Tucked away in a forested hillside in Austria’s Tyrolean alps is a château called Itter with a long history and one remarkable footnote.
On May 5th, 1945 it became the site of one of the last battles of the war in Europe. With the total surrender of Germany only days away a small group elderly French politicians, newly liberated, found themselves mounting a desperate defence of their former prison against the remnants of Hitler’s fanatical Waffen SS. Assisting them was an American tank crew, a decorated German officer and a handful of his soldiers. It remains the only battle of WWII where allied and German forces fought side by side.
The valley that Itter overlooks – the Brixental – is a picturesque landscape of rivers and alpine meadows with forested hillsides overlooked by jagged mountains. But its postcard appearance conceals a history of violence. The Brixental is the start of a mountain pass that connects Bavaria to the top of the Italian peninsula and the importance of that route over the centuries has resulted in a landscape dotted with fortifications.
Some, like the nearby ‘festung’ (fortress) of Kufstein, have been preserved in their medieval form with tiered battlements, loopholes and towers. Others have been gradually converted into something more like english manor houses where the only sign of their previous role is a sturdier-then-average door or a lack of windows on the ground floor. Architecturally speaking Schloss Itter sits somewhere in-between. The late 1800s saw the medieval ruins converted into a boutique hotel but it retained the old walls and gatehouse that had made it somewhat formidable during the Hapsburg era.
It was this combination of security and amenity that made Itter an ideal site to house some of the Nazi regime’s high profile political prisoners. The border between Germany and Austria had been dissolved by the ‘Anschluss’ in 1938 and the castle was requisitioned by Nazi authorities soon after. Initially it served as the Austrian headquarters for the ‘German Alliance for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco’ but in 1943 it was earmarked for a more sinister purpose. Forced labourers were brought in to refit the castle as a prison and it became one of the satellite facilities to the sprawling concentration-camp at Dachau a few hours north.
Among the workers was a Croatian electrician and member of the Yugoslav communist resistance named Zvonimir Čučković. When the rest of the prisoners were sent back to Dachau he was kept on to help maintain the property.
Itter’s first offical inmates were an assortment of elder statesmen from the French republic. Among the first arrivals was former prime minister Édouard Daladier. A few days later Daladier’s rival and successor Paul Reynaud was also brought to Itter. They were joined by high profile businessman Michel Clemenceau and former tennis star Jean Borotra – ‘The Bounding Basque’ – who had won the US, Australian and French Open tournaments in his youth and been given a position within the Nazi-backed ‘Vichy’ government as the minister for sport. Borota’s refusal to collaborate fully with the German racial policies resulted him being stood down and he was arrested attempting to leave the country shortly afterwards.
Among the military commanders sent to Itter was Maurice Gamelin. He had been the commander in chief of the French armed forces when war broke out but Reynaud had removed him from his post just before the disastrous battle for Dunkirk. If that wasn’t enough bad blood for one small Austrian castle Gamelin was soon joined by the man who had succeeded him – General Maxime Weygand. Weygand had been put in command of the French forces at the 11th hour to salvage something from France’s military situation. Instead he had blamed Gamelin for the inevitable defeat and helped oust Reynaud from office so that an armistice could be drawn up.
In addition the head of France’s largest trade union Léon Jouhaux (and his wife who petitioned the German authorities to join him in captivity) was sent to Itter. As was François de La Rocque the head of France’s far right league the ‘Croix-de-Feu’ and the closest thing to an outright fascist that French politics would accomodate. There were also political hostages like Marie-Agnes Cailliau – the sister of exiled French commander Charles De Gaulle.
The average age of of the group was 65. The youngest, at 35, was Reyanud’s mistress Christiane Mabire who also volunteered to join him at Itter. The oldest, in his late 70s, was General Weygand who’s long career extended back to the first world war (by coincidence he had delivered the terms of the armistice that ended that conflict). For his role in the surrender of France in 1940 and his involvement in the Vichy government Weygand was reviled by many of his countrymen. At Itter Reynaud took it upon himself to be the spokesperson for those who felt betrayed. By all accounts the former PM refused to shake hands or even talk to Weygand – instead taking every opportunity, when the old general was in earshot, to refer to him as a traitor and collaborator.
Historian Stephen Harding’s account of the liberation of Schloss Itter ‘The Last Battle’ highlighted the deep divisions between the prisoners.
