Americans, Germans, and French, Oh My: The Strange Battle for Castle Itter

Wars are filled with narratives of the gallant and brave. Stories of units like the 101st Airborne, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Richmond Greys, Special Air Service, and others fill dramatic accounts of pivotal historical events. They became immortalized in popular culture like ‘Band of Brothers‘, ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima‘, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ . But what about the more bizarre? Are there accounts that challenge how traditional views of our enemies? This post comes as a special request: ‘What about some the strangest battles of World War II?’ Well, I give you the Battle for Castle Itter. Fought three days before Victory in Europe Day, troops from the U.S. 12th Armored Division joined with Wehrmacht soldiers and French prisoners-of-war to defend Itter Castle from a contingent of SS-Panzergenadier hell bent on inflicting reprisals and stubbornly refusing to surrender. For the only time in the war, American and German troops fought together in what many historians have dubbed the strangest battle of the war.

Itter Castle rises above the small town of its namesake in Tyrol, a state in western Austria. The 14th century castle served many noble courts and was nearly destroyed in the German Peasant’s War, but in 1878, after years of decay, the present-day castle was restored. Following the Anschluss in 1938 (Austria’s annexation by Germany), the Reich leased the castle from its previous owner and then later seized by Heinrich Himmler in 1943, transforming it into a prison as a sub-camp under the Dachau concentration system. Its prisoners were primarily high profile personalities such as former French prime ministers, army generals, French and Austrian resistance members, and other political leaders. As the war progressed, more prisoners from Eastern Europe were transferred to Itter Castle for manual labor. No more than about fifty prisoners were ever held at the castle during the war. Almost no one at the castle thought that they would ever been liberated due to their remoteness and small size.

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division, move through smoke filled street in Wernberg, Germany. Allied forces were capturing dozens of Germany cities, towns, and villages everyday as they pushed deeper into Germany (image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As the Allies pushed into central Germany, the handwriting was on the wall for the Wehrmacht. Surrender was only a matter of time and troops were deserting for the Allied lines every day. However, diehard holdouts of Waffen-SS and Nazi zealots pressed the fight and refused to give in, even after Hitler’s suicide on April 30th, 1945. Four days later on May 3rd, a resistance member, Zvonimir Cuckovic, was dispatched from Itter Castle on the pretense of running an errand for the prison staff, but was clandestinely carrying a letter requesting a rescue from the Allies. He traveled over forty miles to Innsbruck, but the record end there. No one ever heard back from him. Following this loss and the death of the former commander of Dachau, Eduard Weiter (who fled to the castle after Dachau’s liberation and died suspiciously), prison warden Sebastian Wimmer and all remaining guards abandoned their posts. The remaining POWs seized the leftover firearms and their cook, Andreas Krobot was dispatched with a another message for liberation. He decided to bike to the closer town of Worgl only a few miles away and made contact with the local Austrian resistance forces. Within the resistance was Major Josef Gangl, a Wehrmacht commander who defected to the resistance along with some fellow soldiers. Gangl no longer believed in defeating the Allies nor supporting the Nazi Party, but with saving lives from the Waffen-SS and immediately reached out for help, both for local civilians and the Allies.

Captain John ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., a tank commander with the 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division, XXI Corps, and a reconnaissance unit of Sherman tanks were stationed barely thirteen miles away when Gangl contacted them. He presented an ominous picture on what would happen if the Waffen-SS breached the castle before the Allies arrived. Every prisoner would be summarily executed without question. Captain Lee and Gangl drove together on a personal reconnaissance mission of the castle and after requesting reinforcements from the 142 Infantry Regiment, the Americans and sympathetic Germans made their liberation move.

Left to Right: Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and U.S. Army Captain John Lee Jr.

The first enemy they encountered was the logistics. Small, narrow roads and bridges blocked some of the Sherman tanks from traveling to the castle which forced Lee to leave them behind as a rearguard. This proved crucial though as it otherwise kept the majority of enemy forces from moving down the main corridor and overwhelming the castle’s defense. About thirty-six men arrived to evacuate the garrison and while the prisoners rejoiced at their liberation, they were less enthusiastic about the small size of the mission. Reports of whole Waffen-SS companies of 100 to 200 strong were in the area so how could they expect to make it out alive with just this handful?

On the evening of May 4th, Captain Lee moved every defender into position around the castle’s main keep and placed his personal Sherman tank, the ‘Besotten Jenny’, at the front entrance. He, Gangl, and another German officer, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, wanted the prisoners to take shelter, but they refused; choosing to fight with the Germans and Americans. Throughout the night, SS patrols harassed and probed at the castle defenses looking for any weaknesses. Mortar rounds and sniper fire slashed about the fortress as the occupants prepared for the assault they knew would come at dawn. At approximately 4:00 AM, the 17th SS-Panzergrenadier Division launched their attacks from the north and west, hitting the castle with grenades and artillery. Lee’s Sherman tank held off the enemy for hours before it was finally demolished by an 88mm artillery shell. Before the battle, Gangl radioed to the Austrian resistance to send as many men as possible and request Allied artillery strikes. To his dismay though, only three individuals answered; two German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance fighter.

As the day wore on, Itter Castle’s defenders were running out of ammunition and hope. The rescue operation degraded into a last stand for the Americans, Germans, and French prisoners. Captain Lee needed a status report on any reinforcements from the 142nd Regiment, but radio communications were cut off. One prisoner though, a famous tennis athlete named Jean Borotra, volunteered to carry a dispatch by running through the SS gauntlet. He was quite literally their only hope for bringing back much needed troops and supplies, so Lee gave him the go-ahead. Borotra leapt over the castle walls, ran down the road, dodged a multitude of bullets, and successfully delivered the message at the regimental headquarters. He then made an additional request; a U.S. Army uniform in order to disguise himself from the Germans and rejoin the battle. By late afternoon, the tide of battle had turned and the SS quickly surrendered. Over a hundred enemy soldiers were taken prisoner and the escaped survivors surrendered two days later to the 101st Airborne in Rottach-Egern. For his courageous defense of Itter Castle, Captain Lee was awared the Distinguished Service Cross. Ironically, the only defender to be killed in action was Major Gangl. While moving former French prime minister Paul Reynaud to cover, a sniper shot Gangl in the head, killing him instantly. He was later venerated as an Austrian national hero.

Traditional historiography about World War II tells how the Allies proudly defeated the Axis Powers and triumphed in both Europe and the Pacific theaters. We constantly promoted our accomplishments and tended to overlook the nuances of those who actively resisted the course of our belligerents. For decades the story of the Battle of Castle Itter was practically a historical footnote as it didn’t qualify as a major operation, Germany had all but collapsed, and senior commanders were focused more on Berlin than other geographical areas. What makes this battle unique is not only the Wehrmacht teaming up with the Americans, but that party ideologies were overridden by the higher moral ground of saving human lives and preventing further atrocities. While the Waffen-SS saw their Wehremacht counterparts as traitors to the Nazis, the Americans saw them as comrades wanting to rescue themselves and the castle’s prisoners from certain death.

The reconstruction of Germany during the Cold War was painful; war criminals being brought to trial, Communist subterfuge by the Soviet Union, roller coaster economic recovery, and more tested the strength of German society. Even before the text on Germany’s instrument of surrender was typed up, American-German relations began healing just a little bit through the trials of battle on the walls of Itter Castle.

German and American troops celebrating their victory over the SS at Itter Castle.

One thought on “Americans, Germans, and French, Oh My: The Strange Battle for Castle Itter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s