The SS left the castle early on May 4, 1945. The Schloss Itter, as it was known in German, now belonged to the prisoners. They broke into one of the rooms serving as the armory and retrieved rifles, pistols, and submachine guns. Despite the assurances of the former commandant – a sadistic Captain named Sebastian Wimmer – that he would do all in his power to see that they remained unharmed from the throngs of retreating German forces, none took any chances.
Even the arrival of the young SS officer who told them he had Wimmer’s orders to look after them brought little comfort. In the past weeks, they had seen several SS officers and their families stay at the castle before moving on. Each time it unnerved them. Such men were often bloodthirsty, and they killed at the drop of a hat. One German had even committed suicide just prior to Wimmer’s fleeing. Until all the Germans had left, inmates felt execution was always just an utterance away.
It is an understatement to say that these were no ordinary prisoners and their place of residence no ordinary prison. Some of these men once occupied the highest offices France. They included the former prime ministers, Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; President Albert LeBrun; Generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; Ambassador to Germany and Italy Andre’ Francois-Poncet; tennis star Jean Borotra; anti-Communist organization leader Francois de La Rocque; Michael Clemenceau, son of World War I Premier Georges Clemenceau; trade union leader Leon Jouhaux; politician Alfred Cailiau; and Marcel Granger, relative of Free French General Henri Giraud.
Rounding out the men was Italian Prime Minister Francesco Nitti and a lone concentration camp inmate named Zoonimar ‘Andre’ Cuckovic, who remained at the facility to fix electrical wiring.
The women imprisoned were the wives of Weygand, Cailiau, and Borotra, along with the secretaries of Reynaud and Jouhaux.
They resided in the Schloss Itter, a fairy-tale looking castle meant to house prisoners of importance and located in Austria’s Brixental valley. Connected by a bridge to a mountain road, it sat beside a ravine, while the village of Itter unfurled out before it to the east. First mentioned in historical records in 1240, it changed hands numerous times through the centuries before being requisitioned by the SS in 1942. Afterward, it became part of the prison system under the charge of Dachau concentration camp, and in 1943, its most famous guests began arriving.
After the prisoners started congregating, one thing immediately became clear to the Germans: many of the prisoners hated each other. From opposite sides of the political spectrum, they sat in ideological groups whenever eating in the dining room and rarely spoke. When they did, arguments often erupted, and the French Prime Ministers and Generals often tried to scapegoat each other for their country’s quick defeat.
None was satisfied with the answers given. When things managed to simmer, each person tried to cope as best they could. Between their captors’ treatment, which varied from polite to severe, they struggled with the monotony and false hopes they garnered by learning of the Allies’ advances from east and west. Make no mistake though, none remained under any illusion that they were far better off than the inmates at Dachau. Cuckovic could testify to that.
Then came that strange day, May 4, when everything changed, so they thought. Their captors left, and they paced in quick steps feeling it only a matter of time before liberation. Nevertheless, things soured as hours passed by and everyone wondered just how close an Allied unit was. Moreover, in the backs of their minds, they contemplated the worst possible fates; that a German unit might yet arrive to render that final cruel judgment. And here they sat, most having never been in battle, the weapons in hand the only thing that might stave off such an ordeal.
They needed to act, now. They cast their political differences aside and contemplated their next move. Cuckovic volunteered to go over the wall and look for help. Soon he was in the village, where he stole a bike and set off on a road for Worgl, a larger town six miles northwest of the castle. To his dismay, he met up with a German Army unit looking to surrender. Led by Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangel, his twenty men had no desire to fight on, and looked to lay down their arms. Cuckovic informed the German major of the prisoners, and he in turn told him where the nearest American unit should be. Innsbruck was 38 miles to the southeast. Cuckovic started pedaling while Gangel hopped in his vehicle and set off for the village of Kufstein in the opposite direction.
Cuckovic’s expected long journey was shortened when he found the first Americans much closer than Innsbruck. He called to the soldiers of the 103rd infantry division, climbed off his bike and began telling his story, before being sent to a Major and a French liaison officer. Upon hearing his information, they began formulating a rescue plan. A little while later, four M10 Tank Destroyers, three jeeps, and a truck full of infantry soldiers began crawling through the refugee-clogged road toward the castle.
They stopped later when hailed by a group of anti-Nazi partisans and a barrage of artillery shells began raining down. Pulling off into the trees, they waited for the shelling to subside before carrying on, surrounded by dozens of refugees.
Meanwhile, Gangel reached Kufstein with a white flag fluttering from his car. He explained the plight of the castle to the Americans, which earned him a trip to the 23rd Tank Battalion’s command post. Convinced that Gangel was telling the truth, 1st Lieutenant Jack Lee was chosen to lead a rescue group to the castle. Initially, there were to be just two Sherman tanks with six African-American soldiers riding on the hulls to provide support, but he quickly found five other 36th Division Shermans, and the strange formation of American armor followed by Gangel and his men headed out through the early afternoon sunlight for the rescue attempt.
Passing through Worgl, Lee encountered partisans fearful of the SS soldiers returning after their earlier departure. They talked him into leaving the five 36th Division tanks behind. Lee proceeded on and rounded a bend outside town, where he nearly ran over SS troops setting up a roadblock. The two tanks as well as Gangel’s men opened fire, killing several of the SS soldiers and scattering the rest into the woods.
After some close calls, the group started up to find a final obstacle on approach to the castle. A bridge was wired for demolition. Gangel ordered his men to clear it and, minutes later, the group rolled again, with Lee leaving his other tank behind to guard the crossing, but taking its commander, 1st Lieutenant Harry Blasse, onward to the Schloss Itter, now in view, looking majestic and commanding the heights over the village.
Looking out their windows, the prisoners received a surprise. Their liberators had arrived. Yet instead of the long columns of vehicles and soldiers, a single tank, followed by two German vehicles, rode up to the main gate, hardly a force to celebrate over.
Jack Lee hopped down off the Sherman’s hull and began speaking to one of the Frenchmen. The gate swung open and Lee entered, greeted by several more prisoners. He began taking a roster of names and revealed something of himself to the VIP’s. He did not take any crap from anyone. Reynaud considered him “crude in looks and manners,” saying “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies, Europe is in for a hard time.”
Regardless, the French, Lee, Blasse, and Gangel poured some fresh wine and toasted to the moment. The smiles, hugs, and handshakes began and ended rather quickly, as they all knew danger lurked beyond the walls. Later, with an evening sun beginning to rest on the treetops, Lee, Blasse, Gangel and the German officer left the castle and set off on foot to scout defensive positions and create some sort of defensive plan. Lee felt that the castle itself would provide ample protection if the German’s tried anything. He knew American columns remained near and should arrive sometime the next day. All they had to do was hold until then.
He then thought it through and offered doubts of such an action taking place because of the confusion reigning in the German ranks. He finished discussing the contingencies and watched the sun dip beneath the forest to cast a shadow over the troubled land.
Hundreds of yards away, at the edge of the darkening foliage, a pair of binoculars lowered from strained eyes to rest beneath a lapel bearing the lightning runes of the SS. The German’s observation of the castle with its solitary tank revealed no credible threat that the hundreds of men under his command could not overcome.
As they took up positions stretching out from either side of him, he debated whether to storm the castle tonight or just probe with fire. He decided the latter.
At dawn, he nodded; the Schloss Itter would belong to the SS.
(To be continued on Sunday, June 2, 2013)