The Battle of Castle Itter

Enemies fighting side by side

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Castle Itter seen from the east. You can see the gatehouse and the front gate at the right, the keep in the center, and the walls overlooking the hillside on the left.
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The last battle of World War II in Europe also happened to be one of the strangest. A 19th century Austrian castle became the site where American troops, German Wehrmacht (Army) soldiers, political prisoners and an SS-officer fought side by side against a numerically superior, desperate and vengeful Waffen-SS unit in the last days of the war in Europe. This article is about the Battle of Castle Itter, fought 78 years ago, on May 5, 1945.
 
Castle Itter overlooks the village of the same name from atop a 2,185 ft (666 m) tall hill at the entrance of the Brixental valley in the Tyrolean Alps in Austria, near the German border. The current edifice was erected from 1879 onward, though earlier fortification had stood on the same site since at least 1241.
 
When Nazi Germany annexed Austria with the Anschluss in 1938, the German government leased the castle from its owner. It was first used as the administrative headquarters of a Nazi anti-smoking ad campaign, but it was seized by the SS in February 1943 and turned into a prison for French political prisoners. Notable inmates included Jean Borotra, a champion tennis player and former official in Vichy France; former prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynauld; former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; François de La Rocque, a French fascist politician who also collaborated with British Intelligence; trade union leader Léon Jouhaux; Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the elder sister of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle; and Michel Clemenceau, the son of World War I French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Some of the prisoners were allowed to bring family members or a secretary with them. The prison fell under the administrative authority of the Dachau concentration camp, and several Eastern European inmates were transported to the castle to act as servants and maintenance men.

One of Castle Itter’s more controversial inhabitants, François de La Rocque (Photo: National Library of France)
One of Castle Itter’s more controversial inhabitants, François de La Rocque
(Photo: National Library of France)

The prisoners often squabbled over political differences, but they were generally treated well and were granted access to the castle library and the courtyard. They also managed to hide a radio with which they could listen to the BBC and follow the course of the war. In early 1945, with the Nazi state crumbling around them, they grew afraid that the many Waffen-SS units roaming the countryside might kill them out of spite rather than let them be liberated. In fact, they knew that the castle’s commander, SS Captain Sebastian Wimmer, had orders to do exactly that should the Allies arrive in unstoppable force. Wimmer earned a reputation for cruelty and brutality in his earlier postings, but he promised the prisoners to keep them safe even against his orders.

One of the prisoners, General Maurice Gamelin. Gamelin’s command of French forces during World War II was disastrous, but he was a stalwart defender of republican values. (Photo: unknown photographer)
One of the prisoners, General Maurice Gamelin. Gamelin’s command of French forces during World War II was disastrous, but he was a stalwart defender of republican values.
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Many SS officers passed through the castle in late April while fleeing from advancing Allied forces. One of these men was Lieutenant Colonel Eduard Weiter, the former commander of Dachau. Weiter committed suicide on May 2 to avoid capture. The prisoners realized there was no guarantee that Wimmer would be around to protect them for long. They wrote a letter in English describing their plight and asking for help, and entrusted it to the care of Zvonimir Čučković, a Croatian handyman transferred from Dachau. Čučković left the castle on the morning of May 3 under the pretense of running an errand for Wimmer; this was a common occurrence, and the guards at the gate let him through.

Former Dachau commander Eduard Weiter, who committed suicide in the castle (Photo: National Archives)
Former Dachau commander Eduard Weiter, who committed suicide in the castle
(Photo: National Archives)
Čučković first went to the town of Wörgl some 5 miles (8 km) from the castle, but the place was still held by German forces. He moved on towards Innsbruck, 40 miles (64 km) away, reaching the city’s outskirts late in the evening, encountering soldiers from the U.S. 103rd Infantry Division. Upon receiving the letter, the officer in charge, Major John T. Kramers, organized a rescue mission that got underway at dawn on May 4. The advance was quickly stopped first by heavy German artillery fire, then by orders to retreat, since they were entering territory assigned to a different unit, the 36th Infantry Division. Despite his new orders, Kramers sent a small rescue force ahead.
John T. Kramers (Photo: U.S. Army)
John T. Kramers
(Photo: U.S. Army)

On the same day, the 4th, Wimmer and his men decided to abandon the castle. The prisoners were left without any protection, no matter how dubious, and had not heard back from Čučković. Afraid for their lives, they wrote a second letter, which Czech cook Andreas Krobot agreed to take with him while he left on a bicycle in a second attempt to find Allied troops. The Germans have left the town of Wörgl by this point, and Krobot managed to make contact with the local Austrian resistance. They in turn took him to Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl. Gangl was a veteran of the Eastern Front and of Normandy, who grew disillusioned with the Nazis. Once he was posted to Wögl with the last of his men, he contacted the local resistance and started supplying them with information and weapons. Gangl was sympathetic to the prisoners’ plight, but he only had 20 to 30 men still under his command and felt that any attempt to protect the castle would be suicidal. He did the only thing he could: he got in his Kübelwagen command car and set out in search of Americans who could help.

