Austria seems to have a certain magnet for unusual military events. It was in the Austrian village of Itter in the Tyrol that one of the strangest battles of the entire Second World War took place.
It was liberated on May 5, 1945, just five days after Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, and two days before the German High Command surrendered unconditionally in Reims, France (however, some remnants of the German Central Army would continue to fight until May 11 and 12).
On a hill near Itter was the medieval castle of the same name. And it would be in the defense of this castle where for the first (and probably only) time in its history the United States army found itself defending a medieval castle. Not only that. For this they had the help of French prisoners, members of the Austrian resistance and what is more strange, German soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
On the American side, the 23rd Armored Battalion of the 12th Division participated under the command of Lieutenant John C. Lee Jr. The 14 prisoners were personalities, politicians, members of the resistance, trade unionists and even sportsmen, imprisoned there by the Nazis after the invasion of France.
There were former prime ministers Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, Charles de Gaulle’s older sister, and tennis player Jean Borotra, among others. Anti-Nazi soldiers of the German army joined in (who, possibly seeing what was coming, decided to change sides).
Who were they fighting then? Nothing less than the 17th Panzer Grenadier Division of the Waffen-SS. The course of events seems to be taken from a Hollywood film.
It all began on 2 May, when Eduard Weiter, Dachau’s last commander, committed suicide in the castle. The next day Zvonimir Cuckovic, one of the prisoners in the castle, a member of the Yugoslavian Communist resistance, managed to escape with the pretense of carrying a message from the prison commander (it probably was).
With him he carried a letter written in English that he had to deliver to the first American he could find. He headed for Innsbruck, which is about 64 kilometers away. That same afternoon he reached the outskirts of the city where he meets the advance guard of the 103rd American Infantry Division, and informed them of the existence of the castle and the prisoners.
On May 4 and seeing that Cuckovic does not return, prison commander Sebastian Wimmer leaves the castle followed by his SS men. The prisoners take control and the weapons left by the Nazis. The Czech prisoner Andreas Krobot manages to reach the nearby town of Wörgl, recently abandoned by the Wehrmacht but reoccupied by the SS, and contacts the Austrian resistance. He is taken to see Major Josef Gangl, commander of what remains of a Wehrmacht unit that, disobeying retreat orders, has joined the resistance.
Gangl and his men are dedicated to defending the Austrians from SS reprisals, street by street. He also manages to reach the small unit of 4 Sherman tanks, of the 23rd Armoured Battalion commanded by Captain Lee, which is in Kufstein, some 13 kilometres to the north, with a large white flag in search of help.
Lee gets permission from headquarters to go on a rescue mission to help Gangl. He does so with only 14 men and one tank, who join Gangl and his ten German artillery soldiers. Halfway through they face a group of SS troops and defeat them.
Once in the castle they find that the French have organized the defense led by a Waffen-SS officer who has stayed to help them. Lee places his tank Besotten Jenny blocking the main entrance, and his men in defensive positions. Although he orders the French prisoners to hide, they join the defense. On the morning of May 5 comes the attack of the Waffen-SS with a force of between 100 and 150 men (the defense consisted of 25 soldiers plus French prisoners).
By afternoon things were not going too well for the defenders, who had seen the SS destroy the tank. Fortunately for 4 p.m. came the reinforcements of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, which managed to reduce the attackers and make more than 100 Nazi prisoners.
Gangl died during combat hit by a sniper. He was named national hero in Austria and even dedicated a street in Wörgl.
As we said at the beginning, this battle is considered the strangest of the entire Second World War, as it is the only one in which allied and German soldiers fought together against a common enemy. Perhaps it was the inspiration for the famous film Castle Keep directed in 1969 by Sydney Pollack.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 31, 2015. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando aliados y alemanes lucharon juntos en la Segunda Guerra Mundial: la Batalla del castillo Itter