Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Heinkel He-219 Uhu ('Owl') Night Fighter

Terrific Night Fighters

He 219 Uhu Owl worldwartwo.filminspector.com
An Owl night fighter.
A consistent theme throughout our review of wartime Luftwaffe aircraft development by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) is that it relied upon older designs past the point at which they maintained superiority over their foes. This is inexplicable given that the German aircraft industry had the best designers in the world.

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A He.219 training aircraft demonstrating the ejection seat.
One obvious reason for this was overconfidence after the easy victories of 1939-1941. Another reason may have been the dangling prospect of jet aircraft, which always were just a little while away from being practical and would provide a quantum leap over the opposition. A third simply may have been that the German industrial base was overwhelmed and there simply weren't enough men left in the factories (of which there weren't enough either) to start building every aircraft that showed promise. However, not devoting more effort and resources to the He.219 earlier in the process clearly was an error.

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Heinkel He 219 Uhu fighter. While the performance of the A-2 was not extraordinary — approximately 580 km/h (360 mph) speed — it was enough of an advance over the Messerschmitt Bf 110Gs and Dornier Do 217Ns to allow the aircraft to chase several bombers in one sortie. In order to combat the Mosquito, the He 219 had all excess weight removed. With some weapon and radio systems deleted, the aircraft was able to attain a speed of 650 km/h (400 mph).
Whatever the reason, that tendency to keep using existing equipment until it became completely ineffective also affected the Ernst Heinkel A.G. development of the He.219 Uhu ('Owl'). This extremely capable aircraft proved to be one of the top night fighters of the conflict on either side, but its production run was stunted by delays and ultimate cancellation due to the war situation.

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A captured He.219 A-5/R1 (2G).
Heinkel designers began work on the plane that turned into the Owl during the summer of 1940. It would be clever to say that they showed incredible foresight regarding the coming Allied bombing campaign, but in fact, the He.219 was first intended as a reconnaissance aircraft. The RLM took little interest, and Heinkel was forced to proceed on its own dime, again a fairly common occurrence during those years.

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Owls captured in Denmark.
The RLM took notice of the plane, however, and correctly assessed the capabilities of the new design, even if it didn't want to pay for its development. A directive went out to Heinkel to change the Owl into a night fighter, perhaps due to the growing Allied intrusions into Reich airspace. Once this was done, the RLM finally became interested in 1942.

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Heinkel He 219A Uhu (Night Owl) fighter. The A-2 featured an updated, 90 MHz VHF-band Telefunken FuG 220 Lichtenstein SN-2 radar system, complete with their larger, high-drag 4 x 2-dipole element Hirschgeweih aerials. It initially had less range than the C-1 radar, but improved accuracy and resolution and was also less vulnerable to chaff jamming through the late summer of 1944.
The equipment of the plane evolved over time through the A-1 through A-6 subseries and ultimately became the definitive A-7/R6 model. This version had two Junkers Jumo 222 A/B engines (which replaced Daimler Benz DB 603 A engines generating 1750 hp), which gave the Owl a fantastic top speed of 434 mph (700 km/hr). This was comparable and even superior in many cases to the fastest fighters of the day.

Heinkel He.219 Uhu Owl worldwartwo.filminspector.com
 Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum is in the process of restoring an Owl.
The Owl had six 30 mm MK 108 cannons and two 20 mm MG 151 cannons, extremely heavy firepower for the day. The glazed cockpit gave the pilot and crew member a clear field of vision, which wasn't always the case in those days, and the crew even had the very first ejection seats. The He-219 also was the first aircraft to come with a steerable nose wheel. While not a jet aircraft, the Owl was a leap ahead of other piston fighters.

Heinkel He.219 Uhu Owl worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Development accelerated during 1942, and the first flight occurred on 14 November of that year, another in December. Evaluations were conducted through March 1943 against the Dornier Do.217 and the Junkers Ju.188, and the Owl was proven to be in a class of its own. An initial production order of 100 aircraft was tripled because of the plane's success during evaluation. The first service version was the A-2 model.

