“While the Malmedy Massacre may be one of the better-known atrocities committed against POWs in World War Two, the history of the six-year conflict is rife with similar crimes.”
NEXT WEDNESDAY MARKS THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF one of the worst atrocities committed against American troops in the Second World War – the Malmedy Massacre.
On Dec. 17, 1944, elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division’s Kampfgruppe Peiper netted more than 120 American prisoners after punching through the Allied lines in the opening 24 hours of Hitler’s famous Ardennes Offensive. Unwilling slow his column’s advance, a 29-year-old German colonel named Joachim Peiper ordered his men assemble the captives at a crossroads just outside the Belgian village of Malmedy. Shortly after 1 p.m., the German troops opened fire. A total of 84 GIs from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion were mowed down in a hail of machinegun fire. At least 43 of the prisoners played dead or fled into the nearby woods. Over the next three days, Peiper’s men murdered 250 additional POWs as well as 100 civilians. In one incident, eleven African American soldiers captured at Wereth were mutilated before being gunned down. News of the atrocities infuriated the Allies. Over the next two weeks, GIs retaliated against German troops as the Americans fought to retake the lost territory. In one New Year’s Day incident, U.S. infantrymen slaughtered 60 surrendering Wehrmacht soldiers at Chenogne in southern Belgium.
Oberst Peiper survived the war but fell into Allied hands in August of 1945. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death in 1946 along with more than 40 of his soldiers. While evidence against the Nazi officer was damning, controversy erupted following the trial when it was alleged that confessions from many of the accused were coerced using torture. Military officials commuted the sentences; Peiper served just 11 years in Landsberg Prison. Upon his release, the decorated panzer commander and one-time adjutant to SS chief Heinrich Himmler declared himself rehabilitated and took a job with the car maker Porsche. He later became an automotive journalist and moved to France. Allegations of wartime atrocities dogged him for years. In July of 1976, Peiper was mysteriously shot dead in his home near Vesoul. Authorities suspected that the 61-year-old’s killers were former members of the French Resistance. No charges were laid.
While the Malmedy Massacre may be one of the better-known atrocities committed against POWs in World War Two, the history of the six-year conflict is rife with similar crimes. Here are some of the more notorious ones.
Zakroczym, 1939: 500 dead
World War Two was just days old when the first massacres of prisoners were being recorded. On Sept. 28, 1939, troops from the SS Kempf Panzer Division butchered as many as 500 captured Polish troops at Zakroczym. It’s believed the murders were ordered as retribution against the Polish army for knocking out 72 German tanks at the Battle of Mława in the war’s opening week. Sadly, it was just the first of many similar mass killings to unfold in the coming years.
Katyn, 1940: 22,000 dead
For decades, the Soviet Union had maintained that the slaughter of 8,000 captured Polish military officers along with 14,000 civilian administrators in the Katyn forest was a Nazi war crime. But in 1991, the Kremlin finally conceded that it was Stalin who had ordered the secret March 5, 1940 killings as part of a pre-mediated genocide against Poland. The extermination unfolded seven months after the 1939 Molotov Ribbentrop Pact in which the Nazis and their allies-of-convenience in Moscow agreed to partition the country.
Le Paradis, 1940: 97 dead
May 27, 1940 saw soldiers of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf machine gun 97 unarmed British Tommies during the final hours of the Battle of France. The killings took place at Le Paradis, 60 km inland from Dunkirk. A 29-year-old Nazi captain by the name of Fritz Knöchlein ordered the captives, many of whom were wounded, to line up in front of a large barn. The men were mowed down by two MG-34 crews. Moments later, the perpetrators waded through the bodies dispatching any survivors with their bayonets. After the war, Knöchlein was arrested, tried and condemned by the Allies. Despite his repeated pleas for clemency, he went to the gallows in early 1949.
