By May 4, 1945, Hitler had been dead for five days and the war in Europe was winding down. The Allies were storming towards Berlin from the west whilst Soviet forces were looming down on Germany’s capital from the east. With the war all but over peace was finally on the horizon. Any era-defining battles were surely now in the past. Or were they?
During these dying days of WW2, a small medieval castle in the Austrian Alps became the backdrop to one of the war’s strangest and most unlikely battles. The Battle for Castle Itter is the only recorded case of the entire war when soldiers from the German Wehrmacht fought alongside those of the American army. We tell the story of one of history's most unlikely alliances.
Castle Itter lies in the Austrian Alps, in the state of Tyrol. In 1943, it was converted by the Nazis into a prison and was considered a sub-unit of the Dachau concentration camp. Its new purpose was to house VIP prisoners known as Ehrenhäftlinge or ‘honour prisoners’. Those who found themselves detained there included two former French Prime Ministers, Paul Reynaud and Édouard Daladier, French tennis star Jean Borotra as well as Marie-Agnes Cailliau, a Resistance member and elder sister of General Charles de Gaulle.
On 4 May 1945, just four days before the official surrender of Nazi Germany, the prisoner count at Castle Itter was just 14. With Allied troops a short distance away the Nazi guards at the castle fled. Although the prisoners were now free, units of Waffen-SS and Gestapo secret police still were present in the surrounding area. If the prisoners bumped into them whilst fleeing, the SS would have had no issue shooting them on sight.
As it so happened, elements of the 17th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division had been ordered to descend on the nearby castle and execute all prisoners who remained there. Time was running out for the VIPs and if they were going to survive the war they’d need some help.
So, they sent out the castle cook, a man named Andreas Krobot, who made his way to a little town just a few miles away called Wörgl. A highly decorated Wehrmacht Major was held up there with a handful of loyal troops. At first glance, it might seem that Major Josef Gangl was not the man that the castle emissary should have approached, however, Josef had already thrown his hat into the ring with the local Austrian resistance and was now their new leader. He had become disillusioned with Nazi ideology and so had defied recent orders to rejoin the SS, deciding instead to spend the final days of the war helping those who wished to resist them.
After speaking with Krobot, Gangl realised that his 10-20 loyal troops wouldn’t be enough to adequately protect the prisoners at Castle Itter. So he grabbed a white flag and drove towards the nearest American unit in the area.
That unit was the 23rd Tank Battalion of the US 12th Armoured Division, which was led by Captain Jack Lee, a cigar-chewing, rough-talking, hard-drinking soldier. Without hesitation, Lee decided to help out. After gaining approval from higher command, he grabbed a small group of men and a Sherman tank and headed for the castle.
Although the prisoners were delighted to greet their new defenders, they were concerned whether or not more men were still required. Lee wasted no time ordering his men to set up a defence perimeter around the castle. Gangl offered the support of his men whilst the prisoners refused to hunker down within the safety of the castle walls, instead choosing to grab some small arms and join the others on the front line. The Sherman tank was parked outside the front to provide additional fire support.
As the first rays of light warmed the castle interior on the morning of May 5 1945, between 100-150 men from the nearby Waffen-SS division opened their assault on the medieval fortress. American troops, French VIPs and German soldiers fought side-by-side that morning to defend their position.
By the afternoon, the Sherman tank had been neutralised and the defenders were running low on ammunition. Lee managed to radio out for support before all lines of communication were cut off. The Allied-German force was now on the back foot.
As if written by Hollywood scriptwriters themselves, at the very last minute a relief force stormed in from the north. The nearby American 142nd Infantry Regiment had heard Lee’s calls for backup and had arrived just in time to drive off the SS troops, taking around 100 of them prisoner in the process.
The defence force had held firm and suffered only one casualty that day, Josef Gangl. As the German Major attempted to move Paul Reynaud out of harm’s way, he was shot and killed by an SS sniper. For his efforts, Gangl was honoured as an Austrian national hero and a street near Wörgl was named after him, whilst Lee was awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross – the second-highest military decoration for soldiers who display extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force.
Not only was the Battle for Castle Itter one of the most incredible, remarkable and improbable events of the entire Second World War, it was also a pivotal moment in history.
‘If the SS had managed to get into the castle and kill all these French VIPs, the history of post-war France would have been radically different,’ said Stephen Harding, the author of the 2013 book The Last Battle which retells the story of this unusual battle. ‘These prisoners formulated the policies that carried France into the 21st Century. They were vitally important and had they died, who knows what would have happened?’.
To read about another unexpected moment from WW2, check out the story of Private Bill Millin, The Bagpiper of D-Day who played his pipes during the Normandy Landings.