On December 17, 1944, a convoy of unarmored trucks carrying Battery B of the US Army's 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion left Schevenhütte, Germany, near the dark and foreboding Hürtgen Forest that had been the focal point of such vicious combat, for Luxembourg and what was hoped would be some easier duty.
Kampfgrüppe Peiper was a group of elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, (the same unit that commited the 1940 massacre, with the same commanding officer, Wilhelm Mohnke) under the command of SS Lt. Col. (Obersturmbannführer) Joachim ("Jochen") Peiper. In this desperate, stupidly-conceived and poorly-planned German offensive, Peiper's orders were simple: get to the Meuse River with one tank. As fast as possible.
|One of the best tank commanders of World War II and an obviously happy-go-lucky guy, but was he a murderer? Waffen SS Lt. Col. Joachim ("Jochen") Peiper.|
So, since they had trucks and light weapons against Kampfgrüppe Peiper's tanks (the famous Mark V Panther and the older Mark IV) and heavily-armed halftracks (the Sd.Kfz. 251 and variants thereof), the troops of the 285th knew they would be toast and surrendered. In Parker's description, they seem more disgusted than afraid. They, understandably, had no idea what was coming.
Only slowly would the realization come. From the way they (about 120 in all) were herded into the field. From the yelling they heard from the Germans among themselves. From the vehicles that passed the field. From the US POW being marched to the field who was shot for not keeping his hands up high enough. From the halftrack that seemed to be trying to aim its 75-mm gun at them, only to be frustrated because it could not depress the barrel enough. From the halftracks parking across the road, putting the US POWs within the field of fire of their mounted machine guns. From the tanks parked along the road, mounting their anti-aircraft machine guns, and sighting them on the POWs. From the SS panzergrenadiers mounting machine guns on the sides of halftracks and also sighting them on the US POWs. From SS troops moving ammunition belts close to the machine guns.
So jittery did the US troops become that an officer had to shout "Standfast." Attempts at escape would give the Germans the legal basis for shooting them. A US medic was allowed to treat a wounded POW. When he was finished, he was shot.
And the massacre began, with machine guns on the German vehicles and machine pistols. Some US POWs immediately tried to run away; most were shot down. The remainder immediately went to ground. After the machine gun barrage, SS troops went into the field looking for survivors, whom they would proceed to deliver "mercy shots." Only some 40 survivors, most of them wounded, would make their way to US lines to report the incident, news of which would quickly reach Dwight Eisenhower himself.
The reason for the massacre, as well as the responsibility, has never been fully understood. That is the point of Parker's work in Fatal Crossroads. He seeks to determine whether this was a "battlefield incident," which affects all armies including the US Army, or a "deliberate slaughter."
In his efforts, as I said earlier, Parker has created a military history investigative masterpiece, one that should rank up there with Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Tony Tully; The Battle of Surigao Strait, also by Tully; and Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg, by Timothy B. Smith. Part World War II, part true crime, part detective work, part archaeology. I literally could not put it down.
Two elements stand out in making Fatal Crossroads a must-read.
First, the book is the culmination of some two decades of investigation by Parker, who is an authority on the Battle of the Bulge in general. Two decades of pouring over transcripts of the interviews and criminal trials related to the massacre, as well as his own interviews of witnesses. You can see the results in the extensive endnotes, which I strongly advise checking out as the narrative is read.
|Not Joachim Peiper. A famous photo of the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge showing Waffen SS troops on an amphibious jeep (Schwimmwagen) at the Kaiserbaracke crossroads in the Ardennes. In the past, the man in the center of the picture has been commonly identified as the perpetually-scowling Peiper. In reality, though , as Parker points out, though Peiper's favorite command vehicle was the amphibious jeep like the one shown here, these are just members of the 1st SS Panzer Reconnaisance Battalion in a stupidly-staged photograph taken by an SS cameraman. They were not even from Kampfgrüppe Peiper but were instead from Kampfgrüppe Knittel. The individuals on the left and right are sometimes identified as“SS-Unterscharführer Ochsner” and “SS-Oberscharführer Persin," respectively, but veterans of the unit and German records have not been able to confirm their identities.|
Which brings me to the second feature of Fatal Crossroads and that is the story itself.
Parker has written this book based on mountains of evidence, but also made a balanced presentation from the perspectives of both the US POWs and the SS troops. The chapters of the book generally alternate between the US and German perspectives. It is filled with eyewitness accounts from the surviving POWs as well as the SS troops. The accounts can seem to be repetitive, but though they describe the same event, they can differ wildly. Some say the first shot of the Malmédy Massacre came from a guy in a tank with a pistol. Others say it was a halftrack. Still others say it was a jeep. Some say the vehicle that tried to aim its big gun at them was a tank, others say it was a halftrack. After reaking this book, you will understand the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
Parker has arranged these eyewitness accounts with a dramatic flair. Though you know what is going to happen, you can feel the tension build, especially among the US POWs, as little by little they realize something is seriously wrong. Why is the halftrack aiming its gun at us? Why are they mounting machine guns? Why are they loading ammunition? It is masterfully written.
At the same time, Parker also gives the perspective of these lead elements of Kampfgrüppe Peiper's attack and takes great pains to explain the conundrum they face. As Parker points out, in the SS, disobeying orders could mean execution. And their orders were to "take no prisoners" and spread terror "like a storm wind," as Peiper put it, in part as revenge for the Allied bombing of Germany. But they actually took prisoners -- there is a difference between taking no prisoners and taking prisoners only to shoot them. They are supposed to move as fast as possible, but now they are stuck with some 120 POWs (and trucks, which the vehicle-starved Germans desperately want). No one seems to know what to do with them.