Heinkel He.219 Uhu Owl worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Meanwhile, the air war was heating up, with the British launching their devastating 1000-bomber raid on Hamburg at the end of May 1943. Pilot Werner Strieb took an evaluation version of the Owl up a week later, on June 11-12, and shot down five bombers in half an hour. Further successes followed in quick order. The Owl, with its fantastic speed, proved particularly adept at eliminating the pesky de Havilland Mosquitos, which the British were using as pathfinders for the growing British bomber streams.

Heinkel He.219 Uhu Owl worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Ultimately, fewer than 300 of the Owls were delivered to the Luftwaffe. They ran into the RLM's halt of bomber production in May 1944 for some reason, so deliveries ceased prematurely. In addition, with the suicide of Hans Jeschonnek in August 1943, the Luftwaffe switched to a strategic orientation that caused it to lose focus on promising projects such as the Owl. However, equipped with FVG 27 radar, the Owls that entered service were extremely useful complements to the Bf.110 night fighter force.

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As with other night fighters, Owls were outfitted with the deadly upward-sloping “Schräge Musik” (Jazz Music) cannon. Given their great speed, radar, and stealth, the Owls were incredibly destructive. Opponents would marvel that once they snuck into a British bomber stream, they could shoot down multiple bombers in one sortie with a little luck.

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Heinkel He 219A2 Uhu fighter, WNr 290013, May 1944.
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2019

Friday, December 26, 2014

Romanian Air Force

Valiant Warriors Caught in the Middle

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This article will focus on the Romanian Air Force of World War II.

Romania played an odd role in World War II. At first, the Kingdom of Romania was pro-British and allied to the Poles. The Soviet Union, contrary to many who think it was an innocent victim during the early war years, aggressively demanded and received a large swathe of Romanian territory in Bessarabia as well as from northern Bukovina pursuant to a 28 June 1940 ultimatum.

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Oil bound for Germany to fuel Hitler's war. Waiting tank cars (labeled w. Essolub and Shell logos) in Rumanian-owned Creditul Minier oil yards near Ploesti. To be fair, the Soviet Union also was supplying the German war machine with raw materials at the same time. Margaret Bourke-White, Romania, 1940.
Everybody talks about the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia two years earlier, but absolutely nobody talks about this particular blatant land grab. Trying to find any perfect angels amongst the governments of Eastern Europe during this difficult period can be quite taxing. The Soviets' actions during this period go a long way toward explaining what later transpired between the powers.

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Naturally, some of the Romanians were not too thrilled about losing prime real estate to their hulking neighbor, the Soviet Union. Pro-German Prime Minister Ion Antonescu in September 1940 engaged in a complicated series of events that led to the deposition of the rightful king, Carol II, and installation of the young crown prince, Michael, as a figurehead replacement ('Michael I').

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American Bomber, Consolidated B-24 'Liberator' forced to land by Romanian fighters. German officers and civilians are inspecting it. It is possible that this apparently crash-landed bomber was repaired and added to the German fleet of captured Allied planes, which may be why there is so much interest in it.
Ion Antonescu became a de facto dictator with full powers in ruling the state, technically by royal decree, while Michael I effectively disappeared from view. Antonescu joined the Axis as a full partner, but the country soon lost more territory to Hungary as a result of the Vienna Award imposed by their friends the Germans. This resulted in great hostility between Hungary and Romania for many years.

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A Romanian Bf-109 being prepped.
Antonescu unwisely threw all his cards in with Hitler in the hopes that Romania would obtain large amounts of Soviet territory via its participation in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In 1941, it did, in fact, occupy huge territories in the southern Ukraine that were captured as part of the German Army Group South under Field Marshal von Rundstedt.

Romania claimed territories to its east based on historical precedent.
These were territories that had belonged to Romania centuries before, but long lost to the Ukraine. Romanian nationalists such as Antonescu saw their chance to snatch those ancient territories from the Soviet colossus by joining with Hitler's army. Once recovered, Romania termed the recovered territory 'Transnistria,' for 'beyond the Nistru River.' This appeal to the divisions of his eastern neighbors is how Hitler convinced nations such as Romania - which historically had commonality with the British - to throw their lot in with him to their future detriment.

