Joachem Peiper is, to say the least, a controversial historical figure.
|The bodies of Americans killed by Peiper's battlegroup in Malmedy. This crime stained the entire Wehrmacht, committed by SS Troops.|
Peiper was undoubtedly one of the most ruthless and uncompromising panzer commanders of World War II. He was a convicted war criminal and received the death sentence (later commuted) for atrocities committed by his troops.
Peiper's men were responsible for the slaughter of dozens of defenseless American prisoners at Malmédy. There was absolutely no excuse for that travesty, and those German troops should have been strung up. Everyone involved in the commission of that heinous act deserved the death penalty and should have received it.
That said, we shall focus here first on the military side of the equation of Battlegroup Peiper (Kampfgruppe Peiper), the outfit he led during the Ardennes offensive, but that cannot be completely separated out from the war crimes, which is why we mention them prominently here.
|Peiper in a chilling shot. That appears to be a Schwimmwagen|
Joachim Peiper was a young SS crony of Heinrich Himmler, a product of the Hitler Youth. He had commanded combat outfits during some major battles, such as at Kursk, but had suffered some kind of emotional or mental breakdown during 1944. By December, though, he had recovered and and was put in charge of his own battlegroup, which was named after him. After numerous postponements, the offensive was given a final start date of 16 December 1944. Battlegroup Peiper was given a lead role.
The Ardennes Offensive (Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine")) was a last-ditch German gambit launched after a period of relative quiet on all fronts during the last stages of World War II. It had virtually no chance of success, but the Germans (well, Hitler at least) figured it was at least worthwhile to try for a big victory rather than simply succumb to the inevitable squeeze between the Americans and the Soviets. Their success was real, but also ephemeral. "Wacht am Rhein" was renamed "Herbstnebel," a name chosen by Field Marshal Model, after the operation was given the go-ahead in early December.
In the early morning of 16 December 1944, the King Tigers of the schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501 moved through the village of Tondorf on their way to join Kampfgruppe Peiper for the initial attack during the Ardennes Offensive. Then, it was time.
|The path of Kampfgruppe Peiper, 16-19 December 1944.|
A minor American offensive had been proceeding toward Falquemont and Colmar to the south from 12-16 November 1944. Operations also continued a bit to the north around Aachen by the US V Corps (specifically along the Hoefen-Alzen and Dreiborn ridges, about 5.6 miles (9.0 km) north of Krinkelt-Rocherath, Belgium - the battle became known as the Battle of Heartbreak Crossroads). There, the US Army wanted to take the Roer River dams before proceeding further east (the German counteroffensive stopped that). In the grand scheme of things, these were small operations to set up later thrusts, but the Germans were fighting hard on the German frontier and they knew the terrain. The rest of the front, though, had settled in and was relatively static.
|Fallschirmjaeger receiving his medal. These troops blew the hole in the American lines through which Peiper began his tank raid.|
The quiet front changed at dawn (05:30) on the 16th of December, when the German began a 90-minute artillery barrage. The 25-man 394th I&R platoon, under the command of Lt. Lyle Bouck Jr., occupied a critical road junction about 6 miles (9.7 km) southeast of Hünningen, near Lanzerath, Belgium. It was a small village (15 homes). Lanzerath was a big nothing on the map (and still is), but it gave access to the Losheim Gap and points further west.
Why such a small force was allowed to occupy such an important crossroads is a very good question, but they were there only to maintain communications between the 106th Division to the north and the 99th to the south. As always seems to be the case after the fact, "they were about to be relieved." To be candid, the Americans were overconfident and felt that all was left to the war were mopping-up operations. The 106th was staging a small penetration of the Siegfried Line at Wehlerscheid (a forester's cabin) about five miles north of Rocherath and was looking in that direction, so the 394th basically was on its own. Well, not for long, as the Germans had a much better use for Lanzerath than the Americans and soon gave the American platoon a bit of company.
Sepp Dietrich positioned Kampfgruppe Peiper in the forest around Blankenheim just east of Lanzerath. After the barrage, at 08:00, it was light and the Americans didn't like what they saw: a 500-Fallschirmjäger (1st Battalion, 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment, 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division, elite troops) column heading for them. Before the Americans could escape, the Germans had entered the town. Bouck was trapped with his men as the lead Germans walked by, then he and his men popped up and started blasting. The Germans came on across an open field, and the men of the 394th mowed them down. They also deterred another attack at 11:00. The Wehrmacht troops were inept, but there were a lot of them. At 15:00, a third attack resulted in hand-to-hand combat. The 394th held out until dark, but their ammunition was running low and the Germans could infiltrate past the town on either side. Bouck contemplated withdrawing, but the Germans beat him to the punch. The Germans captured the Americans (only one death and 14 wounded). They earned a lot of medals - the most of any American unit, in fact - but the could not hold in the face of the Germans' suicidal charges. This gave Peiper, waiting in the woods, his opening. He and his men headed for Lanzerath.
