Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
18 October 2012
Review by Alan M. Anderson, King's College London
Fatal Crossroads: The Untold Story of the Malmédy Massacre at the Battle of the Bulge
By Danny S. Parker
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 390. ISBN 978–0–306–81193–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

On 16 December 1944, the Wehrmacht launched Hitler's desperate counteroffensive in the Ardennes on the Western Front. On the afternoon of 17 December, at the Belgian crossroads hamlet of Baugnez near the town of Malmédy, eighty-four American soldiers were killed by units of Kampfgruppe Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division. Fifty-six soldiers escaped the carnage and, by evening, some had begun to tell others of the shootings. On 18 December, the headquarters of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower received the first report of the massacre.

These facts are indisputable. But questions regarding what quickly became known as the Malmédy Massacre arose almost immediately. Did some of the American soldiers die in the initial contact with Kampfgruppe Peiper's lead elements or in later battles? Did some surrender? Did follow-on units mistake surrendered prisoners for armed enemy soldiers? What exactly caused the shootings? Did some American soldiers precipitate the massacre by trying to escape? Were the SS men ordered to shoot the prisoners and, if so, who gave the order? The answers to these questions are obscured by the speed and intensity of the events at the crossroads, a botched postwar US Army investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators,[1] the apologias of SS veterans and revisionists,[2] and the passage of time.

In Fatal Crossroads, historian Danny S. Parker[3] seeks to answer this central question: "What really happened at that forlorn crossroads nearly seventy years ago on that Sunday afternoon?" (270). He brings to bear the results of seventeen years of research undertaken for a larger, forthcoming project on the commander of Kampfgruppe Peiper, SS-Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper. His analysis draws extensively on many interviews with American survivors, Belgian civilians, and former SS solders. He has also reviewed some forty thousand pages of documents and archival materials, including all the autopsy reports on the victims. To the various firsthand accounts he obtained, Parker applies the methodology of forensic crime scene eyewitness analysis, giving more credence to statements made and confirmed by multiple witnesses. The result is a compelling and comprehensive picture of the massacre at Baugnez.

On the morning of 17 December, Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (285th FAOB)—a specialty and essentially noncombat unit assigned to direct American counterbattery artillery fire—was ordered to move south from Schevenhütte, Germany, to a new location near St. Vith, Belgium. Just before 1:00 p.m., as the main column of twenty-six lightly armed jeeps, command cars, and trucks turned right toward St. Vith at the crossroads at Baugnez, the Panzerspitze (tank spearhead) of Kampfgruppe Peiper suddenly appeared, approaching from the east on another road. Two tanks and a halftrack immediately opened fire on the unarmored vehicles and trucks of the 285th FAOB. Equipped only with carbines, rifles, and light machine guns, the Americans quickly surrendered. Parker's research reveals that just two of the men were (lightly) wounded in the encounter; none were killed. The Panzerspitze soon continued on its advance, leaving the main body of the Kampfgruppe (the 3rd and 9th Panzer Engineer companies) to deal with the prisoners. Parker's investigation proves there was no "second engagement" at this point. All the prisoners had been disarmed and collected near a café at the crossroads. At least three men had already been shot after surrendering, either for no apparent reason or for not holding their hands high enough over their heads.

The disarmed men of the 285th FAOB were ordered to stand in a small field on the southwest corner of the crossroads. They were soon joined by various prisoners from other units, including the 200th Field Artillery Battalion, the reconnaissance company of the 32nd Armored Regiment, an ambulance company, and an antiaircraft battalion. Parker calculates that 127 men stood clustered in the field, hands over heads.

Shortly after the initial engagement, Peiper himself reached the crossroads and had a fateful conversation with SS-Major Werner Poetschke,[4] commander of the 1st Panzer Battalion. What exactly he told Poetschke is uncertain, but Parker concludes that the SS-Major ordered the execution of the prisoners "as a matter of expediency" (274). Kampfgruppe Peiper had been directed to advance quickly and was already behind schedule. It did not have time to deal with over a hundred POWs.

The first shots at the prisoners—pistol fire by one to three German soldiers whom Parker identifies—may have been in response to the attempted escape of a few prisoners.

