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January 29, 2015

The Strangest Battle of WWII: When Americans and Germans Fought the SS Together

by dianeshort2014

tankAdolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945. Germany’s war to advance its empire across Europe and beyond was coming to an end. A unique story, however, has emerged just days after Hitler committed suicide in a book by Stephen Harding called ‘The Last Battle’.

As most of Germany and German-occupied territory became overrun with Allied or Red Army troops advancing to Berlin, three US tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the US 12th Armored Division were making their way through Austria towards Schloss Itter. The castle was, and still is, a medieval castle built in the 1200s and sits high on a hilltop near the small village of Itter in Austria’s North Tyrol region.

The Nazis had been holding many important French prisoners at Castle Itter, and the Allies had planned the operation to liberate the castle and its prisoners. Among them were ex-French prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former French commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, the reports.

In addition, Jean Borotra, a former tennis champion, and Francois de La Rocque, both of whom were part of the Vichy France government, and notoriously pro-Nazi, had been imprisoned at the castle. Harding explains the complicated politics of the time, and that while they had been part of the pro-Nazi government, they had also supported the Allies via the French resistance, which explains why they had been taken prisoner.

Michel Clemenceau was one of the French officials held prisoner at the castle. Michel was the son of Georges Clemenceau, a leading politician during World War One. As World War Two went on, Michel had become more and more vocal about his dislike and criticism for Marshal Petain who was Chief of State of Vichy France (which occupied France between 1940 and 1944). Even though Michel was in his seventies, he had been captured and imprisoned at the castle by the Gestapo in 1943.

Castle Itter was not just a prison for important French officials, Harding’s book reveals that the Germans took prisoners from concentration camps to work at the castle. They were known as “number prisoners” since under the Nazi’s, they were not allowed to use their birth names but were instead allocated numbers for identification.

US Captain John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Junior was leading his Battalion and three tanks to liberate the castle, but little did they know that tanks and troops from the still fighting 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division were also heading there to take hold of the castle and kill the French prisoners.

After Captain Lee’s Battalion arrived, they secured the castle and remained there along with the liberated French prisoners, the castle’s workers and the Wehrmacht German Army soldiers who had been charged with defending the castle. Given the Nazi’s demise, they put up little resistance to the incoming American troops.

Harding says that the first they knew of the SS attack was when Captain Lee was awoken at 4am by the sound of M1 Garands rifle shots. The SS was making its initial attack on the castle. Karabiner 98 Kurz rifles were then heard by their loud cracks, followed by .30-caliber machine guns sending rounds shooting around the castle. Captain Lee could hear that the gunfire was coming from the castle’s gate house. He made his way to one of the castle’s gates that led onto a terrace and courtyard, where he was immediately under fire from an MG-42 machine gun.

Meanwhile inside the castle, everyone took up arms to defend themselves. The American soldiers fought the SS side by side with the Wehrmacht German Army soldiers, the French prisoners, their wives and partners, and the workers. Everyone, no matter what their beliefs or political agenda, came together to fight back and hold the castle

Captain Lee was a strong tactical leader, thinking quickly to work out how they would fight off the enemy. Meanwhile, Wehrmacht officer Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl was also central to the fight. Major Gangl actually died in the battle at the castle and the book is the first time his story has been told in English, outside of Austria and Germany, as a key figure in anti-Nazism.

Michel Clemenceau showed fearless courage in the face of the SS’s attack, following in his father’s footsteps. Even as the Allies’ bullets and shells were nearly finished, their tanks were wrecked, and the SS advanced from all angles around the castle. Michel continued to fire his gun as much as he could at the enemy.

Just in time, as the SS put their tanks in front of the castle’s main gate to break through it, shots and tank gunfire could be heard from the nearby Itter village. It was American troops and Austrian resistance heading for the castle as back up.

According to reports at the time, once the final SS troops had been conquered, Captain Lee approached one of the Allied tank commanders and asked what had been keeping them.

The battle at Castle Itter demonstrates the continued fight that the Allies battled even as Hitler was dead and the German mass troops had been defeated. Harding’s book puts this into context of the Nazi’s desperation to push back the Allied advance into Germany and Austria. He says that while some surrendered seeing the inevitable, other German soldiers would not give up, with some fighting even happening after the German Government officially relinquished power to the Allies.

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