Gangl during his meeting with U.S. 1st Lieutenant John Lee (read on below) (Photo. U.S. Army)
Gangl during his meeting with U.S. 1st Lieutenant John Lee (read on below)
(Photo. U.S. Army)

Meanwhile, the prisoners at the castle recruited another ally. Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader was a Waffen-SS officer. He was recuperating from his wounds in the village of Itter just below the castle, and was a frequent visitor who befriended some of the inmates. His friends reached out to him, and he agreed to go up to the castle with his wife and two daughters.

Kurt Schrader (Photo: National Archives)
Kurt Schrader
(Photo: National Archives)
While this was happening, Gangl drove 8 miles (13 km) north-northeast to the town of Kufstein, right on the German-Austrian border, which had just been liberated by U.S. forces. There he met 1st Lieutenant John Lee of the U.S. 12th Armored Division, whose force of Sherman tanks (Read our earlier article – The M4 Sherman) was waiting for infantry to catch up and secure the town. Once the situation was explained to Lee, he contacted his superiors for orders, and was told to act as he saw fit. Lee, Gangl and Gangl’s driver got in the Kübelwagen and drove back to castle, where they had a brief meeting with the prisoners. There were far too many prisoners to fit in the single car they had, but Lee promised them he’d be back soon with more soldiers. He and his companions then drove back to Kufstein, where he got together a force of several tanks and a platoon of infantry, and set out for Itter once again. The road led across a rickety bridge. Four tanks, Gangl’s command car and a truckful of Gangl’s soldiers crossed, but the structure seemed to be on its last legs, and the rest of the force turned back.
John Lee (Photo: Robert D. Lee)
John Lee
(Photo: Robert D. Lee)
Once they got to Wörgl, the local Austrian resistance asked for help defending the town. Lee had two of his tanks stay behind, and moved on to Itter and the castle above it with the other two. One, Boche Buster, was left at a strategically located bridge to prevent Germans from crossing it. (It should be noted that some details of the battle are shrouded in uncertainty, and some sources claim this was actually the same bridge they had crossed earlier.) Thus it was only his own tank, Besotten Jenny, and a less than 20 American and German soldiers, who moved on to the castle. They’ve encountered a group of SS-soldiers setting up a roadblock on the way, but sent them fleeing with heavy machine gun fire. The rescue force now knew for a fact that rogue SS forces where present in the vicinity, but didn’t know in what numbers. Lee and Gangl finally arrived at Castle Itter at around nightfall on May 4.
Two Austrian resistance fighters armed with German weapons (Photo: unknown photographer)
Two Austrian resistance fighters armed with German weapons
(Photo: unknown photographer)
Lee told the inmates to hide in the cellar alongside Captain Schrader’s family. This suggestion was met with indignation, as some of the prisoners wanted to fight alongside their liberators using guns found in the castle’s abandoned armory. Lee convinced them to hide by pointing out that they would be needed to rebuild France after the war, and dying in the castle would not help their nation. Gangl’s soldiers were given black armbands so they could be distinguished from the attackers. Lee, his subordinate Lieutenant Harry Bassy, Gangl and Schrader took command of different sections of the castle walls and waited for nightfall.
An earlier photo of John Lee (right) with a fellow officer and Harry Basse (center), who participated in the battle (Photo: Robert D. Lee)
An earlier photo of John Lee (right) with a fellow officer and Harry Basse (center), who participated in the battle
(Photo: Robert D. Lee)
Machine guns barked up in the darkness, and Waffen-SS soldiers launched some probing attacks, trying to cut the barbed wire that was laid down in the ravine under the castle; these early attempts were beaten back easily. Sometime during these attacks, one of Gangl’s men abandoned his post at the gatehouse in the front – he either decided to switch sides and inform the SS about the castle’s defenses, or simply panicked and ran away.
 