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Romanian army troops occupy Odessa, summer of 1941.
Romania administered these lands, which included the prosperous port city of Odessa, from 1941 until they were ultimately lost in 1944. Hitler knew the importance of Romania to the Axis, which is one reason that he defended his southern conquests such as the Crimea and Transnistria long after they had ceased to have military value. This explains the seeming mystery as to why German forces concentrated their defenses on the perimeters of their southern conquests while allowing the center to slip.

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The Romanian IAR-80.
Antonescu ultimately contributed over a million men to the Axis military alliance. The men did not share Antonescu's enthusiasm for the war, however, and, to put it kindly, the country's forces were never an element of strength in the Axis order of battle. The Romanian III and IV armies at Stalingrad guarded the flanks of the German 6th Army, but could not resist the Soviet counterattack there due to their inadequate weapons. In addition, there were repeated reports to the German high command that the Romanians who controlled the railroads in Transnistria and Romania proper were giving German troop trains short shrift while giving Romanian trains priority. These are subtleties lost on the mass media which had very real effects on people. It is common to denigrate the country's military efforts because of such incidents, but upon occasion, the Romanian military served quite well, especially when defending the homeland.

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15th United States Air Force, Army Air Corps (1943-45). It never got the glory that went to the 8th Air Force operating out of England . . . but they deserved it. From bases in Foggia, southern Italy, it flew mostly B-24's on missions in the south and central Europe (including most of the raids on Ploesti) - and have the casualty lists to prove it.
The conclusion by many observers was that the Romanian common ranks were formed from perfectly capable recruits who fought well. However, the officer class was not motivated to succeed, as it did not believe in the German cause. The Germans believed them to be corrupt and timid. Romanian pilots, almost never mentioned in western sources, performed quite well in defense of their homeland.

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Romanian ace Constantin Cantacuzino (right) with his air mount, August 1944.
Constantin M. “Bâzu” Cantacuzino was a top Romanian ace, with a reported 43 kills, 11 unconfirmed, and a total of 69 'points' (pilots received more credit for shooting down 2- and 4-engine bombers under this system). He also shot down some German planes after the August 1944 change of allegiances (Cantacuzino was a member of a Romanian noble family, and the name may derive ultimately from 14th Century Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos/Cantacuzenus). Actress Linda Gray of "Dallas" is related to him. The men who flew in the 15th USAAF over Romania (one of whom I personally met) greatly respected the air defenses over Ploesti and the other oil fields, particularly the fierce fighter coverage.

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The huge reverses at Stalingrad, the Crimea and closer to home led to complete invasion and massive losses in the Romanian order of battle. With public opinion turning against Antonescu and the war, King Michael realized that the time had come to take action and sprang into action. He had the palace guard arrest Antonescu (much as King Victor Emanuel of Italy had finally arrested Mussolini the year before) on 23 August 1944. It was a very brave act, and set in train a sequence of events that would have far-reaching and unexpected consequences for his country - and himself.

Hitler, making matters worse to no purpose, ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb Bucharest. King Michael and his followers then declared war on Germany and joined the Allies. It was too late to make much difference in terms of how Romania was viewed by the victorious Allies, but at least Romania finally made things right.

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The change of sides had some very direct consequences to Americans. There were many 15th USAAF pilots in captivity in Romania who immediately were set free upon the change of sides. Lt Col James A Gunn III had recently been shot down whilst over Ploesti in mid-August 1944. He was being held in Lager 13 in Bucharest. When Romania changed sides on 23 August, Gunn resolved to return to the 15th with important information that he received from his former Romanian captors about German bombing plans. Captain Cantacuzino personally flew Gunn in his ME-109 (with Gunn tucked away in the fuselage) back to Italy. It was a hazardous flight, as the Germans still held Yugoslavia and Greece. As a reward, Cantacuzino was given a Mustang to fly back to Bucharest.