The rest of the German offensive was stuck, particularly at the famous battle of Elsenborn Ridge. Battlegroup Peiper, part of Sepp Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army, was the only mobile group that had a clear breakthrough, and thus was at the fore of the advance. He knew how to exploit an opening. 'The eyes of Germany are upon you,' Peiper was told in an official message. The offensive had a very strict timetable for places to occupy by certain times if there was to be any chance of success. Peiper already was slightly behind, but with a little luck he could make up the time.
Out of the entire German Heer, only Battlegroup Peiper adhered to the timetable. It mad good progress, and daily operations were measured in kilometers. The kampfgruppe rolled westward, passing through Bullingen and Ligneuville. Along the way, it picked up some American stores of gasoline that were badly needed.
After an incident just south of Malmédy, where it destroyed a retreating American column, the kampfruppe reached Stavelot, where it ran into its first serious opposition. The spearhead made its way along the Ambleve toward Stoumount, La Gleize and Trois Pontes. The Meuse was the ultimate objective, and now it was not far off.
Panthers from Kampfgruppe Peiper moved forward into Stoumont to support the Panzergrenadiers who arrived there first on the morning of 19 December 1944. By 10:30 a.m., Peiper was in firm control of Stoumont. He then attempted to push further westward to seize a bridge west of Stoumont. American engineers blew the key bridge just in time, preventing a breakout toward the Meuse, where the kampfgruppe intended to seize a bridge for the rest of the German offensive. The ultimate objective of Antwerp would then be within range.
The kampfgruppe was intact and deadly. However, the rest of Sixth SS Panzer Army was stuck far behind at Elsenborn Ridge. The entire German offensive was stalled while it ground at away at key road junctions such as St. Vith and Bastogne. Peiper had to resort to air supply, which was difficult in the overcast skies.
At La Gleize and Stavelot the kampfgruppe reached a dead end. By 19 December 1944, without bridging equipment, Kampfgruppe Peiper had nowhere to go. It found itself alone and ultimately surrounded. American forces closed in - if the rest of the Wehrmacht had followed up, Peiper's advance still would have been a brilliant strategic success. Thus, it can be correctly stated that Battlegroup Peiper did not outrun the rest of the army; instead, the rest of the Wehrmacht fell behind Battlegroup Peiper.
Battlegroup Peiper had the very best equipment that the Third Reich ever produced. It was supplied with King Tigers, Panthers, and other armoured vehicles which had no peer during the war. All were tested and at their maximum peak of efficiency. The opposing Sherman Tanks of the Americans were easily swept aside.
The soldiers of Battlegroup Peiper were in good spirits.
Peiper's troops made good advances, pushing through Stavelot, Belgium. They almost reached the key town of Dinant on the Meuse. At their farthest point of advance, the Germans came within about 20 km of the Meuse, some advance scouts a bit closer, perhaps even within 8 km. However, getting a few people that far is not the same as saying you "made it there" - anyone can walk through the woods to a certain point and "claim" it. Controlling the area for some useful purpose is entirely another matter.
|A King Tiger from Kampfgruppe Peiper, 1st SS Panzer Division abandoned at Stavelot, Belgium.|
If Peiper had been able to reach the Meuse and seize the bridge, it might have drawn off enough Allied forces to allow the Germans behind him to catch up. However, with no support and running out of fuel, ultimately he was forced to abandon his priceless tanks and retreat back to German lines with his men on foot.
|The destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper.|
By 25 December, Peiper was walking back to Germany. It was a brilliant operation, especially considering that Peiper got his men back to his own lines, but his retreat also ended any chance the Germans had of succeeding with their offensive. After that, the entire offensive petered and out Germany surrendered a few months later.
Tank raids were not unusual during World War II. However, this one was different because of what happened near a little town called Malmédy.
There are some graphic images in this section.
The Malmedy massacre deserves its own section because it is the major reason for Peiper's infamy. In brief, Peiper was tasked during the Ardennes offensive with impossible objectives by the OKW, but he came closer than anybody at fulfilling them. The offensive was in full swing on 17 December 1944, but even then, the second day, it was behind schedule. Fighting in the Ardennes with armoured troops was almost equivalent to a naval battle: everything depended upon subduing islands of resistance at crossroads. Bastogne was one such crossroad, and it was never captured; Malmedy (or rather about five miles (8 km) south of there, at the Baugnez Crossroads, where five roads intersected) was another.
