Battle of Itter Castle is still the strangest war that seems straight out of a movie. More than seventy years ago, amidst the rugged terrain of the Austrian Alps, an extraordinary and improbable battle unfolded during World War Two at the historic Itter Castle.
In early May 1945, a unique alliance emerged between American and German forces as they joined hands in a remarkable endeavor to liberate prominent French prisoners of war from the clutches of the Nazi SS. This extraordinary event stands as an unparalleled instance in the annals of the war, where former adversaries united against a common foe.
Recalling the haunting past, Hans Fuchs vividly described how the Nazis transformed Schloss Itter into a forbidding prison in 1943. From the vantage point of his school window, he witnessed the construction of a formidable double barbed-wire enclosure encircling the castle. At the same time, floodlights mercilessly illuminated the night, shrouding the captives in an eerie glow.
The roots of Schloss Itter’s history can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but during this dark chapter, it served as a sub-unit of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Designated for housing VIP prisoners, the castle held prominent politicians and revered military figures carefully chosen by the Nazis as bargaining chips to wield influence and exert pressure.
Among the detainees were two former prime ministers of France, Edouard Daladier, and Paul Reynaud, both symbolic figures of the nation’s resilience. Marie-Agnes Cailliau, the elder sister of the esteemed General Charles de Gaulle, also found herself confined within the castle’s grim walls.
What is the Battle of Itter Castle About?
Regarded as one of World War II’s most peculiar and extraordinary battles, the clash at Itter Castle unfolds against the backdrop of a small hilltop fortress near the Austrian village of Itter.
The castle’s history took a significant turn after the 1938 Anschluss when the German government officially secured a lease on the property from its owner, Franz Grüner, in late 1940. However, the castle’s fate changed dramatically when, on 7th February 1943, SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl, acting under the orders of the infamous Heinrich Himmler, seized the castle from Grüner.
This marked the beginning of a dark transformation, turning the once-serene castle into a formidable prison.
By 25th April 1943, the conversion was complete, and the prison came under the jurisdiction of the notorious Dachau concentration camp. Its purpose was to incarcerate high-profile French prisoners, seen as valuable assets to the Reich’s ambitions.
Among the captives were prominent figures like the accomplished tennis player Jean Borotra, former prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, distinguished commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, as well as Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the elder sister of the revered Charles de Gaulle.
Adding to the intriguing mix was François de La Rocque, a right-wing leader who secretly supported the French resistance, and Léon Jouhaux, a prominent trade union leader.
Apart from these VIP detainees, the castle also held a contingent of Eastern European prisoners who were detached from Dachau and consigned to laborious maintenance and menial tasks.
Prelude to the Battle of Itter Castle
The spark that ignited the battle can be traced back to May 3rd, when Zvonimir Čučković, a Yugoslav handyman and member of the communist resistance, departed Itter Castle under the pretext of an errand for Commander Sebastian Wimmer. With an English letter in hand, he sought to find the first American he could, appealing for Allied assistance.
Since the nearest town, Wörgl, was still under German control, Čučković embarked on a 40-mile journey towards Innsbruck. That evening, he encountered an advance party of the 409th Infantry Regiment from the American 103rd Infantry Division, part of the US VI Corps. Čučković shared vital information about the prison with them, although they were unable to initiate a rescue operation themselves.
Instead, they communicated the message to their headquarters, awaiting further instructions.
At the break of dawn the following day, a heavily armored rescue operation set off, but it faced a setback when it encountered intense shelling after reaching Jenbach. Simultaneously, Commander Sebastian Wimmer, fearing discovery, fled from his post, leading to the departure of the SS-Totenkopfverbände guards from their positions.
With the guards gone, the prisoners took control of the castle and armed themselves with whatever weapons they could find.
Unaware of the outcome of Čučković’s efforts, the prison leaders accepted the offer of their Czech cook, Andreas Krobot, to cycle to Wörgl on May 4th, hoping to find help there. Equipped with a similar note, Krobot succeeded in reaching the Austrian resistance in Wörgl, which had recently been abandoned by Wehrmacht forces but was now occupied by roaming Waffen-SS troops.
He made contact with Major Josef Gangl, who commanded a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers that had defied orders to retreat and joined forces with the local resistance, led by Rupert Hagleitner.