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Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twinging, commanding general of the 15th Air Force (foreground), talks to Col. James Gunn III, right, after Gunn's harrowing flight to Italy from Bucharest by Captain Cantacuzino. Gunn was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in helping to free 1,100 POWS from the prison camps (he was brave and a war hero for sure, but the change of sides did the freeing). Gunn's exploits were lauded in the western press - Captain Cantacuzino's were not. 
Romania and its resources had been vital to German aggression, and this was shown by subsequent events. Once Germany lost the Romanian oil fields, it was living on borrowed time. Fuel had always been in short supply, but after the Soviet invasion of Romania Germany had to rely almost solely on exotic chemical processes to produce completely inadequate supplies of oil. The synthetic oil complexes at Politz and elsewhere could not begin to make up the deficit, though they did enable Germany to prolong the war into 1945.

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A B-24 Liberator called "Sandman" during a bomb run over the Ploiești Astra Romana refinery during Operation Tidal Wave, 1 August 1943.
The Allies commenced Operation Tidal Wave, the attacks on the Romanian oil fields, in mid-1943. In order to combat the incessant bombing raids, the Germans and Romanian fascists built flak towers and other anti-aircraft coastal batteries. Many remain, successfully hidden, and in fact, are just being located today. In Romania, flak towers were built to protect the oil fields from the massive Allied bombing raids of 1943 and 1944. One or more of those remain virtually intact, but they are almost unknown. They were smaller than the massive towers in Berlin and Vienna, but still impressive structures. The post-war authorities successfully camouflaged them as residential buildings. They they sit today, innocuous and potentially lethal, military structures in the midst of ordinary neighborhoods.

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Romanian soldiers manning a ZPU 2 anti-aircraft machine gun.
One such flak tower is south of Constanta City in Romania. It was part of the Elisabeth coastal battery. It appears to have had a dual purpose of air defense and also land defense, as a pillbox. I don't know much about it, but it shows why there are so many explorers (just look on youtube!) who seek out World War II structures. There is still a lot there to re-discover, sometimes hidden in plain sight.

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Romanian soldiers marching through Constanta, Romania ca. 1941 (Grund, Federal Archives).
Specific to the Romanian installation, the Germans began constructing the fortification even before Operation Barbarossa commenced in June 1941. In the spring of that year, the German artillery units on the Black Sea coast already included:
  • Tirpitz battery – 3 x 280 mm guns, Southern Constanta City (“La Vii” area);
  • Lange Bruno – a mobile (railway) 3 x 280 guns, in the Northern Constanta City;
  • Breslau / M III battery – 3 x 170 mm guns, installed in “La Vii” area, just 1 km north of Tirpitz battery;
  • 6 batteries of 105 mm guns, located in places like Tuzla, La Vii (yes, another one), Cap Midia, Mamaia Sat, Carmen Sylva (nowadays Eforie Sud), Constanta City.
The Tirpitz battery was commissioned on March 22, 1941. The first salvos were fired in April, in the presence of the Minister of Defense, Iosif Iacobici.

Flak Towers Flakturm worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A German soldier aiming an MG 13 machine gun. Filmmaker Horst Grund is shown operating his camera, Constanta, Romania, circa 1941 (Grund, Federal archive).
The battery is located in the south of Constanta City, in the area known back then as “La Vii” (The Vineyards). That, roughly speaking, is where the disguised flak tower still sits, but I do not have a specific location or pictures for it.

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Romanian planes over the petrol fields of Ploiesti. The photo was taken in 1941. The Bf 109 with the German cross had not been painted yet in ARR insignias.
The coastal batteries, flak towers, and ferocious fighter defense were not enough to protect the refineries. The oil supply was interrupted, and soon the Luftwaffe's planes could seldom even take off. Defeat for the remaining Axis powers swiftly followed. The country claimed to have suffered 170,000 casualties fighting the Germans after the change of allegiance.

