Strange History: The Battle of Castle Itter

Christopher Wands

Near the War's End

The Allied powers of the Second World War achieved complete victory over Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. In April 1945, the Soviet Union began their attack on the German capital of Berlin while meeting up with their western allies on the River Elbe. With Berlin being taken care of, the Americans, British and French mopped up the last of German resistance, and strategic areas in the Ruhr and southern Germany. Though many German soldiers, tired and defeated, favored surrender to the western allies than fight on, there was intelligence that some Nazi fanatics may fight a resistance in the natural fortresses of the alpine mountains of southern Germany and western Austria. Though these fanatics had very little hope of achieving anything other than a suicidal last stand, it was not a chance the allies were willing to take. As fighting on the eastern side of the Rhine River intensified, the 6th U.S. Army Group was sent south into this alpine mountain region with dual objectives of securing the allied right flank and seeking out these fanatic Germans. Though they faced rather stiff resistance, the Allies cleared southern Germany and entered Austria at the end of April. In their path were several towns and a certain castle on a hill overlooking the Austrian town of Itter. Here, on the final days of the war, a battle will take place which saw the strangest of circumstances; German and American troops fighting on the same side.
Strange History: The Battle of Castle Itter
The Soviet flag flies over the captured German Reichstag, May 2, 1945

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Strange History: The Battle of Castle Itter
German and Austrian troops meeting after Anschluss

Prelude to Battle

The castle overlooking the town of Itter was first built by the Bavarians sometime in the 9th century. It was a fortress from about the 13th century and was rebuilt in 1532. The castle was renovated in the 1870s, becoming a hotel in the 20th century. Hitler had annexed Austria in 1938 in Anschluss, which was among the first major steps to create a Reich of ethnically German people and lands. During the early years of the Second World War, the German government rented the building and in 1943 converted it into an SS prison for personnel who may have potential value as hostages. Most of said prisoners were high ranking French government officials including two former premiers, generals, Tennis champion Jean-Roberta Borotra and even Charles de Gaulle’s sister. Though the facility was under the administration of the Dachau Concentration Camp, these prisoners were well treated. As the Nazis began losing the war, they started to fear for their lives. Then in May 1945 the castle’s commandant and camp guards abandoned the facility and the prisoners took over. It still wasn’t safe to leave because hostile Germans were nearby so they needed help. For this they contacted the advancing Americans. On May 3rd, the prisoners sent another prisoner, a Yugoslavian communist resistance member, out with a letter to the Americans. He soon encountered US troops in the town of Innsbruck under Major John T. Kramers and though the castle was out of his jurisdiction and near forty-five miles away, he organized a small rescue party. Meanwhile, the castle prisoners sent out a second messenger on May 4th, who reached the much closer town of Worgl left abandoned by German troops but reoccupied by the Waffen-SS. This messenger made contact with the local Austrian resistance, who were joined by a Wehrmacht unit commanded by Major Josef Gangl that defied orders and instead turned against Nazism. Gangl knew he could not help on his own, so he made contact with a US tank commander named Captain Jack C. Lee. The two men scouted out the castle together to see what could be done.
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The Battle of Castle Itter

Prior to the arrival of the rescue force, the French prisoners of the castle asked another Waffen-SS officer, Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader who had been at the castle recovering from wounds and too rejected Nazism, to take over defense of the castle. Both the German and American officers knew an attack by loyal Waffen-SS was imminent. As Lee arrived with Gangl, they were welcomed with open arms and took command of the castle on May 4th. They hurried defenses of the castle through the night. The US-German force defending the castle numbered only around twenty-five men and one of Lee’s Sherman tanks, which was positioned at the main entrance of the castle. Though he told the French prisoners to hide, they instead joined in the preparation and final defense of the castle with whatever small arms they could find. Loyal Waffen-SS troops commanded by Georg Bochmann occupied hills around the town and decided to attack the castle on the morning of May 5th. A force of around one-hundred and fifty SS assaulted the castle. The Sherman tank that was used to provide machine-gun fire support had been destroyed by a German 88mm field gun. The fighting lasted throughout the day, with the defenders holding strong. As their ammunition began to run low and they were in danger of losing the now damaged castle, American tanks that Major Kramers had dispatched finally arrived around 4PM and scattered the attacking SS. The defenders were victorious and some one-hundred of the enemy surrendered. Casualties were low for the combined force having four wounded and one killed; the one killed being Major Josef Gangl. Gangl was honored as a hero of the Austrian Resistance and even had a street in Worgl named after him. For his heroism, Jack C. Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The Battle of Castle Itter has been called one of the strangest battle of the Second World War. At a time when German troops were starting to realize Nazism was a fool’s ideology, they started surrendering in large numbers or even fighting their more fanatic countrymen. Germany unconditionally surrendered on May 7th. The events at Castle Itter could be considered the beginning of reconciliation between Germany and the western allies she had fought two world wars against.
Strange History: The Battle of Castle Itter
Major Josef Gangl
Strange History: The Battle of Castle Itter

Christopher Wands

I grew up in Ringwood, New Jersey and from a young age I was drawn to American history. I sought out my family history which led me to read and discover the history of our country. I took this passion to the State University of New York at Oswego, where I studied History and Political Science, earning my Bachelor's degree in May 2021. Post graduation I secured an internship at the American Battlefield Trust, working in their education department for a year. I am currently seeking a position in historic preservation.
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