The Last Battle

Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Between those two dates, the last battle of the European theatre happened. And it was one of the strangest battles in history.

* * *

There’s a small village of around 400 people in western Austria called Itter. Itter would be a completely unremarkable place, except for a castle on the edge of town. Given the imaginative name Schloss Itter (which literally means “Castle Itter” in German), the building dates to at least 1241, although sources indicate that the castle may have been built by 1204, and there were likely other buildings on the same spot as far back as the 900s.

Schloss Itter
Schloss Itter in 2010. Photo via Wikipedia

In the 1930s, the castle was owned by a man named Franz Grüner. After the Anschluss of March 12, 1938 – where the Nazis annexed Austria – Grüner rented the castle to the German government, which held meetings and retreats there. For a few months in 1942, it was home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”, who no doubt held the lamest parties ever.

However, on February 7, 1943, SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl seized the castle outright on orders of his boss, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler wanted to turn Schloss Itter into a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.

But not just any old POW camp. This was a POW camp for VIPs, and some of the earliest inmates included former French president Albert Lebrun, former Italian prime minister (and anti-Fascist) Francesco Nitti and André François-Poncet, who had been the French ambassador to both Germany and Italy in the run-up to the war. These people were quickly transferred elsewhere, however.

* * *

During the invasion of France, the Germans captured a number of high-profile French citizens. They would later uncover several ministers of Vichy France who were secretly plotting with the Allies.

Thus, prisoners at Castle Itter included former French premiers (prime ministers) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; Michel Clemenceau, son of former premier Georges Clemenceau; former army commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; right-wing leader François de La Rocque; trade union leader (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Léon Jouhaux; Charles De Gaulle’s eldest sister, Marie-Agnès Cailliau; and Jean-Robert Borotra, one of France’s most famous tennis players,  who had served as Minister for Sport for Vichy France before trying to escape and join the Allies. In addition to these VIPs, many of their wives were imprisoned too, and the Germans had transferred a handful of Eastern Europeans from Dachau to Itter to handle household tasks like cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Castle Itter was no paradise, but by all accounts, if you were going to be trapped in a German POW camp in World War II, Itter was the place to be. VIP prisoners were given the nicest rooms and had free reign to walk anywhere on castle grounds, including the extensive library. The food was reportedly the best of any POW camp. And the 25 SS soldiers charged with guarding the place – mostly older men with little or no combat experience – were later described by prisoners and “nice” or “friendly”. Perhaps the guards were well aware of what a cushy posting they had, and didn’t want to screw it up.

Despite this, the French prisoners were openly hostile to each other. Reynaud and Daladier were sworn enemies, so it was like having Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at your office’s mandatory team-building retreat. What’s more, both Reynaud and Daladier couldn’t stand Weygand, who had surrendered the bulk of France’s army to the Nazis on June 17, 1940. And it should go without saying that the right-wing La Rocque and the Communist union leader Jouhaux didn’t get along, either. The VIPs split into three groups and avoided each other as much as possible. At meal times, the prisoners sat at different tables: the Weygands, the Borotras, and La Rocque at one table, Reynaud, Christiane Mabire (Jouhaux’s secretary and future wife), Gamelin, and Clemenceau at a second table and everyone else – “the neutrals” – at a third.

* * *

Life in Castle Itter took a turn for the worse in the spring of 1945. As it became clear that the Allies were winning the war, several senior SS officers stopped at Itter while fleeing the advancing Allied armies. In most cases, these officers just wanted a place to sleep and whatever weapons and provisions the castle could spare. But the French began to worry about their safety. They’d heard about the concentration camps, and all the killings that happened as commandants and guards abandoned them. They had no idea if the next SS officer who showed up would simply want a bed and breakfast… or would be the person who decided that they were worth more dead than alive.

* * *

Eduard Weiter was the son of a horsewhip maker. He joined the German Imperial Army in 1919, where he served as a paymaster. When his position was eliminated due to cuts enforced by the Treaty of Versailles, Weiter took the same paymaster job with the Bavarian state police. He had little interest in any kind of politics – national politics, state politics, even office politics – and didn’t officially join the Nazi Party until 1937, well after most of his contemporaries. For most of his professional life, he was an anonymous bureaucrat, doing his job quietly and efficiently.

Which makes it a bit surprising that Weiter was named head of the Dachau Concentration Camp in September 1943 when the current commandant, Martin Gottfried Weiss, was transferred to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. But Wieter was no fool – in 1945, as the Allies approached Munich, he knew the end was near, and so left his post at Dachau for the relative safety of Castle Itter, which was under the jurisdiction of the Dachau camp.

* * *

On May 3, 1945, a Croatian resistance leader named Zvonimir Čučković, sent to Itter to work as a handyman, left the castle, supposedly to run an errand for Commandant Sebastian Wimmer. But this was a ruse: Čučković secretly carried a note from the prisoners, written in English and asking for help. Čučković was to give the note to the first American soldiers he came across.

Čučković walked towards the nearby town of Wörgl, but luckily he never made it. That’s because the town was in the hands of the Waffen-SS, whose troops were on a rampage, shooting any adult males as deserters, and killing entire families who had the audacity to display white (surrender) or Austrian flags outside their homes as a “we’re not Nazis” sign to approaching Americans.

