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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Malmedy Massacre

By Tom Morrow

In the bitter-cold winter of 1944, the Allied forces were racing to the Rhine River to overthrow the German Nazi regime; at the same time, the enemy was desperately trying to break through and recapture the port at Antwerp, Belgium. During what became known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” several atrocities took place on both sides, but most of those by the Allies were in retaliation against the murders of POWs and civilians committed by the Nazi Waffen SS.

The “Malmedy Massacre” was a heinous crime where 84 U.S. POWs were murdered by their German captors near Malmedy, Belgium. The atrocity was committed on Dec. 17, 1944, by members of Col. Joachim Peiper’s SS panzer command.

In order to frighten the Allied troops, Hitler ordered the last-ditch counter-offensive to be carried out with a brutality previously used by the Nazis on the Eastern Front in Russia. During his 1946 war-crimes trial in Dachau, Peiper testified “… no quarter was to be granted, no prisoners taken, and no pity shown towards Belgian civilians.

The German SS unit approached the Malmedy crossroads as an American convoy of about 30 trucks and Jeeps arrived. Peiper’s troops opened fire on the American convoy, immobilizing the first and last vehicles of the column, forcing it to halt. Armed with only rifles and other small arms, the Americans had to surrender to the Nazi heavily-armed tank force.

While Peiper’s column continued to move on, a contingent of SS troops left behind, took the American prisoners to a nearby field and opened fire with machine guns. The Americans panicked. Some tried to flee, but most were shot where they stood. A few sought shelter in a café at the crossroads, but SS troops set fire to the building, and shot all who tried to escape the flames. Some in the field had dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead when the shooting began. However, SS troops walked among the bodies and shot any who appeared to be alive.

By late evening of Dec. 17, rumors Nazis were killing POWs had reached American forces. One unit promptly issued orders that “No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight.” There are claims some of the American forces retaliated by killing German prisoners at what became known as the “Chenogne Massacre.”

The size of the Malmedy Massacre caused unusual attention and protest because it was the only one perpetrated on such a large scale against American troops by the Germans during the war. For Malmedy the Dachau war crimes tribunal tried more than 70 SS soldiers and pronounced 43 death sentences (none of which were ever carried out) and 22 life sentences. Eight other men were sentenced to shorter prison sentences.

All the convicted were released during the 1950s, the last one to leave prison was Peiper in December 1956.

Peiper lived in France following his prison release. In 1974, a former Communist resistance fighter uncovered the former SS colonel’s presence in France. Peiper sent his family back to Germany, but he stayed behind. During the night of July 13, 1976, a gunfight took place at Peiper’s house, which was set on fire.

Peiper’s charred body was found the next day with a bullet in his chest. He had just started writing a book about Malmedy and what action followed. Peiper’s attackers were never identified.


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