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World War II's Strangest Battle

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Old May 12th, 2013, 07:30 AM   #1
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World War II's Strangest Battle

Days after Hitler’s suicide a group of American soldiers, French prisoners, and, yes, German soldiers defended an Austrian castle against an SS division—the only time Germans and Allies fought together in World War II. Andrew Roberts on a story so wild that it has to be made into a movie.

The most extraordinary things about this truly incredible tale of World War II are that it hasn’t been told before in English, and that it hasn’t already been made into a blockbuster Hollywood movie. Here are the basic facts: on 5 May 1945—five days after Hitler’s suicide—three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated an Austrian castle called Schloss Itter in the Tyrol, a special prison that housed various French VIPs, including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others. Yet when the units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division arrived to recapture the castle and execute the prisoners, Lee’s beleaguered and outnumbered men were joined by anti-Nazi German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as well as some of the extremely feisty wives and girlfriends of the (needless-to-say hitherto bickering) French VIPs, and together they fought off some of the best crack troops of the Third Reich. Steven Spielberg, how did you miss this story?

The battle for the fairytale, 13th century Castle Itter was the only time in WWII that American and German troops joined forces in combat, and it was also the only time in American history that U.S. troops defended a medieval castle against sustained attack by enemy forces. To make it even more film worthy, two of the women imprisoned at Schloss Itter—Augusta Bruchlen, who was the mistress of the labour leader Leon Jouhaux, and Madame Weygand, the wife General Maxime Weygand—were there because they chose to stand by their men. They, along with Paul Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire, were incredibly strong, capable, and determined women made for portrayal on the silver screen.

There are two primary heroes of this—as I must reiterate, entirely factual—story, both of them straight out of central casting. Jack Lee was the quintessential warrior: smart, aggressive, innovative—and, of course, a cigar-chewing, hard-drinking man who watched out for his troops and was willing to think way, way outside the box when the tactical situation demanded it, as it certainly did once the Waffen-SS started to assault the castle. The other was the much-decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl, who died helping the Americans protect the VIPs. This is the first time that Gangl’s story has been told in English, though he is rightly honored in present-day Austria and Germany as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance.

The book’s author, Stephen Harding, is a respected military affairs expert who has written seven books and long specialized in World War II, and his writing style carries immediacy as well as authority. “Just after 4am Jack Lee was jolted awake by the sudden banging of M1 Garands,” he writes of the SS’s initial assault on the castle, “the sharper crack of Kar-98s, and the mechanical chatter of a .30-caliber spitting out rounds in short, controlled bursts. Knowing instinctively that the rising crescendo of outgoing fire was coming from the gatehouse, Lee rolled off the bed, grabbed his helmet and M3, and ran from the room. As he reached the arched schlosshof gate leading from the terrace to the first courtyard, an MG-42 machine gun opened up from somewhere along the parallel ridgeway east of the castle, the weapon’s characteristic ripping sound clearly audible above the outgoing fire and its tracers looking like an unbroken red stream as they arced across the ravine and ricocheted off the castle’s lower walls.” Everything that Harding reports in this exciting but also historically accurate narrative is backed up with meticulous scholarship. This book proves that history can be new and nail-bitingly exciting all at once.

Despite their personal enmities and long-held political grudges, when it came to a fight the French VIPs finally put aside their political differences and picked up weapons to join in the fight against the attacking SS troops. We get to know Reynaud, Daladier, and the rest as real people, not merely the political legends that they’ve morphed into over the intervening decades. Furthermore, Jean Borotra (a former tennis pro) and Francois de La Rocque, who were both members of Marshal Philippe Petain’s Vichy government and long regarded by many historians as simply pro-fascist German puppets, are presented in the book as they really were: complex men who supported the Allied cause in their own ways. In de La Rocque’s case, by running an effective pro-Allied resistance movement at the same time that he worked for Vichy. If they were merely pro-Fascist puppets, after all, they would not have wound up as Ehrenhäflinge—honor prisoners—of the Fuhrer.

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Old May 12th, 2013, 09:58 AM   #2
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Never heard of that! Gotta get the book.

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Old May 12th, 2013, 02:41 PM   #3
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Dangit that would make a good movie!

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Old May 12th, 2013, 03:07 PM   #4
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Sounds like a must read!

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Old May 16th, 2013, 12:39 PM   #5
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Awesome stuff!

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Old July 10th, 2013, 06:04 PM   #6
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Reading the book right now. I lived in both Germany and Austria in regions close to where the story unfolds, and it IS a fairy tale spot.

The book is great! One caution... Get your Google Earth or other maps out. I'm bouncing back and forth all the time between the book and the maps. Harding's work is well researched and well written. Having lived there, I knew something of the Nazi resistance both in Austria and Germany, in public and the Wehrmacht. But this story is a step beyond. It's like 'The Sound of Music' for those of us who think the Nazis deserved to be fought with weapons more potent than showtunes!

A closing note: the Dachau Concentration Camp is mentioned often in the book. I've been there, and it's a truly depressing place. There's a tangible sense of past evils there. I'm glad that Germany keeps it open: it's a reminder and a warning to everyone. If you get the chance, go to one of the camps, and I bet you'll come away with the resolve not to let that happen again. I've also got to say that, as a former US soldier, I'm proud to be connected to the side that did the liberating.

The book is The Last Battle. Read it!

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Old July 21st, 2013, 03:13 AM   #7
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I've been down the hiway past the turnoff to Dachau, but have never been there. I have however been thru Buchenwald close to Dresden.

There is another strange combat tale that happened very near the end of the war. Can't remember exact details, like location or units involved and have no idea where the book is burried with the story, but -
A Fallshchirmjäger unit had surrendered, but a nearby W-SS unit was refusing to do so. The americans were getting ready to assault their positions. The Fj commander ask the American commander to let his men take care of the problem. After some consideration he agreed and gave the Fj their weapons back. When it was over there were no W-SS survivors.

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Old August 15th, 2013, 11:37 PM   #8
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So many incredible WW2 stories.Thanks for sharing here.Others abound here also..the schnellboot attack on D-Day training units,Dieppe raid,Nazi guided missle sinks troop ship in Mediterranian,chemical disaster at Bari,Italy,Patton's ill-fated attempt to free his son-in law(?) behind Nazi lines late in the war,the U.S.S. Indianapolis tragedy,Pelileu(why?)etc.,etc..Oh yeah,and why did it take 2 BOMBS??(One on IWO could have been a convincing argument).Thanks.

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Old August 23rd, 2013, 04:00 AM   #9
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A nuke on Iwo-Jima would Not have given the japs any reason to surrender! The military would have denied it happened and the civilian population would have known nothing about it.
I fault Truman for the way he used the bomb on japan. The first one was OK to demonstrate our ability. When that did not get the desired result the next one should have been targeted on the imperial palace. The japs should then have been given 48 hrs to surrender, with the threat that if they didn't we would continue to nuke their major cities till they did or the country ceased to exist! Since we had 3 bombs ready to go, the 3rd one - where ever we dropped it - would probably have done the trick. If not then we would just have had to build a few more and continued as advertised.
No invasion of japan would have been necessary!

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Old August 23rd, 2013, 05:54 AM   #10
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that story can't be true, the french VIP's picking up a rifle?

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