“They had segregated themselves by political persuasion, avoiding each other as much as possible within the castle’s confines…As Marie-Agnes Cailliau later noted, several of the ‘great men’ incarcerated at Schloss Itter did more than just snub each other during meals; each spent hours every day penning the memoirs he hoped would explain his own wartime actions in the best light while vilifying those of his rivals.”
But as well as throwing shade on his former adversaries Reynaud’s memoirs also recalled the thrill of listening to news reports as allied victories mounted and the prospect of victory grew.
“Every evening we used to listen in secret to the BBC. It was with great excitement that we learned of the collapse of Mussolini, of the triumphs in Italy, and with even more enthusiasm of the landings in Normandy, the liberation of Paris and the success of the allied armies.”
By April 1945 the Russian army was making its final assault on Berlin and while some SS units were preparing to make a final stand in the Tyrolean Alps near Hitler’s ‘Eagle Nest’ others were attempting to flee the inevitable war crimes tribunals that would follow Germany’s surrender. The Frenchmen at Itter witnessed a steady stream of high-ranking SS officers stopping at the castle to requisition fuel and supplies before heading into the mountains. The last of these visitors was the SS Lieutenant-Colonel Wilhelm Eduard Weiter who had been the commandant at Dachau.
Daladier described his appearance on May 2nd as ‘obese and apoplectic, with the face of a brute’ – he drunkenly bragged to Itter’s commander that he had ordered the death of two thousand prisoners before leaving the camp. Early the next morning Itter’s occupants awoke to the sound of two gunshots – Weiter had committed suicide. The priest in Itter village refused to inter the body in the parish cemetery so the SS soldiers hastily buried him in an unmarked grave just below the walls of the castle.
On May 3rd Čučković convinced Itter’s commander that he needed to run an errand into the village. Instead he took a bicycle and rode 70 kilometres to Innsbruck – talking his way through two German checkpoints. He arrived just as Austrian partisans took control of the city ahead of US forces.
Back at the castle the realisation that the Croat was probably summoning the US army prompted Itter’s commandant to make his getaway. The guards soon followed and the French prisoners suddenly found themselves in charge of the castle and the small weapons cache that had been left behind.
The Frenchmen observed that a few houses and farmsteads in the valley were flying white flags but there were still large numbers of German troops on the roads. The old men, cooperating for once, decided to try again to get a message to nearby US forces. Borotra volunteered to go but one of the ‘numbered’ prisoners, Andreas Krobot, insisted on taking his place.
He took a bicycle that had been left behind by one of the guards, made it to the town of Wörgl and took a chance trusting one of the locals who put him in touch with the leader of the district’s resistance organisation – a German Wehrmacht major named Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl. Realising the urgency of the situation Gangl took his staff car across the front line. By doing so he risked death not just at the hands of nervous allied troops but also from remnants of the SS – many of whom were still roaming the countryside executing ‘deserters’ and ‘defeatists’ days after Hitler’s death had been announced.
Somehow Gangl reached Kufstein without incident and found himself face to face with American Captain named Jack Lee. Harding describes Lee as a hard-fighting, cigar-chomping American tank commander cast from the same mould as General Patton. But he didn’t just look the part, Lee had well-earned reputation as a decisive officer and he proved it immediately by asking Gangl to drive him back across the German lines to personally verify the story, reconnoiter the castle and plan the rescue.
Gangl took Lee through Wörgl and up the steep road to castle Itter. Choice of transport notwithstanding the Frenchmen were relieved to discover that help was on its way though accounts suggest that Lee lacked some of the social graces that France’s elites expected from the rank-and-file. Daladier in particular took an instant disliking to the American who he described as ‘crude in both looks and manners’. Later he wrote that ‘If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies Europe is in for a hard time’.
Promising to return in force Gangl and Lee risked another trip back to Kufstein where Lee radioed for reinforcements. When none were forthcoming he appealed directly to the battalion commanders whose troops were mustering in the valley. His story of medieval castles and stranded French dignitaries made an impression. He was given a detachment of a half-dozen tanks and three squads of infantry.
Now with backup Lee and Gangl set out towards Wörgl. The plan was to continue on to Castle Itter but reports of large numbers of SS troops prompted Lee to leave most of the men and machinery in town to support the under-equipped Austrian resistance fighters.
