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Kampgruppe Peiper and the Rule of Land Warfare

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 The Annex to Hague Convention No. IV, Article 23, para. C., dated 18 October 1907 states that: “It is especially forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defense, has surrendered at discretion.During the German Ardennes Offensive, this particular law was repeatedly ignored by Kampfgruppe Peiper. This tank heavy task force of the 1 st SS Panzer Division of the 6 th Panzer Army under General Sepp Dietrich, was commanded by SS Colonel Joachim Peiper. His mission was to spearhead the 6th Panzer’s drive to capture crossings over the Meuse River.

From16December1944,whentheoffensivebegan,until26December1994,whentheoffensive bega, until 26 December 1944, when Peiper’s force was destroyed at La Gleize, Belgium; SS troopers murdered 138 Belgian civilians and 350 American prisoners of war in twelve separate incidents.

It is pparent that the German High Command, from Hitler down to individual company commanders, ordered that no prisoners were to be taken during the offensive, known as “Wacht am Rhein.” General Dietrich stated that the battle was to be conducted with “a wave of terror and fright” without “human inhibitions.” Peiper himself did not specifically order no quarter during his operations briefings to his soldiers, but he implied it. One company commander told his troops: “You know what you should do with prisoners without me telling that.”

On 17 December, when the Kampfgruppe seized Honsfeld, German soldiers murdered 19 American GIs who had surrendered. They also shot at least three Belgians, including a teenaged girl, who was also presumably raped. One wounded GI was murdered by an SS major in Bullingen shortly thereafter.

In mid-afternoon of the same day, approximately 130 soldiers of Battery B, 285 th FA Observation Battalion were herded into a tight formation by their SS captors in a field off to the side of road near the Baugnez Crossroads, outside Malmedy, Belgium. Two Mark IV tanks pulled off on the side of the road to cover them. A German yelled, “Machen alle kaput!” and for fifteen minutes, the tanks’ machine guns and the SS guards fired into the formation at point blank range. For two hours afterwards, passing Germans would amuse themselves by firing indiscriminately into the massed heap of bodies. Eighty-six Americans died at Baugnez.

Behind the Hotel du Moulin in Ligneuville, on the same afternoon, eight Americans were lined up by SS Sergeant Paul Duchmann and shot in the head. One man, Corporal Joseph Mass, survived.

In the towns of Stavelot, Trois Ponts, Parfondruy, Ster and Renardmont, Peiper’s soldiers killed an estimated 138 Belgian civilians. In the village of Parfondruy, with a population of less than one hundred, twenty-six inhabitants were killed. Other incidents were smaller and isolated.

Some American commanders, responding to the Kampfgruppe’s actions, stated both implicitly and explicitly that SS troopers were to be killed. Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) 27, HQ 328 th Infantry issued on 21 December stated, “No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner, but will be shot on sight.” Despite this, there is no evidence that any Americans carried out this or similar orders.

After the war, POW compounds were search and 500 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper were singled out for interrogation about their activities during Wacht am Rhein. General Dietrich, his chief of staff, the commander of the 1 st SS Panzer Corps, and Peiper along with 69 other suspects, were taken to a detention barracks at Dachau for trial.

On 16 May 1946, the war crimes trial began. On 11 July, judgment was passed: 43 German soldiers, including Peiper, were sentenced to death; 22, Dietrich included were sentenced to life in prison; the remainder were sentenced to prison for varying lengths of time. In the final judgment, thirteen of the 43 death sentences were ordered to be carried out. Thirteen life sentences were disallowed and other sentences were commuted.

However, by 1948, when final judgment was passed, the Cold War had begun, and Americans altered their opinions of the convicted Germans and the Wehrmacht in general.

In the end, after a long period of Congressional hearings, public debated and outcry into the Army’s investigation and trial process; all death sentences were commuted, more convictions overturned. Finally, after eleven years in prison, Joachim Peiper was paroled out of the Landsberg fortress. Ironically, this was the same prison in which Hitler was imprisoned and wrote ‘Mein Kampf.’

Peiper move his family to the quiet Alsation town of Traves. In 1976, a newspaper reported just who and what this man was, and two weeks later, he was killed when his house was fire bombed. Perhaps in the end, justice was served.

Reference: MacDonald, Charles. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: Morrow, 1984.

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