Bataan, 1942: >6,500 dead
American and Filipino POWs got an unfortunate lesson in brutality at the hands of the Japanese army after the fall of the Bataan Peninsula. In April, 1942, as many as 80,000 Allied prisoners were force-marched more than 100 kilometers into captivity at Capas on Luzon. Deprived of food and water for much of their trek through the searing tropical heat, exhausted prisoners perished by the hundreds. “Some attempted escape… others continued to fall, unable to keep up,” one survivor told Military History magazine in 2006. “They were shot, beheaded or bayoneted and left to die on the side of the road. In some ways, they were the lucky ones. Their miseries were over. For the rest of us our agonies had just begun.” In all, more than 6,000 Filipino troops and 650 Americans died in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Sadly, hundreds of the survivors died two years later when a Japanese cargo vessel upon which they were being transferred was torpedoed by the submarine USS Paddle. More than 680 drowned or were shot dead by guards as they attempted to abandon the stricken ship.
Stalag Luft III, 1944: 50 dead
Within days of the famous “great escape” by Allied airmen held at the Stalag Luft III POW camp, German police and Gestapo units fanned out across the Third Reich to recapture the fugitives. Within days, all but three of were back in Nazi hands. On March 25, 1944, 50 of the recaptured aviators were singled out for execution. The victims were driven into the German countryside in small groups and then shot in the back of the head. Among those murdered were Brits, Canadians, Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Australians and New Zealanders. The bodies of the slain were cremated and their remains returned to their comrades in stir. Nearly 70 Nazi officials were implicated in the killings; 21 were sentenced to death for their role in the crime.
Cephalonia, 1943: 5,000 dead
Ironically, one of the war’s bloodiest prisoner massacres was committed by Wehrmacht troops against their one-time Italian allies on the Greek island of Cephalonia. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September of 1943, the interim government ordered its troops on the far-flung island to sit out the ongoing campaign to crush local partisans. German commanders insisted that the Italians remain in the fight. After their ultimatums were ignored, the Nazis attacked on Sept. 15 and ultimately overpowered the officers and men of the intransigent 33rd Acqui mountain division. The victors summarily executed more than 200 Italian commanders on Cephalonia for treason. They then turned their guns on the rank and file. Many German soldiers refused to shoot their former comrades, but relented when their own officers threatened all dissenters with death. Over the next week, 5,000 Italian POWs were slaughtered, their bodies burned in huge bonfires or dumped at sea. The architect of the atrocity, General Hubert Lanz, was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 12 years.
Biscari, 1943: 73 dead
Not all prisoner massacres were carried out by the Axis. After a particularly fierce battle for control of the Biscari airfield in Sicily, troops from the American 180th Infantry Regiment executed 71 Italian POWs and a pair of Germans in two separate incidents on July 14, 1943. The first involved a sergeant named Horace West who emptied two Tommy gun clips into a group of 35 shoeless prisoners at point blank range. Later that day, a Capt. John Compton ordered 11 of his riflemen to execute 36 captured enemy troops by firing squad. Army prosecutors charged both men with murder. West was given life in prison. The sentence was commuted in 1944 and he was reinstated. Compton received an acquittal. When first learning of the crime, Gen. George S. Patton was unfazed. “It was probably an exaggeration,” he said. “Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.”
Salina, Utah, 1945: 9 dead
The only reported mass murder of Axis troops on U.S. soil occurred two months after VE Day. On July 8, 1945, a 24-year-old American soldier by the name of Clarence V. Bertucci turned a .30 caliber machine gun on Germans being held in a Salina, Utah POW camp. The U.S. Army private fired 250 rounds into the compound from atop of his guard tower in what became known as the Midnight Massacre. Nine men were killed in the half-minute fusillade; 20 more were wounded. The prisoners, who had mostly been captured two years earlier in North Africa, were awaiting repatriation when they were mowed down. Bertucci told investigators that he had long hoped for a combat assignment so he could kill enemy soldiers and was furious that the war had ended before he saw action. He was later confined to a mental hospital.
Of course, these are just a handful of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of cases of war crimes committed against POWs from both sides in World War Two. While these accounts are certainly horrifying, the larger statistics paint an even grimmer picture. According to researchers, as many as 57 percent of all Soviets captured by the Nazis were killed in captivity, while an estimated 4 percent of soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Western Allies taken prisoner by the Germans were murdered.  It’s believed that the Japanese slew more than a quarter of their Allied POWs , while up to a third of Germans taken by the Red Army died in captivity. Axis combatants held by the Commonwealth powers and American forces typically enjoyed better treatment – less than a third of one percent were killed after surrendering.