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  • James Houser

December 17, 1944 - The Bloody Trek of Kampfgruppe Peiper

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 17, 1944. The Battle of the Bulge rages, and the Germans are racing full-throttle through the snowy trails of the Ardennes Forest. The spearhead is Colonel Joachim Piper’s formidable combat group of SS Panzer troops. But they aren’t just soldiers; the SS are the Nazi Party’s paramilitary, and on this date they will commit a bloody war crime known as the Malmedy Massacre. This is the depraved journey of Battle Group Peiper.

Yesterday I discussed the origins of the Battle of the Bulge, and if you want context for this great confrontation that’s where you want to go. Today I’ll be focusing on the battle of SS Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Peiper and its bid to break through the American lines. To understand the place of the SS and Joachim Peiper in the German war machine, though, we need a bit of backstory.

The SS (literally Schutzstaffel, Protection Echelon) was a strange, unique organism within the hellscape of Hitler’s Germany. Originally a small bodyguard created to protect the leader of the Nazi Party, the political upstart Adolf Hitler, it grew from these humble origins into a vast police and military apparatus that stretched its tendrils throughout Germany in the 1930s. Its leader, Heinrich Himmler, was a creepy and greasy figure who assumed enormously outsized powers as Hitler’s control over Germany grew. The SS was Hitler’s instrument in the Night of the Long Knives, the 1934 massacre of the SA militias that had been the primary “brownshirt” streetfighters in Hitler’s rise to power. When the SA proved to be growing too strong, Hitler disposed of them and used Himmler’s small SS to do it. From this point on, the SS was the political enforcement arm of the Nazi regime.

The black-coated standard-bearers of Naziism regarded themselves as an elite, the purebred Aryan stormtroopers of the new order. By 1936, Himmler had gained control over the German police and inserted SS men into key law enforcement positions. The SS quickly became the personal extension of Nazi Party rule into the German state apparatus, and became infamous as the controllers and operators of the concentration and death camps where Nazi Germany carried out its most terrible atrocities. With absolute dominion over the police, and control of the concentration camps, the SS rounded out its power with the SD (Security Service), an internal intelligence organization that spied on German citizens. Himmler, through his terrifying and murderous organization, had become one of the three or four most powerful people in Nazi Germany – rivaled only by Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler himself.

Like Goring, though, Himmler believed in the necessity of a military organization to develop his personal power within Nazi Germany. One of the chief defects of Hitler’s political system was the brutal competition that developed within his upper echelons, as various figures moved in and out of the inner orbit and competed for the Fuhrer’s favor. The creation of a strong fighting force was always a quick path to Hitler’s heart, and Goring had achieved this with the Luftwaffe. To enhance his own ballooning egotism, to embody his ideological vision of a perfect Aryan fighter, and to jockey for power within Nazi Germany’s highest circles, Himmler decided to create his own military arm. He would create the Waffen-SS, the “Fighting SS.”

The enhancement of Hitler’s personal guard into large combat units accelerated as Nazi Germany declined. By the end of the war, the Waffen-SS had contained some 800,000 armed combatants, of whom around 25% had been killed in battle, formed into 38 divisions. The German Army viewed the SS as an upstart competitor, and with good reason, since many Nazis considered the Army “politically unreliable” and saw the SS as their logical replacement. The Waffen-SS fought in many of the largest battles of World War II and played a prominent role at Kursk against the Soviets, in Normandy, in Italy and especially in the last battles of the conflict. After Hitler’s near-assassination on July 20, 1944 by disaffected Army officers, he placed ever greater responsibility with Himmler and the SS, and some of Berlin’s most diehard defenders in the final days were the fanatic, black-coated SS troopers.

Some of the SS units were the most elite and feared divisions in the German ranks, especially the O.G. unit: the 1st SS Panzer Division, “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” – translated as “Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard.” Always the first priority for equipment, recruits, and training, the 1st SS Panzer like all other heavy SS units amassed a fearsome combat record in Russia and France. While almost all the SS units were fanatics – hence their high casualty rate – the 1st SS Panzer Division combined genocidal fanaticism with professionalism and fighting ability. They developed an equally valid reputation for brutal war crimes, and no one was more central to these war crimes than Colonel Joachim Peiper.

Joachim Peiper was an early inductee of the SS, back in the early 1930s before it was a powerful organization. He quickly climbed through the organization, serving in the Polish campaign as Himmler’s personal adjutant and liaison to Hitler, and leading a combat platoon in the Netherlands in 1940. By 1943, he had ascended to command an infantry battalion in the 1st SS Panzer Division, and he revealed his talents as a highly effective combat commander as well as a brutal mass murderer.