US soldiers of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, a lightly armed technical unit, were retreating from Malmedy south through the crossroads. The location is always referred to as Malmedy, but in actuality it was along the road between Bullingen and Ligneuville, about 8 km (5 miles) from Malmedy. The aerial photo taken shortly after the incident shows the layout, with Peiper coming out of the trees at the upper right.
It was an ordinary US convoy of jeeps and trucks, with an MP directing traffic. Nobody knew where the Germans were, but everybody knew they were on the way. Peiper's men suddenly erupted out of the woods from another road and a fierce battle ensued. When some of the out-gunned Americans took refuge in a tavern, Peiper's men set the building on fire and gunned down everyone leaving it. Resistance ended quickly, as it was men with rifles against German tanks. Peiper was on the scene, but he was pressed for time and troops. He had his men stand the surviving Americans in a snowy field next to the burned-out tavern. He had them guarded by only a few SS troops, including some non-German ones. Then, Peiper and his convoy left, headed down the road for Ligneuville and, later to Stavelot.
The Americans stood shivering in the cold. They had every right to expect to be treated humanely in accord with the Geneva Convention. The SS stood looking at them, but there was no transport and there did not appear to be anywhere to go. Something was different this time.
|The Malmedy massacre. Note the burned-out cafe in the background.|
The POWs, on the other hand, said the guards just waited until Peiper was out of sight and started blasting. Those that ran were simply fleeing for their lives from the murderous gunfire. The court believed the POWs, but some will always take the side of the perpetrators.
What is certain is that, once Peiper's column was gone, the SS opened fire on the defenseless prisoners. Pvt. 1st Class Georg Fleps, a Waffen-SS soldier from Rumania, was identified as the first to fire a shot. As noted above, what purpose he had in mind in firing was the subject of intense disagreement at trial. The result, though was obvious and undeniable.
Within a matter of moments, 72 defenseless American soldiers lay dead or dying in the snow from machine gun fire. Only three survived. The field was open, with few trees, and the POWs had nowhere to run to. The SS account was greatly undercut by the fact that the guards later went around to the prisoners who were laying helpless in the snow but still breathing and administered "kill shots" to their heads.
The majority of the corpses of the murdered GIs were eventually shipped back to the US for private burial. Twenty-one, though, still lie buried in the American Military Cemetery at Henri-Chappelle, about forty kilometres north of Malmédy.
|Peiper (right center, blowing smoke) led his troops personally near Malmedy.|
It is very important to note that the Malmedy massacre was not the only alleged war crime incident involving Peiper's men during the Ardennes offensive. In fact, they were accused of murdering between 538 to 749 nameless Prisoners of War and more than 90 unidentified Belgian civilians during the operation. There is no question that Peiper either encouraged or condoned a spirit of lawlessness in his troops, and there was testimony that he had told his men to take no prisoners (exactly what that meant is disputed). What the few SS men were supposed to do with the American POWs in the field if they hadn't shot them was never explained.
Peiper had this to say much later:
"It's so long ago now. Even I don't know the truth. If I had ever known it, I have long forgotten it. All I knew is that I took the blame as a good CO should and was punished accordingly."Some would like to place Peiper miles away throughout the entire incident and having nothing to do with it. That would make no sense. Peiper was advancing at the head of his column and was in total command throughout the operation. He had just left the massacre site when it took place. If his men did something in his extremely disciplined unit, it was with the understanding that Peiper wanted it that way.
Peiper himself survived the war and even evaded the death sentence imposed upon him afterwards due to the Malmédy affair. He experienced all sorts of difficulties adjusting to civilian life - many people opposed the presence in their workplace of a convicted war criminal - so he had difficulty holding a job through no fault of his own (except, of course, for what he had done during the war). He lived in relative obscurity for many years.
|A Panther commander of the Kampfgruppe Peiper urges some prisoners out of his path as he negotiates the narrow village street of Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944.|
Finally, in 1976, Peiper unwisely raised his profile and gave an interview about his war experiences to a French journalist. Incredibly, for some reason he had chosen to live in France. This interview brought attention to Peiper that did him no good. The locals did not like living near a war criminal and wanted to remove him. Peiper knew all about their wishes - they painted signs on the road near his house warning people away, that sort of thing - but Peiper was obstinate: he stayed put. He was prudent, though, and sent his family away to stay in Germany while he awaited events he knew were coming. Sure enough, they did: finally, one night in July 1976 - Bastille Day - the townspeople torched Peiper's house and shot him dead.