Premise to Operation Wacht am Rhein
On December 15th, 1944 you could rightly state that the Third Reich did not feel nor believed they were defeated yet!
V1 and V2 bombs had been falling on Liège (Belgium) and Antwerp (the Netherlands) since November 20th, 1944.
Adolf Hitler, of course, was absolutely furious that the Allies had succeeded in taking Antwerp, in the Netherlands on November 24th, 1944, a deep-sea harbor crucial for the Allies logistics and supplies.
Worse, when the Germans had retreated, they had left the 40 km harbor pretty much intact, not like Cherbourg, Normandy, France! The V1 and V2 falling did little damage to the port facilities.
The Allied Front before Operation Wacht am Rhein
- the North of Antwerp in the Netherlands to the Albert Canal all the way to Liège in Belgium
- the West Wall (Siegfried Line) along the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg
- the Moselle and Alsatian departments of France
for a total of approximately 800 km (500 miles).
While the Hürtgen forest battle lasted, the Allies on other fronts could not accept the fact of being imposed a passive defense, a static war like WWI with a lack of men and supplies. They were more than impatient to cross the German border and end it all.
To the North, General Hodges of the First U.S. Army had taken Aachen (Aix la Chapelle) and his troops were now engaging attacks on the dams of the Ruhr valley.
Further down south, in the Saar region (Moselle department of France), General Patton of the Third U.S. Army was preparing a large offensive due to start December 19th, 1944.
In order to gather the divisions together, certain regiments / divisions were deliberately stripped bare such as the VIII Corps.
It covered the Ardennes but with a front three times wider than usual. Why? Allies’ leaders believed that the uneven terrain, the density of the forest, the rainy days, the bitter cold, and the soon to be snow, ice and fog would discourage the enemy to take this route. More so, no warning had come from the code breakers in Bletchley Park, England of enemy troops movements etc.
The general mood of the Americans before Operation Wacht am Rhein was one of optimism, as for the civilians, everyone was getting ready to spend a quiet Christmas Eve, full of hope for a brighter future.
At 0530 hours on December 16th, 1944 the final counterattack of the German army took place in the Ardennes forest where they were the least expected but also where it was the less defended on a 120 km front. The success depended altogether on the surprise effect on the 83,000 American troops thinly deployed along the Ardennes forest front.
Known as the Battle of the Bulge, altogether 750,000 men fought for the decisive outcome of WWII, the liberation of Europe from Evil. The Allies by ten had already made it clear that there would be no separate peace, the capitulation of Nazi Germany would be unconditional and with terrible consequences for the war criminals.
The German had approximately 250,000 German and Nazi soldiers, 2,000 artillery guns, and 1,000 tanks to hope to succeed in piercing thru all the way to Antwerp to take control of the huge stock of fuel of the allies, munitions and all equipment on site.
But to succeed they would have to cross the Meuse river and take the bridges of Liège. The elite SS units, the Schutzstaffel, were to lead the offensive and fight with the fanaticism of those who have nothing to lose, as they had no alternative! They had to take Antwerp or die.
How did Hitler succeed in rounding up some many men? Anyone from the age of 16 to 60 was mobilized for his megalomaniac operation that most high ranked Generals had disagreed on unofficially! Among those recruits, the Volksgrenadier. The name was intended to build morale, appealing at once to nationalism (Volk) and Germany's older military traditions (Grenadier). The people grenadier meant that they were to defend German soil no matter what the sacrifice.
As of August 1944, the Volksgrenadier Nazi propaganda had gathered more than 500,000 combatants.
Operation Watch am Rhein meant watch the Rhine (river). The code name smartly chosen by Hitler was to mislead the Allies in believing the Germans maneuvers were defensive and consequently failed to attract any real intention.
More so, Hitler had ordered that all radio communication using Enigma to be at a standstill. The code breakers in Bletchley Park, England, had nothing to work with! Even the telephone and postal services had been suspended.
What’s ironic was that the Nazis did not know that the Enigma machine had been broken since 1941, it’s the paranoia of Hitler which motivated this strategy of radio silence!
The morning of the attack, the German troops were positioned along the front following a very precise plan:
- They all had to be at their positions and ready to attack at the precise timetable given to them.
- Straw was put on the ground to muffle the noise of the boots of the soldiers, and vehicles.
- Horses had cloths tied to their hoofs.
- Artillery gunmen were not allowed to do sighting shots
Then all hell was let loose when at 0530 hours on December 16th, 1944 the Germans launched their attack on sleepy, relaxed American troops who had not seen it coming!
The Americans rushed into their shelters trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
Operation Wacht am Rhein had begun!
Around 0300 hours on December 17th, 1944, a diversionary airborne operation was launched under the command of the Sixth SS Panzer Army to support Joachim Peiper’s offensive, code name Operation Stösser
Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich August Fheiherr von der Heydte was leading this last large scale German airborne drop behind enemy lines. His Kampfgruppe composed of 1200 men had been ordered to jump at night, something the Fallschirmjäger had never done before, to control a strategic crossroads around “Baraque Michel” and to cut off any US reinforcements.
