File No.: 

Title: Location of the Strangest Battle of World War Two
Investigation made at: 
Municipality of Itter, district Kitzbühel & Municipality of Wörgl, district Kufstein, Tirol, Federal Republic of Austria
47°28'14.4"N 12°08'25.2"E
Period Covered:
  5MAY1945
Date: 
OCT2018
Case Classification: Location of Historic Events
Status of Case: Case Closed

(click to enlarge)

Now&Then comparison at the entrance of Itter Castle.
Now: Battle Detective taking the place of French General WEYGAND in the "Then"-photo taken after he and his wife have been liberated on 5MAY1945

 

REASON FOR INVESTIGATION
Near the end of WWII in Europe in 1945, one of the strangest battles took place in Austria where American and German soldiers actually fought alongside each another as allies. This battle is lesser known to the public but is featured in Stephen Harding’s 2013 book "The Last Battle". There are plans to make a movie about it in 2018.
 
SYNOPSIS:

ITTER CASTLE is a small castle on a hill in the small village of ITTER in TIROL, Austria. It was built in the 13th century. During WWII, it was used by the Nazis to keep prominent French prisoners. The castle was first commandeered by an SS officer in FEB1943 and was being used as part of a prison facility by APR1943. Significant prisoners over the next two years included former French prime ministers Paul REYNAUD and Edouard DALADIER and general Maurice GAMELIN, as well as French tennis star BOROTRA and Charles DE GAULLE's older sister.

The commander of the prison fled on 4MAY1945 and many of the SS guards left the castle soon afterwards. A German major, Josef GANGL, was commanding German anti-Nazi soldiers in the WÖRGL area in the closing days of the war.
On 3 MAY1945 one of the prisoners left the castle carrying a letter in English asking for Allied assistance which he was to give to the first American troops he encountered.
WÖRGL lay 8 kilometers (5 miles) down the mountains but was still occupied by Nazi troops. Late that evening, the prisoner reached the outskirts of INNSBRUCK and encountered an advance party of the 409th Infantry Regiment of the US 103rd Infantry Division and informed them of the castle's prisoners. They were unable to authorize a rescue on their own but promised an answer from their HQ by morning of 4MAY1945.

Tanks to the rescue

Later, 1LT John C. LEE of the 23rd Tank BN of the 12th Armored Division volunteered to lead the rescue of the French prisoners at ITTER CASTLE accompanied by Major GANGL and his German soldiers. The rescue party included 14 Americans, 10 anti-Nazi Germans, and two M4 Sherman tanks. After a personal reconnaissance of the castle with GANGL in his Kübelwagen, LEE left 2 of his Shermans behind but requisitioned 5 more with infantry support from the recently arrived 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. During the advance, LEE was forced to send the reinforcements back when a bridge proved too tenuous for the entire column to cross once, let alone twice. Leaving one of his Shermans behind to guard it, he went along accompanied only by 14 GI’s, GANGL, and a driver, and a truck carrying 10 former German artillerymen. 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the castle, they destroyed a unit of SS troops that had been attempting to set up a roadblock.

Battle of Itter Castle
Upon LEE's arrival at the castle, the prisoners greeted the relief force enthusiastically but were disappointed at its limited size. Lee placed the men under his command in defensive positions around the castle and positioned his tank named "BESOTTEN JENNY" at the main entrance.
LEE had ordered the French prisoners to hide, but they remained out of the castle’s buildings and fought alongside the GI’s and German regular army soldiers. Throughout the night, the defenders were harassed by a reconnaissance force sent to probe the fortress for weaknesses and the strength of its defense. On the morning of 5MAY1945, a force of 100–150 troops of the 17th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division launched their attack. Before the main assault began, GANGL was able to contact Alois MAYR, the Austrian resistance leader in WÖRGL, via telephone and requested reinforcements. Only 2 more German soldiers under his command and a teenage Austrian resistance fighter, Hans WALTL, could be spared, and quickly they drove to the castle. BESOTTEN JENNY provided machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by German fire from an 88 mm gun. The tank was manned only by a radioman repairing the tank's radio, who escaped unharmed.
Meanwhile, by early afternoon, the news of the defenders' predicament had finally reached the 142nd Infantry, and a relief force was deployed. Aware he had been unable to give the 142nd complete information on the enemy’s strength and disposition before communications had been cut, LEE accepted tennis star BOROTRA's offer to leap from the castle wall and run the gauntlet of SS check points and ambushes to deliver it. He succeeded, requested a uniform, and then joined the force as it hurried to reach the castle before its defenders fired their last rounds of ammunition. The battle ended with the SS men filtering back into the surrounding wooded hills en the French prisoners being freed.


The freed French statesmen gather around  Major General Anthony C. McAuliffe (in military uniform),
commanding officer of the US Army's 103rd Infantry Division.
McAuliffe was promoted to this rank after successfully leading the defense
of the encircled  Belgian city of  Bastogne  during the Battle of the Bulge.
On his uniform the General still wears his paratrooper jump wings,
but he has changed his "Screaming Eagle" patch of the
101st Airborne Division with the cactus patch of the 103rd.

CONCLUSION:
For his role in defending the castle, 1LT LEE received the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted to CPT.
MAJ Sepp GANGL was KIA by a sniper while trying to bring former French Prime Minister REYNAUD into safety and was honored as an Austrian national hero. A street in WÖRGL is named after him. The battle was fought 5 days after Adolf Hitler had committed suicide and only 2 days before the signing of the Third Reich's unconditional surrender. It was also the only battle where Americans and Germans fought alongside one another during the war.
On 21OCT2018 this agency visited the village of ITTER and its castle, the Sepp GANGL Straße in WÖRGL and the monument in his honor in the town’s cemetery.

EXHIBITS

(click to enlarge)
 

Itter castle today


In Itter, Schloßweg (Castle Road) leads to the front gate of the castle,
on May 5th 1945 guarded by "Besotten Jenny".
The castle is private property and access is 'Verboten!".

Wörgl


In Wörgl, Sepp Gangl-Straße is named after the Wehrmacht Major who
was killed  while defending Itter Castle against SS troops.
In the local cemetery is his grave which also lists the local
men and women who where killed during both World Wars.

 

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