The Germans referred to their massive 1944 counteroffensive through the Ardennes as “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein” or “Operation Watch on the Rhine.”
We called it the Battle of the Bulge. Regardless of the terminology, this sweeping attack represented the Germans’ final hope at staving off unmitigated disaster.
The stakes really could not have been higher. Success might mean a negotiated peace. Hitler hoped to turn the US and the UK against the Soviets for a united fight against the forces of Bolshevism. Failure would mean abject defeat and a ravaged homeland. Such pressures on young men can precipitate some fairly egregious behaviors.
Kampfgruppe Peiper led by SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Joachim Peiper represented the vanguard of the 6th SS Panzer Army commanded by Sepp Dietrich. Racing against the clock and an ever-dwindling fuel supply, Peiper’s panzers crushed American resistance and punched deep into the Allied rear. The farther they pushed the more precarious their situation became and the more desperate they grew.
On December 17, 1944, German SS troops captured some 120 American troops from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Desperate to continue the advance and lacking the facilities to manage prisoners, SS troops opened fire on the unarmed Americans. 84 Allied soldiers were killed.
Sepp Dietrich, Joachim Peiper, and their immediate subordinates were all tried after the war for murder. There resulted 43 death sentences and another 22 defendants sentenced to life in prison. None of the executions were actually carried out. Peiper was eventually released from prison and settled in Traves in Eastern France. In the early morning of July 14, 1976, unknown assailants set Peiper’s house alight. The unrepentant Nazi died of smoke inhalation.
The Malmedy Massacre came to define the Battle of the Bulge. Once word of the shootings got out very few SS prisoners survived to see the inside of a prison camp. Through the shaded lens of history it is easy to look down our long Roman noses at the SS troops involved and rightly revile them. However, our own behavior in this regard was not without blemish.
Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, kicked off on July 9, 1943. The command structure for this convoluted operation was complex, but LTG George Patton commanded the American ground element. In the lead-up to the invasion, Patton was in rare form.
Patton addressed his officers prior to the invasion so as to dispense last-minute command guidance and encourage his men. Many of the troops involved in Operation Husky had not seen combat before. Emotions were running high.
One of Patton’s regimental commanders, Colonel Forrest E. Cookson, later testified that General Patton had stated, “If the enemy continued to resist after US troops had come within 200 yards of their defensive position, surrender of those enemy soldiers need not be accepted.” Some of Patton’s troops apparently took that directive quite literally.
Event Number 1
Green troops from the 180th Infantry Regiment were given the task of capturing Biscari Airfield and linking up with the US 1st Infantry Division. The 180th so struggled in the first two days of the invasion that the Division commander MG Troy Middleton considered sacking the Regimental commander. By July 14th the men of the 180th were tired, frightened, and frustrated.
SGT Horace West was tasked with securing a group of some 45 Italian and 3 German POWs. The prisoners were stripped of their shoes and shirts to discourage attempted escape. West and a few others marched the prisoners about a mile back from the lines before peeling off eight or nine for submission to the Regimental S2 (Intelligence Officer) for questioning. SGT West then borrowed a Thompson submachine gun from his company First Sergeant Haskell Brown. When the 1SG asked why he wanted the Thompson, West replied that he was going to, “Kill those sons of bitches.”
SGT West directed his men to turn away and raked the group of unarmed shirtless prisoners with automatic fire. Once he had the group knocked down he swapped out magazines, switched his Thompson to semiauto, and shot each of the fallen POWs through the chest. The following day the Regimental Chaplain discovered the 37 bodies and alerted his superiors.
Event Number 2
CPT John Compton, commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, was undeniably strung out. He had been without sleep for three days, and his company had taken an absolute pummeling. Persistent and relentless sniper and mortar fire exacted a horrible toll.
By the time Compton got to his objective at the Biscari Airfield, they had already taken heavy casualties. Of the 34 men in Compton’s 2d Platoon, fully a dozen were either dead or severely wounded. Italian snipers had fired upon wounded American troops as well as the medics dispatched to tend to them. The pressure of such grinding sniper activity weighed heavily on Compton and his men.
When Compton’s company finally seized their objective they took some 35 Italian prisoners. These Italian troops were located in a dugout fighting position from which the sniper fire had been coming previously. Several of the Italians were in civilian clothing when they were captured.
Through an interpreter, an American squad leader named SGT Hair asked the Italians if they were the ones who had been shooting at the American wounded. The Italians refused to answer. SGT Hair reported all of this to his platoon leader, 1LT Blanks, who duly passed it on to CPT Compton. Compton said simply, “Get them shot.”
With CPT Compton in tow, his men formed an 11-man firing squad, lined up the unarmed Italian soldiers, and gunned them down. A few of the POWs attempted to run. When the dust cleared Compton’s men had killed them all.
The Thompson submachine gun was designed to fight the First World War. The first operational prototypes became available within days of the 1918 armistice. With no massive government contracts to fill, General John Taliaferro Thompson marketed his handy little meat grinder to Law Enforcement and civilian users. Abuse by such sordid characters as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd bought us the onerous National Firearms Act of 1934.
Everything about the Thompson is wrong. It is too heavy, too unbalanced, and too complicated. However, when the US was dragged kicking and screaming into WW2 it was all we had available. In competent hands, the Thompson was nonetheless a reliable and effective close-combat tool.
The M1 Garand was called simply the M1 by those who wielded it. At 9.5 pounds and 44 inches long the M1 was a beast of a thing. However, the .30-06 round it fired was inimitably powerful. A friend who carried one in WW2 once told me that so long as you hit a German soldier center of mass with the M1 he was down and out immediately.
The M1 soldiered on from 1934 until 1957. I actually saw images taken from Haiti that showed security guards armed with M1 rifles in the news just last week. The M1 rifle was one of the most critical weapons in the American arsenal during WW2.
The Rest of the Story
News like this is all but impossible to suppress in a congested war zone. Eventually, word got back to General Omar Bradley who confronted Patton over it. This was Patton’s subsequent entry in his war diary that evening, “I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the Officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.”
Patton was later informed that the 45th Division’s Inspector General found “No provocation on the part of the prisoners…They had been slaughtered.” Upon further introspection, Patton purportedly said, “Try the bastards.”
SGT Horace West admitted to the killings but claimed that a combination of fatigue and LTG Patton’s ambiguous orders were mitigating circumstances. He was convicted of premeditated murder by court-martial and sentenced to life in prison. Eisenhower, ever eager to avoid an unnecessary scandal, remitted his sentence on November 24, 1944. West was restored to active duty and served in combat until the end of the war. He received an honorable discharge and lived out his days in Oklahoma. He died in 1974.
CPT John Compton was court-martialed over the deaths of the 36 prisoners under his charge and used a similar defense, particularly relying upon LTG Patton’s directives regarding prisoners resisting within 200 yards of friendly forces. He was acquitted on October 23, 1944, and transferred to the 179thInfantry Regiment. Two weeks later he was killed in action fighting in Italy.
The winners write the history, and war is bad. Normal men forced into such abnormal circumstances are frequently driven to do things that seem unnatural from the comfort of our living rooms. The very act of combat is the most repugnant of human pursuits.
The Axis was ultimately defeated and with them went their death camps and dark aspirations for world domination. However, it took hard men doing hard things to put the final nail in the Nazi coffin. Sometimes war takes those hard men to some particularly dark places.