Five days after Hitler killed himself in his bunker in Berlin and two days before Germany surrendered, American and German troops were fighting together side by side in what has been called World War II’s strangest battle.
It was the last days of the war in Europe on May 5, 1945, when French prisoners, Austrian resistance fighters, German soldiers, and American tankers all fought in defense of Itter Castle in Austria.
In 1943, the German military turned the small castle into a prison for “high value” prisoners, such as French prime ministers, generals, sports stars, and politicians. Including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others.
By May 4, 1945, with Germany and its military quickly collapsing, the commander of the prison and his guards abandoned their post.
The prisoners were now running the asylum, but they couldn’t just walk out the front door and enjoy their freedom. The Waffen SS, 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division , under SS Untersturmbannführer Wilhelm Eduard Weiter , the German paramilitary unit commanded by Heinrich Himmler, had plans to recapture the castle and execute all of the prisoners. Weiter did not face trial as he fled Dachau immediately before its liberation and made it to castle Schloss Itter in Austria where he died in mysterious circumstances. According to Paul reynaud on Wednesday 02-05-1945, after drunkenly bragging about the recent executions he had ordered at Dachau, Weiter shot and killed himself. He was unceremoniously buried outside the walls of the castle in an unmarked grave. It is states that he may have been killed by a fellow SS member angry at his lack of ideological conviction.
That’s when the prisoners enlisted the help of nearby American troops led by Captain. John “Jack” Lee , local resistance fighters , and yes, even soldiers of the Wehrmacht to defend the castle through the night and early morning of May 5. The true tale of what happened next.
“There are two primary heroes of this — as I must reiterate, entirely factual — story, both of them straight out of central casting.
“Jack Lee was the quintessential warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative — and, of course, a cigar-chewing, hard-drinking man who watched out for his troops and was willing to think way, way outside the box when the tactical situation demanded it, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to assault the castle.
“The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef “Sepp” Gangl , who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs. The German major was killed by a sniper’s bullet. This is the first time that Gangl’s story has been told in English, though he is rightly honored in present-day Austria and Germany as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance.”
Army Captain Lee immediately assumed command of the fight for the castle over its leaders —Hauptsturmführer Kurt-Siegfried Schrader and Major. Gangl — and they fought against a force of 100 to 150 SS troops in a confusing battle, to say the least.
During the six-hour battle, the SS managed to destroy the sole American tank of the vastly outnumbered defenders, and Allied ammunition ran extremely low. But the Americans were able to call for reinforcements, and once they showed up the SS backed off, according to Donald Lateiner in his review. The castle was relieved from the American 142nd Infantry Regiment under Lieutenant General Troy Houston Middleton of the 36th Infantry Division of XXI Corps arrived..
About 100 SS troops were taken prisoner, according to the BBC. The only friendly casualty of the battle was Major Gangl, who was shot by a sniper. The nearby town of Wörgl later named a street after him in his honor, while Captain Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in the battle.
The battle for the fairy tale, 13th century Castle Itter was the only time in WWII that American and German troops joined forces in combat, and it was also the only time in American history that U.S. troops defended a medieval castle against sustained attack by enemy forces. To make it even more film worthy, two of the women imprisoned at Schloss Itter—Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labour leader Leon Jouhaux , and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand—were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire , were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women made for portrayal on the silver screen. The hero of “The Last Battle” Jack Lee, died on Jan. 15, 1973, at the age of 54.