Lee took his own tank, ‘Besotten Betty’, and a handful of American and German soldiers up the narrow road leading to Itter. After shooting their way through a roadblock that SS troops were hastily constructing they drove up to the gates of the castle. Harding recounts the shortlived joy that Lee’s arrival provoked:
“[the] rescue column drew all of Schloss Itter’s French VIPs out of the safety of the Great Hall, across the walled terrace, and down the steps tot he courtyard with smiles on their faces, cheers in their throats and bottles of wine in their hands. That initial enthusiasm quickly dimmed, however, when they realised the limited extent of the relief force. Lee’s assurances hours earlier that he would return with ‘the cavalry’ had conjured in their minds images of a column of armor supported by masses of heavily armed soldiers; what they got instead was a single, somewhat shopworn tank, seven Americans, and, to the former prisoners’ chagrin, more armed Germans. The French, to put it mildly, were decidedly unimpressed.”
At Itter the rescue force was joined by an SS officer who was sympathetic to the French prisoners. Hauptsturmführer Kurt Schrader had been spent several months billeted in Itter village while recovering from wounds sustained on the eastern front. During that time he had established a friendship of sorts with some of the French ‘guests’. Now he returned to warn Gangl and Lee that dozens of SS troops – his former comrades – were approaching Itter from the north, west and south bringing with them antitank guns and artillery.
Realising that they were probably cut off from the valley, Lee and Gangle deployed their troops and tried to position the tank so that it blocked the narrow bridge leading to the gatehouse. Once that was done they settled in to wait for reinforcements.
The SS troops attacked at 4am the next day. Machine guns from a parallel ridge to the east opened up on the castle and Lee’s crew responded in kind with the gun mounted on the top of Jenny. Soon Itter’s defenders were trading shots with figures in the hills around the Brixental. When Lee raced upstairs to take stock of the situation he passed one of his men who was firing almost straight down into the ravine. During the night some of the attackers had cut through the barbed wire and now there were SS troops attempting to reach the courtyard with ropes and grappling hooks.
The firefight let up at 6am but a few minutes later a burst of gunfire from the American soldiers on one side of the castle brought Lee running. One of the ‘tame krauts’ had used the lull in the fighting to lower himself on a rope from the courtyard to the base of the wall and escaped through the gap in the wire. The Americans had missed and Gangl’s Germans either hadn’t seen him or refused to fire on their countryman. Lee could only assume that their attackers now had a clear picture of his force and how they were armed.
From his vantage point at the top of the ‘keep’ Gangl watched more SS troops flood into the valley. Some began setting up artillery in a treeline less than a kilometre from the walls of Itter.
The battle kicked off again at 10am when a shot from the German’s 88mm gun blew a hole in the tower and showered the courtyard in debris. The second shot tore through the side of Besotten Jenny. The only man inside the tank made it out of the burning vehicle and back to the safety of the gatehouse before the fuel tank ignited.
Against Lee’s instructions the Frenchmen joined the battle. They began firing with enthusiasm, if not accuracy, from the parapet near the gatehouse. When Reynaud moved to a more exposed position both Lee and Gangl tried to reach the older man to bring him back behind cover but Gangl was struck by a sniper in the attempt. Having survived apocalyptic battles at Stalingrad, Normandy, and the Ardennes, Gangl become one of the last casualties of the war in Europe.
In spite of its sensational title Reynaud’s memoirs – ’In The Thick of the Fight’ – mostly dealt with the political contest over the defence of France. In the 680 page work only four pages are devoted to the events at Itter and even those are recounted with a certain degree of humility. One passage reads:
“We ran to the other side of the castle in order to defend the surrounding wall, although the ground fell away in a steep slope. A young Austrian patriot with a white and red brassard showed himself very active. The Wermacht lieutenant, [using his binoculars], pointed out targets against which to direct our fire. . .I regret that I cannot confirm that I killed one enemy”
While Reynaud covered the slopes to the south Borotra, Gamelin and De La Roque helped defend the gate alongside their American and German allies. Smoke from the burning hulk of Besotten Betty obscured the view to the east but the real danger was that the fire might set off the high explosive shells stored inside.
