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  • Amongst all the suffering and pandemonium of its final week, why does a single battle

  • in a small Austrian village stand out against the horror and heroism of World War II and

  • is remembered today as the strangest battle of the war?

  • The strangest battle of World War Two took place at Castle Itter in the Austrian Alps.

  • This castle is located in the idyllic Brixental Valley; its original grounds were used as

  • a fort since the 13th century.

  • However, the building that still stands today was constructed during the 1870s and utilized

  • as a private residence.

  • After Germany annexed Austria, the castle was leased by the Austrian government to the

  • Nazi government as a retreat for high-ranking German officials.

  • That all changed in February of 1943 when Heinrich Himmler himself wanted to acquire

  • more property to house high-ranking political prisoners he deemed valuable to the Nazi regime.

  • By March of 1943, the castle was officially annexed and taken under the administration

  • of the infamous Dachau concentration camp as one of its 197 satellite camps under the

  • command of SS Captain Sebastian Wimmer.

  • The castle was soon home to several dozen high-ranking French political prisoners.

  • Among them was the former president of France, Albert Lebrun, former prime ministers Édouard

  • Daladier and Paul Reynaud, generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin, and even tennis

  • star Jean Borotra.

  • How all these people ended up here was generally either their refusal to participate in the

  • Vichy government, such as the case of tennis star Borotra, or they had fallen out of favor

  • with the Germans as the war progressively turned against them.

  • Among these high-ranking French political prisoners were also a smattering Italian and

  • Yugoslav prisoners, to include a high-ranking communist partisan named Zoonimir Cuckovic,

  • also known as Andre, who will become very important later on in our story.

  • Life at the castle, though restrictive, was still quite posh compared to the existence

  • shared by those imprisoned at the main Dachau camp.

  • The "inmates," if they could be called that, were each given their own private rooms and

  • could enjoy the company of their wives and mistresses.

  • If they were bored, they could peruse the extensive library or exercise in the castle's

  • courtyard.

  • They also enjoyed fine meals in the castle's grand dining room though the prisoners often

  • self-segregated due to some of their vitriol hatred of each other due to their differing

  • politics back in France.

  • Despite this, their existence was relatively benign, with both the castle and the town

  • escaping the horrors of the war engulfing most of Europe.

  • They did not face harsh treatment here as their two-dozen strong SS guard contingent

  • were eager to wait out the rest of the war in peace, and though there were shortages

  • of some basics as the war progressed, the inmates lived in relative comfort and peace

  • until April of 1945.

  • As it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war, increasing throngs of SS

  • men with their wives and cronies began using the castle as a waypoint towards their final

  • escape in the Austrian Alps.

  • The prisoners became increasingly worried with each new guest as they faced the threat

  • of death from each SS officer that came by.

  • While they were never actually harmed, the threat was all too real.

  • After the death of the commandant of Dachau and the approach of the American army, Captain

  • Wimmer and his men fled the castle to avoid being captured, hoping to fade into obscurity

  • with the increasing throngs of German POWs being captured each day.

  • Once the Germans had abandoned the castle, the prisoners were left to fend for themselves.

  • Though they could have arguably waited out the rest of the war doing nothing, that was

  • not really an option given the roving remnants of the 17th Waffen SS-Panzer Grenadier Division,

  • who were actively fighting against Austrian partisans as well as shooting any Germans

  • they found surrendering.

  • Deciding that taking up arms was a better option, the inmates seized the few guns the

  • Germans had left, and Andre left to go get the help of the nearest American unit.

  • After leaving the castle, Andre ran into Austrian resistance fighters who had taken over the

  • town of Worgl.

  • After speaking with the fighters of their plight, they took him to their leader, a German

  • army officer named Major Josef Gangl.

  • Major Gangl had been a career army officer.

  • After enlisting in the German army in 1929, he rose through the ranks in the artillery,

  • eventually earning his commission and seeing extensive action on the Eastern front, where

  • he was awarded several awards for bravery.

  • After being promoted several times and teaching new officers at artillery school, he was given

  • command of a Nebelwerfer artillery regiment and sent to the Western front.

  • Here, he saw extensive action in Normandy, the Falaise Pocket, Battle of the Bulge, and

  • the defense of Germany.

  • After months of hard fighting, his unit had largely been destroyed, with the remaining

  • survivors converted into infantrymen and a battle group formed from other units.

  • However, Major Gangl knew the war was at its end, and he refused to see anyone else needlessly

  • suffer for the dreams of a dead despot.

  • Against orders from higher command, he refused to reinforce the town of Worgl against attack

  • and forbade his men from harming civilians who hung white flags from their homes.

  • In an act of further defiance against Nazi Germany, he and his men defected to local

  • partisans where they quickly made him a leader to organize a defense of the area from SS

  • attacks.

  • It was this man that Andre ran into and who quickly realized the gravity of the situation.

  • Major Gangl ordered Andre to continue to Innsbruck, where he knew American forces would be.

