in the field before the shooting started, and that once the first pistol shots rang out, several men attempted to push their way to the rear of the group. A number of survivors mentioned an American officer shouting, Stand fast!
In summary, it can be said that there is no evidence to support the idea of a premeditated massacre–particularly in view of the fact that over half the Americans in the field survived both the main shooting and the administration of coup de grâce shots by the Germans who entered the field. Nor is it reasonable to suggest that the main body of the Kampfgruppe mistook the men in the field for a fresh combat unit, or that there was a mass escape attempt that caused the Germans to open fire.
So how do we explain the shootings at the Baugnez crossroads on December 17, 1944? There seem to be only two reasonable explanations. The first is that it started in response to a specific escape attempt. Someone saw two or three Americans make the break described in a sworn statement made to Lieutenant Schumacker in October 1945; that person then opened fire and this in turn caused a commotion in the field as some of the prisoners tried to push through their comrades to the west. But this movement, and the fact that at least one and probably two Americans had by then escaped from the field, only exacerbated the situation, and other Germans in the vicinity then fired. Even if this theory is accepted, however, it in no way excuses the deliberate killing of wounded prisoners by those Germans who then entered the field.
The other explanation is that faced with the problem of what to do with so many prisoners, someone made a deliberate decision to shoot them. And it is significant that the majority of the American survivors spoke of a single German taking deliberate aim with his pistol and then firing two shots at the prisoners. The sheer number of Americans in the field and the fact that they were standing in a group meant that many were physically shielded by the bodies of their comrades. This explanation would then require that, after the main shooting, it was necessary to send soldiers into the field to finish off the survivors.
On May 16, 1946, Peiper and 70 members of his Kampfgruppe, plus his army commander, chief of staff and corps commander, were arraigned before a U.S. military court in the former concentration camp at Dachau, charged that they did willfully, deliberately and wrongfully permit, encourage, aid, abet and participate in the killing, shooting, ill treatment, abuse and torture of members of the armed forces of the United States of America. The location chosen for the trial and the number of defendants was clearly significant, and it surprised no one when all the Germans were found guilty. The court of six American officers presided over by a brigadier general took an average of less than three minutes to consider each case. Forty-three of the defendants, including Peiper, Christ, Rumpf, Sievers and Sternebeck, were sentenced to death by hanging (Poetschke had been killed in March 1945), 22 to life imprisonment and the rest to between 10 and 20 years. The Law of the Victors, as it has been called in postwar Germany, had prevailed. But none of the death sentences was ever carried out, and all the prisoners had been released by Christmas 1956. Peiper was the last to leave prison. Sadly, incomplete and rushed investigations, suspicions about the methods used to obtain confessions, and inadequate or flawed evidence ensured that guilty men escaped proper punishment, and there can be little doubt that some innocent men were punished during the trial. In the final analysis, justice itself became another casualty of the incident.
This article was written by Michael Reynolds and originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!