Malmedy Massacre Trial
SS Lt. Heinz Tomhardt listens as his death sentence is read
The photograph above shows a very young German SS soldier, who was one of the accused in the Malmedy Massacre trial, as the death sentence is read to him. His defense attorney, Lt. Col. Willis M. Everett, stands on the right. Four of the SS men who were sentenced to death were only 18 years old.
The Battle of the Bulge was no ordinary battle; it was one of the biggest land battles of World War II and resulted in the highest number of American casualties. It was a surprise attack by the Germans through the Ardennes Forest, Hitler's last desperate attempt to split the Allied armies and reverse the course of the war. There had long been rumors that Hitler was secretly developing a "miracle weapon," and it was at the Battle of the Bulge that the jet airplane was first used by the Germans.
The area in Belgium where the battle was fought had been the scene of similar battles in 1870, 1914 and 1940. This was Hitler's last stand, the last counteroffensive of the German army, and the Germans knew that if this battle were lost, the war would most likely be lost. The battle was very intense with the Germans putting everything they had into it.
As John Toland wrote, regarding the gallant battle fought by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge: "Boys of fourteen and fifteen died, rifles frozen to their hands; men in their fifties were found in cellars, feet black with putrefaction." Hitler was counting on Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army, whose soldiers had fought heroically against the Soviet Communists on the Eastern front, to save the Fatherland from the "Judeo-Bolsheviks" by winning this crucial battle in Belgium.
Dietrich assigned Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper the great honor of leading the battle group which would spearhead the attack. Peiper was a veteran of the greatest tank battle of all time, fought between the German Tiger tanks and the Russian T-34 tanks at Kursk in July 1943. At almost 30 years of age, Peiper was the youngest combat colonel in the Waffen-SS and he was on track to becoming the youngest General in this elite German army. He had been awarded the Iron Cross first class for bravery in battle, and was regarded as one of Germany's leading experts in tank warfare. Under his command, Peiper's 1 SS Panzer Korps had disabled more than one hundred Russian tanks in combat.
Such was Peiper's reputation as a panzer ace that his defense attorney made the suggestion that he should be brought to America as a consultant in America's Cold War with the Soviet Union. In fact, General Heinz Guderian, Germany's leading expert in armored strategy, had been brought to Ft. Knox after the war to advise the American Army on tank warfare. Peiper and his men had already been interviewed extensively in prison by US Army tactical experts.
In the first few days of the battle, there was mass confusion caused by a team of 28 Germans dressed in American uniforms, led by the famous commando Otto Skorzeny. Riding in stolen American jeeps, they created havoc by directing American troops down the wrong road, changing signposts and cutting telephone wires to General Bradley's field headquarters. Four of the team were captured and when they confessed their mission, the American army immediately broadcast the news that there were thousands of Germans operating behind enemy lines. Skorzeny and his men were later brought before the American military tribunal at Dachau in another proceeding.
Otto Skorzeny, famous German commando
Otto Skorzeny, shown in the photo above, was acquitted after the presiding judge allowed testimony that the American military had committed the same crime of wearing enemy uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge. Although he was acquitted, Skorzeny was still held in prison after the verdict; he finally escaped and fled to South America.
John Toland described the opening scene of the battle in the following passage from his book entitled Adolf Hitler:
By midnight the Ardennes battlefield was in turmoil, a scene of indescribable confusion to those involved in the hundreds of struggles. No one - German or American, private or general - knew what was really happening. In the next two days a series of disasters struck the defenders. On the snowy heights of the Schnee Eiffel at least 8000 Americans - perhaps 9000 for the battle was too confused for accuracy - were bagged by Hitler's troops. Next to Bataan, it was the greatest mass surrender of Americans in history.
