Imagine German and American troops joined together in a fire-fight against Nazi SS soldiers, to protect a handful of French political prisoners. That’s the story of “the last —and arguably the strangest — ground combat action of World War II in Europe.”
At a thirteenth century castle in the Austrian Tyrol, the Nazis had imprisoned several “high value” Frenchmen. By early May, 1945, Hitler had just committed suicide. American artillery and infantry were only a few miles away. Heavily armed SS troops mounted a siege of the castle for the purpose of executing the prisoners.
A defense of the castle was organized by U.S. Captain Jack Lee, a tank squadron commander. His primary support came from two German defectors, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl, and Waffen SS captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader. Both had become disillusioned with Germany’s chances, and had teamed up with fellow defectors and Austrian resistance leaders.
The French prisoners included two former Premiers of France, two former chiefs of staff of the French army’ the sister of Charles DeGaulle, and the son of Georges Clemenceau, among others. Although their jailers treated them well, they were in several cases, bitter political enemies. Some were socialist, some far right-wing. Some were part of the Vichy collaborationist government, while others had spumed it and fled to North Africa. Mealtimes were probably not too pleasant.
Commandant of the prison was SS Captain Sebastian Wimmer. “A textbook sociopath,” he had been in charge of day-to-day operations at Dachau concentration camp 90 miles to the north, before his transfer to the castle, which was known as Schloss Itter. Subject to fits of drunken rage, he frequently beat other prisoners — but not the high-value ones. After the war he
somehow escaped prosecution, but killed himself in 1950. Incidentally, the last commandant of Dachau, 55 Colonel Wilhelm Weiter, decamped to the castle on April 30 and killed himself there 48 hours later.
On May 4 and 5, 1945, the German — American defense of Schloss Itter and its French notables began. It was like a medieval siege, but with much more deadly weapons. Lee’s tank, the only one, was destroyed early by a powerful anti-tank missile. Major Gangl died, killed by a sniper’s bullet. Many of the Frenchman were veterans of World War I, and after Wimmer fled they seized his weapons and started firing at the approaching SS men themselves.
The end resembled a western movie. As their ammunition started to run low, Lee directed his men and the former prisoners into the tower or “keep,” of the castle, for a last stand as the SS, closed in. Suddenly they heard the sounds of American artillery. A column of U.S. tanks and troops approached, and the SS melted into the woods. As Lee and the others emerged from the castle, Lee walked up to a fellow tank commander and said, “What kept you?”
Stephen Harding is the author of several books of military history. He tells this story in well-written prose, and with an impressive command of the factual details.
The writer is an attorney living in Manhattan.