This surprising story is from the waning days of World War II in Europe. An old Austrian castle being used as a prison for French VIP prisoners becomes a battle ground when their American liberators and “tame” Wehrmacht regulars come under siege from SS fanatics.
Join me for brief look at an entertaining book about a most unlikely battle.
The whole idea of putting Edouard Daladier, Paul Reynaud, Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand (that’s the last two Premiers and last two top Generals of France prior to their conquest by Nazi Germany) in one place together sounds more like the set up for war-time “walks into a bar” joke. But these four men and several others including a top labor leader, a prominent French Fascist, Charles DeGaulle’s older sister and several discredited Vichy officials (plus an assortment of spouses and mistresses) were all held together at Castle Itter for the last two years of the war. The early parts of the book tell an interesting enough backstory of how the castle became a prison. And much space is devoted to the story how so many prominent men came to held here.
For anyone who has read anything about German POW or concentration camps this story is shockingly different. Apparently Nazi hierarchy felt these prisoners could have political or economic leverage for dealing with the allies. So this prison often seems more like a resort; inmates could go into town for church, medical appointments or hair salons. But this diverse group could never be friends. Even in a German prison the factions and hatred were ferocious. At least three inmates were writing memoirs that pointedly blamed all of France’s problems on their fellow inmates. This section of the book is so entertaining it’s almost easy to forget we’re reading about Germany’s Gotterdammerung.
The more dramatic parts of the story come as that German collapse nears its conclusion. It gets complicated to keep the sides straight. I’ll try to organize this with a brief rundown of the cast. Sebastian Wimmer was the commandant of the prison. He commanded a group of SS-TV troops, that’s the camp guard division of the SS. By most counts he’s a thoroughly unpleasant individual who was known to terrorize his troops and prison “servants” (non-VIP or “numbered” prisoners). He is mostly well behaved towards the VIPs. But in early May of 1945, after the death of Hitler but before a formal surrender, he and all his guards skedaddle. As soon as they hear word of Allied (American) troops in the vicinity they abandon their posts. The prisoners are initially overjoyed, until they realize they are surrounded by an assortment of armed groups of varying loyalties and have limited means to defend themselves.
Kurt-Siegfried Shrader is a particularly interesting man. He served through the war as an officer in the Waffen-SS, that’s the SS’ field army. But in June of 1944 he was seriously injured in fighting around Normandy. He is German, but has already moved his wife and young daughters to rural Austria for safety. When he returns home to convalesce he makes friendships with several of the servants at the Castle. After Wimmer runs off Shrader moves himself and his family into the Castle and announces the prisoners are under his protection. His motives are likely complex, but as the war situation turned against Germany he has become anti-Nazi; and he no doubt sees an opportunity to redeem himself, or at least avoid a harsh war crimes prison sentence.
The next fascinating man is Josef “Sepp” Gangl. He was a career Wehrmacht officer (regular Army) and native German who has fought a long war. He was never “political”, but over the last year has become increasingly anti-Nazi. When he is assigned to the defense of Austria he sees an opportunity to make common cause with those Austrian members of the Wehrmacht who are ready to throw off their German oversight and proclaim Austrian national loyalties. It’s hard not to be a little cynical about this, 1.3 million Austrians served in the German armed forces and 240000 gave their lives. But here in the end, many are ready to make nice with the western Allies. Sepp Gangl Is assigned responsibility for the defense of the Austrian town of Worgl which is just a few miles from Castle Itter. Through means that are surely deserving of their own book, he manages to put together an Austrian resistance force (of Austrian Wehrmacht Troops) that seizes control of the town.
Meanwhile the Castle not quite prisoners are concerned for their safety. They have reason to believe SS units will want to remove all evidence of their existence. So a couple messengers are sent to make contact with the Americans.
One of them finds Captain John C. Lee, commander of Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division. Capt. Lee quickly discerns the importance, and peril, of the VIPs. So he personally leads a small scout force on a 20 mile charge to Castle Itter. But for a variety of reasons his force keeps getting smaller. When he makes contact with the Austrian resistance in Worgl he explains his mission to Sepp Gangl. The former (?) Wehrmacht officer puts together a squad and joins with the Americans to the relief of the Castle. After another diversion involving an unsafe bridge the now very small force of one American tank (Lee’s own Besotten Jenny), four mounted infantrymen and two German trucks with ten Wehrmacht soldiers finally makes it to Itter Castle.
And this leads to the “Last Battle” of the title. They truly arrive in the knick of time as SS troops are indeed preparing to storm the Castle and kill the former prisoners. Over a two day siege the small very mixed force holds off a relentless assault. Lee, Gangl and Shrader defend the still quarrelsome Frenchmen (and women). Gangl gives his life in that defense. Shrader earns his redemption and is released from prison in 1947. Lee receives a Distinguished Service Cross for his command of the defense.
This was a fun book. It is well written and a fast read at only 173 pages of text. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in such war stories. And bonus points for capturing such an obscure side bar to the whole spectacle.
For my regular readers I want to mention I should have a post up on my Bf109 on Monday or Tuesday.