  • He then left in his staff car and headed towards the town of Kufstein, about thirteen miles

  • away, where he had gotten reports that an advanced patrol of Americans had just arrived.

  • Upon reaching the town, Gangl was quickly given an audience at the 23rd Tank Battalion's

  • command post.

  • After hearing his story and conversing with elements of the 103rd Infantry Division whom

  • Andre had been able to speak with as well, a grand relief force was established.

  • The command of the relief force was assigned to First Lieutenant Jack Lee.

  • Lieutenant Lee was a battle-hardened soldier who had been with the unit for several years,

  • including since its combat debut in Europe in October of 1944.

  • Known as a hard charger and a mini-Patton, he was the perfect officer to lead the relief

  • effort.

  • After personally inspecting the castle to see that it was true, he was given seven tanks

  • and several squads of infantry.

  • A separate column made up of four tank destroyers and a platoon of infantry from the 411th Infantry

  • Regiment from the 103rd Division were making their way from Innsbruck to also link up with

  • Lee.

  • Before leaving Kufstein, Lee further handpicked a squad of African-American riflemen from

  • the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion to ride on top of the tanks.

  • Once Lee assembled his force, the rag-tag unit of American tankers, African-American

  • infantrymen, and former Nazi artillerymen made their way towards the castle.

  • As they were making their approach to the castle, they encountered their first resistance

  • from the SS, beginning their preparations to retake the town.

  • A squad of SS-men were setting up a roadblock, and Lee's lead tank engaged them, sending

  • them fleeing into the woods.

  • However, before they actually entered the castle, Lee decided it was best to divide

  • up his force.

  • Because the Austrian resistance lacked armor and manpower, he gave them most of his infantry

  • and one of his tanks to defend the town of Worgl.

  • For the actual defense of the castle, Lee took just one squad of infantry, one tank,

  • and the German troops Gangl brought with him.

  • After the convoy breached the walls of the castle, the former prisoners were immediately

  • elated at seeing the Americans, but that elation quickly vanished when they saw just how small

  • the relief force was.

  • They were expecting a massive column of armored troops but instead got barely a squad along

  • with twenty of their former enemy.

  • Despite this, Lee began to set up a robust defense of the town, and his preparations

  • would soon pay off.

  • Early in the morning of May 5th, around 4 am, the SS began their attack.

  • Not wanting these valuable prisoners to fall into the hands of the allies and probably

  • incensed at their countrymen's treachery, in the words of Lieutenant Lee, they attacked

  • with great vigor.

  • The SS launched a small probing attack to test the defenses early in the morning, with

  • the main attack coming shortly after.

  • The Germans had used the cover of darkness to cut paths through the barbed wire surrounding

  • the castle.

  • They then rushed towards its walls like mad men but were met with withering fire from

  • the Americans and their newfound German allies.

  • After being repulsed, the Germans then opened fire on the castle and its lone tank with

  • a hidden 88mm gun.

  • The tank was knocked out, but luckily the man firing its machine gun escaped unharmed.

  • Seeing the tank knocked out, the Germans again pressed their attack home and began attempting

  • to scale the castle walls with grappling hooks and rope.

  • Seeing the desperate plight of their rescuers, some of the former French prisoners wanted

  • to take up arms to repel the SS.

  • As the fighting raged on, the defenders began to run dangerously low on ammunition.

  • Lee knew he must keep the SS away from the castle's interior where they would hold the

  • best vantage point.

  • In order to do this, he had to find and silence the 88 that was wreaking havoc on his positions

  • and pinning the defenders down.

  • Lee and Gangl clambered to the roof of the castle to find where the gun was firing from.

  • It was here that the vaunted Major Gangl, who had survived six years of war and countless

  • battles, was felled by a sniper's bullet.

  • Though saddened, the Americans, their German allies, and the French prisoners continued

  • fighting on.

  • As the battle wore on, the defenders were running incredibly low on ammunition.

  • At one point, Lee thought it would have been best to retreat towards the inner keep of

  • the castle and let the SS men pour in so they could pick them off easier.

  • They would also be able to use their bayonets if it came down to it.

  • Luckily for the defenders, that would not be the case.

  • Just as Lee was radioing back to his superiors again about the plight of his situation, he

  • began to hear the crackle of machine gunfire.

  • Looking outside, he could see the relief column from Innsbruck had finally made it and was

  • pouring fire into the German positions.

  • Not soon after, those Germans that had been firing at the castle began running out of

  • houses and trees with their hands up in surrender.

  • In the end, Major Gangl and several of his men were killed, protecting people they had

  • never met before from the wrath of war criminals hell-bent on exacting as much vengeance as

  • possible.

  • For his actions that day, Lieutenant Lee would be awarded the nation's second-highest award

  • for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

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Why US Teamed Up With The Germans in Strangest Battle of WWII

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    Summer posted on 2021/09/18
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