The enlisted men among the Malmedy Massacre accused averaged less than 22 years in age. There were only 30 men who were original members of the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, including Lt. Col. Peiper and General Sepp Dietrich. Many of the accused SS soldiers were baby-faced, uneducated 17 and 18-year-olds with little combat experience, but a few others were some of the toughest and most battle-hardened men in the German armed forces, who had been in combat for six years. They had fought some fierce battles on the Eastern front and seen unbelievable atrocities committed by our Russian allies, including mutilated bodies on the battlefield, sodomy on German POWs and cannibalism in which parts of the bodies of German POWs had been sliced off and eaten.
The photograph below, taken in the fall of 1941 on the eastern front, was published in a book by Professor Franz W. Seidler who found it in the files of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, Case 304, after the war.
Body of German soldier in Russian POW Camp 2, Stalag 305, 1941
Because the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, the Germans were not required to observe the international rules of warfare with regard to our Russian allies who were committing the most sickening atrocities on the battlefield with no regard for the unwritten rules of civilized warfare.
During the proceedings, the prosecution contended that Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper had instructed his men to fight as they had fought against the Russians, disregarding international law about the treatment of prisoners of war. The defendants testified that they had been instructed to take no prisoners, but they understood this to mean that because they were fighting in a tank unit, they were supposed to send POWs to the rear to picked up by infantry units.
Gen. Sepp Dietrich is No. 11, Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper is No. 42
In the photograph above, General Sepp Dietrich is No. 11; he was sentenced to death by hanging. Next to him is Prisoner No. 33, General Fritz Krämer, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Prisoner No. 45 is General Hermann Priess who was sentenced to life in prison, but his sentence was commuted to 20 years. No. 42 is Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper who was sentenced to death by hanging.
Besides the killing of 72 American soldiers at the Baugnez Crossroads, near the village of Malmedy, there were many other charges against the 73 accused. The charge sheet specifically stated that the 73 accused men
"did....at, or in the vicinity of Malmedy, Honsfeld, Büllingen, Lignauville, Stoumont, La Gleize, Cheneux, Petit Thier, Trois Ponts, Stavelot, Wanne and Lutre-Bois, all in Belgium, at sundry times between 16 December 1944 and 13 January 1945, willfully, deliberately, and wrongfully permit, encourage, aid, abet, and participate in the killings, shooting, ill treatment, abuse and torture of members of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, then at war with the then German Reich, who were then and there surrendered and unarmed prisoners of war in the custody of the then German Reich, the exact names and numbers of such persons being unknown aggregating several hundred, and of unarmed civilian nationals, the exact names and numbers of such persons being unknown."
In all, the accused were charged with murdering between 538 to 749 nameless Prisoners of War and over 90 unidentified Belgian civilians in the locations mentioned on the charge sheet, which is quoted above. The accused SS men claimed that the civilians, who were killed, had been actively aiding the Americans during the fighting. According to the rules of the Geneva Convention, shooting partisans was allowed.
The prosecution claimed that General Sepp Dietrich, on direct orders from Hitler himself, had urged the SS men to remember the German civilians killed by the Allied bombing, and to disregard the rules of warfare that were mandated by the Hague Convention of 1907 and the 1929 Geneva convention. This meant that all of the accused were charged with participating in a conspiracy of evil that came from the highest level, the moral equivalent of the Nazi conspiracy to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, which was one of the charges against the major German war criminals at Nuremberg.
Several movies and TV documentaries have been made about the Malmedy Massacre including one made in the 1960ies entitled "Battleground." Hans Schmidt, who was a young SS soldier with the LAH division during the Battle of the Bulge, made fun of this movie in his autobiographical book, "SS Panzergrenadier." He wrote that the machine gun shown in this move was a type used in World War I. In the massacre scene in this movie, SS men are hiding in a tarpaulin-covered truck when "Suddenly the ramp of the truck was opened and the SS soldiers began shooting at the helpless captives." Schmidt wrote that after forty or fifty years this "dastardly scene still has today the same anti-German effect on young, innocent Americans as it had then."
