They say it was the strangest battle of World War II. On May 4, 1945, just days before the German surrender, SS troops abandoned the Castle Itter which had been holding a number of high level French VIPs: former prime ministers, high ranking generals, and even a French tennis star!
As the SS guards left, the prisoners armed themselves with leftover weapons the guards left behind, and then dispatched runners to find American soldiers who would help them against any possible Nazi retaliation. As it turned out, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier were in the area and were coming with orders to execute all prisoners.
One runner found an American unit, but they were unable to get to the castle because of stiff German resistance. Another runner, however, made it to the town of Worgl where he met Wermacht Major Josef Gangl– a German soldier who hated the Nazis. He was using his handful of troops to protect the townspeople against roving gangs of SS. Gangl knew that if the SS got to the castle they would slaughter the POWs. What would he do?
Just then a recon unit under the command of Captain Jack Lee arrived with about 14 troops. The German Major approached under a white flag and explained the situation to Captain Lee. Lee quickly agreed to help the Germans protect the POWs from the SS. So, Major Gangl led the way to the castle in his command car, with German and US troops (15 American, 10 German) behind him in their vehicles. One lone American Sherman tank followed in the column.
They got to the castle where the Frenchmen (and their wives and mistresses) were overjoyed to see them (well, most of them…I bet they were not too sure about the Germans). In probably the weirdest scene in World War II, American and German soldiers took up defensive positions with Frenchmen and a few other prisoners to await the attack. There was even one line SS trooper who joined the Allies! He was a wounded soldiers and was recovering in the castle. The French and other prisoners had been so kind in tending to his wounds, that they won him over. He shouldered a weapon and joined the Allies!
Then the SS showed up. Over 100 of them. They attacked for hours and hours, but the hodgepodge force held them back. Tragically, Major Gangl was killed by an SS sniper. But just as the Americans, Germans, and French were almost out of bullets. . .
Just as an SS trooper was taking aim to fire his panzerfaust rocket propelled grenade at the main gate…
Just as the Nazis were ready to storm in and kill them all…
American troops with their armor, assisted by Austrian resistance fighters, came running up the road to save the day. The SS surrendered, the battle was over, the prisoners were free.
And it happened…just…like…that!