The only radio had gone up in flames with the tank but, just as the defenders were preparing to make their last stand, a telephone began to ring. On the other end of the line was Major John Kramers – the vanguard of the relief force that that Čučković had set in motion when he reached Innsbruck. Before Lee had a chance to give Kramer a full picture of the situation the line was suddenly cut off. Harding writes:
“While Kramer’s call to Schloss Itter from the Wörgl town hall had let the castle’s defenders know that help was on the way, it hadn’t improved their immediate situation. Their ammunition was perilously low, Gangl was dead and two of his Wermacht troops were seriously wounded, and though the Waffen-SS attackers hadn’t yet managed to breach the fortress’ walls, they were pressing their attack with what Jack Lee would later call ‘extreme vigour’.”
With the attackers closing in Borotra volunteered to make a run for Wörgl and act as guide for the relief force. He’d already made two unsuccessful escape attempts during his stint at Itter and was confident he knew enough about the surrounding countryside to get through the cordon that the SS had established. Lee reluctantly agreed to the plan and Borotra, 57 years old but still in exceptionally fit, slid several meters down the southern wall, sprinted across 40 meters of open ground and disappeared into the treeline.
In the hour that followed the SS forces mounted a last-ditch effort to storm the castle. Lee ordered his troops and the Frenchmen back to the keep. They were assigned positions by the windows and landings and prepared to fight for the castle room by room. Tense minutes passed and just as one of the SS troops was sighting the gatehouse with an anti-tank weapon Lee’s cavalry finally arrived. A reporter embedded with the relief force described the last moments of the battle:
“There were short bursts of fire. Machine guns, burp guns, ours, theirs. [But] the tanks reached [Itter] village. They let out a long roll of machine gun fire and presently a few dozen Jerries came piling out of the houses, hands up. In a few minutes, the Joes were through the town.”
True to form Lee greeted the first of his countrymen simply by asking ‘what took you?’. For their part the former prisoners were relieved to discover that Čučković, Krobot and Borotra were all alive and well but the drama of the previous days had done nothing to mend the rivalries between the old men. Before leaving Itter they gathered their writings and belongings and broke off into the same little groups they’d formed during their confinement.
Three days later the war in Europe officially ended. Most of the former prisoners, -including Daladier, Gamelin and Reynaud- were given a hero’s welcome. General De Gaulle made his personal aircraft available to bring them back to Paris. Weygand, Borotra and de La Roque, on the other hand, received a much more icy reception. They were taken into custody by the French army to be tried for their ‘collaborationist’ activities but the public appetite for revenge in post-war France waned as the trials dragged on. Weygand was eventually exonerated, Borotra’s charges were dropped and de La Roque died waiting for a resolution.
In Austria Sepp Gangle was posthumously declared a national hero for his role in the rescue and one of the main streets in Wörgl still bears his name.
Today Itter has once again passed into private hands and is enjoying a period of figurative and literal obscurity. The damage has been repaired, there’s no public monument to the battle and the forest has grown back to such an extent that Schloss Itter is now almost invisible from the road. A no-trespassing sign marks the spot where Lee’s tank blocked the ‘Schlossweg’ bridge.
Austria’s relationship to its wartime history turned out to be one of deep ambivalence. The early narrative of Austria as the ‘first victim of Hitlerite aggression’ rang hollow amid the presence of former Nazis in post-war Austrian politics. With the generation that experienced the war now almost gone it seems as if most Austrians would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.
But it also seems inevitable that the story of Itter will find its way onto the screen and back into the public consciousness at some stage. There are simply too many compelling ingredients for writers to ignore. There are the bitter recriminations between the French patriots, the loyalty of their wives and mistresses, the bravery of the Dachau prisoners who got the word out and the sheer audacity of Lee and the men that followed him up the mountain. Perhaps most remarkable of all was the assistance of Gangl and his Wermacht troops; after so many years of wastage and loss they turned down their first chance at safety to prevent one final, vindictive act of violence. For some of them at least it must have felt like a last chance at redemption.
Saved From Nazis at Castle Itter: Excerpt from the memoirs of Paul Reynaud in the Winnipeg Tribune, 11 Aug 1945.
Chapter XIX Goetterdaemmerung: Excerpt from ‘The Last Offensive’ by Charles B MacDonald
The Last Battle: Steven Harding’s account of the liberation of Schloss Itter.
Photographing the Unspeakable: A brief and haunting biography of photographer Eric Schwab who documented the survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau as well as the liberation of Schloss Itter.