Battle for Castle Itter
The Battle for Castle Itter, the Austrian village of Itter in the North Tyrol, was fought in the final days of World War II in Europe, five days after the death of Adolf Hitler. Troops of the 23rd Tank Battalion of the US 12th Armored Division led by Lieutenant John C. "Jack" Lee, Jr., anti-Nazi German Army soldiers, and imprisoned French VIPs defended the castle against a small force from the 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The French prisoners included former prime ministers, generals, and a tennis star. It may have been the only battle in the war in which Americans and Germans fought as allies. Popular accounts of the battle have called it the "strangest" battle of World War II.
Itter Castle, Schloss Itter, is a small castle situated on a hill near the village of Itter in Austria. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the German government officially leased the castle in late 1940 from its owner, Franz Grüner.
The castle was seized from Grüner by SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl under the orders of Heinrich Himmler on February 7, 1943. The transformation of the castle into a prison camp was completed by April 25, 1943, and the facility was placed under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp.
The prison was built to contain high-profile prisoners valuable to the Reich. Notable prisoners included tennis star Jean Borotra, former prime minister Édouard Daladier, Charles de Gaulle's elder sister Marie-Agnès Cailliau, former commander-in-chief Maxime Weygand, former prime minister Paul Reynaud, former commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin, right-wing leader François de La Rocque, and trade union leader Léon Jouhaux. Besides the French VIP prisoners, the Castle held a number of Eastern European prisoners detached from Dachau, who were used for maintenance and other menial work.
The commander of the prison, Sebastian Wimmer, fled on May 4, 1945, after the suicide of Eduard Weiter, the last commander of Dachau. The SS-Totenkopfverbände guards departed the castle soon after. The prisoners took control of the castle and armed themselves with the weaponry that remained.
Zvonimir Čučković, a Yugoslav resistance member imprisoned in Itter, left the facility in search of Allied assistance two days prior to Wimmer's departure. Čučković encountered the American 103rd Infantry Division near Innsbruck and informed them of the castle's prisoners. Major Josef Gangl, commanding a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers, and who had collaborated with Austrian resistance in the closing days of the war, had intended to free the castle prisoners, but decided instead to surrender to the Americans.
A rescue of the Itter VIPs was planned. Lieutenant Lee volunteered to lead the rescue mission, and was accompanied by Gangl's soldiers. Lee's forces now consisted of fourteen American soldiers, two Sherman tanks, a Volkswagen Kübelwagen and a truck carrying ten German soldiers. En route, the small column defeated a party of SS troops that had been attempting to set up a roadblock, then left one of their Shermans behind to guard a bridge.
The French prisoners greeted the rescuing force when it arrived at the castle, but were disappointed at its small size. Lee placed the men under his command in defensive positions around the castle, and placed his Sherman tank, named "Besotten Jenny", at the main entrance.
A small force of Waffen-SS began their attack on the castle soon afterwards, on the morning of May 5. Before the main assault began, Gangl was able to phone Alois Mayr, the Austrian resistance leader in Itter and request reinforcements; two more German soldiers under his command as well as Austrian resistance member Hans Waltl quickly drove to the castle. The Sherman tank provided machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by German fire. Lee had ordered the French prisoners to hide, but they remained outside, and fought alongside the American and Wehrmacht soldiers. A relief force, the American 142nd Infantry Regiment, arrived and the SS were defeated.
For his service defending the castle, Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted to Captain.  Gangl died during the battle from a sniper's bullet, but was honored as an Austrian national hero and had a street in Wörgl named after him. Popular accounts of the battle have dubbed it the "strangest" battle of World War II. The battle was fought five days after Adolf Hitler had committed suicide. It was also the only battle where Americans and Germans fought as allies during the war.
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