[I]t is quite true that a small group of three to four Americans attempted to flee the scene just as the first shots were fired. However much this behavior might complicate matters, the fact remains that the SS men on the halftracks in front of the Americans were siting machine guns and preparing ammunition for the anticipated shooting to come. The execution detail was in its final stages—made crystal clear by the earlier failed attempt to train a halftrack-mounted 7.5-cm howitzer on the Americans to aid in their liquidation. Over a dozen American witnesses remembered how the enemy had strenuously endeavored to train the big gun on the men standing in the field. Others watched as machine guns were mounted on the side of the SPWs [halftracks] so their muzzles could be trained on the increasingly nervous crowd. (278)

After the initial fusillade, German soldiers moved through the field, administering point-blank shots to finish off the wounded. Indeed, autopsy reports indicate that forty-one victims died from a close-range shot to the head and six from blunt force trauma to the skull. After a time, when survivors jumped up to make a run to safety, German tanks, halftracks, and soldiers unleashed additional fire on them. More were killed as they tried to flee. Forty-three men survived the actual massacre,[5] all but sixteen of whom were wounded. Their stories, which Parker recounts in detail, attest to a fierce determination to live.

"[T]o shoot down a mass of prisoners and then move through the field to execute any surviving the first onslaught—and not take these prisoners—must be considered a war crime under every rational classification" (279).[6] Other have reached the same conclusion,[7] but Parker's is now the most detailed study, drawing as it does so heavily on the firsthand descriptions of both American and German witnesses.

The book is not without deficiencies, however. First, Parker's prose can be florid,[8] needlessly so, given the compelling nature of his subject. Second, his presentation sometimes becomes confusing—events and individual stories appear out of order or recur in chapters on disparate topics. Third, the omission of a bibliography is most unfortunate, considering the number of interviews Parker quotes and the benefit it would have provided to current readers and future researchers. Also problematic is the consignment of significant additional details and analysis to lengthy endnotes rather than the main text, which forces readers to move frequently back and forth to obtain the full story. Finally, and most incredibly, Parker's conclusions and the results of his meticulous investigation are relegated to an appendix—"Malmédy: In Search of the Truth."

These difficulties aside, Fatal Crossroads is now the most complete account of the slaughter of US prisoners at Baugnez in December 1944. The scope and detail of Parker's research and especially the interviews he conducted make his book indispensable reading for historians of the Battle of the Bulge and particularly for those interested in the war crimes committed during the Malmédy Massacre.

[1] Seventy-four members of Kampfgruppe Peiper and their superiors up to army level were charged with war crimes. Nearly all were convicted and most were sentenced to death. But coerced confessions obtained by overzealous and prejudiced investigators and prosecutors and biased conduct by the judges resulted in the eventual commutation of all the death sentences and the release of all the prisoners by 1956, when Peiper himself was quietly freed. (He was murdered in 1976 at his home in France by unidentified killers.) For full details, see James J. Weingartner, Crossroads of Death: The Story of the Malmedy Massacre and Trial (Berkeley: U Cal Pr, 1979). On the campaign of the defense attorney who led the effort to reverse the judgments of the war crimes trial, see Weingartner, A Peculiar Crusade: Willis M. Everett and the Malmedy Massacre (NY: NYU Pr, 2000).

[2] For a highly speculative and flawed analysis contending that the American soldiers were killed in the first contact with Kampfgruppe Peiper and that some had recovered their arms and opened fire on German halftracks and tanks following the initial contact, see the appendix (based on a paper by Franz Uhle-Wettler) in Trevor N. Dupuy et al., Hitler's Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944–January 1945 (NY: HarperCollins, 1994) 487–97.

[3] His earlier work includes Battle of the Bulge: Hitler's Ardennes Offensive, 1944–1945 (1991; rpt. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Pr, 2004).

[4] Poetschke was killed in action in Hungary in March 1945.

[5] Of the 140 men involved in the surrender and massacre, six 285th FAOB soldiers avoided capture after contact with the Kampfgruppe Peiper spearhead; seven captured 285th FAOB and 32nd Armored Regiment soldiers drove vehicles away as prisoners of the Germans; three prisoners were shot before the main massacre; eighty were shot and killed in or near the killing field, either initially or while fleeing; one died later of his wounds; forty-three survived the massacre.

[6] Indeed, when their bodies were recovered a month later, many victims were frozen with their hands still above their heads.

[7] See, e.g., John Bauserman, The Malmédy Massacre (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 2001) and Michael Reynolds, The Devil's Adjutant: Jochen Peiper, Panzer Leader (NY: Sarpedon, 1995).

[8] E.g., "The last shot echoed from the crossroads and reverberated beyond the Belgian hills before fading slowly like a hushed sonic wave, signaling something from afar. It echoed with a seeming hesitation, booming from the nearby pine forests and resounding across the hillsides in cold air. The wavering thunder took several seconds to fade, seeming to pull the world along into a new silence—cold, lonely, and dying in a whimper" (1).

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