Bloody Murder — Nine of the Most Shocking POW Massacres of World War Two

More than 300 U.S. soldiers were massacred by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. Despite being expressly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, such atrocities were all too common in World War Two. (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archive).

German troops massacred more than 300 GIs during the Battle of the Bulge. Despite being expressly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, such atrocities were all too common in World War Two. (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archive).

“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.

German and Soviet forces carved up Poland in 1939. The Nazis handed over thousands of POWs to Stalin's NKVD for extermination.

German and Soviet forces carved up Poland in 1939. The Nazis handed over thousands of POWs to Stalin’s NKVD for extermination the following year.

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.

Nearly 100 British POWs from the Royal Norfolk Regiment were shot dead by the SS an hour's drive from the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Nearly 100 British soldiers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment were shot dead by the SS just an hour’s drive from the site of the Dunkirk Evacuation.

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.

American and Filipino POWs died by the hundreds at the hands of the Japanese following the fall of Bataan.

American and Filipino POWs died by the hundreds at the hands of the Japanese following the fall of Bataan.

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.

Italian soldiers in German captivity in Greece. More than 5,000 were slaughtered on the island of Cephalonia in 1943.

Italian soldiers in German captivity in Greece. More than 5,000 were slaughtered on the island of Cephalonia in 1943.

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.”[1]

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. 

German troops surrendering to the Western Allies received far better treatment than those captured by the Red Army.

German troops surrendering to the Western Allies (like the ones seen here at Falaise in 1944) received far better treatment than those captured by the Red Army.

Post Script
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. [2] It’s believed that the Japanese slew more than a quarter of their Allied POWs [3], 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.[4]

10 comments for “Bloody Murder — Nine of the Most Shocking POW Massacres of World War Two

  1. 14 December, 2014 at 4:22 am

    Not to rag on the Americans but what? No Mai Lai4? (1968) US troops (C Co) murdered 900+ Civilians, poisoned wells, shot cattle, raped women & children Forced Safeguards,burned houses,looted property. The Army wrote three reports (LTC Baker, COL Henderson & CPT (P) COLIN POWELL and all three agreed ‘There was no massacre—20 civilians wandered into a fire fight between C Co Americal Div and 48th VC Bde.

    No Gun Ri (Ridge) where refuggese were crowded under a rail road trussle and slaughtered by elements of the 7th CAV 600-900dead or Patang Beach, ROK where the Army ordered the navy to shell waving citizens (both 1950)

    Or Hadietha, Iraq (2005) Where USMC grunts slaughtered 28 Iraqi citizens & wounded 60 including an old man in a wheel chair—it just lost SSG Woolrich (sic) his stripes. Al Malaki, Iraq president then kicked up out of Iraq for doing that!!!

    • admin
      14 December, 2014 at 8:46 am

      All good points, but the focus was on ww2.

  2. 14 December, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Cephalonia Island (1943) is a bad example—its more like Churchill’s Mers El Kabar (1940) which was a LEGAL but a dispicable act. In the case of Cephalonia,the Italians were ALLIES of the Germans. They were given conflicting orders to (not attack the germans but not surrender or go home—as the Germans did the Greeks in 1940). GEN Badoglio gave the unit mixed instructions while hiking up his skirt and running with the King to the Allies. He also removed all the boats from the island preventing the Alpini from leaving. The Germans offered them to Join them else surrender and the Italians shot up the negoiating committed as it was landed. The unit was attacked, it surrendered and 5K were shot. Cephalonia was legal but dispicable. They were allies in revolt which made them mutineers. It is legal to shoot muniteers. That’s why GEN Lobe got only 12 years instead of the death penalty

    • Bogser
      23 March, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      Sorry but this is bullshit. Italy had made an armistice with the Allies, Italy and Germany were now enemies, and the Italians resisted the German attempt of capturing Cephalonia. The ensuing massacre was by all means a illegal war crime. No man in his right mind could consider the Italians ‘mutineers’.

  3. Veritas
    7 December, 2015 at 12:24 am

    No mention of Tito’s massacre of tens of thousands of Croats after the war, as well as Germans who had the misfortune of falling into his hands?

    No mention of the British sub captain who on two occassions machine gunned the survivors of shiips he had sunk or of an American sub captain named Morton who also engaged in this activity?

    No mention of the Viet Minh’s mass slaughter of French colonial troops throughout the Indochina conflict?

    No mention of the many instances of Communists slaughtering prisoners in 1950?

    No mention of the American army’s slaughter of German troops, who were not concentration camp guards but had the misfortune and stupidity to surrender near such a camp. Its interesting watching the American film of our boys machine gunning these men.

    No mention of the Russian slaughter f surrendering German troops in 1945? What was the chance of surviving a Russian POW camp. Of the estimated 91,000 Germans who surrendered at Stalingrad, 6,000 returned to German-ten years after the war was over.

    War crimes are an issue which reflects war. No one has clean hands. And let he who is innocent past the first stone.

    Why is there no mention of the atrocities the North Vietnamese committed at Hue where they butchered over 5,000 people during Tet?

    Or the Communsits liquidation of over 2 million people following their victory in Cambodia?

