Battle of Castle Itter

At the end of World War 2. May 5th 1945 (five days after Hitler committed suicide) three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated  Castle Itter. It was a special castle it housed high ranking French Prisoners of War such as ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin and a tennis star. This would go down as the strangest battle in WWII history as German, French, Austrian and American fought against a German SS Unit.

Castle Itter

Castle Itter

Castle Itter was seized by the Nazis under orders by Heinrich Himmler on February 7th, 1943 to be used as prison camp to house high-profile prisoners of war valuable to the Reich. It also included a detachment Eastern European prisoners from the Dachau Concentration camp as menial labor. The whole situation began when Eduard Weiter the last commander of the Dachau Concentration camp committed suicide on May 4th 1945, The Commander of Castle Itter then fled along with his guards the SS-Totenkopfverbände. Soon after the prisoners gained control of the castle armed up with any weapons available and then sought help, they found the American 103rd Infantry Division. Major Josef Gangl, commanding a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers, and who had collaborated with Austrian resistance in the closing days of the war, he had intended to free the castle prisoners, but decided instead to surrender to the Americans and joined up with the Americans to secure the prisoners.

The Liberation of Castle Itter’s Prisoners was planned. Lieutenant Lee volunteered to lead the rescue mission, and was accompanied by Gangl’s soldiers. Lee’s forces now consisted of fourteen American soldiers, two Sherman Tanks, a Volkswagen Kübelwagen and a truck carrying ten German soldiers. En route to Castle Itter the force encountered a group of SS troops attempting to setup a roadblock, the allies defeated the SS troops and left one of the Sherman Tanks to guard a Bridge.

Lee’s forces now consisted of fourteen American soldiers, two Sherman Tanks, a Volkswagen Kübelwagen and a truck carrying ten German soldiers.

Volkswagen Kübelwagen

Volkswagen Kübelwagen

The French prisoners greeted the rescuing force when it arrived at the castle, but were disappointed at its small size. Capt. Lee placed the men under his command in defensive positions around the castle, and parked his Sherman tank, named “Besotten Jenny”, at the main entrance.

Units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division were sent to recapture the castle and execute all prisoners they outnumbered Capt. Lee’s beleaguered forces. The Sherman tank was destroyed by German Fire, Capt. Lee Ordered the French Prisoners to hide but they refused and fought on despite their personal conflicts and long-held Political grudges. Not only did the French VIPS fight but their feisty wives and girlfriends did too such as Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labour leader Leon Jouhaux, and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire, were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women.

The major stars of this battle was Jack Lee who was the quintessential warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative—and, of course, a cigar-chewing, heavy-drinking American who watched out for his troops and was willing to think way, way outside the box, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to assault the castle. The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef  Gangl, who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs from German Sniper Fire.

Just as the SS had settled into position to fire a panzerfaust at the front gate and win the battle, the sound of automatic weapons and tank guns behind them rose the spirits of the defenders. Advancing American units and Austrian resistance fighters had arrived to relieve the castle who were dispatched by Major Josef  Gangl earlier. In keeping with the immense cool that he had shown throughout the siege, Lee  went up to one of the rescuing tank commanders, looked him in the eye and said simply: “What kept you?”

Not only was the Battle of Castle Itter the only battle where Germans fought with Americans its also the only time where Americans defended a medieval castle from siege. For his service defending the castle, Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted to Captain. Gangl was posthumously honored as an Austrian national hero and had a street in Wörgl named after him.

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