Castle Itter in Itter, Austria

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Castle Itter.

In the waning days of the European theater of World War II, an unlikely coalition of German and American forces guarded a select group of abandoned Nazi “honor” prisoners against the Waffen-SS. The conflict fought by this unique joint American-German alliance is frequently referred to as the strangest battle of World War II.

Castle Itter was first built in the ninth century by Bavarians and changed hands many times. After the Anschluss of Austria, it was tapped to become a prison for high value French detainees of the Third Reich. That role began in May of 1943 and lasted for two years.

When Hitler died by suicide, soldiers on both sides knew the end of the conflict was in sight. Most had no desire to be the last casualty of the war. As such, the commander and warden of the prisoners at Castle Itter, feeling the cause was lost, left in the early morning hours of early May 1945. The remaining guards also fled, essentially giving the castle to the prisoners.

This put the prisoners in a vulnerable position, as loyal Waffen-SS troops were prowling the countryside looking for deserters, enemies, or people who were trying to surrender in advance of the American arrival. In this gap, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, a highly decorated SS Hauptsturmführer and Josef “Sep” Gangl, a Wehrmacht Major, joined Captain John “Jack” Carey Lee, Jr., an American Tank Company Commander, in protecting the prisoners and defending the castle.

Schrader and Gangl had become disillusioned with the Nazi ideology. Both independently connected with the Austrian resistance. Upon hearing the prisoners at the castle were unguarded, Schrader came to the fortress and guaranteed their safety. Gangl, now serving as the head of the local resistance, had been planning on mounting a rescue mission of the prisoners but knew the forces under his command would not be sufficient against the Waffen-SS forces operating in the area. The only chance would be to hasten the arrival of the Americans. So he took off to find them in Kufstein.

Not long after arriving in Kufstein, Gangl met up with Lee and they began plotting. After a reconnaissance mission, Lee brought his closest friend with both of their Sherman Tanks to the defend the castle. But along the way, sketchy infrastructure caused one tank and its crew to be left behind.

Once at the castle, Wehrmacht soldiers and the few Americans were given positions. The prisoners were instructed to remain safely in the cellar, but many defied these orders and fought alongside the German and American troops. The stage was now set for battle.

Between 100 and 150 Waffen-SS troops attacked the castle in the early morning hours of May 5. One Wehrmacht soldier deserted during the fighting, but the remaining American-German defenses held the fortress until more American troops from the 142nd Infantry Regiment arrived 12 hours after the fighting had begun. The 142nd troops promptly defeated the Waffen-SS in what’s viewed the last battle fought in the European theater of World War II. Gangl sadly perished during the fight.

Today, the Castle is again owned by a private owner and is not open to the public. But it stands in a picturesque location in the Tyrol region of Austria as a monument to the strangest alliance of World War II.