A group of American soldiers, German soldiers, and French POWs all banded together to fight off an SS Panzer unit near the end of WWII. What’s more this battle was fought from behind the walls of an 800 year old stone castle.
There is a movie in the works about the event that is planned for release in 2018.
Here are the basic facts: on 5 May 1945—five days after Hitler’s suicide—three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated an Austrian castle called Schloss Itter in the Tyrol, a special prison that housed various French VIPs, including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others.
Yet when the units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division arrived to recapture the castle and execute the prisoners, Lee’s beleaguered and outnumbered men were joined by anti-Nazi German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as well as some of the extremely feisty wives and girlfriends of the French VIPs, and together they fought off some of the best crack troops of the Third Reich.
The battle for the fairytale, 13th century Castle Itter was the only time in WWII that American and German troops joined forces in combat, and it was also the only time in American history that U.S. troops defended a medieval castle against sustained attack by enemy forces. Two of the women imprisoned at Schloss Itter—Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labour leader Leon Jouhaux, and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand—were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire, were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women.
There are two primary heroes of this entirely factual story. Jack Lee was the quintessential warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative and, of course, a cigar-chewing, hard-drinking man who watched out for his troops and was willing to think way, way outside the box when the tactical situation demanded it, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to assault the castle. The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl, who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs.
“Just after 4am Jack Lee was jolted awake by the sudden banging of M1 Garands,” he writes of the SS’s initial assault on the castle, “the sharper crack of Kar-98s, and the mechanical chatter of a .30-caliber spitting out rounds in short, controlled bursts. Knowing instinctively that the rising crescendo of outgoing fire was coming from the gatehouse, Lee rolled off the bed, grabbed his helmet and M3, and ran from the room. As he reached the arched schlosshof gate leading from the terrace to the first courtyard, an MG-42 machine gun opened up from somewhere along the parallel ridgeway east of the castle, the weapon’s characteristic ripping sound clearly audible above the outgoing fire and its tracers looking like an unbroken red stream as they arched across the ravine and ricocheted off the castle’s lower walls.”
Despite their personal enmities and long-held political grudges, when it came to a fight the French VIPs finally put aside their political differences and picked up weapons to join in the fight against the attacking SS troops.
The battle is set in the wider strategic contexts of the Allied push into Germany and Austria in the final months of the war, and the Third Reich’s increasingly desperate preparations to respond to that advance. Some Germans are making their peace with the future, while others such as the Waffen-SS unit attacking the castle were fighting to the bitter end.
Whatever their political leanings or personal animosities toward each other, the French VIPs did what they could to help the so-called “number prisoners” faceless inmates from Dachau and other concentration camps in any way they could.
One prisoner was Michel Clemenceau, the son of the Great War statesman Georges Clemenceau, who had become an outspoken critic of Marshal Petain and who was arrested by the Gestapo in May 1943. At Castle Itter he showed “unshakeable confidence” in rescue, and had clearly inherited the courage of his father, who’d been nicknamed “The Tiger.” During the attack, with ammunition running dangerously low, they got down to the last magazines of their MP-40s—their tanks destroyed, and the enemy advancing from the north, west and east, this septuagenarian kept blasting away. His father would have been proud of him.
Just as the SS had settled into position to fire a panzerfaust at the front gate, “the sound of automatic weapons and tank guns behind them in the village signaled a radical change in the tactical situation.” Advancing American units and Austrian resistance fighters had arrived to relieve the castle. In keeping with the immense cool that he had shown throughout the siege, Lee feigned irritation as he went up to one of the rescuing tank commanders, looked him in the eye and said simply: “What kept you?”.
The castle in 1979