During the SS’s campaigns in Russia in 1943, Peiper’s unit gained the nickname “Blowtorch Battalion” for its repeated burnings and massacres of villages in southern Ukraine. In February 1943, Peiper’s troops were fired on by Soviet soldiers from the villages of Yefremovka and Semyonovka. They responded a few days later by killing 872 innocent civilians, locking and burning many of them alive inside the local church. Peiper was quite happy to carry out this duty, writing to a colleague in March 1943 that "Our reputation precedes us as a wave of terror and is one of our best weapons.” Piper’s battalion later carried out massacres of Italian civilians in September 1943.

Peiper was absolutely a sadistic murderer, but he wasn’t JUST a sadistic murderer. He soon gained a propaganda-fed reputation as one of the SS’s most effective combat leaders. His exploits at Kursk, where he took out a Soviet tank on foot with a grenade during the massive armored battle at Prokhorovka, earned him high distinction, and his subsequent leadership of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment in Russia and in Normandy was constantly ballyhooed in the SS’s newsletters. But he was not an educated combat commander like his equivalents in the German Army, and his sloppy staff work and reckless attacks caused exorbitant casualties in many situations.

In short, Joachim Peiper was the SS officer par excellence: a fearless and tough combat leader who lacked tactical finesse or a sense of limits. On the flipside, he was a notorious genocidal maniac with little regard for the laws of war or human dignity. His brutalized methods of command and warfare were emblematic of Nazi Germany at its absolute worst, but also an explanation of why such a broken and corrupt state lasted so long. Peiper wasn’t unique; he was a predictable product of a genocidal paramilitary organization that eschewed all Western traditions of morals, ethics or the value of human life.

So when his troops committed the Malmedy Massacre on December 17, 1944, it came as a terrible and unprecedented surprise to the United States Army…but it was business as usual for Colonel Joachim Peiper. He’d done far worse in Russia and Italy, and what were a few GIs compared to that?

When the Germans launched the Ardennes Offensive on December 16, 1944 – the great attack that would develop into the Battle of the Bulge – the main effort was allotted to the 6th SS Panzer Army, a powerful armored formation that was supposed to break through the 99th Infantry Division near Elsenborn Ridge. As I discussed yesterday, though, the unexpected resilience of the American resistance stuck the 6th SS Panzer Army fast as they failed to penetrate the American lines.

But to the south of Elsenborn Ridge, one element of the SS armored units was moving forward with blinding speed. This was Kampfgruppe Peiper, a combined-arms formation drawn mainly from the 1st SS Panzer Division and led by none other than Colonel Joachim Peiper himself. Their mission was to move quickly and rapidly into the American rear areas and achieve chaos and confusion. They were the advance guard of Hitler’s final great effort of World War II. Their orders were to race to the Meuse River and secure bridges in advance of the German main effort, with one general commanding Peiper “Just make it to the Meuse, even if you’ve only got one tank left when you get there.”

Kampfgruppe Peiper, 5800 men strong, contained some of the SS’s most experienced and battle-hardened veterans, boosted by the eager young teenagers of Nazi Germany. It was equipped with a vast array of armored vehicles including 100 tanks, ranging from the enormous King Tiger tanks of the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion to the mobile flak vehicles with their rapid-fire 20mm autocannon. It was also, notably, substantially short of fuel and spare parts, and many of its rank and file were unwanted transfers from the Luftwaffe or the Navy. Peiper, a tough fighter, was ignorant of things like logistics or engineering and his forces had no bridging materials. In short, it looked extremely shiny and lethal, but its cutting power would be dulled surprisingly fast.

It would be preceded by one of World War II’s most interesting characters. Colonel Otto Skorzeny, the SS commando who had led many of Germany’s most daring missions of subterfuge and espionage, was selected to precede the offensive in the Ardennes with a special unit. Codenamed “Panzer Brigade 150,” his specially picked German soldiers would disguise themselves in captured American uniforms and some captured Allied vehicles – others, like some mocked-up Panther tanks, would be painted in American color schemes and be flagged with Allied insignia. Codenamed “Operation Greif,” the intention was to capture one of the critical bridges over the Meuse River before they could be destroyed.

While Skorzeny’s commandos never accomplished their long-term mission, their presence created widespread paranoia and confusion in American units during the Battle of the Bulge. GIs began challenging approaching vehicles or units with questions to which only Americans would know the answer, usually revolving around state capitals or sports trivia. General Bruce Clarke was almost killed when he didn’t know which league the Chicago Cubs were in, but other units were not so fortunate; at least four soldiers were killed in cases of mistaken identity.

Kampfgruppe Peiper raced off on December 16, 1944, knifing quickly through American outposts in the chilly forest of the Ardennes, racing west as fast as they could go. That wasn’t very fast at first, however, since the unimproved trails and paths of the Ardennes were anything but suitable for heavy tanks. It was one of the main reasons the Americans hadn’t expected an attack there. The King Tigers in particular, 68-ton monsters that they were, had considerable difficulty navigating the snow and sludge of the Belgian forest. The buildup of traffic on these poor roads delayed Peiper’s advance for almost 24 hours, so by December 17 he was racing forward and steaming mad about the delays.