Instead, Čučković ran into a group of around 20 Wehrmacht soldiers. The Wehrmacht was the German regular army, and many of its soldiers were either conscripts who were “Nazi” in name only, or professional soldiers who didn’t sign up for a bloody fight to the death, like those in SS units. In fact, this particular bunch of Wehrmacht soldiers were looking for some American troops to surrender to.

Čučković explained the situation to the group’s leader, Major Josef Gangl. Gangl figured he and his men could get brownie points for helping free the French POWs, so he offered to drive to Kufstein to get help from the Americans. He also told Čučković that there were American troops at Innsbruck, and gave him directions there that skirted around Wörgl and the SS troops within.

So Čučković continued on towards Innsbruck, around 40 miles away. He reached the outskirts of the city in the early evening and found American troops from the 409th Infantry Regiment. The Americans were a small advance party, and were unable to get permission to proceed to Castle Itter. But they promised Čučković they’d get help the next morning.

At dawn, a column of armored vehicles started towards Castle Itter but were stopped by German artillery near Jenbach, about halfway to Itter. The Americans called for help, but their superior officers refused, on the grounds that they were about to infringe on territory soon to be “owned” by the approaching 36th Division.

While all this was going on, Wieter died a mysterious death at Castle Itter. The official story is that Wieter, having ordered the execution of 2,000 prisoners while leaving Dachau, let depression get the better of him. He got drunk and shot himself, first in the heart, and when that didn’t end his life, through the head. There is another theory that Wieter was shot by an SS officer for not being “ideologically pure” enough. Whatever the cause, Wieter’s death and Čučković’s disappearance were enough to spook Commandant Wimmer into abandoning his post. The remaining SS guards soon fled, too. Thus, the VIP POWs were on their own. Which sounds great… but there were groups of SS troops – some small, some large – roaming the area.

Gangl and his men, meanwhile, arrived in Kufstein and found Captain Jack Lee. Lee was with the 12th Armored Division of the US XXI Corps. He and his men were waiting to be relieved by the aforementioned 36th Infantry Division. Asked for help, Lee didn’t blink: soon, a small column of two tanks and infantry – 20 Wehrmacht soldiers under Gangel and 14 American soldiers under Lee – were on their way to Castle Itter.

They met two delays. First they encountered a bridge that did not appear to be structurally sound enough to accommodate multiple tanks. Secondly, shortly after crossing the bridge, the column ran into a small group of SS soldiers building a roadblock. Lee, Gangel and their soldiers fought off the SS troops, left one tank and a handful of soldiers behind, then continued on to Itter.

While all that was going on, the French VIPs had no idea what was happening, having not heard back from Čučković. They picked up the phone and called a former SS officer in the area, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader. He had been sent to the castle some time before to recuperate from battlefield injuries. The VIPs knew he had become disillusioned with Nazism and hoped he would help. He agreed to come immediately, and took command of the castle’s defense, arming the VIPs with whatever rifles and small arms the SS had left behind.

So… just so we’re clear: a group of French prisoners – former prime ministers, politicians and a professional tennis player –  armed with a handful of rifles and handguns left behind by the guards, were defending the castle under the direction of a former SS officer. Lee took command when he arrived, making this the only time in the European war where a US Army officer, with a Wehrmacht second in command and a former SS officer as third, commanded both US Army and Wehrmacht troops in battle.

That night, advance parties of SS troops harassed the defenders while looking for weaknesses in the castle’s defense. Although Lee had ordered the French prisoners to hide inside the castle they refused to a man, fighting alongside the American and German troops.

The following morning – May 5, 1945 – a group of 100-150 Waffen-SS troops began an assault on the castle. Before the attack began, Gangl called the local resistance in Wörgl and got two more Wehrmacht soldiers and an Austrian teenager to come to their aid. Lee’s beloved tank – the Besotten Jenny – was parked at the castle’s main gate and provided machine gun fire until it was destroyed by a German 88mm gun. Remarkably, a radio operator was inside the tank at the time, trying to repair the radio, but escaped unharmed.

The ragtag army held off the SS troops all morning. But the situation was starting to get desperate. The defenders were running low on ammunition.

Čučković, meanwhile, had been pleading the POW’s case in Innsbruck, and that morning a relief force from the 103rd Infantry Division under Major John Kramers headed towards Itter.

As Čučković, Kramers and the soldiers neared Itter they could hear the battle, but couldn’t figure out how to actually get to the castle. Kramers repeatedly tried to get Lee (or anyone else) on the radio, but failed; Lee’s radio had been in the Besotten Jenny, which had been destroyed. So Kramers stopped at either a house or a local pub – the exact location isn’t clear – and found a phone. He simply called the castle and got directions from whoever picked up the phone. But the directions were either incomplete or unclear – I read one account that said the SS cut the phone lines before they could finish directing Kramers to the castle. Whatever the case, Borotra, the French tennis star, offered to pole vault over the castle wall and direct the rescuers to the castle. This he did. He then asked for, and was given, a uniform and continued the fight against the SS soldiers.

By 4PM the battle was over. Around 100 Waffen-SS troops were captured and the French VIPs were sent back to France, arriving in Paris on May 10.

For his defense of the castle and POWs, Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Gangl died during the battle, shot while trying to push premier Reynaud out of the line of fire. He is considered an Austrian national hero, and a street is named after him in Wörgl.

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