The dying days of World War II brought one of its strangest events. An Austrian castle, SS troopers, renegade Wehrmacht soldiers, the US Army, and the castle’s prisoners ensured the war ended on a singular note. On May 5, 1945, two weeks after Hitler’s suicide and mere days before the formal surrender on May 8, Allied and German troops fought side-by-side against the SS.
Castle Itter had held high-value prisoners for some time. Former French Prime Ministers Paul Reynaud and Edouard Daladier; Generals Maxime Weygand (Commander-in-Chief of the French Army in 1940) and Maurice Gamelin; trade union leader Leon Jouhaux; pre-war tennis pro and resister Jean Borotra; and French Resistance fighter Francois de la Rocque all languished within its walls. So too did Charles de Gaulle’s sister, Marie-Agnes Cailliau. They were heavily guarded by troops from the SS “Death’s Head” Unit, the Totenkopfverbände feared and hated throughout Europe for their brutality.
Ordinary prisoners—not including those the guards called Prominenten—performed menial tasks and manual labour. One prisoner, Croatian resister Zvonimir Cuckovic, set the events of the battle in motion on May 2. While pretending to go on an errand for the castle’s Kommandant, SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Sebastian Wimmer, Cukovic instead searched for the nearest Allied troops, carrying with him a letter. Written in English, the letter pled for immediate help. The prisoners feared the SS would kill them before fleeing the advancing Allies. They needed rescue, fast.
Outside Innsbruck, Cuckovic found Americans from the 103rd Infantry Division. The 103rd immediately sent a rescue force, which was slowed by severe resistance near Jembach. Realizing Cuckovic had disappeared and guessing why, Wimmer’s SS troops abandoned the castle. The prisoners took over, arming themselves with abandoned weapons. Despite their weapons, the former prisoners lacked the numbers to defend themselves against a determined attack.
Not knowing whether Cuckovic had succeeded or failed in his mission, Czech prisoner Andreas Krobot volunteered to visit Worgl, the nearest town, by bicycle on May 3. Cuckovic had avoided Worgl, as he knew there were Wehrmacht troops there. Krobot decided to take the risk.
Worgl was home to a small Wehrmacht detachment, commanded by Major Josef Gangl. Gangl had sided with Austrian anti-Nazis and was sympathetic to the prisoners but had his own problems. Wandering SS troops had entered Worgl and Gangl knew they’d kill anyone they thought a defeatist, saboteur or deserter. He also knew other American troops were nearby.
Gangl decided to appeal to the Americans personally, sneaking out of Worgl to do it. Under a white flag he approached the U.S. 12th Armored Division. The 12th then dispatched a small unit to Castle Itter under the command of Captain John Lee, accompanied by Gangl and a dozen of his men. The castle’s defenders were pleased to see Lee and Gangl arrive. Considering their situation, the prisoners were very disappointed that their saving force consisted of only around 30 U.S. Army and Wehrmacht troops and a single Sherman tank. The prisoners were told to keep out of the fighting. They refused, certain that their help would be needed.
While U.S. troops summoned by Cuckovic began to head for the castle, so did around 200 men from the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. Roving bands of German troops were scattered all over Germany. Unfortunately for Castle Itter’s residents, some of those bands chose the castle for a last stand. The castle’s occupants, meanwhile, planned a stand of their own.
One of the former SS guards, Hauptsturmfuhrer Kurt-Siegried Schrader, hadn’t fled—he’d defected. The former prisoners asked him to help organize the castle’s defense. By the night of May 4, Castle Itter was under fire from SS troops determined to take the castle. That meant killing everyone there, and the defenders knew it.
Still unaware that help was coming, Borotka made a highly dangerous move early on May 5. He managed to sneak out of the castle, avoiding the SS troops surrounding it. Finding U.S. troops from the 142nd Infantry Division nearby, he asked them to repair to the castle with all possible speed.
The defenders, Borotka told them, were severely outnumbered, out-gunned and low on ammunition. The 142nd responded immediately, dispatching both troops and tanks. Borotka, despite having been told to stay out of the fighting, simply borrowed a uniform and rifle and went with them. He was determined to see Castle Itter relieved and his fellow prisoners saved.
The castle was now held by a mixed bag of former prisoners, an SS defector, a couple of Austrian anti-Nazis, Gangl’s men and Lee’s handful of Americans. Lee’s Sherman tank had been destroyed by an 88mm anti-tank gun. They were surrounded by around 200 battle-hardened, fanatical SS troopers while the 142nd Infantry’s relief force was still some way off. The race was on.
Would the SS overrun the castle before the US troops arrived? Would the U.S. Army manage to arrive in time, before the prisoners ran out of ammunition? One thing was certain. If Castle Itter was taken, there would be no surrender and no prisoners. Anyone surviving a successful SS assault would be summarily killed.
By the afternoon of May 5, things were looking bleak for the defenders. They’d suffered only a handful of casualties and inflicted dozens on the SS, but had almost run out of ammunition doing it. Knowing the consequences of failure, they could only fight on hoping more Allied troops would relieve them in time. If not, they were all dead.
Thankfully, it was the SS who fled. The 142nd’s relief force arrived at around 4:00 P.M. on May 5, turning the tide for the Castle Itter forces. The SS troops were now the ones outgunned, outnumbered and without chance of resupply, reinforcement or rescue. Their only option was retreat, and retreat they did. American troops entered the castle shortly afterward. The battle of Castle Itter was over.
Sadly, Major Gangl didn’t live to see it. He was killed in one of the last, and strangest, battle of World War II.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons