Saturday 28 February 2015

The Strangest Battle of the Second World War

Castle Itter in the 1970s
On the 5th of May 1945, five days after the suicide of Adolf Hitler, the usually serene Castle Itter in the Austrian countryside was the site of what may possibly be the strangest battle of the Second World War. Soldiers of the United States, anti-Nazi German soldiers, Austrian resistance and an eyebrow-raising collection of French VIPs (including several former prime ministers and a tennis star) fought off invading loyal remnants of the 17th Waffen-SS Panzer division. This is thought to be the only ever time in the war where Germans and Americans fought on the same side. But how exactly did this scenario arise? And why isn't this an adapted Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt?

The Castle And Its Prisoners:

The castle was located in western Austria in the quiet village of Itter. It was privately owned but was seized by the German Army (Wehrmacht) in 1943 for use as a prison camp under administration of the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp.

Its prisoners were rather famous VIPs who included tennis star Jean Borotra (later General Commissioner of Sports in the Vichy regime, former prime minister Édouard Daladier, Charles de Gaulle's elder sister Marie-Agnès Cailliau, former commander-in-chief Maxime Weygand, former prime minister Paul Reynaud, former commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin (instrumental in the Phony War), right-wing leader François de La Rocque (the leader of the right-wing Croix de Feu movement), and trade union leader Léon Jouhaux.

The Battle:

On 4 May, the garrison of the castle abandoned the castle, having realised that German surrender was imminent. The French prisoners took control of the castle and armed themselves with whatever weaponry remained. A Yugoslavian prisoner, Zvonimir Čučković, was sent to find help. Zvonimir encountered elements of the American 103rd Infantry Division near the city of Innsbruck who agreed to rescue the prisoners. A defected German unit under the command of Major Josef Gangl which collaborated with the Austrian resistance and later surrendered to the Americans, agreed to accompany the rescue.

The rescue force consisted of 14 American soldiers, 10 defected German soldiers and a Sherman tank. Upon reaching the castle, the French prisoners were dismayed at the small size of the rescue but however had elected to focused on fortifying the castle in anticipation of a Waffen-SS assault on the castle. The Sherman tank was placed towards the entrance whilst positions were taken on the towers. The Allies were joined by a defected Waffen-SS officer who was recovering in the nearby village.

On the morning of the 5th, the castle came under attack from 100-150 soldiers of the 17th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier division. Major Gangl telephoned in Austrian resistance members in the vicinity for reinforcements, 3 Austrian resistance members arrived soon after. Despite being ordered to take refuge inside the castle, French prisoners joined the battle alongside the Americans and Germans. The battle raged on for six hours, resulting in the destruction of the Sherman tank and the death of Major Gangl, before the SS were defeated by a relief force from the American 142nd Infantry Regiment.

Further reading:
US news report during the war:

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