Both real and “straw-filled” dummy paratroopers (like the Ruperts used by the Allies in Normandy) were dropped to falsely enlarge the appearance of the assault and confuse the US troops on the ground.
Lieutenant Colonel von der Heydte with the 6th Fallschirmjäger had fought in Carentan, then the battle of Mortain – Operation Lüttich, in Normandy!
Only 30 or so Junkers planes out of a hundred reached the drop zone. By then the weather conditions were extremely horrendous. For a night jump in a wooded area, six meter per second wind speed was acceptable, that night the wind reached a speed of 17 meters per second!
Many Fallschirmjäger were dropped off course, some finding themselves in the Netherlands or back in Germany, more so it injured quite a lot of them. Why? Only 20% of the men had been trained to jump with their weapons and equipment! Most weapons and supply containers were lost.
With only 300 men, von der Heydte set off for his objective where very quickly he realized that a much larger American force than expected had been deployed.
Reluctantly he decided to abort Operation Stösser and ordered his men to spread out in groups of two to three men to increase the probability of making it through the enemy lines. Many were captured like Lieutenant-Colonel von der Heydte who had jumped with a broken arm and who broke his other arm on landing!
On December 23rd, 1944, feverish and exhausted Lieutenant Colonel von der Heydte sent a surrender note from Monschau addressed to General Taylor, his American rival on D-Day in Normandy.
Operation Stösser was a disaster!
Meanwhile at dawn on December 17th, 1944, the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler", (LSSAH) under the orders SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke raced to cross the Meuse river.
This Panzer Division was Hitler’s personal guard division meaning these soldiers were totally dedicated to the Nazi vision and faithful until death to their leader.
Note: Even though the SS was the private army of Hitler, it still answered to the Wehrmacht High Command, i.e., General von Rundstedt
SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper Kampfgruppe (combat group) considered by SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke as his best element ordered him to lead the main invasion.
SS-Obersturmbannführer Peiper had become famous in Russia where, during daring raids against the enemy, proved his cruelty at its utmost. That cruelty continued during Operation Wacht am Rhein with the support of its most powerful divisions and the following order: “Send a wave of terror ahead of your advancing troops”!
The 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler" will soon be known for being responsible of atrocities committed both on civilians and American troops.
Kampfgruppe Peiper was a formidable armored force! It consisted of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles including the newest super-heavy tank, the 70-ton Tiger II known as the King Tiger.
The armored column of SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper on December 17th, 1944 was coming from Thirimont (N632) while the Americans forces were coming from Malmedy (N62), so at one point they were doomed to meet!
Around midday the SS vanguard surprised 30 Americans or so vehicles which were crossing the Baugnez crossroad (N62 / N632) as they were heading toward Ligneuville (N62).
This column was Battery B of the 285th Artillery Observation Battalion. Taken by surprised the fighting didn’t last very long and the men surrendered to the SS. More than 100 prisoners were gathered together in the open field on the right side of the road Baugnez – Ligneuville.
The SS Officers were in a hurry, they started back down the road toward Ligneuville and around 1400 hours the prisoners were massacred with a few survivors who managed to escape either by running or hiding under the corpse of their comrades, playing dead.
One of the soldiers who survived, George Fox, stated: “After a while being held prisoner, a German half-track parked in front of us, an SS officer from the vehicle got and coldly shot two of our buddies in cold blood. One of our officers cried out not to move but after the second shot, the machine guns from the vehicles starting firing at us. Everyone fell at the same time. I wasn’t hit, I could hear the German column setting off again. Two Germans walked across the bodies and shot anyone who was moving or moaning but they didn’t see me. I was scared of giving myself away by moving or by my breath. I didn’t dare look left or right. It was almost dark already, suddenly I could feel someone walking on my hand! So, there was someone still alive. I lifted my eyes and saw one of our guys running toward the forest from the field. I got up too, I had been lying down for so long I was all stiff, it was really hard to walk. Suddenly some of the Germans realized we were getting away and started shooting at us with their machine guns. I jumped over a hedge and found myself lying with another guy whose hand and shoulder was seriously wounded. We met a Belgium who got off his bike and helped us to reach a Medical Unit”.
84 American prisoners were murdered. Stories of the Baugnez massacre spread out quickly, as you can imagine, throughout the American Army. The American soldiers knew now that surrendering was running the risk of being massacred by the SS troops of SS-Obersturmbannführer Peiper…so they decided to fight right down to their last bullet.
The Kampfgruppe (Waffen-SS unit) led by Joachim Peiper then headed toward Stavelot where they committed another massacre, this time on civilians.
The same morning of December 17th, 1944, Germans captured the town of Schoenberg and controlled the bridge across the river that connected to St. Vith. The 333rd Field Artillery Battalion Service Battery (African American troops) tried to move to St. Vith through the village but were hit by heavy German armored vehicle and small arms fire.
During the ensuing confusion, 11 men escaped into the woods. They were by this time on the east side of the river and had to sneak their way overland in a northwesterly direction, hoping they would reach American lines.
