Malmedy

The Malmedy Massacre
The Baugnez Crossroads
(Belgium)

Hans Wijers

On the morning of 17 December, 1944 B Battery, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (FAOB) prepared for movement. Earlier they had been given orders to move from their current location, Schevenhutte, Germany, to Luxembourg. Their convoy consisted of 26 vehicles: 18 trucks from the 285th FAOB, one ambulance from the 546th Ambulance Company, four ambulances from the 575th Ambulance Company, and three trucks from the 68th Engineer Battalion. There were also two men from the 200th Field Artillery Battalion and eleven men from the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division.

At 0800 hours the convoy divided into two 13-vehicle serials and started their movement to Luxembourg. Lt Virgil Lary led the first serial and Capt Roger L. Mills, B Company's commander, led the second.

By 1145 hours the convoy was just outside the Belgian town of Malmédy when it was decided that they would stop for lunch, as the men had been on the move since early that morning. After about an hour break the convoy was on the move again. Soon it was moving through Malmédy when it was reported to Lt Lary that one of the soldiers in his serial was violently ill. Knowing that there was an aid station in the town, Lt Lary directed that the sick soldier be dropped off at the aid station, and then the vehicle commander was to catch up with the convoy. Due to the confusion of convoy movement and for reasons unknown, a total of four trucks stayed behind to drop off the sick soldier.

As soon as the sick soldier was dropped off, the four vehicles headed towards Baugnez to catch up with the rest of the convoy. Climbing the hill from Malmédy to Baugnez the lead truck was almost hit by a jeep traveling erratically and at a high rate of speed. In it were two soldiers; one of which was wounded and the other was babbling something about Germans. Unable to make any sense of what the man was saying, they continued on. Farther up the road they ran into some engineers that warned them that there might be Germans in the area. Continuing on, they were soon fired upon from an unknown source, so they decided to turn around and head back to Malmédy and wait for orders.

After Lt Lary left Malmédy he guided his serial out of the town and up the hill towards Baugnez. A few hundred yards from Baugnez they met Lt Col David E. Pergrin, CO of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. Lt Col David E. Pergrin told Lt Lary that there were reports of a strong German armored column nearby and recommended that he turn his unprotected column around and take a more circuitous route. Lt Lary said that he was already behind schedule and that he would rather continue on the route ordered by Capt Mills.

At about 1300 hours Lt Lary's column approached the Baugnez crossroads. There he met a US Army Military Policeman named Homer Ford. Pvt Ford's mission was to ensure military traffic made the correct turn at the crossroads. A few minutes earlier he had directed elements of the U.S. 7th Armored Division towards St. Vith, and he now directed Lt Lary to turn towards Ligneuville. As his 10th vehicle passed the crossroads, Lt Lary, at the head of the serial, heard firing to his rear. As he looked back he was horrified to see German half-tracks and tanks charging across the fields and firing into his convoy of soft-skinned vehicles and lightly armed troops.

The German vehicles Lt Lary saw were the lead elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper. They had just driven from the small village of Thirimont, Belgium, on their way to Ligneuville when they ran into the B Company. Seeing the trucks and jeeps of Lt Lary's column, the Germans immediately opened fire and assaulted the Americans in an attempt to destroy them before they could escape.

Within five minutes the battle was over. The Americans, armed with nothing more than pistols and rifles, didn't stand a chance. At first the Americans, not being combat troops, did not understand where the firing was coming from and just stopped their vehicles in an attempt to figure out what going on. But seeing the big German tanks charging across the fields and down the road, they quickly abandoned their trucks and tried to run or just hide. Some jumped into a shallow drainage ditch that lined the road, some hid in a nearby barn or some sheds behind houses, while others attempted to run to the nearby woods. The German soldiers started to round up the Americans where they found them. Some of the Americans tried to play dead, but the Germans walking among the vehicles and the ditch kicked or prodded them to ensure that they were in fact dead and those that weren't were ordered to march down the road to the crossroads.

Soon after the Americans surrendered, around 1330, the surviving Americans started to hear random shooting. Survivors later stated that German soldiers began shooting prisoners as soon as the fighting was over. One American was shot when he protested the stealing of his watch and another was shot when he didn't have his hands high enough. While all of this was going on other Germans were looting and destroying B Company's vehicles. Soon 88 (some reports have as many as 111) Americans were lined up in eight rows in a field near the crossroads awaiting their fate.

Soon Lt Col Peiper arrived at the head of the main body of his Kampfgruppe. He was outraged at the actions of his men and ordered them to immediately stop looting and destroying the American trucks and, more importantly, their precious fuel. He directed that the remaining operable vehicles were to be driven to the rear and, since the Germans were unfamiliar with operating the American trucks, he had some of the prisoners detailed to drive them with German escort. Leaving a Maj Poetschke in charge, Lt Col Peiper moved his column towards Ligneuville. As he left it was reported (but there is no proof) that Peiper said to Maj Poetschke, "You know what to do with the prisoners," suggesting that he (Maj Poetschke) shoot the prisoners.

It must be understood that the shooting of prisoners was not something new to many of the men in Kampfgruppe Peiper. A lot of them had spent numerous months on the Eastern Front where it was not uncommon to shoot prisoners. In fact, if one of their own soldiers was too badly wounded to be moved, they would shoot him instead of leaving him to the "mercy" of the Russians.

