On this day (Dec. 17) in 1944, troops of German Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper’s SS battlegroup shot and killed some 100 American soldiers who had surrendered on this second day of the Battle of the Bulge in the medieval Belgium town of Malmedy.
This “Malmedy Massacre” took place during Nazi Germany’s last, desperate counter-offensive of World War II on the Western Front.
Adolf Hitler had, on Dec. 16, ordered the more than 200,000 battle-tested troops of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Sixth SS Panzer Army and Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth SS Panzer Army to attack the American line through the hilly, thickly wooded Ardennes Forest. Specifically, Hitler ordered his battle-weary troops to drive a wedge between the British/Canadian armies in Belgium and the American armies in northern France, and then to seize the vital Allied supply port of Antwerp.
Allied commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his staff at SHAEF Headquarters were caught completely off guard as the German attacking forces were able to quickly and easily over-run the American line, thinly held by six divisions of recently arrived troops.
American forces, in and around the town of St. Vith, where the Americans lost 8,000 of the 22,000-man garrison, were forced, after a determined defense, to retreat. However, elements of the 28th American Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions were able to hold out stubbornly, heroically and famously at Bastogne against the determined efforts of three German panzer divisions to capture the strategically located town.
It was at Bastogne that American 101st Airborne Division commander Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe responded with his now-famous one-word answer, “Nuts,” to the German demand to surrender.
The initial Dec. 16 to Dec. 23 German successes, in this the largest land battle fought by American armed forces in World War II, was due in part to the belief, among Allied commanders, that an attack through the Ardennes Forest would not be possible because of its heavily-wooded, impenetrable terrain, and therefore they assigned only six divisions to defend the region.
Also, luckily for the Germans, bad flying weather initially prevented the Allies from using their overwhelming air superiority. However, by Dec. 23, good flying weather returned, and this enabled the Americans to bombard German tank columns and supply routes.
By Dec. 25, the German advance had been halted. By Jan. 16, 1945, the battle lines were back to what they had been on the first day of this historic Battle of the Bulge (the “Bulge” was the 40-mile-wide and 60-mile-deep German penetration of the American line).
Also hampering initial American response was the fact that the Germans had used English-speaking German troops dressed in U.S. uniforms as Military Police to spread confusion and misinformation on bridge and road junctions. However, finally the Americans were able to bring their superior air power and hastily assembled reinforcements (especially from George Patton’s Third Army and Courtney Hodges’ First Army) to halt Hitler’s ambitious gamble to push the Allies back from German home territory.
In this monthlong (Dec. 16 to Jan. 16), battle American casualties were about 40,000 compared with more than 200,000 suffered by the attacking German forces. The Battle of the Bulge was considered, on balance, an American victory mainly because the American losses, although tragically high, were replaceable whereas the German losses of men and equipment were irreplaceable.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.