Any war has its share of strange moments, ranging from hilarious to stranger than fiction. The Second World War, the largest conflict in human history, naturally set the stage for many such misadventures. One of the strangest incidents occurred in its waning days, just two days before the surrender of Germany when American and German soldiers teamed up with French prisoners and Austrian resistance fighters to defend a castle against an attack by fanatical Waffen SS troops.
The site of the battle was Itter Castle, in Tyrol, Austria. The location has been a fortress for several centuries but the present building was constructed in the late 1800s and primarily served as a private residence. Following the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 by Nazi Germany, the castle was leased from its then-owner. In 1943 however, it was seized by the SS and transformed into a prison for mostly French VIPs, such as former Prime Ministers, athletes, and generals.
As the war drew to a close, many soldiers could see the writing on the wall. The prison guards deserted their posts and fled, leaving the prisoners to their own devices. The prisoners were unable to make a good escape, however, as they knew a contingent of Waffen SS troops planned to storm the castle and massacre everyone inside. Prior to the assault, the prisoners armed themselves and awaited the battle.
Just before the arrival of the SS troops, Capt. Jack Lee, U.S. Army arrived with a single Sherman tank and fourteen soldiers. He and his troops joined Maj. Josef Gangl, a regular German army officer and anti-Nazi who had defied orders to join the SS and instead had taken command of the resistance in the village below the castle.
That night after Capt. Lee had arrived and prepared defenses, the combined force of French prisoners, Austrian resistance fighters, and Lee and Gangl’s soldiers fought off several probing attacks by the SS. The following morning, the assault began with 100-150 troops attempting to storm the castle. The defenders managed to hold on despite the destruction of their lone tank by a German 88mm cannon.
As the battle wore on into the afternoon, the defenders were running dangerously low on ammunition. A call for relief had gotten through to the American 142nd Division, who were racing to the beleaguered defenders. French tennis star Jean Borotra volunteered to leap over the castle wall and make his way through the attackers to lead the reinforcements to the castle. Incredibly, he survived and, upon meeting up with the relief troops, requested a uniform and rejoined the battle. The troops from the 142nd arrived just in time to save the defenders and took about 100 prisoners.
For his actions defending the castle, Capt. Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Tragically, Maj. Gangl was the only casualty of the defenders as he was shot by a sniper while assisting the former French Prime Minister. The defense of the Castle Itter was the only time to date that American and German forces have fought alongside one another, the fact that it came at a time when the two countries were technically at war makes it all the stranger.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
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