At 8:30 a.m. on May 5, Lee climbed to the top of the castle’s keep and looked around with his binoculars in the morning light. It was only now that he realized the scope of the enemy attack: the Waffen-SS had about 100 to 150 men swarming in the woods around the castle. Even worse, they were setting up two 20 mm anti-aircraft guns and a powerful 88 mm flak gun further back. Major Gangl used the castle’s telephone to call the Austrian resistance in Wörgl for help. However, the resistance could only send two of Gangl’s men who have been left behind, and a teenage boy. These three managed to get to the castle and enter during a lull in the fighting.
Damage caused by the 88 mm flak gun to the castle’s keep (Photo: unknown photographer)
Damage caused by the 88 mm flak gun to the castle’s keep
(Photo: unknown photographer)
The 20 mm guns started raking the windows of the keep. One of the first two shots from the flak gun took out Besotten Jenny, turning her into a flaming wreck. Meanwhile, some of the prisoners disobeyed Lee’s request and came up to the courtyard to join the fight. Reynauld, Gamelin, Borotra, de la Rocque and Clemenceau all armed themselves and manned positions. Just as the main SS attack was gearing up, the telephone suddenly rang. It was Major Kramers, whose small rescue force just got to Wörgl. Kramers couldn’t reach Lee on the radio (Lee’s only radio was the one in Besotten Jenny and was destroyed), so he simply telephoned from the town hall. Lee briefly spoke with him, saying “They’re shelling the bejabers out of us. Listen, better get some doughs [GIs] here right away.” The line was suddenly cut before Lee could describe the disposition of the enemy force.
 
The castle’s defenders were running out of ammunition by the afternoon, and they knew that Kramers, who didn’t know where the SS forces were, might be walking into a trap. Jean Borotra, the former tennis champion, volunteered to cross the SS lines and bring information to Kramer. He put on French peasant’s clothes, descended the 15-foot castle wall and ran for the woods, sneaking past several groups of SS soldiers. On one occasion, he walked straight into two Germans manning a machine gun. He knew that acting scared or trying to run would give away the ruse, so he took refuge in audacity. Pretending to be a forager, he waved to the dumbstruck Germans, pretended to urinate next to a nearby tree, then walked on unmolested.
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Tennis champion Jean Borotra, “the jumping Basque”
(Photo: National Archives)
Meanwhile, the situation in the castle was getting dire as ammunition was about to run out completely. Lee planned to withdraw everyone into the castle’s keep and make a last stand, holding each staircase landing with bayonets and fists as long as they could. Then, just after 4 p.m., as a group of Waffen-SS soldiers were about to blow up the front gate with an anti-tank rocket, help finally arrived. Borotra successfully found Kramers’s force, and a war reporter who was a tennis fan immediately recognized him. The Frenchman filled Kramers in on the situation and asked for an American uniform so he could join the fight. Kramers’s force, bolstered by Boche Buster, the tank from Lee’s unit that they picked up at the bridge, and recon elements from the 142nd Infantry Regiment that happened to be nearby, rolled up the hill, scattering SS soldiers with heavy fire. The attackers fled into the forest, only for about 100 of them to be recaptured in the aftermath of the battle.
General Anthony McAuliffe (second from left) posing with (from left to right) Paul Reynaud, Marie-Renée-Joséphine Weygand, Maurice Gamelin, Édouard Daladier and Maxime Weygand at his headquarters in Innsbruck (Photo: U.S. Army)
General Anthony McAuliffe (second from left) posing with (from left to right) Paul Reynaud, Marie-Renée-Joséphine Weygand, Maurice Gamelin, Édouard Daladier and Maxime Weygand at his headquarters in Innsbruck
(Photo: U.S. Army)
The prisoners were safe, saved by an unlikely coalition of Americans and Germans. Some sources claim that several of the German defenders were killed, while others only name a single dead. That dead, however, was Major Gangl himself. During the battle, he saw Reynaud manning a machine gun with great enthusiasm but little tactical sense, in a very exposed area. Gangl was crossing the courtyard to get him to safety when a German sniper killed him. Gangl became an Austrian national hero, and a street in Wörgl was named after him. His men were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp but released soon after. 1st Lieutenant Lee was promoted to Captain and decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross. Kurt-Siegfried Schrader was arrested and imprisoned for his role in the SS, but was released two years later, partially due to his actions at Castle Itter.
A memorial in the Wörgl cemetery commemorating Josef “Sepp” Gangl as a war hero (Photo: BBC)
A memorial in the Wörgl cemetery commemorating Josef “Sepp” Gangl as a war hero
(Photo: BBC)

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Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall in London as they celebrate V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
On May 8, we will celebrate the 78th anniversary of V-E Day, standing for Victory in Europe Day, the date of the formal surrender of the German armed forces in World War II on May 8, 1945. On this occasion, you will get a discount of $500 on all our tours if you book and pay in full until May 8, 2023. In addition to the discount, this promotion includes also our available 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024. According to statistics, seats for the main D-Day anniversaries get sold out approximately a year before the event. So book your tour as soon as possible because the most popular ones will get fully booked very soon. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.
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