Friday, January 27, 2012

Fatal Crossroads

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.

Most of them would never arrive.  In the Ardennes, just south of Malmédy, Belgium, at a crossroads called Baugnez, the column fell foul of the spearhead of the German offensive that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.  By the end of the day, some eighty US soldiers would be dead, having surrendered to the improvised German task force known as Kampfgrüppe Peiper, and, unarmed and herded into a field, subsequently murdered by troops of the Waffen SS.  It was at least the second such massacre of Western Allied troops by the Waffen SS, the first being the murder of some 80 British POWs near Dunkerque (Dunkirk), France, in 1940.  This was also the only such large-scale massacre of American troops by the Germans in World War II.

The Malmédy Massacre, as this incident has become known, is the subject of a new book by Danny S. Parker called Fatal Crossroads: The Untold Story of the Malmédy Massacre at the Battle of the Bulge.  I discussed the book in passing earlier and highly recommended it.  Now I want to give some meat to that recommendation.

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, when Kampfgrüppe Peiper encountered the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, a number of disparate factors were in play, all of which, unfortunately, worked against the US soldiers.  While the Waffen SS was known for committing atrocities on the Eastern Front (where the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention for treatment of prisoners of war and thus was not entitled to its protections), on the Western Front, where the US, Britain and Germany were signatories to the Geneva Convention, even the Waffen SS generally complied with the convention's protocols. 

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.
I cannot do justice to Parker's research in this single post, so let me just give a taste of it.  In Fatal Crossroads, Parker identifies (almost) every soldier who died on the field at Baugnez and shows the location of the bodies on a map.  Parker also identifies every single German vehicle involved in the massacre and shows the positions of the vehicles at the time of the shooting.  He identifies the crews and officers involved.  This is an investigative tour de force.

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.
While the shadow of the (in)famous Peiper lurks over everything in Fatal Crossroads, he actually plays only a relatively minor role in it.  Parker's research reveals the true undisputed villain in the Malmédy Massacre: SS Major Werner Poetschke, a tank commander who was basically Peiper's second-in-command.  In a paramilitary institution already filled with thugs and brawlers, Poetschke was especially bad -- a sadist who seems to have been bipolar.  Poetschke did not get along with Peiper and seemed to take delight in terrorizing civilians and even his own troops.  And he encouraged such behavior among those under his command.

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.
A question only incompletely answered in Fatal Crossroads is the imnvolvement of Peiper himself in the massacre.  While there are witnesses to the actions of Poetschke and Rumpf, no one has come forward to say that Peiper ordered the massacre.  That does not completely absolve him, however.  Though most of the rumors in Kampfgrüppe Peiper attributed the massacre to Poetschke, one person did say that Peiper gave the order to Poetschke.  There is also the matter of one conversation Peiper had with Poetschke at the Baugnez crossroads, the exact nature of which was never revealed.  Peiper left shortly thereafter, and the sound of the machine guns could be heard from his halftrack.  Between that timeline and the other deaths considered war crimes caused by Kampfgrüppe Peiper, the evidence against Peiper himself would seem to be pretty damning.

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.


  1. I have read an excerpt of this and agree that it looks like an interesting read. I'll just reserve any further comments until I have had time to sit down and go through the entire book.

  2. Having read this very readable book, I can only recommend that the English Language Book Market would offer the American reader more English language printings of books needed to compare Danny S. Parker's convictions to reality. He feels that he may have betrayed his German veteran interview partners and I cannot but agree. An open-minded approach ought to take over from Danny S. Parker's meandering around battlefield reality.
    The late Belgian author's Gerd J. Gust Cuppens Massacre a Malmedy in French, or Was wirklich geschah . . . in German is still denied to the American public for lack of being translated into English, probably because his result has a minimal number of 21 executed American POWs on the Baugnez meadow. The Dutchman Hans Wijers' English language book The Battle of the Bulge includes ret. US Army Cpt. Michael de Barto's Malmedy Massacre chapter, which leaves things a little more open. The Belgian Henri Rogister's Une Enquete Inedite, regrettably only in French, presents a clear, detailed account whilst still relying heavily on American eyewitnesses. John M. Bauserman's The Malmedy Massacre which supports a war crime version of events seems to be Parker's main source of material with the exception of some personally conducted interviews.
    Bill Merriken and Kenneth Ahrens are two American witnesses whose testmony about the violent circumstances of the capture and dead bodies de-bunks some of the major points used to support a premeditated war crime.
    The official indictment has 72 American POWs counte as murdered on the meadow. Eleven more dead POWs are not included in the case.
    Reality speaks a different language: A convoy with 120 Battery B men and other unit's members, plus 30 POWs from SS-vanguard vehicles had arrived at the locale. The initial altercation of the convoy with the point of the German battlegroup, the roadside clearance, and actions against armed and unarmed, but still unsurrendered GIs playing 'dead man' or trying to avoid capture, and of suvivors of the shooting of POWs trying to get away until dusk led to about 55 American soldiers killed in action. All this has taken at least one hour and took place from beginning to end at nearly a whole mile of roadside. A girl witness describes that most of the survivors of the inital altercation escaped into nearby woods, meaning that maybe up to 40 of the convoy's GIs never got captured on that fatal day and must be included in 17 more survivors Col. Pergrin's engineers picked up; and 29 more crossing American lines into safety over the next hours. 7 men out of 30 POWs of the German vanguard were also saved. 4 of the 30 got killed. The remaining 19 men are neither known as dead nor otherwise documented. 10 GIs had to drive US trucks for the SS. We therefore have to conclude that there were more than 80 survivors out of the at least 150 American soldiers having arrived at the Fatal Crossroads.
    Does this compare in any way to Danny S. Parker's conclusions?

  3. The author ought to read other authors more carefully.
    I recommend Bauserman, Cuppens, Rogister, Wijers and de Barto.
    Bill Meriken and Kenneth Ahrens have survived Baugnez and gave testimony that allows to ignore Fatal Crossroad.

  4. Hi-

    I agree;Peiper did not give the order specifically although he and Poetschke knew one another very well as they served together from 1943 till Poetschke died in 3/45.

    I do agree also that Kampfgruppe Peiper didn't have enough time to analyze the situation. Peiper took responsibility,as he was the responsible officer.

    He spent at least 10 years in prison and certainly 'paid his dues'.

    Peiper lived in France because he loved Traves and had many peaceful years there. He didn't have time to suddenly leave and like the soldier he was,would have considered it cowardly to leave.

    The Waffen SS was an elite unit and atrocities occurred more frequently where 'they' fought.

    Peiper was a great leader. He died like he fought,with no fear!

  5. Most events in the second world war cannot be valued just by looking solely at one scene, you have to know in what context it happened, what feelings, intentions etc. concerned the acting participants, as a group and individually. Many german combatants fought desperately as well as fanatically. The US airforce also flatened Malmedy around Christmas just about the same time the Malmedy massacre happened, and massacred a big number of their own soldiers and around 200 belgian civilians in an eyeless operation.
    I do not necessarily want to say that this almost lookes like an ordeal to me, in which it seems that american soldiers in that spot were doomed to die, no matter from what side.

    Samuel from Germany