By the beginning of May 1945, the war in Europe was coming to an end. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, and Berlin fell to the advancing Soviets on 2 May. Wehrmacht units were streaming west to surrender to the Western Allies lest they be captured by the Soviets, an almost inevitable death sentence. The only Wehrmacht units still fighting were those opposite the Soviets, and only so they could buy time for civilians to flee west. However, fanatical SS units still routinely fought the Allies and Soviets, and many SS units even engaged Wehrmacht who sought to surrender and civilians who refused to fight for the Fatherland. In the Austrian Tyrol, the remains of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division roamed the alpine countryside, detaining Wehrmacht soldiers, and shooting any civilians who displayed Austrian or white flags.
On 3 May, 1945, the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp system fled to the southernmost of his satellite camps, Schloss Itter. That “camp” was the castle (“schloss” in German) outside the Austrian town of Itter. Castle Itter was a VIP camp, where political hostages were held who were deemed important enough to save for future negotiations. In May 1945, Castle Itter held mostly French prisoners, including former Presidents Reynaud and Daladier, Generals Weygrand and Gamelin, along with French resistance leaders, influential civilians, and members of Free French leader Charles De Gaulle’s family. The prisoners, lounging in their “cells”, converted guest bedrooms in the castle, were startled when two shots reverberated among the thick castle walls. The Dachau commandant killed himself, first by trying to shoot himself in the heart, then when that didn’t work, in the head. After the commandant’s death the guards of Castle Itter saw no reason to stick around.
On the morning of 4 May, the Castle Itter commandant, Captain Wimmer, departed with his wife. He assured the French prisoners he would send help to protect them from the SS. Ironically, Wimmer enlisted the aid of SS Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, who was convalescing in Itter. Schrader regularly went to the castle to catch a ride to the military hospital in Wörgl, where he had his wounded leg checked out periodically. At first glance, Schrader was the typical blonde haired, blue eyed, goose stepping stormtrooper who stepped out of an SS recruiting poster, but his wound and the time spent in Itter brought disillusionment with National Socialist Germany. When he arrived at Castle Itter with his family, he was determined to protect the French prisoners, if only to buy him some gratitude from the Allies upon his inevitable capture.
Schrader found that the eclectic group of French prisoners had already armed themselves and taken control of the castle. In a rare moment of French humility, the proud and normally politiclly divided ex-prisoners realized they needed Schrader’s tactical expertise to survive the imminent arrival of the SS. Schrader noted the defenses, and recognized that they could not hope to repel even a small determined attack by themselves. Several of the prisoners were Eastern Europeans who did the menial tasks around the castle. Schrader dispatched the camp’s electrician, Zvonimir Čučković, a former Yugoslav resistance fighter, to find the nearest Wehrmacht or Allied unit to come to their aid. When Čučković failed to return several hours later, Schrader sent the camp’s cook, a Czech named Andreas Krobot to Wörgl.
Schrader assumed Čučković went to Wörgl which was supposedly still in the hands of the Wehrmacht but he didn’t. Čučković traveled in the opposite direction when he heard the Americans just captured Innsbruck. Čučković informed the 103rd US Infantry Division staff there of Castle Itter’s plight and the importance of its former prisoners. He then stayed with the Americans. The next morning the 103rd dispatched a rescue force. However, the commander eventually forced it to halt after the staff realized it was going to cross a boundary into the 36th Division’s zone, and the staff didn’t want to risk friendly fire. Though Čučković’s efforts were temporarily stymied, Krobot fortunately found troops willing to help Castle Itter in Wörgl.
Wörgl was still held by the Wehrmacht, but in cooperation with the Austrian resistance. Major Josef Gangl brokered a deal to protect the town from the SS while he waited to surrender to the nearby Americans. Kropot told Gangl of Castle Itter. Gangl knew of the SS situation in the area better than most, and knew he couldn’t spare enough troops to secure the castle without endangering Wörgl. But he also believed that securing the French prisoners with American help would go a long way with his soon to be captors. He loaded up a truck with a dozen former Wehrmacht artillerymen, jumped in his staff car, and set off toward the nearest American unit eight miles away in Kufstein.
While Gangl was gone, an understrength SS battalion retook Wörgl, and there they heard of the important French prisoners at Castle Itter.
