Seventy years ago this week, German forces launched a major counteroffensive operation through the Ardennes forest. Known as the Battle of the Bulge in the United States because of the way it reshaped the Western front in World War Two, it was intended to take the port of Antwerp while splitting the American and British forces advancing on the Siegfried line.
For 41 days, over Christmas and the New Year, American forces actively resisted the German advance and ultimately defeated it. At the end of the battle, there were about 110,000 allied and over 85,000 German casualties. The U.S. lost 19,000 men, making it the country’s bloodiest battle of World War Two – fought fewer than 80 miles away from the place where over 26,000 Americans perished in the Battle of Meuse Argonne, a generation before.
Like much of World War Two, in the United States we remember the Battle of the Bulge as part of the Good War – a great victory over the forces of oppression. It also cemented the reputations of generals like George Patton and Anthony McAuliffe. Patton was hailed for his military prowess after disengaging his Third Army from one battle, turning 90 degrees and hitting the German flank; McAuliffe, for his valor when, in command of the besieged and surrounded 101st Airborne Division, he replied with one word to a German telegram demanding surrender: “nuts.”
The battle, however, also saw the worst kind of behavior on all sides. Often, in violation of the most basic rule of international humanitarian law (IHL), persons out of combat – the wounded and those who laid down their arms – were not spared. Near the Belgian town of Malmedy, German forces, led by SS Colonel Joachim Peiper, executed 85 American prisoners of war (POWs). Evidence preserved by the snow and cold revealed many were shot with machine guns and survivors were shot again or bludgeoned. In the ensuing chaos the German forces also set on fire buildings occupied by fleeing prisoners seeking refuge. Those who tried to escape the flames were shot. Over the next few days, Peiper’s forces continued committing massacres killing over 300 POWs and nearly 100 civilians.
American anger was soon felt across the front. In his book “Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict”, Bradley A. Thayer, paints a vivid picture of the ensuing American response. From headquarters of the 328th Infantry Regiment came an order reading “No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight,” and a memoir by a U.S. veteran reflects on how “word of these massacres undoubtedly contributed to the shortage of live SS prisoners taken by the American GIs.” Another G.I., Thayer adds, recalled the moment when his unit came across a number of Germans who had captured an American mail truck and killed its occupants. After realizing the Germans were eating Christmas cookies destined for the U.S. soldiers, some of the men went into a rage and killed a number of them. “This was after we heard about Malmedy,” the G.I. is quoted. “It was a wild time during the Bulge.”
The Battle of the Bulge ended on January 25, 1945, having turned the tide of war in the Western front irrevocably against Germany. By the time summer arrived, Germany had capitulated and Hitler was dead. But all wars – even the Good War – have a way of lingering with people long after hostilities end.
Shortly after the war, Joachim Peiper was tried for war crimes, including the massacre at Malmedy, and sentenced to death. For procedural reasons his sentence was commuted to life in prison and then, just eleven years later, he was released for time served. In 1972 Peiper resettled in France and tried to lead a quiet life.
He might have thought he had moved on, but in 1976 the lingering hatreds of the war in Europe finally caught up with him. French communists discovered and revealed his presence in Western France. As reported by Der Spiegel, Peiper’s home was attacked and burned. In the charred remains of the building, authorities found his body with a bullet to the chest. It was Bastille Day.