Which only goes to explain the massacre, not justify it. There is no justifying what took place at the Baugnez crossroads.
It is so easy to see the letters "SS," assume "very, very bad" and leave it at that. While that is understandable and usually accurate, it is not always so (see, e.g. Wilhelm Bittrich and the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen) and is intellectually lazy. Parker has not fallen into this trap and has instead tried to use the aforementioned mountains of evidence to find out who (if anyone) ordered the massacre and the specific orders or combat objectives that led to it.
In so doing, he has come up with findings that may surprise readers. As they should.
First, the often-villified Joachim Peiper is a far more complicated person than is generally known. He is a very tough one to figure out, full of contradictions. He was extremely intelligent, cultured and well-read, but dropped out of high school to join the thugs, brawlers, cutthroats and sadists that generally made up the SS. At one point he was the adjutant to Heinrich Himmler and a devoted Nazi, yet he never joined the Nazi Party. Peiper was one of the best panzer commanders of the war, yet he was disgusted with the Ardennes offensive and had no confidence in it. He was known for his daring panzer raids deep behind enemy lines, yet he preferred to ride in an amphibious jeep. He was personally courageous, yet he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown toward the end of the Normandy campaign and had to be withdrawn from the front line. After the war he took "responsibility" for the Malmédy Massacre because it happened under his command, but, as Parker's research shows, he likely did not order it.
|Also not Joachim Peiper. This is another famous photo from the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge and also from the Kaiserbaracke crossroads in the Ardennes. The individual in the middle has often been identified as Joachim Peiper. In fact, this is another stupidly-staged photograph of the same members of the 1st SS Panzer Reconnaisance Battalion that were in the previous photograph. The individuals in the left and middle are sometimes identified as “SS-Oberscharführer Persin” and “SS-Unterscharführer Ochsner,” respectively, but veterans of the unit and German records have not been able to confirm their identities. Though Hugo Boss allegedly designed the German uniforms early in the war, he obviously had no hand in these.|
With that kind of reputation, it is not surprising that the order for the execution of the American POWs came from him. Poetschke appears to have given the order to "shoot them" to 1st Lieutenant Erich Rumpf, commander of the 9th SS Panzer Engineer Company. Again, in a paramilitary institution already filled with sadists and thugs, this company was considered the lowest of the low, a "disciplinary" unit filled with soldiers who were disciplinary problems, who were criminals or who just irritated the higher ups. And Rumpf was every bit the vicious sadist that Poetschke was.
Why is still not clear. This does not seem to have been planned. Parker's account indicates to me that the Malmédy Massacre was just a case of Poetschke and Rumpf indulging their sadistic tendencies under the guise of battlefield expediency. And they encouraged their men to do the same. While some troops were shocked and horrified at the order to execute the prisoners, some to the point where they refused to take part in it or left, most of the SS troops seemed to think machine gunning unarmed Americans was fun and relished in it. The first shot seems to have been fired by a very eager panzer creweman by the name of Georg Fleps, who simply could not wait to fire his pistol at the helpess Americans. To complete this sickening picture, once the machine gunning had ended, members of the 9th SS Panzer Engineer Company's "Penal Squad" went out into the field of corpses to look for anyone still alive. While they joked around and laughed, these SS troops would put a bullet into the head of anyone still breathing.
|Waffen SS Lt. Col. Joachim ("Jochen") Peiper.|
But, while Parker says that Peiper's involvement cannot be completely ruled out, he does not seem to think he had anything to do with it, and I agree. While it was known that Peiper did not want POWs on this campaign where time was of the essence, he seems to have preferred to just disarm them and leave them behind for the trailing infantry to deal with, which would have been by far the easier thing to do than killing them. In fact, he was later heard to refer to the massacre as a screw up, as something apparently unintended, at least on his part. Additionally, Peiper's conduct with the US POWs on the campaign was generally considered polite and cordial. And he strikes me as too intelligent to pull something like this. Peiper knew Germany was losing the war; it likely contributed to the apparent nervous breakdown he had toward the end of the Normandy campaign. He had no confidence in the Ardennes offensive, and rightly so. And he knew that he would be called to account for whatever crimes he committed. I can't see him being so stupid as to do something like this.
(Although he was stupid enough to, after the war, move to France, where he was murdered by French Communists.)
Poetschke, on the other hand, sounds like the stereotypical Nazi SS thug -- arrogant, unbalanced, violent, not particularly bright. For every one brilliant tank commander Joachim Peiper or Michel Wittman in the Waffen SS, there were a thousand neanderthals like Werner Poetschke or Erich Rumpf. I can see Peiper trying to speed along in his single-minded, vain attempt to reach the Meuse, leaving Poetschke to take care of everything behind. And Poetschke, as is typical of organizations founded in violence, having been encouraged to act out on his sadistic tendencies, just took the opportunity to do so and relished in it.
In any event, you can see how moved I was by Fatal Crossroads in writing this incredibly long post. During a time when we are losing the last of our World War II veterans to the Big Guy Upstairs, Danny S. Parker has taken this chance to memorialize the very names of the troops of Battery B of the US Army's 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, who gave their lives not in combat but in a needless slaughter by a vicious, sadistic enemy. For my decades of studying World War II, I had certainly not paid much attention to the Malmédy Massacre. That was a major oversight on my part. I'm glad that Parker's fine work has allowed me to correct that.
I can't recommend Fatal Crossroads highly enough. Take a look at it, to honor the memories of those fallen troops, but also to check the evidence for yourself and see if you agree.