Sometimes, war is simple. Sometimes, war is complicated. And sometimes, war is outright bizarre.
The latter is the only way to describe the Battle of Castle Itter, a skirmish at the tail end of World War II where U.S., French, and Nazi (yeah, those Nazis) fought side-by-side to liberate a German prison that housed a smorgasbord of VIP French prisoners.
Some of the more notable prisoners included: tennis champion Jean Borotra, former prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, French Resistance member François de La Rocque, Trade Union Leader Léon Jouhaux, and Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the older sister of Charles de Gaulle.
The prison was located in Castle Itter, a retrofitted 19th century stronghold nestled atop a wooded knoll in the village of Itter, at the entrance of the Brixetral Valley in western Austria. When the Republic of Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, the German government leased the property. Then, in February 1943, the seized the castle outright by SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl under the orders of Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, converting it to a prison and placed under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp.
On May 3, 1945, Zvonimir Čučković, a Yugoslavian handyman who worked at the prison, departed the castle under the guise of running an errand. Instead, he hand-carried a letter which he intended to give the first American forces he found. The letter was a plea for help to free the prisoners.
That evening, he came in contact with an advance party of soldiers from the 409th Infantry Regiment (103rd Infantry Division, U.S. VI Corps) outside the town of Innsbruck and delivered the letter. At dawn, on May 4th, the U.S. forces launched a rescue attempt, but were stopped short thanks to heavy enemy artillery and orders from their higher command that they were encroaching on a friendly force’s area of responsibility.
After the attempted rescue effort, Čučković’s failure to return to the castle, and Dachau’s commander, Eduard Weiter (a member of the SS who’d abandoned his post shortly before the concentration camp was liberated and made his way to Itter) died of mysterious causes, the prison’s leadership saw the writing on the wall and fled. The guards quickly followed.
The prisoners were now alone but couldn’t escape because, even though there were no Nazis in the castle, the surrounding town and woods were still occupied by the SS. The castle’s inhabitants also hadn’t heard the news of Čučković’s success finding Allied forces and sent the castle’s cook, Andreas Krobot, with a similar note to the town of Wörgl.
At mid-day on the 4th, Krobot found a group of Austrian resistance fighters who brought him to Major Josef Gangl, a German Wehrmacht officer who, along with a small contingent of about 20 soldiers, had defied orders to retreat and partnered with the local resistance fighters to protect the town’s citizens from the Schutzstaffel forces roaming the region.
Knowing he couldn’t protect the prisoners with his small group, Gangl traveled North to Kufstein where a reconnaissance tank unit from the 12th Armored Division (XXI Corps) was positioned. He brought with him a giant white flag to showcase his intent to surrender to the American forces. Once there, he informed the unit’s commander, Capt. Jack Lee, of the situation at Itter and asked for assistance, to which he immediately radioed his higher headquarters for permission to launch a rescue mission. They approved it.
After a reconnaissance mission of the Castle, Lee took two of his tanks (acquiring five more as well as infantry troops from the 143rd Infantry Regiment after they arrived in Wörgl), Gangl, and moved toward the castle, eliminating a group of SS forces along the way.
When Lee arrived at Itter, he positioned his men around the castle in a defensive position and ordered the prisoners to hide, but they refused, taking up positions alongside the Americans.
On the morning of May 5th, an enemy element of about 100-150 Schutztaffel soldiers launched their attack on the castle. The scrappy group of defenders held their ground but needed reinforcements. Lee knew he couldn’t get accurate information to any nearby allied forces, but Borotra, the tennis star, had a plan. He vaulted the castle walls and ran, avoiding SS strongpoints and ambushes until he found the 143rd and delivered Lee’s request for help (and requested an American military uniform to join the fight).
The 143rd arrived at Itter at 4 p.m. and, thanks to their superior size, promptly destroyed the German forces.
By the end of the skirmish, 100 SS soldiers were captured and out of all the prisoners and defenders, Gangl was the only casualty when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet trying to move former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to safety. Gangl would later be named a national hero of the Austrian people have have a street named after him in Wörgl.
Two days later, Germany unconditionally surrendered, ending the Second World War in Europe.