Gangl aimed to hold their position in Wörgl to protect the townspeople from SS reprisals, as the Nazis violently targeted any window displaying a white flag or Austrian flag, summarily executing males suspected of desertion. Gangl’s hope was to surrender to the approaching Americans quickly. However, as the American relief was delayed, he was compelled to seek their help under a white flag.
Coincidentally, a reconnaissance unit consisting of four Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the 12th Armored Division, under the command of Lieutenant Lee, had reached Kufstein, located 8 miles north of Itter. When approached by Gangl for aid, Lieutenant Lee volunteered without hesitation to lead the rescue mission.
After personally assessing the castle with Gangl and Hagleitner, he secured permission from his headquarters and requisitioned five additional tanks and supporting infantry from the newly arrived 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division.
As they advanced, Lee was compelled to send the reinforcements back when a bridge proved too weak for the entire column to cross safely. Leaving one tank to guard it, Lee proceeded with just 14 American soldiers, Major Gangl, a driver, and a truck carrying ten former German artillerymen.
En route, they successfully defeated a group of SS troops attempting to set up a roadblock 4 miles away from the castle.
Meanwhile, the French prisoners had enlisted the help of an SS officer, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, whom they had befriended during his time at Itter while recovering from wounds and now living nearby.
When Lee’s rescue force finally reached the castle, the prisoners warmly greeted them but were disheartened by its modest size. Lee strategically positioned his men in defensive positions around the castle and stationed his Sherman tank, named Besotten Jenny, at the main entrance. Then began the strangest battle of World War Two.
The Battle of Itter Castle: America and Germany Joins Forces
Shortly after the reinforcements arrived, a formidable force of 100-150 Waffen-SS soldiers, led by Georg Bochmann, who had been occupying nearby hills, decided to launch an attack. Despite Lieutenant Lee’s orders for the French prisoners to seek shelter, they bravely chose to fight alongside the American and Wehrmacht soldiers.
Throughout the night, the defenders faced relentless harassment from a reconnaissance group sent by the enemy to assess their strength and exploit any weaknesses in the fortress’s defenses. In a desperate bid for help, Major Gangl managed to contact Alois Mayr, the Austrian resistance leader in Wörgl, requesting much-needed reinforcements.
By the morning of May 5th, the full-scale attack commenced. The Sherman tank provided crucial machine-gun support until it was eventually disabled by German fire from an 88 mm gun. Remarkably, the tank’s sole occupant, a radioman attempting to repair the faulty radio, managed to escape unscathed.
In the early afternoon, news of the dire situation finally reached the 142nd, and they swiftly dispatched a relief force to aid their comrades. However, Lieutenant Lee recognized that he had been unable to provide the 142nd with comprehensive information on the enemy’s disposition before communication lines were severed.
In a daring move, tennis star Jean Borotra volunteered to vault over the castle wall and navigate through SS strongholds and ambushes to deliver critical information. Borotra’s bravery caught the attention of René Lévesque, a French-Canadian reporter embedded with the 142nd, who would later become Premier of Quebec. Equipped with an American military uniform, Borotra joined the relief force as they hastened to reach the prison before the defenders exhausted their ammunition.
At approximately 4:00 PM, the relief force arrived, engaging the SS troops and emerging victorious. Around 100 SS prisoners were captured during the clash. With the threat neutralized, the French prisoners were safely evacuated towards France, reaching Paris on May 10th, marking the triumphant end to the extraordinary battle at Itter Castle.
In recognition of his valor and dedication in defending the castle, Lieutenant Lee was promoted to Captain and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his exceptional service. He continued to serve his country until his passing in 1973.
Tragically, Major Gangl lost his life during the intense battle while trying to protect former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud from harm. He succumbed to a fatal wound inflicted by a 7.92×57mm Mauser round. In Austria, he was revered as a national hero, and the town of Wörgl honored his memory by naming a street after him.
During the battle, Major Gangl was the sole defender who lost his life, while four others suffered injuries.
The unique and extraordinary nature of the battle at Itter Castle has earned it the distinction of being called the “strangest battle of World War II” in popular accounts. Remarkably, this engagement took place just five days after Adolf Hitler’s suicide and a mere two days before Germany’s unconditional surrender was signed.
The timing of this remarkable event adds to its significance in history.
Next, read about the 20th July Plot and the Horrible Fate that fell on Its Supporters. Then, if you’re interested in some unsolved mysteries, read about the Disturbing Disappearance of the Beaumont Children and how you can keep your kids from the same fate.
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