At Kufstein, Gangl surrendered to the reconnaissance elements of the 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division led by 1st Lieutenant Jack Lee. Lee was surprised by the surrendering Germans. He’d been ordered to halt in Kufstein after a grueling weeks’ long advance and let the 36th Infantry Division take over. He was napping on the top of his Easy 8 Sherman tank, “The Besotten Jenny” while his unit and elements of the 36th were in the process of passing lines, when Gangl approached. When informed of Castle Itter’s situation, Lee gathered up an adhoc team and set off to Itter.
Lee could have hidden behind his orders and just passed the information up the chain of command for the 36th to take care of, but Lee wasn’t the type to pass a problem on. He left half his platoon in Kufstein with his commander to follow up later, and then sought volunteers from nearby units. It was going to be a tough sell, the war wasn’t over, but it would soon be, and no one wanted to be the last man killed before the Germans formally surrendered.
Lee convinced his friend, 1st Lt Harry Basse, the battalion motor officer, to come along with a recently repaired Sherman, the “Boche Buster” crewed by his warrants and mechanics. Nearby infantry from the African-American 17th Armored Infantry Battalion climbed up on the two tanks. When Lee’s tanks departed, they were followed by Gangl’s kuebelwagen and truckload of Germans. Five more Shermans from the 36th and supporting infantry 142nd Inf Regiment also wanted in on the action and pulled in behind Lee’s the little column.
Lee got to Wörgl to quickly find out that the SS had recaptured the town and had already departed, presumably to take Itter. He left the 36th’s men to hold the town, and took off with his two tanks, their riding infantry, and the Germans. Just outside Itter, they found the bridge to the town wired for demolition, which they removed. Lee left the Boche Buster under Tech Sergeant William Elliot to hold the bridge, and proceeded into the town towards the castle. Immediately in the town, Lee came into contact with SS setting up a roadblock. The column blew through with the bow machine gun firing and the troops on top and in the truck gunning down any SS they saw. Lee’s column tore ass through the town and sped to the castle (and probably powerslid into the courtyard).
The French were not impressed with the size of their rescuing force. They were expecting columns of tanks and halftracks as far as they eye could see. Reynaud was even less impressed with Lee, whom he called rude and overbearing, and thought if he was a typical example of American leadership, the post war world was going to be difficult. And then there was the issue of command. The French prisoners included numerous officers, including two full generals. Gangl was a major, and Schrader was a captain. Lee was having none of it and the surly New Yorker quickly took command shepherding the French VIPs into the cellar, and saw to the defense of the castle.
Lee had eight African American infantrymen, the crew of the Besotten Jenny, and Basse, who came up from the bridge. He also had ten younger Frenchmen fit to fight, a few Czech and Polish workers (including Krobet) a few Austrian resistance members, and 12 Germans – eleven Wehrmacht including Gangl, and a Waffen SS officer, Captain Schrader. It was as weird a fighting force as had ever assembled with former enemies and current friends fighting beside former prisoners and their overseers with a few odd civilians sprinkled in. Lee marshaled the men and assigned positions.
Castle itter’s gatehouse was the obvious point of attack. The approaches to the castle walls were steep, lined with barbed wire, and easily covered from the parapets. From these directions the prison was just as hard to get in as it was to get out. The Besotten Jenny was placed on the near side of the bridge in front of the gatehouse, and could pull into the gatehouse if need be. It was safer in the gateway, but that position would limit the Jenny’s field of fire to a narrow cone covering the bridge. From inside the gatehouse, the Besotten Jenny would not be able to cover the sally ports, which were also obvious points of attacks. The main defensive line was the gatehouse, since its thick walls would provide some cover from artillery and it provided the only way to cover the castle’s obvious weak point: the ravine abutting it. The defense established, Lee crawled into one of the castle’s guard dormitory beds to continue his nap.
At 4 am on 5 May, 1945, machine gun fire cracked through the darkness. The ripping sound of MG-42s mixed with the staccato of .30 cals, and rhythmic pounding of the the Jenny’s mighty .50 cal. The SS battalion’s reconnaissance unit went straight for the ravine, with MG-42’s providing a distraction. The .50 cal silenced the SS machine guns and the SS troopers attempting to cut through the concertina in the ravine were all killed. However, one of Gangl’s men deserted in the confusion. To him, throwing in his lot with SS was preferable to certain death if they took the castle. The deserter knew precisely how few defenders there were.
