The Battle of Castle Itter

In May 1945, just three days before the Second World War ended in Europe, one of the strangest battles of the entire conflict took place. It is the only recorded incident when Allied and German soldiers fought alongside each other, when Wehrmacht soldiers joined Americans of the 12th Armored Division in defending French prisoners of war from SS forces. 

Located in Austria, close to the border with Germany, Itter Castle was seized by SS troops under the personal orders of Heinrich Himmler in February 1943. They intended to use it as a prison. By April the castle had been refitted and was ready for inmates, and was placed under the administration of nearby Dachau concentration camp.

The prison was used to house high value French prisoners of war that the Third Reich believed may prove useful as political pawns. These included two former French prime ministers, two former commanders-in-chief, and Charles de Gaulle’s sister Marie-Agnes Cailliau. Also imprisoned there was professional tennis player Jean Borotra, who was a four times Grand Slam winner. Beside the French VIPs, the prison also housed Eastern European prisoners that were used for manual labour.

Jean Borotra, pictured before the war in 1931

On 3rd May 1945, Yugoslav prisoner Zvonimir Cuckovic left the prison under the pretense of an errand for the prison commander. He carried with him a letter written in English, with instructions to give it to the first American he encountered. After walking for forty miles, he met an advance party of the 409th Infantry Regiment and informed them about the castle and its location. A large rescue party was initially assembled, but prevented from advancing to the prison by heavy shelling. 

Back at Castle Itter, prison commander Sebastian Wimmer and his SS guards abandoned their posts, leaving the castle in the hands of the prisoners. Unsure if Cuckovic had been successful, another prisoner was dispatched to find help, with the prisoners fearing an SS counterattack. He successfully made contact with the Austrian resistance, and taken to a somewhat surprising local resistance leader: a Wehrmacht major, Josef Gangl.

Gangl commanded a small unit of Wehrmacht soldiers, that had abandoned the Third Reich and instead joined the resistance. Gangl’s initial plan was to surrender to the first American forces he encountered. Hearing about Castle Itter, when his troops made contact with a patrol of four Sherman tanks later the same day he requested the assistance of the Americans in launching a rescue. making contact with a patrol of Sherman tanks later the same day. The American commander, Captain John Lee, readily agreed. Lee asked permission from HQ to personally lead the rescue effort, which was granted.

The two commanders of the defence, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl (l) and US Captain John Lee (right)

While initially accompanied by five tanks, Lee was forced to leave four of them behind after they encountered a bridge that was too fragile for the bulk of the column to cross safely. On arriving at Castle Itter, Lee was accompanied by just 14 US soldiers, Gangl and his ten Wehrmacht, a local driver and a single tank. The group had already defeated a group of SS soldiers that had been attempting to set up a roadblock on the way to the castle.

While Lee initially instructed the French prisoners to hide, they instead gathered what weapons they could and took up defensive positions alongside the American and German soldiers. A substantial force of Waffen-SS personnel, numbering as many as 150, had been dispatched to retake the castle, and spent much of the night of the 4th May probing at the defences.

A message from Gangl to the Austrian resistance for reinforcements saw just three more men dispatched to the castle, arriving in time to help defend against a major assault on the morning of May 5th. With Lee’s tank blocking the gates of the castle and providing machine gun fire, the outnumbered defenders managed to repel the assault. Lee’s tank was destroyed by a German 88mm gun, but the crew were able to escape unharmed. 

Word reached the defenders that a relief column of American tanks was approaching to relieve them, but Lee was unable to communicate with the column to provide them with details of the SS’s numbers and positions. Tennis player Borotra volunteered to hand deliver a message, vaulting over the castle wall and running through SS lines to reach the American rescue force. On arriving, he asked for an American uniform and joined the unit in their assault on SS positions. On arriving at the castle, the column quickly shattered SS resistance, capturing over 100 prisoners.

Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. Gangl was killed during the battle by a sniper while protecting French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, the only defender killed. He was honoured as a national hero in Austria, and a street in the city of Worgl bears his name. 

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