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orld War II is full of heroic actions, epic battles and any other kind of anecdote. A few days ago I read an article about some of them and I will now report two before introducing the main topic of this story, which is the anecdote that astonished me the most.

  1. Did you know that Fanta was invented in Germany during Nazism? Actually, it didn’t have the current flavor, but the brand was the same. In 1940 USA issued a trade embargo against Nazi Germany and it affected the availability of Coca-Cola ingredients. So, Coca-Cola Deutschland created a new soft drink with ingredients available in Germany such as whey and apple pomace. The soft drink’s name “Fanta” comes from the fact that the producer’s team was asked to use its imagination (“Fantasie”, in German). In wartime German citizens used to buy Fanta not just to drink it, but also to add sweetness to their dishes as sugar was rationed at the time. In 1943 alone, 3 million cases of Fanta were sold.
  2. Did you know who was the first death caused by the German bombing of England? Actually, it wasn’t a man, nor a woman, but a rabbit. In Summer 1940 the Battle of England started, but the first time Nazis dropped a bomb they caused only a victim and it was a rabbit, at least as a witness reported.
Itter Castle in 1979 (Source: Steve J. Morgan, Wikimedia Commons)

When US and Germans Fought Side-by-side

Now, let’s turn to the main topic of this story. This anecdote is about a battle, perhaps the strangest battle in World War II. I’m talking about the battle for Itter Castle, fought in Austria on May 5, 1945. The strangeness of this battle doesn’t come from its setting (a wonderful castle built in 1878), but it comes from the fact that in that battle Americans and Germans fought side-by-side against Nazi SS.

Background

Itter Castle had been seized from its owner, Franz Grüner, by SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl under the orders of Heinrich Himmler on February 7, 1943. Himmler’s intention was to transform the castle into a prison for high-profile French prisoners. The castle’s transformation into a prison was completed by the end of April 1943 and the facility was placed under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp. Together with high-profile French prisoners, in the castle, there were also some Eastern European prisoners detached from Dachau, who were used for maintenance works. In 1945, when the battle took place, among the prisoners there were the tennis player Jean Borotra and the former Prime Minister Édouard Daladier.

Towards the Battle of Itter Castle

On May 2, 1945, Eduard Weiter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, died under mysterious circumstances. Some argued that he committed suicide, but there is no certainty about this. Sebastian Wimmer, the commander of the castle, escaped two days later, as he knew that the Allies would have arrived sooner or later. Members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, the paramilitary organization responsible for administering concentration and extermination camps, abandoned their post as well. As a consequence, the prisoners managed to take the castle’s control.

Jean Borotra, tennis player imprisoned in Itter Castle (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few days before Wimmer’s escape, Zvonimir Čučković, an imprisoned Yugoslav Partisan, succeeded in leaving the castle in order to reach the Allies and ask for their help. He found the 409th Infantry Regiment of the American 103rd Infantry Division (VI Corps) near the city of Innsbruck and informed them about the prisoners. The Americans promised him an answer by the following morning. In the meantime, in the castle, the prisoners didn’t know what was happening outside, as Čučković failed to inform them quickly. So, the prisoners accepted the offer of the castle’s Czech cook, Andreas Krobot, to go to the town of Wörgl in order to find helpers there. The town had been previously freed by the Austrian Resistance Movement and now it was under Major Josef Gangl, the commander of a small unit of Wehrmacht German soldiers who had decided to side with the Austrian Partisans. Gangl accepted to help the prisoners, but he wanted to inform the Americans first.

Lieutenant John Lee, at the head of fourteen soldiers from the 142nd Infantry Regiment, volunteered to lead the rescue mission with the help of Gangl. Fourteen American soldiers, two Sherman tanks, one Volkswagen Kübelwagen and a truck with ten German soldiers on board reached the castle the night between the 4th and the 5th of May after having defeated a party of SS troops that had attempted to set up a roadblock.

The Battle of Itter Castle

Once in the castle, Lee knew that German soldiers were on their way, so he ordered the prisoners to stay inside and not to participate in the fight. Anyway, when the following morning a force of 100–150 Waffen SS launched their attack, the prisoners decided to fight. Gangl managed to get in touch with the Austrian Resistance in Itter and asked for relief forces. The relief force arrived around 16:00 and the SS were promptly defeated. The French prisoners were evacuated and they reached Paris on May 10.

For his service defending the castle, Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross, while Gangl died during the battle and he was honored as an Austrian national hero. This is remembered as the only battle where Americans and Germans fought side-by-side.

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