As more of Kampfgruppe Peiper moved through the crossroads the responsibility of guarding the Americans was passed on from unit to unit. At approximately 1415 soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, 3rd Pioneer Company, and the Penal Section of the 9th Panzer Pioneer Company were detailed to guard the prisoners. It was at this time that it is reported that Maj Poetschke said to a Sgt Beutner, "You know what to do with the prisoners." Sgt Beutner immediately went to the road and stopped a half-track that had a 75mm cannon and told the crew to fire into the prisoners. The half-track crew attempted to maneuver the vehicle into a firing position, but they were unable to depress the gun low enough to shoot the prisoners. Losing patience with the half-track commander, Sgt Beutner, to the relief of the crew, ordered it to move on. The Americans saw what had transpired and became nervous and unsure of what was going on.

The next German unit to arrive at the crossroads was the 7th Panzer Company. The prisoners then saw another German officer, a 1st Lt Rump, stop a tank and say something to the tank commander. He then called over members of the Penal Platoon and ordered them to, "Bump off the prisoners." The Germans in the area were confused by the order but a Pfc George Fleps, an ethnic German from Romania, fired his pistol from his tank, #731, into the prisoners. At first it seemed that no one understood what was going on or what to do. Some of the Americans started to run but the officers ordered them to stay put thinking that running would give the guards an excuse to shoot. Other Germans in the area were caught unawares, and surprised and confused began to fire into the helpless Americans. Soon the prisoners, seeing their fellow soldiers being shot, ignored their officers and ran for their lives. Many were cut down as they ran for the safety of the woods or nearby sheds. A few even tried to hide in the Cafe Bodware that was located next to the intersection, but for some reason the Germans did not chase them or hunt them down. So essentially, if they could get out of eyesight of the German soldiers they were safe.

Soon the tanks of the 7th Company left the area, as they were needed for more important missions, but members of the Penal Platoon walked among the prisoners searching for wounded, and there were wounded. These were rooted out by kicking them in the head or between the legs. As the wounded were found, a bullet or a rifle butt to the head quickly and brutally dispatched them. Sadistically, one medic was ordered to treat another wounded American and then they were both shot. Another wounded soldier was assisted in standing and then shot in the back of the head. The Americans that tried to hide in the Café Bodware were burned alive when the Germans set fire to the building.

Between 1500 and 1600 hours vehicles of Kampfgruppe Peiper fired into the bodies lying in the field as they passed through the crossroads. But amazingly there were survivors of the massacre. Of the original members of the 1st serial of B Company a total of 55 men survived the ordeal. Some of the soldiers escaped during the initial attack and some escaped after they were captured. Some of them were recaptured by other German units, (they did not say anything about the shootings at Baugnez until after the war for fear they would be shot for being a witness to a war crime), and some made it to friendly lines to tell of the shootings. The last one took four days to make it to friendly lines.

When these men told their tale of the shootings at Baugnez, it enraged the Americans and inspired them to fight with conviction and with little compassion towards the enemy, especially towards SS or Fallschirmjäger soldiers. In fact, there has never been found a written order by a German commander to kill American prisoners, but there were orders written by American regimental commanders that directed that all SS and Fallschirmjäger would be shot on sight.

It was not until 13 January 1945 that American forces recovered the bodies. A total of 84 bodies (72 initially and 12 after the snow melted) were found. Because many of the dead were ravaged by animals or mutilated by artillery fire during the fighting to recapture the area, the exact number of prisoners that were shot during shootings of 17 December 1944 will never be known. Autopsies, conducted in Malmédy, found that 41 of the prisoners were shot in the head and 10 had severe head injuries probably received from a rifle butt.

On 13 January U.S. troops found 66 members of B Company, 285th Field Observation Battalion; three soldiers from Headquarters Battery, 285th Field Artillery Battalion; four from the 32nd Armored Regiment; two from the 200th Field Artillery Battalion; two from the 546th Ambulance Battalion; four from the 575th Ambulance Company; and one soldier from the 86th Engineer Battalion.

From 12 May to 16 July, 1946, 73 German soldiers of Kampfgruppe Peiper were put on trial for the murder of the American prisoners shot at Baugnez. Unfortunately the two primary culprits were not there. Maj Poetschke had been killed in Hungary in 1945 and Sgt Beutner was killed in the town of Stoumont a few days after the shootings at Baugnez. The death sentence was ordered for 43 of the defendants while 22 received life imprisonment. But because of issues with the trial, such as torture and other forms of maltreatment, all were eventually paroled (Peiper in 1956).

Because of the mis-proprieties with the gathering of evidence and the trial itself, we will never know exactly what happened on that dreary day in December. American eyewitness accounts of the events did not match, and later testimony did not agree with earlier given accounts. German versions of the shooting at Baugnez vary. Some say that they engaged a group of Americans that, due to a combination of ground fog and battlefield confusion, all of a sudden appeared next to the road. Another version was that someone fired a warning shot because they thought that the Americans were trying to escape (around the time that the half-track was moving around on the road?) and when the Americans, upon hearing the shooting, started to run, the Germans fired on "prisoners attempting to escape." Still another story cited that the Americans had hidden some weapons under their coats and that they actually fired first, and therefore the Germans were just protecting themselves. Whatever happened, it is a fact that many of the prisoners were found to have powder burns on the back of their heads, and this could only be done by a pistol or rifle shot at close range.

The war has been over for 60 years and the United States and Germany are the best of allies, and veterans of both armies can be found at the memorial at Baugnez remembering their fallen comrades and their sacrifices. Hopefully we will remember their sacrifices and the loss of their comrades with respect and admiration and emulate their goodness and never repeat their mistakes.

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Updated August 6, 2006