U.S. Army and German Wehrmacht Fight the Waffen-SS, The Battle for Itter Castle


Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria

Castle Itter History

After Germany annexed Austria in 1938 Heinrich Himmler ordered the Waffen-SS to confiscate the Itter Caste, or Schloss Itter in German. and use it as prison for French notables. The 19th-century castle lies on a hilltop almost 9 kilometers outside of the Austrian town of Wörgl. The castle was “leased” from its owner and SS-Obengruppenführer Oswald Pohl took over Itter Castle in late 1940 and transformed the castle into a prison for prominent French prisoners by April 1943. It was a subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich Germany.

Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria
Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria
Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria
Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria

Major characters

The Guards

SS-Obengruppenführer Oswald Pohl – SS Lieutenant General (convicted of crimes against humanity at the Nurnberg Trials).
Sebastian Wimmer – Itter Castle Prison Commander.
Eduard Weiter – SS Obersturmbahnfürher (Lieutenant Colonel) and Commander of the Dachau Concentration Camp.
Soldiers from the SS-Totenkopfverbandë.

The Prisoners

Jean Borotra – French former tennis champion.
Paul Reynaud – French former Prime minister.
Zvonimir Čučković, – Imprisoned Yugoslav communist resistance member and handyman.
Andreas Krobot – Czech Forced laborer Prison Cook.

Marie-Agnès de Gaulle – Sister of General Charles de Gaulle and resistance member.
General Maurice Gamelin – Commander during the Battle of France in May 1940.
And other French politicians, army officers and a union leader together with forced laborer’s from Eastern Europe send in from the Dachau Concentration Camp. The latter were used for maintenance in the castle and other choirs.

The Defenders

General Major Josef “Sepp” Gangl – Wehrmacht Officer awarded with the German Cross in Gold.
Veteran of Operation Barbarossa with Army Group South, Invasion of Normandy – barely escaped the Falaise gap, the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge), defense of Saarbrucken and fighting its way into Austria to help defend the Alpine fortress. But also helping the Austrian resistance in the last days of the war with weapons and information to prevent unnecessary deaths.

John Cary “Jack” Lee (Jr.) – Captain of the US Army (after the battle he received this rank) – Company B, 23rd tank battalion of the 12th Armored Division.
Hans Wattl – Austrian Resistance member.
René Lévesque – French Canadian reporter and Premier of Quebec after the War.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army, Soldiers from the Wehrmacht and Members from the Austrian Resistance.

The Attackers

Georg Bochmann’s – Oberführer, a senior Colonel rank. Commander of the Götz von Berlichingen Division.
100 to 150 soldiers of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division “Götz von Berlichingen”.

17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen – courtesy Wikipedia

Prelude

During the last days of World War Two chaos ruled, the US Army has entered Austria and is closing in on the Itter Castle region. On the 30th of April 1945 Adolf Hitler committed suicide. The Waffen-SS tries to keep a tight reign with an idealistic mindset while the German Reich is falling apart.

On the second of May 1945 Eduard Weiter dies under mysterious circumstances in Itter Castle, the Concentration Camp Commander had previously fled his post from the Dachau Concentration Camp. Prison commander Sebastian Wimmer feared for his own live and fled Itter Castle, the SS- Totenkopfverbandë Soldiers on guard duty followed soon after.

Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria
Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria

The third of May 1945. The Dachau Concentration Camp Commanders death was the trigger for action. The Itter Castle occupants feared for their lives as well with uncontrolled Waffen-SS units roaming in the neighborhood. Yugoslav Forced Laborer Zvonimir Čučković left the castle for an errand and carried a letter in English seeking assistance from the Allied forces. He had to get the message to the U.S. soldiers. The nearby town of Wörgl was under German soldiers control so he travelled to Innsbruck and 64 km further reached U.S. forces. The United States Army organized a rescue party but were stopped halfway due to heavy German artillery.

Unaware if the message received the United States Army units the Czech cook Andreas Krobot left Itter Castle and reached Wörgl on bicycle on the fourth of May. He spoke with members of the Austrian local resistance avoiding Waffen-SS soldiers. Through the resistance he met Major Josef Gangl and a few Wehrmacht soldiers who were the only Werhmacht unit left in town after refusing an order to leave Wörgl. They tried to stop Waffen-SS soldiers killing locals who put up a white flag or executing males who they saw as possible deserters.

Josef Gangl – courtsey Wikipedia

Josef Gangl reached Kufstein, 13 km north, and spoke to John Cary “Jack” Lee (Jr.). Lee did not hesitate and together with some tanks and men they drove to the caste. On the way back Lee ordered some men and tanks to defend tactical positions so when reaching the castle they had just a handful of men and one Sherman tank left.
They got a warm welcome from the French and East European prisoners but the small force was not really comforting with the idea in mind of an upcoming attack from Waffen-SS soldiers. Lee placed his only Sherman tank “Besotten Jenny” at the Castle entrance and positioned the men around the castle, he brought 14 American and Major Josef brought 11 Wehrmacht soldiers.

John Cary “Jack” Lee (Jr.) – courtsey findagrave-Stephen Harding

The Battle for Itter Castle

Hardly in position they were attacked by 100 to 150 Waffen-SS soldiers under Oberführer Georg Bochmann’s command. During the night the castle defense was tested by the SS soldiers. Major Josef Gangl phoned to the leader of the Wörgl resistance for aid, 2 extra Wehrmacht soldiers and one teenage resistance member, Hans Wattl, joined the defenders.

Oberführer Georg Bochmann – courtesy Wikipedia

The main attack started on the fifth of May 1945, three days before war’s end. The Sherman tank was put out of action by an 88 mm gun, taking the machine gun support out of action. No one was killed though, the only soldier in the tank left it unscathed. Instead of hiding the French prominent prisoners and the forced laborer’s took action and fought alongside the U.S. Army, the Wehrmacht and the Austrian resistance.

Tennis star Jean Borotra left the caste at his own suggestion, dodging Waffen-SS units and ambushes and reached Allied forces in the afternoon. He was recognized by the French Canadian reporter René Lévesque with the 142nd infantry regiment. Jean Borotra asked for an U.S. uniform and joined the relief force which reached Itter castle around 16:00. The Waffen-SS division 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was soon defeated and some 100 Waffen-SS Soldiers surrendered.

Jean Borotra in US uniform – courtesy lavanguardia

Aftermath

This “strange” battle is full of humanity. If asked for help all sides and nations reacted out immediately and help was given. The Wehrmacht supported the Austrian resistance and the resistance assisted the Wehrmacht, the French stood with their invaders, the Force Laborer’s fought next to their captors. It is the only documented battle were the U.S. Army fought alongside the German Army.

The French prisoners were evacuated to France the same evening, reaching Paris only 5 day later. On 8th May, three days after the Battle for Itter Castle Germany surrendered.
Four defenders got injured during the battle. Only one defender died, it was Wehrmacht General Major Josef “Sepp” Gangl. He was killed by a sniper during the battle while trying to move former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to a safe location.

A street in Wörgl is named after him and he is mentioned on the Wörgl Cemetery.

Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria
Castle Itter – Wörgl, Tyrol – Austria

Visit

Itter Castle is private property and not open to public.

Josef “Sepp” Gangl – courtesy stuttgarter-zeitung

 



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