On May 5, 1945, just three days before VE-Day, Castle Itter[*] in Northern Tyrol became the scene of a most improbable battle.
Since 1943, this castle had been converted by the SS into a kind-of “VIP prison” for prominent inmates from occupied France. These included two former French PMs (Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud); Charles de Gaulle’s sister Marie-Agnès; General Maurice Gamelin and his successor Maxime Weygand; Michel Clémenceau, son of the WW I-era prime minister; former French ambassador to Germany André François-Poncet; and many others.
The place was administratively an Aussenlager (satellite camp) of Dachau (where another group of “prominents” was held in the main camp itself). A group of lower-status Dachau inmates carried out menial work.
The commander, SS-Hauptsturmführer [i.e., captain] Wimmer, was under orders to shoot the prisoners if capture by the Allies became imminent. He supposedly promised a prisoner delegation he would not implement this order, but the inmates placed no trust in this promise.
The camp electrician, a Yugoslav inmate, was sent out on an errand as a cover to go looking for US troops. He found a reconnaisance patrol nearly 70 km away near Innsbruck. The SS garrison did meanwhile flee, but the prisoners feared a roving SS unit would come to the castle.
The Americans sent a small team (14 men under Lt. “Jack” Lee, including crews of two Sherman tanks, “Besotten Jenny” and “Bochebuster”), which joined up with about 20 Wehrmacht soldiers led by a defector to the Austrian resistance, Major Josef Gangl.
Lee posted “Besotten Jenny” at the castle and “Bochebuster” at the bridge. The meager force’s ranks were swollen by a number of the French prisoners who had taken arms from the armory — and even one wounded SS officer who decided to switch sides. On May 5, the castle came under attack from a force of about 100-150 SS soldiers. The much smaller defending force held the SS at bay for most of May 5, until relieved in the late afternoon by a company of the 142th US Infantry Regiment. Major Gangl was killed by a sniper, but the others managed to survive. Gangl was honored posthumously as an Austrian resistance hero, while Lee got a DSC and a promotion to Captain.[**]
The Swedish power metal band Sabaton [***] often has lyrics based on actual war history and feats of wartime heroism. Their song “The Last Battle” (see below) is a pretty straight-up retelling of the event. Kudos to the band for introducing many young(er) listeners to bits of war history they are unlikely to learn in school or from books.
History is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose… (with apologies to JBS Haldane)…
[*] The castle has a musical connection: the female concert pianist and conservatory teacher Sophie Menter (a former pupil of Liszt) owned the place from 1884 until the early 1900s. Tchaikovsky was her guest at the castle and wrote works there.
[**] Mark Felton has a more detailed video here. Felton notes one other situation where a similar Wehrmacnt-US Army ad hoc coalition former against the SS — this time to rescue the precious Lipizzaner horses.
[***] Despite its superficial similarity to the Hebrew word Shabaton (sabbatical), a “sabaton” is the armored shoe or boot of a medieval suit of armor