    • 7 December, 2015 at 7:54 am

      You ask why we didn’t mention many of the cases you cite? A number of reasons. First off, the article is about WW2. Obviously, Vietnam/IndoChina massacres fall outside of the 1939 to 1945 time frame as do the post war incidents you mention. Also, the article was certainly not intended to be a complete record of POW atrocities, but a random assortment — It would be impossible to fit everything into a 1,500 word story. However, for those who read to the end, the post script does address the troublingly high numbers of POWs killed on the Eastern Front.

  4. 31 January, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Cefalonia’s slaughter is still a bone of contention between italian historians. It is still an heavily politicized issue. Massimo Filippini, a military attorney and son of one of the officers shot at Cefalonia by the german troops, has written extensively challenging the official version. It seems it was a disaster that was caused by a multiplicity of factors, while postwar the soldiers of the Acqui were made to pass for early resistant while most of them were probably only quite willing to return home. Massimo Filippini’s website is extensively documented, and the whole picture still remains fuzzy. His writings are exclusively given in italian though.

    Pls see http://www.cefalonia.it/

    mr Filippini’s style of writing is quite good and he is a man of learning so it should make for a good read

  5. 23 April, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    Most of the above stories are lies. However, the false accusations about “German atrocities” are trivial when the truth about allied murders of defenseless German POWs and civilians is brought into focus. After WW2 was over, the allies murdered over six million defenseless German military POWs and nine million German civilians. Why? The evil allies feared that a large number of brave, strong and resourceful German POWs and civilians,remaining alive, might succeed in establishing a free and independent Germany after WW2. Such a German nation, not the puppet country run by traitors and collaborators that America planned for, would reveal all the murders and looting of German manufacturing, secrets, culture, science and industry.. The evil allied nations could not allow the truth to be known regarding the allied looting of cultural, military and other important secrets of German civilization, that was carried out by Israeli, American, Brit and Canuckistan post-war criminals from 1945-55. The Americans led the postwar destruction of German culture and its replacement by a nation of stooges who would behave as wage slave puppets to America and Israel. They would work hard and pay taxes that would be used to strangle Germany and maintain the false economies of both the US and Israel. American, Israeli, Brit and Canuckistan troops have garrisoned Germany since 1945 (over 70 years !), in order to ensure that Germany remains a puppet state of totalitarian America. Thousands of especially (linguistically trained in all German dialects) American communist teachers were prepared for two years to brainwash German youth into new consumers modeled after the present American nation of sheep. Those American teachers took over the entire German educational apparatus, and while US and Israeli agents ran down and murdered every possible German resistor, carried out ten years of police state indoctrination of German youth followed by another decade of even more vicious brainwashing. In Germany, as in America now, everything was focused on brainwashing German survivors at the same time every free thinking German was hunted down and murdered by German, American and Israeli communists, throughout Germany. The allies murdered over 15 million German POWs and civilians from 1945-to 1955. Those people were the strongest and best surviving Germans. To replace the German leadership thousands of Soviet-German communist agents were brought into East and West Germany to control all police and other services. About 3,000 German Army traitors that had actively sabotaged every major German military and espionage operation from 1938 through 1945 were placed in control of the internal spy apparatus deployed throughout west and east Germany. At the same time, the east and west German armies were controlled by German Army traitors whose betrayals cost the lives of over three million of the Wehrmacht’s best troops during World War II. That clique of homosexual, communist German traitor officers, drawn from the ersatz German nobility (With a “von” in front of their last name) caused Germany to lose the war and aided American, Soviet and Israeli agents to create 24-7 media propaganda that still falsely blames all the evil perpetrated by the allies on Adolph Hitler. Millions of people all over the world have lost all vestiges of their reason after 70 years of propaganda assaults on their every mental power. The evil 70 year long barrage of daily of anti-German and anti-Hitler blame, by the Soviets, Israelis and Americans will, one day be recorded as the most terrible and evil barrage of deceit ever used to cover up the truth. The espionage establishments of East and West Germany were also manned by traitors and communist Russian and Jewish agents.The hundreds of traitors from Admiral Canaris’ anti-German espionage establishment, known as the Abwehr, had a decade of experience in spying-on, betraying, murdering and sabotaging their fellow Germans.The American and Israeli propaganda apparatus continues to sponsor lies about every aspect of World War II and the German people. Only the now sober, non-communist Russians have withdrawn from such constant lies and continuous dissemination of HATE-GERMAN, propaganda.

    • 24 April, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      I doubt any readers of MilitaryHistoryNow.com would support this distorted interpretation of history. To characterize Nazi atrocities as ‘trivial’ is both absurd and offensive.

  6. DSpohr
    2 December, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Nothing about how the 90 000 POWs taken at Stalingrad magically changed to 5000 when they were released?
    Or how the 15000 wounded and the volunteer medical personnel who bravely chose to stay in the Cherkassy pocket in 1944 vanished…
    SS Panzer Division Kempf? No such thing ever existed. It was a Heer unit of about a regimental ad hoc strength of the Heer. Not Waffen SS…
    One sided nonsense.

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