Quoted below is Schmidt's version of the Malmedy Massacre, which is included in his book "SS Panzergrenadier, " published in 2002:
A day into the German attack, after the spearhead of the First SS Panzer Division under the command of Colonel Jochen Peiper overcame the initial American defenses near the Belgian-German border, the German forces ran into a column of nearly 200 American soldiers belonging to Battery B, 285th Field Observation Battalion that had been ordered to join other U.S. forces in the vicinity. This unfortunate American unit was traveling in their (no doubt well-closed - to ward off the cold) vehicles, seemingly unaware of the Germans nearby. Actually, both the German and American units ran into each other, with the Germans being the more alert since they were the very head of an entire Panzer army.
As can be expected, the German force (consisting mainly of five tanks and a few accompanying vehicles) opened fire when they came upon the enemy, immediately aiming at the very first and the very last of the American vehicles, as was a battle custom, and then raked the entire column with their machine guns and a number of shells from tank cannon, creating an inferno of burning and exploding American trucks and Jeeps. The GIs were totally surprised, and offered little resistance. According to everybody involved, the entire action lasted about ten minutes, after which most of the GIs surrendered.
Since the German commander, Colonel Peiper, had the order to reach a certain target at a given time, he did what can be seen in numerous WW2 newsreels of Third Reich war footage when rapidly advancing German tank units took enemy prisoners: the Americans were disarmed (but seemingly not body searched), and merely told to assemble in a clearing beside the road, lightly guarded by a few Germans in two vehicles, a half-track and probably a VW Schwimmwagen. The bulk of the German force continued, almost without interruption, on its way.
Once the tanks and other vehicles of Peiper's spearhead were out of sight, some of the Americans realized that they far outnumbered the handful of Germans guarding them. Knowing that American-occupied Malmedy was but a few thousand yards away, they saw an opportunity to escape into the nearby forest. The watchful Germans obviously saw this and fired at the escapees.
As a result, all hell broke loose. Many of the GIs had heard U.S. propaganda stories of the SS massacring their prisoners, and they believed that their end was near. They also tried to flee. Others remained on the spot where they stood in the snow, and merely did what soldiers do when firing begins: They hugged the ground, and looked for cover. Still other GIs (actually only very few) pulled the handguns they had hidden, or grabbed rifles that were still lying around and fired back at the German guards.
A few minutes later, after some of the Americans had made their escape, the German main force entered the area, traveling the same road as Peiper's group. Hearing the small arms fire, the German soldiers on the first vehicles of the main battle group undoubtedly were ready for action when they came upon the scene of the skirmish, and they also fired at the Americans.
Several minutes more, and this shooting also ended again with the Americans surrendering. This time the captured remainder of the Americans were more heavily guarded until the German main force had passed, and then they were marched back toward the east, into captivity. According to one source I spoke to, about 120 GIs counted as survivors of the "massacre" but I was never able to get a confirmation of this number. I maintain that had it been the German aim to really "massacre" the Americans at the Baugnez crossroads, they would have killed them all.
On December 17th, there was low visibility due to weather and terrain conditions in the Ardennes mountain region. And anybody who has seen the result of the rapid fire of a MG-42 on a column of soldiers can imagine the carnage that had occurred after the first GIs began to flee. This fastest machine gun of World War II could theoretically be fired at a rate of 1,550 rounds per minute, three times as fast as the .30 caliber American heavy (water cooled) machine gun then still in use.
Only few Americans had a chance to make it to their own forces stationed at Malmedy, and some of these honestly believed to have been the survivors of a premeditated massacre. About two decades ago, I attended a meeting of American ex-POWs in Washington, DC. Many of these former GIs had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately, I was able to talk to one of the fellows who had managed to escape during the shooting at the Baugnez crossing and make his way back to the American lines. He was one of those men who testified after the war against the Waffen-SS soldiers at the infamous "Malmedy Massacre Trial." In essence he confirmed the story of the incident as I have explained it above. After all these years he still thought it wrong for the Germans to have shot at a couple of escapees since this action resulted in the pandemonium that caused additional American deaths. When I asked him what he would have done, had he been ordered to guard German captives and one or more had tried to escape, he answered that he would have shot them. I was unable to convince this ex-GI that this was all the Waffen-SS guards did in this case.