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. However, they did not due to post-war complications.
|Peiper is seen in a chilling shot during the Ardennes Offensive. That appears to be a Schwimmwagen. The Allies held both Malmedy and St. Vith at this time, and eventually, the Wehrmacht took both.|
The Ardennes Operation
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 (heavy) 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 to strike.
|The path of Kampfgruppe Peiper, 16-19 December 1944.|
|Fallschirmjaeger receiving his medal. These troops blew the hole in the American lines through which Peiper began his tank raid, at the cost of many of their lives.|
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 armored troops was almost equivalent to a naval battle: everything depended upon subduing islands of resistance at isolated crossroads towns. Bastogne was at 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.
|Peiper (right center, blowing smoke) led his troops personally near Malmedy.|
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 at the last minute, preventing a breakout toward the Meuse, where the Kampf Gruppe intended to seize a bridge for the rest of the German offensive. The ultimate objective of Antwerp would then be within range, but Peiper had other problems by this time, as American resistance was growing.
The Kampfgruppe was intact and deadly. However, the rest of the Sixth SS Panzer Army was stuck far behind at Elsenborn Ridge. That turned Peiper's operation into an unsupported tank raid. The entire German offensive was stalled while it chewed away at key road junctions in the rear such as St. Vith and Bastogne. Peiper had to resort to an air supply, which was difficult in the overcast skies. The only saving grace was that the bad weather kept the Allied planes grounded, which was the only thing that enabled the Kampfgruppe to continue forward at all.
At La Gleize and Stavelot the Kampfgruppe reached a dead end, blocked by the river. 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, but it was still reducing American strongpoints far to Peiper's rear. 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, amphibious jeeps, and other armored vehicles which had no peer during the war. All were battle-tested and at their maximum peak of efficiency. The opposing scattered Sherman Tanks of the Americans posed no serious hindrance to this imposing armada - as long as the panzers had fuel and the men had food to eat.
The soldiers of Battlegroup Peiper were in good spirits. The men were happy to be back on the offensive after months of constant retreat.
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 River, some advance scouts a bit closer, perhaps even within 8 km of the thinly held Allied line at the Meuse. 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. This, Battlegroup Peiper failed to do.
|A King Tiger from Kampfgruppe Peiper, 1st SS Panzer Division abandoned at Stavelot, Belgium.|
|The destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper.|
Tank raids were not unusual during World War II. They had been happening for years, particularly on the Eastern Front. However, Peiper's tank raid received a lot of publicity.
Peiper AfterwardsPeiper faced trial for war crimes after the war, and the most publicized charges were those concerning the incident near Malmedy. There are two versions because there were two very distinct groups of people who gave their accounts later: the SS guards, and the surviving POWs. The guards claimed that one or more prisoners made a break for it; a guard fired a warning shot or two, and then the prisoners all ran for it at once. The guards then claimed that they "had" to perpetuate what came to be known as the Malmédy Massacre. Pvt. 1st Class Georg Fleps, a Waffen-SS soldier from Rumania, was identified as the first Wehrmacht soldier to fire a shot. 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, as there was no means of transport to take them to POW camps. Basically, they all simply stood face to face with each other. Then, things happened.
The court believed the account of the American POWs and sentenced Peiper to death. The majority of the murdered US GIs were eventually shipped back to the States for private burials. Twenty-one, though, still lie buried in the American Military Cemetery at Henri-Chappelle, about forty kilometers north of Malmédy.
The Malmedy massacre was not the only alleged war crime incident involving Peiper's men during the Ardennes offensive. In fact, Battlegroup Peiper was accused of murdering between 538 to 749 nameless Prisoners of War and more than 90 unidentified Belgian civilians during the operation. Those incidents, however, have not received as much publicity and apparently were not thoroughly investigated at the time.
"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 accounts place Peiper miles away throughout the entire incident and having nothing to do with it. However, the court found him at the head of the column and in direct control of what took place. Peiper was in prison for about a decade.
|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, Peiper had chosen to live in France, where he was accused of having committed atrocities. The locals knew he was there and harassed Peiper, but he and his family disregarded their threats.
|Peiper in 1976, giving his final interview.|