Friday, May 29, 2015

The Other Malmedy

Standartenfuhrer Joachim Peiper's Kampfgruppe got all the media attention for the murder of 84 American POWs at Baugnez crossroads near Malmedy.

Lesser known was the other massacre at Malmedy itself  where 200+ Belgian civilians and about 30 American servicemen were killed by misguided bomb runs from elements of the 9th Army Air Force.
 Malmedy itself, had not fallen during the Battle of the Bulge.  On the northern shoulder of the bulge, the town was held initially by elements of the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion.  They put out roadblocks and blew bridges so Peiper's Kampfgruppe had to find a different route and never reached the Meuse and their goal of Antwerp.  Later the 291st was reinforced by the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), aka the Viking Battalion, which was manned by Americans of Norwegian descent and Norwegian nationals who had fled German occupation and Vidkun Quisling's puppet government.  Eventually Malmedy was further reinforced by elements of the 120th Infantry Regiment of the  30th Infantry Division.

The first blue-on-blue bombing run was on 23 December.   With cloudy skies, six lost B-26s bombed Malmedy.  All the bombs detonated around and through the town center.  It turned out to be a navigation error, although there were many rumors that Malmedy was the target because the BBC had broadcast that Malmedy had been captured by the Germans.  The town center was devastated: fires, collapsed buildings, blocked roads and streets, and many civilians and soldiers buried alive under the rubble.  The 291st engineers were critical in putting out the fires and digging out survivors.  And their aid station, run by an Army dentist as they did not have an assigned doctor, treated about 150 wounded civilians and GIs.

1st Army HQ raised hell with the 9th Air Force and got back a pro forma letter indicating they would try to avoid such incidents in the future.  Unfortunately they did not.  The very next day, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 18 B-24 heavy bombers made the same mistake.  And in the words of a witness: "They made the previous days B-26 bombardment look like just an appetizer for a B-24 seven course feast"

But it was not over, for dessert the flyboys got lost again on Christmas Day.  Four B-26s dropped sixty-four 250-pounders on Malmedy instead of their authorized target of German formations at Sainte Vith.

The 291st was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their defense of Malmedy and stopping Kampfgruppe Peiper.  Later they went on to build the first bridge across the Rhine while under observed artillery fire, and luftwaffe strafing and bombing.  Many of those luftwaffe attacks were by ME-262 jet aircraft.   Their bridge site also sustained attacks by eleven V-2 rockets.  They ended up the war by bridging the Danube, thankfully while not under fire.

A TV documentary titled 'Those Damned Engineers' was made about the 291st.  The title reputedly came from when a bridge at Lienne creek was blown right in front of Peiper's eyes.  That bridge had been his last hope. The story, true or not, was that the frustrated Peiper banged his fist on his knee and swore 'Deise verdammten Pioniere'.  True or not I do not know, perhaps true or perhaps embellished over the many years since.

The documentary is at   It is a puff piece with lots of war propaganda, start it at minute 7.00 or minute 18.00 if you want to miss the background story of the Bulge and the agitprop.  And as you can see the footage is not real as those boys did not have signal corps cameramen following them around.  But the basic story is true.  Although the men themselves agree that it was not the 291st alone who stopped Kampfgruppe Peiper.  I am glad to see them get some credit.  With all due respect for the 101st at Bastogne, they were not alone in winning the Battle of the Bulge either.  And neither was Patton.  The biggest problem with the documentary that I saw is that it does not tell the story of the people in Malmedy who died due to 9th Air Force navigational incompetence - bad weather or not.  And it does not tell of the humanitarian mission of the 291st digging out survivors and giving them medical treatment and transporting them to military hospitals all while still fighting a war.


  1. "six B-26 bombers dropped eighty-six 500-pound general purpose bombs on Malmedy"

    There's likely a mistake in here.
    A B-26's bomb load was up to eight such bombs only, the same as a B-25 or A-26 (the A-26 was later renamed B-26). I saw a website claim 23 x 500 lbs for Dec 23rd.

    "Deise Verdammten Ingenieure":
    That would be
    "Diese verdammten Pioniere"
    in German.

    English - engineer troops
    German - Pioniertruppen
    Swiss - Genietruppen

  2. thanks Svenn. Corrections made. 23 makes sense, but I left the number and bomb weight unspecified. My original source for 86 x 500 pounders was Colonel David Pergrin's book, he was the 291st CO at the time. But checking his bibliography I believe his source on that was a history of the 30th Division as their 120th Infantry Regt took the most GI casualties during those raids. I see from another source, Peter Schrijvers book "The Unknown Dead", the figure of 86 x 250 pound bombs which makes more sense.