May 5, 1945. Hitler is dead, the Third Reich is dying. A platoon of American tanks is rolling through Germany when a German Army officer drives up waving a big white flag. Has he come to surrender? No, to ask for help. The SS are on their way to execute his prisoners, and he asks the Americans to reinforce his men. So begins the strangest battle of World War II, where Germans and Americans will fight side by side.
Nazi Germany was in its death throes. The Soviets were snuffing out the last resistance on the streets of Berlin; Patton’s tanks were thundering across Bavaria. As Allied forces fanned out across Germany, the advance elements got farther and farther from the main body of troops, and the tank units raced ahead of them all. The United States 12th Armored Division, in particular, fanned out into southern Germany along the Alps, looking for Nazi leaders and secret bunkers where the last remnants of the Third Reich might be hiding. It was not a time for risks: the war was basically over, and no one wanted to be the last soldier killed.
On May 4, Lieutenant John C. Lee Jr. of Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division sat on top of his tank, reading a map and trying to raise his commander on the radio. A graduate of Norwich University, Lee was the archetypal cigar-chewing, whiskey-drinking tank commander, called “Captain Jack” by his crew. Lee had four tanks, all M4A3 Shermans, that he had led through the hills of France and across the Rhine, earning a Bronze Star along the way. His own tank was nicknamed “Besotten Jenny,” a nickname given by one of his African-American soldiers after a cheating girlfriend. His gunner, Corporal Edward Szymcyk, was a quiet kid from New York but a heck of a gunner.
That morning, Lee had shot his way past a roadblock into the town of Kufstein, just across the German-Austrian border. His tank platoon was one of the first units into Austria, and he was a long way ahead of most other American units. He hoped Kufstein would be his last battle.
Unbeknownst to Captain Jack, he was about to undertake one of the strangest missions of the war. 14 miles to the southwest stood an old castle named Schloss Itter. In 1943, Schloss Itter was turned by the SS into a facility for VIP prisoners – mostly French politicians, generals, and hostages taken captive after the fall of France. With its massive walls, deep moat and gatehouse, it would function quite well as a prison.
Among the French prisoners at Schloss Itter were former Prime Ministers Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former Commanders of the French Army Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, tennis champion Jean Borotra, and Marie-Agnes Cailliau, sister of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. Reynaud and Daladier were old political rivals and hated each other.
Early on May 4, the SS guards at Castle Itter realized which way the wind was blowing, and at daybreak took off and fled. Realizing that they were isolated in a chaotic situation, and being mostly elderly French folks advanced in years, the VIPs armed themselves with abandoned weapons. They decided to send out a young handyman, the Czech cook Andreas Krobot, to seek help from the Allies, who had to be approaching.
Krobot raced away from the castle on a bicycle and rode to the nearby town of Worgl. He found to his horror that the town was overrun with black-coated SS men, who he overheard were planning to march to Castle Itter soon and slaughter the prisoners there. Krobot was almost spotted before he was pulled off the street by a German officer. The officer was Major Josef Gangl.
Major Gangl was a longtime veteran of the Wehrmacht; he had been in the earliest campaigns in France and Russia, had lived through the horrors of the Eastern Front, and somehow survived both Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge unscathed. What was left of his German Army unit was still retreating into Austria, but Gangl was secretly aligning himself with the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance. He had supplied them with information and weapons, mainly because the SS were using the end of the war as an excuse to carry out brutal reprisals against any town that looked crosswise at them, even in Germany itself. Gangl saw it as his duty to protect the German people from the SS. The young Krobot was lucky it was Gangl he ran into, and not someone else.
Krobot told Gangl of the prisoners still at Castle Itter, and Gangl immediately realized that the SS were on their way to kill them. It’s not hard to imagine the terrible atrocities he had seen, and the guilt he felt for Germany’s role in the war; his aid to the resistance and his hostility to the SS speak for his true sympathies. Perhaps he felt that after so many horrid acts committed by the men wearing his uniform, he had to prove that Germans were still capable of bringing something good out of this war. He needed help. Gangl sent Krobot to the southwest, since he knew that the American 103rd Infantry Division was moving that way, to call for assistance. Then he piled what was left of his Wehrmacht unit – about twenty men – into a truck. He hopped in his German Kubelwagen car and raced off to the east to look for Americans.
Lieutenant Lee, trying to figure out his next move, had to have raised his eyebrows when a German officer leading a truck full of troops sped up in front of his tank waving a white flag. Gangl told him that a bunch of French VIPs were isolated in Castle Itter, and the SS were on their way to kill them. Without a second thought, Lee threw together a task force from the American units around him. He took two tanks, his own and Sergeant William Elliott’s
“Boche Buster,” as well as six soldiers from the all-African American 17th Armored Infantry Battalion. This little convoy – two American tanks, a truck full of German soldiers, Lee and Gangl riding in the Kubelwagen together, and six black infantrymen hanging onto the sides of the Shermans – blasted off for Castle Itter.
