If we think of World War II, we probably think about the two opposing powers that participated in the war: the Allied forces composed of Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States versus the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. On May 4, 1945, though, five days after Hitler’s death and just four days away until Nazi Germany officially surrendered, perhaps the most unexpected alliance of World War II happened: Germans and Americans firing not against but alongside each other.
Castle Itter: VIP Prison
Itter Castle is a small castle on a hill in the Austrian Alps, near the village of Itter. After the “Anschluss,” or the political union of Austria with Germany in 1938, the government of Germany officially leased the castle from its owner in 1940, Franz Gruner. On February 7, 1943, SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl seized the castle from Gruner under the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Shortly after, on April 25, it was converted by the Nazis into a prison facility and was placed under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp as its sub-unit.
The new purpose of the castle was to house high-profile French prisoners that were called “Ehrenhäftlinge” or “honor prisoners.” Some of the well-known people locked up there were Prime Ministers Paul Reynaud and Edouard Daladier, French tennis star Jean Borota, and Marie-Agnes Cailliau. Cailliau was a member of a resistance group and the elder sister of General Charles de Gaulle.
Raising the White Flag
It was May 4, 1945, and Castle Itter, at that time, was holding a mere 14 VIP prisoners. By that time, it was clear to the Nazis in the castle that the end was near, so when the Allied troops made their way near the castle, the German guards fled, leaving the prisoners in the castle alone. Now unguarded, the French detainees were technically free. However, with Gestapo and Waffen-SS units still in the surrounding area, if they ventured out the prisoners reasoned that they would surely be killed without hesitation.
The real problem arose when the elements of the 17th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division were given a go signal to descend on the nearby castle and eliminate all the remaining prisoners. They now had to act fast and seek help if they wanted to survive, and so they sent out the castle cook named Andreas Krobot to seek help. Krobot journeyed to a small town just a few miles away called Worgl. There, a highly decorated Wehrmacht Major named Josef Gangl was held up, along with about ten of his soldiers. Gangl had already worked out a local armistice with the Austrian resistance in his area and provided them with weapons. The town of Worgl had hung white sheets out of their windows signaling their intent to surrender to approaching US troops. SS Head Heinrich Himmler had issued an order saying that the men of any town that attempted to surrender(rather than fight the allies in the streets) were to be shot. Major Gangl decided to defy that order to assist the SS in these executions and decided his duty was to protect the civilian population. When the cook told him that the castle faced imminent attack and that the SS had orders to execute the remaining French prisoners, Gangl immediately realized that his ten man army was not enough to protect and rescue the prisoners of Castle Itter; he would need to seek help. Grabbing a white flag, he wasted no time and drove to the nearest American unit in their area under a flag of truce.
Help Is on the Way
The 23rd Tank Battalion of the US 12th Armored Division happened to be the nearest American unit. Led by none other than a cigar-chomping and alcohol-chugger cavalry officer named, Captain Jack Lee, who didn’t hesitate to help. With the higher command’s approval, he gathered a small group of soldiers and a Sherman tank to return to the castle with Major Gangl and hold off the SS when they attacked.
Upon arriving, Lee ordered his men to set up a defense perimeter around the castle while Gangl and his men provided support. The prisoners, partially relieved by the arrival of their defenders, were also now armed and joined in the defense of the castle. Meanwhile, the Sherman tank they brought was parked outside to provide additional fire support if needed.
The following day, around 100-150 Waffen-SS division troops launched their attack on the fortress. The American troops, German soldiers, and French prisoners all fought side-by-side-by-side that day to defend their position.
By afternoon, the defenders in the castle were running low on ammunition and the SS was showing no signs of giving up on their attack. The Sherman tank had also been neutralized, and it seemed like they would be overrun by the SS and everyone would be executed. Capt Lee managed to get off a radio call for support just before communication was cut off. The reinforcement arrived just in time like the cavalry in an old western. It was elements of the American 142nd Infantry Regiment that saved the day and drove off the SS troops, all while managing to take around 100 of them as prisoners.
That that all-day battle, the defense force suffered only one casualty: Major Josef Gangl. He was shot by an SS sniper as he was attempting to gwt former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to out of the line of fire. For his heroic acts, Gangl was honored as an Austrian national hero. A street near Worgl was also named after him. Captain Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor.