6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions

Stephanie Schoppert - February 13, 2017

The Battle for Schloss Itter was one of the very last offensives of World War II. It was May 5, 1945. Hitler had already committed suicide. There was no longer any hope for the Germans and it was clear that the war for Europe was over. But for Captain John C. “Jack” Lee Jr. and his tank battalion, there was one last mission. It was dangerous and the stakes were high, but 14 high-profile French prisoners were still being held at the medieval castle known as Schloss Itter. When Lee received news of the prisoners he did not hesitate to act. The battle for Schloss Itter would become one of the most unbelievable and remarkable battles of World War II.

The Germans Fought Side By Side with the Americans

The Battle for Schloss Itter was the only time during the war that Americans and Germans fought side by side. The prisoners at the castle sent out messages for help, one reached the Austrian resistance and in turn Major Josef Gangl. Gangl was a highly-decorated member of the Wehrmacht, but when the order came to retreat from Austria, Gangl and some of his men stayed behind.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
Captain Jack Lee answered the plea of Josef Gangl. BBC

They no longer supported the Nazi cause and they stayed behind to join the Austrian resistance and protect the people of Worgl, Austria. The town’s residents were often under attack by roving SS members, and so Gangl and the 20 men that remained loyal to him stayed to protect the town.

When he got word of the prisoners and their predicament, he knew that his small group of 20 men would not be enough to free and protect the prisoners. He decided that he would do whatever it took to get help and free the prisoners. He had hoped to wait in town until American forces reached them and to surrender, but the predicament of the prisoners meant he could not wait. Raising a white flag, he made his way toward the closet American forces he could find.

Gangl found Lee, who was leading a reconnaissance unit of 4 Sherman Tanks that were part of the 12th Armored Division. Captain Lee was waiting to be relieved by the 36th infantry division when he was approached by Gangl. Upon learning of the prisoners, Lee immediately volunteered and got approval from headquarters to help with the rescue. The two commanders then set out with 14 soldiers, one tank, a truck and driver, and 10 German artillery men. It was a small force to liberate a medieval castle prison, but the two men were willing to try.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
Schloss Itter. History of Sorts

The Prison Was Unguarded When the Allies Arrived

With the end of the war on the horizon, the guards at Schloss Itter saw little reason to remain at their post and wait for the Allies to show up. Sebastian Wimmer was the head guard of the prison, and he knew that it was highly dependent on who reached the prison first whether or not he would live. He abandoned his post and most of the other German guards in the castle followed suit.

The prisoners were then able to take over the castle and arm themselves, but they had nowhere to go. They were outnumbered by the SS that were wandering the forest and they did not know which way was safe for them to travel.

With the guards gone it seemed like a rescue would be an easy enough operation but even with the German forces completely disorganized, they had a substantial force mobilized around the castle. Getting to the castle was no easy feat, and escaping from the castle would be even less so. The prisoners had very little in terms of weapons that would offer up much defense against an SS battalion. The SS soldiers were also setting up road blocks to prevent the Allies from getting to the castle and to prevent the prisoners from escaping.

It would be found out that later that an SS troop had been dispatched to the castle with the purpose of executing all the prisoners that were held there. Time was of the essence for the Allies to come to the rescue. When Lee and Gangl finally arrived with their small group of men, the prisoners were relieved and yet saddened by the size of the force. Instead of hiding in the castle as was commanded by Lee and Gangl (they were not soldiers after all but women and dignitaries), the prisoners refused and instead fought side by side with their rescuers.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
General Weygand and his wife leaving Schloss Itter in May 1945. BBC

Three Women Were Prisoners Because They Refused to Leave Their Men

There were three women that were held prisoner at Schloss Itter. Christiane Mabire was the mistress of Paul Reynaud and was allowed to be imprisoned with him because she was his office assistant. They allowed her to bring a typewriter which she used to help Reynaud write his memoirs while imprisoned. She also helped him set up his quarters like a true library in order to make his time at the prison more enjoyable.

Augusta Bruchlen was the secretary and partner of Leon Jouhaux. Jouhaux was a labor leader and he had been imprisoned in different places from 1940 onward. But in May of 1943 he was transferred to Schloss Itter. Once there he requested permission for Augusta Bruchlen to join him. The permission was granted and she came to the prison to be by his side.

Bruchlen spoke fluent German and therefore worked as an intermediary between the commander of Itter and his wife. She also kept a diary that detailed her life at the castle and it coincides with the stories of many other prisoners held there.

Madame Weygand made a similar sacrifice in order to be with her husband, General Maxime Weygand. Undoubtedly Madame Weygand made the choice to stand by her husband because he was already quite old and surviving a prison camp was unlikely for a man over 70. But the older couple proved to be stronger together than they could ever be apart, and they both survived their time at Schloss Itter. Madame Weygand died in 1961 at the age of 85, and her husband followed her in 1965 at the age of 98.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
Schloss Itter Damaged from the Battle. BBC

The Prisoners Refused to Hide and Fought Alongside Their Rescuers

The political prisoners at Schloss Itter included Reynaud and Weygand, who were staunch enemies. Reynaud considered Weygand a traitor for being willing to work with the Germans and the Vichy government in France. The feud between rival political factions held at the prison was enough to cause plenty of tension and assigned seating at mealtimes. But no rivalry would stop the men from hoisting their guns and being willing to fight when it came time to save themselves, their rescuers and the women they loved.

When the Nazi troops advanced on the castle, both Lee and Gangl told the prisoners to take cover and hide from enemy fire. The men refused to do so and took up the weapons that had been left by the fleeing guards and fought alongside the German and American troops to stop the advance on the castle. There were outnumbered and their ammunition was limited. Some of the prisoners were in their 70s and some had no experience on the battlefield, but they all joined the fight. They fought throughout the long night as the reconnaissance troops that had been sent to judge their strength kept trying to advance on the castle.

The following morning, May 5, 1945, the Waffen-SS countered with a force of 100 to 150 men. It more than triple the size of the force defending the prison, and the Waffen-SS was much better supplied. The only saving grace was the fact that Lee had managed to bring one tank with him to the castle and he had it positioned at the front gate. The tank was able to provide some cover until it was destroyed by the Germans.

Gangl was able to get a call into the Austrian resistance for help, but they were only able to spare three men. It was not enough. Desperate for help, Lee contacted the 142nd, but he was unable to give exact information before the connection was severed. One of the prisoners, Jean Borata, volunteered to jump the wall and run the gauntlet through the SS troops to deliver the necessary information to the 142nd. He was successful and when he reached the 142nd, he asked for a uniform and went with the troops as part of the relief force to liberate Schloss Itter once and for all.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
Josef Gangl. BBC

Josef Gangl Was Honored As An Austrian Hero

Josef Gangl may have started the war on the wrong side, but he was a hero to the Allies for his efforts against the Nazis during the war. It was his bravery and dedication that protected the people of Worgl, and there is now a street in the town that is named after him. At the time, the SS were going into homes and executing the men inside if they proved to be loyal to Austria or the resistance. It was this outright violence and brutality that caused Gangl to stay in the town with whatever men were willing in order save the lives of any many Austrians as he could.

Josef Gangl was a good man who was first and foremost a leader to his men. His initial reluctance to go to Schloss Itter alone was because he had promised the men under his command that they would return home. The bravery of Josef Gangl was unmatched as he stayed at Schloss Itter despite an oncoming force of more than 100 fellow Germans.

He risked his life to save Allied French prisoners, his own men, and the American soldiers who answered his plea for help. Unfortunately, Gangl’s courage and honor would not be rewarded. He became one of the very last casualties of the war against the Nazis.

It was during the castle defense that Gangl was making sure that former French prime minister Paul Reynaud was out of the line of fire. It was during the process of getting Reynaud to safety that he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. The bullet injured him in such a way that he was not able to recover, and he was the only one of the defenders of the castle to lose his life. His sacrifice was not in vain as he did fulfill his promise to his men, they all returned home and he saved the life of Paul Reynaud.

6 Amazing Facts About One of WWII’s Most Daring Missions
Eduard Daladier. Memoires de Guerre

The Castle Held Some of the Most Valuable Political Prisoners of the War

Schloss Itter was seized by SS Lieutenant General Oswald Pohl on February 7, 1943 under the orders of none other than Heinrich Himmler. On April 25, 1943, it was officially transformed into a prison to hold prominent French prisoners that were of particular importance to the Reich. Officially the castle was considered to be a sub camp of the Dachau concentration camp. Men from the concentration camp were used as staff at the castle. Many of them were referred to only by numbers and their names have been lost. The Dachau concentration camp mainly held Eastern European prisoners and it meant that some of the staff at the castle were willing to deliver messages for the prisoners.

Former French Prime Minsters Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud were held at the prison. There was also General Maurice Gamelin, and the famous commander-in-chief Maxime Weygand who was a very polarizing figure during the war. Tennis champion Jean Borata was also held at the prison and was instrumental in the defense of the castle. Right-wing leader Francois de La Rocque and labor leader Leon Jouhaux were also among the prisoners that were held at the formidable castle. Other politicians included Andre Francois-Poncet and Michel Clemenceau. For a short time, republic president Albert Lebrun and Marie-Agnes de Gaulle were also held at the prison.

Due to the high-profile nature of the prisoners they were held in much better conditions than most wartime prisoners. Near the end of the war, oil was running low, so there was little light in the castle and food was running low as well. But the relationship between the SS guarding the prison and the prisoners was an amicable one.

Wimmer even promised the French prisoners that they would not be killed, even as executions were taking place at the nearby concentration camp. In the end, Wimmer fled and did little to live up to his promise. In the end it was up to the prisoners themselves and their rescuers to ensure they would survive the war.