Luftwaffe flak units defended the Ploesti oil fields right up to the end. They were the only German troops in the vicinity when Romania switched sides in August 1944.
The Soviets occupied the entire country and established complete dominion over it. Antonescu was tried as a war criminal by the Soviets - he had been supportive of the Holocaust, among other crimes - and the Soviets hung him in 1946. In another murky sequence of events in 1947, King Michael was forced to leave Romania under Communist duress, though he still considers himself king to this day. Romania suffered communist domination for decades thereafter. complete with rigged elections and Soviet military interventions to suppress uprisings.

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The Romanian air force was small but capable. It used mostly German equipment but did have a few aircraft designs of its own. The Romanian-designed airplane that made a contribution to the war effort was the IAR 80 (the 'Romanian Big Broom'). It was a fighter which was powered by a Gnome-Rhone 14k radial engine that was built on a license. It was an elegant airframe that loosely resembled the Focke Wulf 190D, but the design was completely Romanian.


The IAR 80 began service in early 1942. It had six machine guns and a top speed of 316 mph, which was about adequate at the start of the war, but completely outclassed by the fighters of 1942. Still, the IAR 80 pilots did not have to contend with US fighters for much of their operational history, and they were plenty fast to take on bombers flying at 150 mph. They shot down many US bombers attacking the oil fields in 1943 and 1944, making the "Ploesti run" extremely hazardous for the 15th USAAF. A total of 137 IAR 80 (some accounts say many more) were built before production switched to building the German Bf 109G fighter under license. The fact that Romania built its own world-class fighter at all is somewhat of an astonishing fact, as generally, only the dominant powers achieved this feat.

Romanian air force worldwartwo.filminspector.com


2019

Monday, December 22, 2014

Battlegroup Peiper

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Joachim Peiper.
Joachim Peiper is, to say the least, a controversial historical figure.

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. However, they did not due to post-war complications.

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. That operation cannot be completely separated out from the war crimes, which is why we mention them prominently below.

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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.
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, Peiper had recovered 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.

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Road junctions were vital in the Ardennes since the trees prevented off-road travel. Most road junctions were in the middle of towns which the Americans could defend. This junction apparently was undefended, perhaps because of the speed with which Peiper got there.

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.

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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.

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The path of Kampfgruppe Peiper, 16-19 December 1944.
A minor American offensive had been proceeding toward Falquemont and Colmar to the south of this operation from 12-16 November 1944. Allied 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 planned to take the Roer River dams before proceeding further east (the German counteroffensive stopped that planned offensive). In the grand scheme of things, these Allied movements were small operations to set up later thrusts. Every Allied step forward took maximum effort, though, as the Germans were fighting hard on the German frontier and they knew the terrain. The rest of the front, though, had settled in for the winter and was relatively static.

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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.
This quiet front changed abruptly at dawn (05:30) on the 16th of December when the German began a 90-minute artillery barrage. The 25-man U.S. Army 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. These men bore the brunt of the German offensive.

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. Basically, they were screening troops, perhaps unaware that nothing stood between them and the entire Wehrmacht. 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 (which was the spot of nothing more than 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.

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Fallschirmjaeger. I don't have a date or place for this photo, apparently Italy. Fallschirmjaeger units were established early in the war as elite troops with special training. After Crete, Hitler decided to use them mostly as ground troops (though, in Sicily and a few other places, they were inserted by air drops to good effect). The original orders to establish them, however, were never countermanded, so the Fallschirmjaeger units gradually grew in size and importance within the German war effort despite being unnecessary for their original purpose - airborne operations. Fallschirmjaeger were extremely efficient and capable and were equipped differently than standard army troops. Smoking like that, incidentally, was a common Wehrmacht symbol of self-confidence and success, which is why a lot of propaganda photos of men "lighting each other up" were taken.
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 poorly trained, 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. The Germans infiltrated past the town on either side. Bouck contemplated withdrawing, but the Germans beat him to the punch and got to his position before he could pull out. The Germans captured all of the surviving Americans (one death and 14 wounded). The Americans earned a lot of medals - the most of any American unit, in fact - but the could not hold in the face of the frenzied German charges, which resulted in heavy casualties of their own. This self-destructive attack gave Peiper, waiting in the woods, his opening. He and his men started their engines and headed for Lanzerath.

