he Second World War is mostly known for its fighting between the Axis made up of Germany, Italy, and Japan and their respective puppets against the Allies made up of America, Great Britain, The Soviet Union, and France. The fighting between the two sides was fierce and happened across multiple locations across the entire world, from the Pacific to the Low Lands of Europe and the Eurasian steppes.
This fierce fighting between the two sides would make many people think that the Axis soldiers held a constant disdain for the Allied soldiers and vice-versa. Although true in most cases, not every soldier was influenced by the “enemy” propaganda. As such situations like the ones we will be discussing today arose, a battle where Germans and Americans fought side-by-side.
After the 1938 Anschluss of Austria, much of the country’s infrastructure came under the control of the Third Reich. One such piece of infrastructure was Itter Castle in the north Tirol region of Austria. This castle was taken over by the SS in 1943 under the order of Heinrich Himmler with the purpose of turning the castle into a prison for important German prisoners.
Over the course of the late stages of the Second World War, many important French prisoners were housed at Itter Castle, such as the former prime minister of France Édouard Daladier, Marie-Agnès Cailliau (Charles de Gaulle’s elder sister), and prominent French tennis player Jean Borotra all of whom were held hostage as leverage for the Third Reich. Two of the previously mentioned prisoners would have an impact on the upcoming Battle for Castle Itter.
These prisoners would be held at this “VIP prison” for the duration of the war. This would be the case until May 1945, when one resident of the castle, Zvonimir Čučković, a former Yugoslav communist resistance member, decided that he had to act.
In the search for help
Hearing news of the advancing American divisions, Zvonimir Čučković knew he had to contact them to free the members of the Itter Castle from the Germans. On 3 May, Čučković left the castle by telling the guards at the entrance that Sebastian Wimmer, the castle’s commander, had sent him out on official business.
This excuse worked thus, Čučković, armed with a letter written in English describing the prisoners’ situation, set off on a long journey to the front line.
After a 40-mile journey from the prison, Čučković stumbled upon a scouting party of the 409th Infantry Regiment of the American 103rd Infantry Division. Although the regiment itself couldn’t mount a rescue operation by themselves, they promised Čučković that they would come back and rescue the prisoners.
After Čučković’s mysterious disappearance and the unexplainable death of one of the leaders of the prison, most of the SS-Totenkopfverbände members (the SS division responsible for administering prisoner camps) left, leaving the castle under the control of the prisoners.
After the prisoners of Itter Castle heard nothing from the Yugoslav partisan, they decided that they must seek help themselves. A member of the prison population, Andreas Krobot, a cook, took one of the bicycles left behind by the SS and made his way to the town of Wörgl, the local home of the Austrian resistance.
On his arrival, Krobot was taken to Josef Gangl, the former commander turned freedom fighter after defying the Reich’s order to retreat. Gangl remained in Austria with the members of the Wehrmacht who also wished to fight for the Austrian resistance rather than for the losing Reich.
Once he was informed of the situation at Itter Castle, Gangl acted; he sent a message to a town north of Wörgl where he knew that a reconnaissance force of the American army had just arrived. His knowledge proved to be true as the message was received by Captain Lee the leader of a reconnaissance unit of the 23rd Tank Battalion. Once Captain Lee received the message, he immediately offered his service for the defense of the castle, a decision ratified by his higher-ups.
In preparation for the defense, Lee and Gangl surveyed the area around the castle and prepared to move in with reinforcements.
Unfortunately for the two leaders, a bridge leading to the castle proved to be way too unstable for all of their reinforcements to cross; thus, Lee had to send back all of his reinforcements except for 4 tanks that made their way to the castle with him, one tank which was left to guard the bridge, 14 American soldiers and a truck filled with 10 former German artillerymen.
Their journey towards the castle wouldn’t be uneventful as on the way to their destination, they encountered a SS patrol that was trying to set up a roadblock on the road leading to the castle. After swiftly defeating the stragglers, Lee made his way to the castle arriving in the evening with his reinforcements.
A Frenchman, an American, and a German
Once Lee arrived, the de facto leader of the defense at the castle, former SS officer Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, greeted them warmly, although he did signal much disappointment at the size of the force, expecting much more firepower to arrive. After introductions, Lee proceeded to prepare the defense. Firstly he blocked the entrance off with his Sherman, and secondly, he placed his troops in defensive positions around the castle to maximize their effectiveness.
The French prisoners were told by Lee to hide within the castle, but many disregarded the order and took up arms with the Germans and the Americans. As the morning of 5 May dawned, the advancing 150 Waffen-SS troops started their offensive on the castle. Fighting continued throughout the day, with the tank placed at the entrance of the castle by Lee providing covering fire until it was disabled by a German 88mm anti-tank gun.
Before the fighting, Lee sent a message to the main American force requesting backup, although the message was very vague in its working because communications were cut before the attack.
To get exact information about the position of the German, French tennis player Jean Borotra offered to run out of the castle to get the message to the advancing American troops. His endeavor proved successful, and by 4 pm, the American reinforcements arrived and relived the siege, easily winning the battle
The only casualty of the “siege” was Josef Gangl, who was shot by a sniper in the chest while trying to get the former French Prime Minister out of the firing line. There were only 4 other casualties on the defenders’ side, all of whom recovered after the attack.
The battle for Castle Itter would be one of two battles of the Second World War where Germans and Americans would fight side by side, showing us that some of the weirdest circumstances arise because of war. Even in such circumstances, people who we may perceive as enemies might actually want to cooperate with us. In this instance, Captain Lee could have easily refused to help the ‘evil’ Germans even though they were working towards a shared goal, but instead, he put his prejudices aside and fought side by side with the ‘enemy’.