The main SS attack of about 150 came shortly thereafter. Lee’s troops broke up the initial attacks, but the SS managed to get the support of 88mm anti-tank gun later in the morning. No one could see the 88, and its rounds pounded the castle. Eventually, the 88 destroyed the Besotten Jenny, and the SS surged towards to gatehouse. Reynaud, Dadlier and other French elders picked up weapons and joined the motely force on the walls. Gangl desperately searched for the 88 from the castle’s tower, it was quickly making the gatehouse untenable.
Lee needed to find help, and fast. But the Besotten Jenny had his only radio. Schrader suggested calling someone on the castle’s telephone. Lee sprinted to the top of the tower and Gangl gave him the number to the gasthaus in Wörgl: the innkeeper, Alois Moyr, was the Austrian resistance leader.
Fortuneately the line wasn’t cut from all the fighting. Mayr couldn’t send much help; he sent two German soldiers and an Austrian teenage resistance fighter, but he could tell the Americans Lee left outside of town. He wasn’t sure who was in charge. It would take time.
By noon, the defenders and the SS were engaging each other through the castle’s loop holes. Gangl was killed in the tower by a sniper. Many of the defenders were wounded and they were nearly out of ammunition. The fanatical SS wouldn’t stop coming on. Lee devised a plan to fall back to the keep and force the SS to fight hand to hand in its corridors, stairwells, and rooms, just as its medieval architects designed them.
Then the phone rang.
It was Major John Kramer from the relief column dispatched from the 103rd Inf Division that Čučković got the day before. He was in Wörgl, albeit without his column. Kramer was so infuriated with his division staff and commander who forced him to halt because of the boundary issues that he left his column behind. Kramer spoke fluent German and had a French liaison officer, a war correspondent, and a photographer with him. They all jumped in Kramers jeep and took off toward Itter alone. Between them they figured they could figure something out along the way. They did.
Kramer arrived in Wörgl just as Mayr was telling the crews and infantry of the five Shermans about Castle Itter’s imminent fall. Kramer took command of the detachment and then also took command of the reconnaissance elements of 142nd Infantry who, at that moment, arrived after finally following up from Kufstein. Kramer called Lee and told him he was on his way but he needed to know more about the situation at the Castle Itter.
Before Lee could tell him, the line went dead.
Solid information or not, Kramer and his adhoc column took off. Just outside of Itter, they encountered the Boche Buster still guarding the bridge. Sgt Elliot, the warrants, and mechanics were having an argument about what to do: they could clearly hear the fighting, but a lone tank and the narrow streets of Itter doesn’t make for a good situation. Kramer’s arrival settled the matter.
With the Boche Buster in the van, Kramer’s column, which consisted of men from three different American divisions – the 36th, 103rd, and 12th Armored, drove into Itter.
The progress was slow. The SS had already been encountered in Itter, and the winding streets made the going difficult. The column actually got turned around in the town. Kramer’s frustration grew until French tennis star Jean Borota trotted up to the Boche Buster. Borota sprinted from Castle Itter through SS fire, avoided SS patrols, and jogged toward Wörgl to guide Kramer in. When Lee’s telephone connection with Kramer died, Borota offered to run to Wörgl with the necessary information on the SS and the surrounding terrain, so Kramer didn’t have to advance blind.
With Borota on the Boche Buster in the lead, Kramer’s column launched an attack from the march on the road up to the castle.
Just as the SS were about to destroy the keep’s gate with a panzerfaust, Boche Buster and the column was spotted charging up the road with all guns blazing. Elliot was hammering away with the .50cal, with Borota in an American uniform and the remaining African American soldiers firing away beside him. The main gun knocked the 88 in the distance, and the bow gun shot into the backs of the SS assaulting the castle. The Boche Buster lived up to its name and line of vehicles behind wasn’t stopping for anything. Kramer’s attack quickly broke the SS. The SS melted away to jubilations from the defenders in half a dozen different languages.
Eliot drove across the castle’s bridge and pulled up next to the destroyed Jenny. Lee emerged from the ruined gatehouse. He looked up at Eliot and said,
“What kept you?”