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Peiper's men did take prisoners when it wasn't too inconvenient. During the Ardennes Offensive, Kampfgruppe Peiper was boosted by the King Tiger tanks of the Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501 (heavy tank battalion) for its drive westwards in an attempt to reach the Meuse River. Here, one of its tanks passes a column of captured soldiers from the US 99th Infantry Division on 17 December 1944. The village of Merlscheid lies in the background and the King Tiger is on its way towards Lanzerath for the breakout.
The rest of the German Ardennes 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 entire advance. Peiper 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 (and unrealistic) timetable for places to occupy by certain times if there was to be any chance of ultimate success. Peiper intended to keep to that timetable.

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Peiper was far from the only Panzer commander with his own battlegroup. Here, a Panzergrenadier from Kampfgruppe Hansen stands along the wreckage of the American 14th Cavalry Group. It had gotten fallen into an ambush and been destroyed on the road between Poteau and Recht on the morning of 18 December 1944.
Out of the entire German Heer, only Battlegroup Peiper managed to adhere to the timetable for any length of time, or at least not fall too far behind. The Germans made good progress and daily advances were measured in kilometers whereas for months the Wehrmacht hadn't been making any progress at all. The Kampfgruppe rolled westward, passing through Bullingen and Ligneuville. Along the way, it picked up some American stores of gasoline that were badly needed. This, incidentally, was a key part of the German plan, to use captured supplies to continue rolling westward.

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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.

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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.

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Peiper (right center, blowing smoke) led his troops personally near Malmedy.
Peiper came across this 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. It is safe to say that they had no idea the German panzers were so close. 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. 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. As guards, Peiper left only a few SS troops, including some non-German ones. Then, Peiper and his convoy left and headed down the road for Ligneuville and, later to Stavelot. After a sequence of disputed events, 72 American POWs were dead in the snow Malmedy. As discussed below, this incident was to haunt Peiper.

After the incident just south of Malmédy, the Kampf Gruppe reached Stavelot, where it ran into its first serious opposition. The spearhead then made its way along the Ambleve toward the towns of Stoumount, La Gleize, and Trois Pontes. The Meuse was the ultimate objective, and now it was not far off and less than 20 miles.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The soldiers of Battlegroup Peiper were in good spirits. The men were happy to be back on the offensive after months of constant retreat.

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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.

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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 a crossing there, 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, he had no chance. Peiper ultimately was forced to abandon his immobile tanks and retreat on foot back to German lines with his men.

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The destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper.
By 25 December, Peiper and his men were walking back to Germany. The retreat itself was a success, especially considering that Peiper got his formation back to his own lines intact (although Peiper's unit took horrible losses), but his retreat also ended any chance the Germans had of succeeding with their offensive. Only a small fraction of Peiper's original force made it out. After that, the entire Ardennes Offensive petered out and Germany surrendered a few months later.

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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 Afterwards

Peiper 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 prosecution painted a far different picture. There was a spirit of lawlessness in Peiper's troops, and there was testimony that he had told his men to take no prisoners (exactly what that meant was disputed at trial). The few (3) surviving American POWs testified that their German guards just waited until Peiper was out of sight and then started firing. There was no provocation, they claimed, and they offered no provocation or resistance to their captors. Within a matter of moments, 72 POWs were dead without cause.

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.

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 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.

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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.
Peiper himself evaded the death sentence imposed upon him afterward due to the Malmédy affair. Why is somewhat murky, but the Allies showed leniency to many former Wehrmacht soldiers in the 1950s. Peiper now had his freedom, but then experienced all sorts of difficulties adjusting to civilian life - understandably, some people opposed the presence in their work site of a convicted war criminal. Peiper had trouble holding a job but evaded any further trouble with the law. Peiper lived in relative obscurity for decades but got by.

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.

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Peiper in 1976, giving his final interview.
This 1976 interview brought attention to Peiper that did him no good. The locals resented having a convicted war criminal living near them and wanted to remove Peiper. 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. One night in July 1976 - Bastille Day - Joachim Peiper's house burned down and he was found dead in the wreckage.

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2018