At about 1500 hours they approached the first house in the nine-house hamlet of Wereth, Belgium, owned by Mathias Langer who offered them shelter. Three of the nine families in the village were known to be loyal to Germany.
But some were not like the wife of a German soldier who lived in Wereth. She told members of the notorious 1st SS Division that black American soldiers were hiding in her village.
The SS troops quickly moved to capture the Americans, who surrendered without resistance. The SS men then marched their prisoners to a nearby field, where they were beaten, tortured, and finally shot as they considered them sub-humans because of their color.
The frozen bodies of the victims were discovered six weeks later, when the Allies re-captured the area. The SS troops had battered the black soldiers' faces, broken their legs with rifle butts, cut off some of their fingers, stabbed some with bayonets, and had shot at least one soldier while he was bandaging a comrade's wounds.
Dawn was just breaking when on December 18th, 1944, the men of SS-Obersturmbannführer Peiper took Stavelot bridge intact.
They entered the town narrow streets where the inhabitants were machine gunned down without mercy as they showed up on their front doors or windows.
Altogether, 167 civilians were randomly massacred by the SS.
Kampfgruppe Knittel, one of the two other combat groups launched in the Ardennes offensive, was also moving fast but not as fast as Kampfgruppe Peiper!
Kampfgruppe Peiper having made the best progress, SS-Sturmbannführer Gustav Knittel, commanding the 1st SS Panzer Division reconnaissance battalion, was therefore ordered to follow Joachim Peiper’s men.
After leaving instructions for his company commanders, Gustav Knittel men crossed the Amblève river bridge in Stavelot to make contact with Kampfgruppe Peiper men in La Gleize.
Kampfgruppe Peiper having spearheaded the German offensive, had reached a small village surrounded by densely wooded stretch, with hills and deep ravines considered by most unsuitable for tank warfare, La Gleize.
Six King Tigers had also made it to La Gleize but the efforts to push forward against the Americans proved impossible.
Meanwhile the 30th Infantry Division succeeded in recapturing the northern part of Stavelot!
From December 18th to December 20th, 1944 US reinforcements surrounded the Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont and La Gleize.
On December 19th, 1944, SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke ordered Gustav Knittel and the elements of his fast group, that had finally managed to reach La Gleize, to make it back to Stavelot on the double to recapture the town and reopen the advance route which was crucial in supplying Kampfgruppe Peiper with fuel and ammunition.
On December 23rd, 1944 their situation in La Gleize hopeless, being pretty much totally surrounded, around 800 SS troops under SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper made it back to Germany by foot marching through the nearby woods leaving behind them their vehicles, heavy equipment and the six King Tigers!
On January 14th, 1945 the Americans retook Baugnez where the soldiers executed by the SS had been laying there frozen, under the snow for 28 days.
The American Military Justice, which had started hunting down the war criminals, found and arrested most of them. They were put on trial at the Concentration Camp of Dachau near Munich, Germany a few weeks after the end of WWII, May 7th, 1945.
Joachim Peiper stated: “I admit that after the battle of Normandy my unit was composed mainly of young fanatical soldiers. A good deal of them had lost their parents, theirs brothers and sisters, during the bombing. They had seen for themselves in Cologne thousands of mangled corpses after a terror raid had passed. Their hatred for the enemy was such, I swear it that I could not always keep them under control. My men are the products of total war, reared in the streets of ruined towns, without any education. The only thing they knew was to handle weapons for the Reich. They were hot blooded young people wanting to win or die, rightly or wrongly…”.
The court insisted on the principles used in democratic countries that the Commanding Officer was responsible for any acts committed by the men under his orders, but it was virtually impossible to keep track of all the war crimes committed by the Kampfgruppe under the orders of Joachim Peiper.
In May 1945, before the trial started, the prisoners had to wear a hood over their heads so they could not recognize one another and exchange information relating to the massacres.
On July 11th, 1946 the American War Crime Tribunal at Dachau pronounced 43 death sentences and 40 life imprisonment sentences.
After the sentences pronounced, the verdict was disputed, first in Germany (by former Nazi officials who had regained some power due to anti-Communist positions with the occupation forces), then later in the United States by Congressmen from heavily German-American areas of the Midwest, the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy.
All death sentences were then commuted to life imprisonment!
Then, when Germany joined the United Nations in 1954, the court made up of representatives of the United States, France and England held up a new trial!
This time Joachim Peiper was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison but was later released in 1956 after serving only 11 years!
The Germans back then were still hostile to their WWII unwanted heritage of Nazi war criminals, so Joachim Peiper decided to move to France!
He settled in Traves not far from Dijon (Burgundy region) and its famous mustard where he lived discreetly. In 1976 a Communist historian found the Peiper file in the Gestapo archives held by East Germany.
On June 21st, 1976, flyers denouncing Peiper's presence were distributed in the village!
A day later, an article in the left-wing newspaper L'Humanité revealed Peiper's presence in Traves, and he started receiving death threats.
During the early morning hours of July 14th, 1976 “Bastille Day”, his house was set on fire where he died from smoke inhalation. The perpetrators were never identified.