It was a race. They had to cross a narrow bridge, only to discover that the SS had wired it to blow behind them; it looked like the SS were already on their way to Castle Itter. Gangl led his Wehrmacht troops to disable the bombs, then Lee left Elliott and “Boche Buster” to guard the bridge with some dismounted infantry.
Roaring around the dirt roads, “Besotten Jenny” leading the way, the Americans and Germans blasted their way through a bunch of SS troops trying to set up a roadblock. The black infantrymen riding on the tank’s rear deck, along with the German troops riding in the truck, drove off the Nazis, and they were through. As night began to fall, Lee and Gangl rolled up to Castle Itter.
The French were unimpressed. One tank, seven unwashed Americans, and – Lord help us – a bunch of Germans? But that was what they had. As Gangl made nice with the French, Lee planned his defense. The SS were coming, and would be there by dawn. They didn’t have enough vehicles to move all the soldiers and the prisoners, so they would have to hold out until help arrived. This was the Alamo.
Lee set “Jenny” up in front of the castle’s main gate so it could command the road and began positioning the few troops he had. Corporal Szymcyk began measuring out the ranges and preparing his ammunition for a planned defense, and Gangl and his German troops began setting up their machine guns. Lee, Gangl, and the French notables discussed their defenses and shared a toast over supper. For the French, knowing their lives were in the hands of a crude American and a German officer probably cost them their appetite. It must have been an odd evening.
It wasn’t a peaceful one. At 11 pm, the SS opened fire on the castle with rifles and machine guns. They were coming to kill the French VIPS – and now that included Lee’s Americans and Gangl’s Wehrmacht troops. The shooting remained relatively sporadic and minor until dawn…when everyone knew the attack would begin.
At first light, the SS, 200 strong, opened their attack thunderously with artillery and machine guns. As bullets spattered the side of the castle, the Americans and Germans – all 30 of them - returned fire as best they could. Soon the SS positioned multiple 88mm antitank guns to batter the castle – and turn their fire on Jenny. The lone tank guarding the gate spat her machine guns at every target Szymcyk could see, but she was a big target. As he fired and reloaded the main gun, he ordered the rest of the crew to evacuate. Soon an 88mm shell slammed into the Sherman, and Szymcyk barely escaped as Jenny exploded in a blast.
The SS swarmed from the tree line, sprinting towards the castle’s main gate. As it looked like the Americans and Germans were about to be overwhelmed, the French prisoners emerged with their guns and began taking potshots as well. The Battle of Castle Itter was in its full fury. Black American soldiers and soldiers that had sworn loyalty to Hitler stood shoulder to shoulder, firing away; former French Army Chief of Staff Weygand helped Lee man a .30 caliber machine gun they had mounted on the walls; and chaos was everywhere.
Major Gangl was racing along the walls to bring ammunition to his men when he saw former Prime Minister Reynaud taking potshots at the SS over the parapet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an SS man raise his rifle on the bridge below. Gangl sprinted, shoving the Frenchman out of the way, but as he did so he took the bullet to the head. Gangl died immediately. Perhaps he got the redemption he sought after all.
As the SS assault thickened, a telephone rang on the wall next to Lee. Confused, he picked it up, only to hear an American voice on the other end saying that he was in the town at the bottom of the hill. Lee tried to give him directions to the castle, but a machine gun bullet cut the line in mid-conversation. The French tennis star Jean Borotra offered to run past the SS forces and guide in the rescue mission, and Lee agreed. Borotra slipped out of the castle’s back entrance, raced past the SS men in the woods, and sprinted down to the village, where he could see American tanks on the road in the distance.
The SS were beginning to overwhelm the defenders of Castle Itter. Lee asked Weygand and Gamelin, both French four-star generals, what he should do. They told him to keep fighting – they wished they had. Lee began pulling his troops off the walls and into the keep, even as the SS scented blood and rushed forward. The Nazis began rolling up one of their cannon to fire directly at the doors of the castle – the final defense for Itter’s defenders. Then a shout went out from the SS – “Amerikanische panzer!” (“American tanks!”)
Lee and his men, German, French, and American, black and white, cheered as the SS faded into the woods and “Boche Buster” rolled up at the head of a long column of tanks and trucks. The day was saved. Lee walked out of the castle, covered in dust, soot, and sweat, and spotted Sergeant Elliot. “What kept you?” he said, and both dissolved into laughter. They would not, after all, be the last casualties of the war.
Lee was recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross and promotion to Captain for his role at Castle Itter. In 1973, when asked by a reporter how he felt about it, he mildly remarked “Well, it was just the damnedest thing.” No American suffered more than a slight wound at Castle Itter. The French all survived as well, and went on to be prominent in reshaping postwar France.
Major Josef Gangl was the only defender to die in the Battle of Castle Itter, saving a Frenchman his countrymen were trying to execute. He is honored as an Austrian national hero to this day; there is a street named for him as well as a monument with his name in the nearby town. Who knows if he had ever dreamed he would die fighting alongside Americans – especially black Americans – to save Frenchmen and make a small step to redeeming the honor of his nation.
We are who we choose to be.