By December 17, the vehicles of Kampfgruppe Peiper had bruised their way through a gap in the American lines and found themselves in the vicinity of Honsfeld, Belgium. Here they surprised elements of the 99th Infantry Division in the middle of a raging blizzard and battered aside some infantry companies and tank destroyer units. Armed with captured American vehicles, they proceeded farther on to the town of Bullingen, where Peiper had heard there was a fuel depot. They stormed in quickly, headlights flashing and guns blazing amidst the falling snow, and captured a number of American prisoners along with 50,000 gallons of gasoline. This was an important development, since Peiper didn’t even have enough fuel to reach the Meuse; the German battle plans had required him to capture Allied gasoline to continue his bloody march. As he ordered the American prisoners to refuel his vehicles, Peiper had to chafe at the delays. Already about 36 hours had passed, and the Americans had to be losing the element of surprise.

Peiper’s trek continued throughout December 17, 1944, and soon he was finding his way increasingly constrained by the flimsiness of Belgian bridges and the difficulties of the road. One of the key defects in the super-heavy German battle tanks like the Panther and the King Tiger was becoming apparent: they were so big and unwieldy as to be nearly unusable in closed or uneven terrain. Furthermore, difficult American resistance in various small villages and towns delayed German advances; one recon platoon at the village of Lanzerath held up a battalion of German paratroops to Peiper’s north for almost a day. The confusion and turmoil throughout the German advance caused units to get lost, delayed, or stuck for abnormal periods. This was not how the blitzkrieg was supposed to go! The buildup of frustration and anger would soon be taken out on helpless victims.

By about 1 pm on December 17, the German spearhead overran an isolated column of American artillerymen near the crossroads of Baugnez, southeast of the Belgian town of Malmedy. With no antitank weapons available, about 120 Americans surrendered to the Germans. While Peiper led the armored column west, he dispatched a few SS troopers to “guard” the American prisoners. What happened next is not entirely clear; either way, the SS opened fire on the disarmed American prisoners with machine guns. Some tried to run, others tried to drop and hide, but most were shot where they stood. SS panzer troopers moved among the twitching bodies, sad masses of olive drab in the still snow of Malmedy, and shot any who appeared to be breathing. Some GIs escaped to a local café, where the SS surrounded them and set the building on fire, shooting any who fled.

Some GIs survived and managed to escape to American lines, several of whom had been hidden by local Belgian farmers. Altogether, 84 GIs were murdered near Baugnez in what has become known as the “Malmedy Massacre”, which certainly occurred with Peiper’s approval if not under his orders. Peiper’s complicity becomes more apparent due to the fact that the Malmedy Massacre was only the largest of multiple POW murders committed by the Kampfgruppe in the space of a few days in the Ardennes. Further massacres occurred throughout the following days in towns like Stavelot and La Gleize, all along Kampfgruppe Peiper’s route of march. At Stavelot, Peiper’s men also killed at least 100 Belgian men, women, and children as they failed to take the critical bridge there.

Kampfgruppe Peiper’s massacres quickly became notorious throughout the U.S. Army after the first survivors made it back to American lines, and many units quickly adopted a policy of taking no prisoners when confronting the SS. This they shared in common with the Canadians, who had encountered a similar issue when the 12th SS “Hitler Youth” Panzer Division had murdered their POWs in Normandy. Numerous massacres of SS prisoners were reported throughout the Battle of the Bulge as a direct reaction to the Malmedy Massacre and its related atrocities.

The striking thing about the Malmedy Massacre, though, is not its uniqueness. This was by no means the first time Peiper and his SS henchmen had murdered POWs or civilians in their murderous careers, but it WAS one of the first times that Americans had encountered this phenomenon. Peiper’s brutalities were not just common, but standard practice on the Eastern Front, where Soviet POWs would be massacred in the thousands, used as test subjects for Nazi experimentation and starved to death by the literal millions in barely maintained POW camps of death.

For the Americans, the Malmedy Massacre was one of the worst war crimes ever committed by the Germans in World War II. For the SS, this was old hat, normal practice – it had just never been done to fellow “Aryans” before. Kampfgruppe Peiper would murder 362 POWs and 111 civilians throughout the course of the Battle of the Bulge, but even these widely separated massacres amounted to one major village-burning in Ukraine. And Peiper had burned a LOT of villages.

But as Kampfgruppe Peiper continued on, the Americans were closing in. Eisenhower was ordering reinforcements to the developing Bulge, and Peiper had raced far ahead of the other German units, who were struggling to keep up. He was way out in front, but that meant the jaws were closing on him. Peiper’s units rolled into Stavelot on December 17, but had to stop for the night, as he learned with anger that almost 800,000 gallons of fuel had been spirited away before his arrival. He had bored a small, dangerous hole in the American line, but the other units of the 6th SS Panzer Army had gotten caught up in the American defenses along Elsenborn Ridge and had failed to cut through to his north and south. Peiper would continue moving west, but this meant that he would be increasingly distant from other Nazi units and increasingly isolated among growing American reinforcements.

As the days wore on, Peiper’s SS soldiers found themselves in a labyrinth of tight forest paths, destroyed bridges, and increasingly angry American resistance. After reaching Stavelot on December 17, Peiper’s tanks turned south to try and seize three critical bridges over the Ambleve River at Trois-Ponts, only to have American engineers blow all three in their faces, including one with German soldiers atop it. Met with fire from American tank destroyers and bazookas, Peiper turned south once again. He would be thwarted at one location after another, all the while running down his limited fuel supply.

Though Peiper didn’t know it yet, he was facing some of the United States Army’s most lethal units, under the overall command of General Matthew Ridgway’s 18th Airborne Corps. The 82nd Airborne Division had been plucked from reserve and sent racing south, reinforced by elements of the veteran 30th Infantry Division (North Carolina National Guard) and multiple tank battalions. Day after day passed as American paratroopers and tankers battled through snowy forests and small Belgian towns, with Panthers and Shermans dueling in once-quiet farming villages and blowing out windows with their sonic booms. Belgians cowered in the cellars, hiding as much from the murderous nature of the SS as from the lethal crossfire.

Everywhere Peiper found himself increasingly hemmed in, 60 miles ahead of the main German force but still 16 miles from the Meuse. He raced up and down the Ambleve River, but never found a way across that wasn’t immediately met by bellowing Americans and their unceasing flood of armored vehicles.

By December 21, Peiper had to order a general withdrawal to the village of La Gleize, where his remaining tanks and troops formed a dense perimeter. The few remaining King Tiger tanks dug in; most of them had never made it into battle or fired a shot in anger, having slid off narrow forest paths, blown their engines trying to climb a small hill, or been knocked out by faster and lighter American vehicles. So much for the “superior” German tank design.

By the next day, La Gleize was a furnace as the 82nd Airborne, 30th Infantry and supporting tank battalions closed in from all sides, battering it so brutally that the Germans began to call it “der Kessel,” or the Cauldron. Peiper rushed between the buildings with an assault rifle, shouting encouragement to his men as his artillery fired over open sights at approaching Shermans. But his unit was in danger of being overrun. At 2 pm on December 23, now under attack from Allied aircraft as well as the paratroopers and tankers, Peiper ordered his men to break out. They marched out on foot after blowing up their tanks and all their heavy equipment.

Early on the morning of December 25 – Christmas Day – Peiper and his survivors straggled into German lines. Of his original 5800 men, only around 770 were left. They had gotten farther than any other German unit in the Battle of the Bulge, but had seen no benefit from their efforts and had lost every tank and vehicle they owned in the process. With the defeat of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the tip of the German spear had been lopped off, and a great deal of punishment had been paid unto the perpetrators of the Malmedy Massacre – but judgment was still not done.

In 1946, 70 members of the SS, including Peiper and many of his officers, were tried for war crimes in Dachau. The tribunal pronounced 43 death sentences, 22 life sentences, and eight shorter sentences – but none of the death sentences were carried out. Questions about the conduct of the trial were referred to the United States Senate, where the anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy raged against the verdict. There was apparently some sort of belief that the Nazi war crimes trials were “Red” in nature, as a way of punishing “anti-communist” elements of the German military. The logic of this baffles the mind, but it was the 1950s, and the Germans were supposed to be rehabilitated. Most of Kampfgruppe Peiper’s war criminals never really paid for what they had done, and by 1956 the last of them – Peiper himself – was released.

It would seem that justice had been thwarted. Peiper continued in apologetics for his war record, even as German opinion began to turn against former Nazis. Under increasing scrutiny for his war crimes, Peiper bought a small cottage in France and tried to live out his life in obscurity. In 1974, though, he was identified by a local French Resistance survivor, and his presence was publicized through a coordinated media campaign. Peiper began to plan for a return to Germany, feeling unsafe, and sent his wife back on July 12, 1976.

Two days later on July 14, *someone* came to Peiper’s house. His home was attacked and set on fire, with several people allegedly firing weapons into the cottage. What was left of Peiper’s corpse was found charred beyond recognition. *Someone* had apparently decided that the ghosts of Ukraine, Italy, and Malmedy deserved better peace than what a politically influenced court had given. Joachim Peiper was no more.

Book Recommendation: A biography of Peiper by a (very anti-Nazi) German historian is Jens Westemeier's Joachim Peiper: A Biography of Hitler's SS Commander (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2007).

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