US Army & Wehrmacht Allies
The Last Battle (A Book by Stephen Harding)

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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.  Among the 14 French notables rescued by tankers of the 12th Armored Division were former Premier Edouard Daladier, aging General Maxim Weygand who commanded the French armies when the Germans broke through into France, tennis star Jean Borotra and his wife, and a sister of the present chief executive of France, General Charles de Gaulle.  Also in the strangely mixed pro-and-anti-Nazi group were former premier Paul Reynaud; General Maurice Gamelin, former commanding general of all the French armies; Mrs. Weygand; Colonel DeLaRoque, former French fascist leader; M. Caillaux, former member of the government; Leon Jouhaux, French labor union leader; and Michel Clemencau, son of the World War I statesman. Top heroes of the scenario-scrap were Lieutenant John C. Leo, Jr., commanding officer of Company B of the 23rd Tank Battalion, and his gunner, Corporal Edward J. Szymcyk.

The most extraordinary things about Stephen Harding's The Last Battle, a 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.

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.

The French VIPs finally put aside their political differences and picked up weapons to join in the fight against the attacking SS troops.

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.

While the book concentrates on the fight for Castle Itter, it also sets that battle in the wider strategic contexts of the Allied push into Germany and Austria in the final months of the war, and the Third Reich’s increasingly desperate preparations to respond to that advance. This book is thus a fascinating microcosm of a nation and society in collapse, with some Germans making their peace with the future, while others—such as the Waffen-SS unit attacking the castle—fighting to the bitter end. (Some of the fighting actually took place after the Doenitz government’s formal surrender.)

The book also takes pain to honor the lives of the “number prisoners” who worked at Castle Itter—faceless inmates from Dachau and other concentration camps whose stories have never before been told in this much detail. Whatever their political leanings or personal animosities toward each other, the French VIPs did what they could to help the so-called “number prisoners”—i.e. the ones stripped of their names—in any way they could.

One of the honored prisoners was Michel Clemenceau, the son of the Great War statesman Georges Clemenceau, who had become an outspoken critic of Marshal Petain and who was arrested by the Gestapo in May 1943. At Castle Itter he showed “unshakeable confidence” in rescue, and had clearly inherited the courage of his father, who’d been nicknamed “The Tiger.”  During the attack, with ammunition running dangerously low—they got down to the last magazines of their MP-40s—their tanks destroyed, and the enemy advancing from the north, west and east, this septuagenarian kept blasting away. His father would have been proud of him.

The story has an ending that Hollywood would love too: just as the SS had settled into position to fire a panzerfaust at the front gate, “the sound of automatic weapons and tank guns behind them in the village signaled a radical change in the tactical situation.” Advancing American units and Austrian resistance fighters had arrived to relieve the castle. In keeping with the immense cool that he had shown throughout the siege, Lee feigned irritation as he went up to one of the rescuing tank commanders, looked him in the eye and said simply: “What kept you?” Part Where Eagles Dare, part Guns of Navarone, this story is as exciting as it is far-fetched, but unlike in those iconic war movies, every word of The Last Battle is true. 

The 120th Armd Div Version

12th Men Free French Big-Wigs

By Cpl. John G. Mayer Co. B, 23rd Tank Bn.

American troops, soldiers of the Wehrmacht, and a handful of French personages slated for death by the SS, fought side by side in an alpine castle on the last day of the war in Bavaria.

Among the 14 French notables rescued by tankers of the 12th Armored Division were former Premier Edouard Daladier, aging General Maxim Weygand who commanded the French armies when the Germans broke through into France, tennis star Jean Borotra and his wife, and a sister of the present chief executive of France, General Charles de Gaulle.

Also in the strangely mixed pro-and-anti-Nazi group were former premier Paul Reynaud; General Maurice Gamelin, former commanding general of all the French armies; Mrs. Weygand; Colonel DeLaRoque, former French fascist leader; M. Caillaux, former member of the government; Leon Jouhaux, French labor union leader; and Michel Clemencau, son of the World War I statesman. Top heroes of the scenario-scrap were Lieutenant John C. Leo, Jr., commanding officer of Company B of the 23rd Tank Battalion, and his gunner, Corporal Edward J. Szymcyk.

Across the Border

Their saga began the afternoon of May 4 shortly after their platoon took Kufstein, just across the Austrian border, after knifing through a well-defended roadblock. Into the town came a German major, under a flag of truce, who said that he was in position to surrender a large force of enemy troops and 14 notables once connected with the pre-Petain governments of France.

All, he said, were at a castle in Litter, eight kilometers away. Lee and Szymcyk immediately left with the major but when they arrived, the German colonel in command refused to surrender.

Back in Kufstein, Lee picked up his reinforcements -- two tanks from his own outfit and five more from the 36th Infantry Division's 142nd Battalion. With Lee and Szymcyk went Lieutenant Harry Basse, Santa Ana, Cal., maintenance officer and the tanks' crews. At the town of Worgl the force paused. Lee, leaving the others behind, took his own medium tank with five volunteers, said goodbye to his rear-guard, and rumbled on to the castle, the faithful major trailing in his car.

Then began the classic defense of the ancient "schloss", which had not known battle since the days of crossbow and boiling oil. The defenders numbered 41 -- there were 20 soldiers of the Wehrmacht (German regular army), 14 French men and women, and seven Americans.

At 4 o'clock on the morning of May 5, a small force of SS men launched an attack up the slope toward the castle. American rifles and German light machine guns teamed up to beat them back.

Tennis Star Helps

"Jean Borotra was the spark of the defense," Leo recalls. "He volunteered to jump over the castle wall and make his way to Worgl to summon help. It meant a run across forty yards of open field before he could reach cover. I refused."

But half an hour later things started looking tougher, so Lee permitted Borotra, whose name ranks among the immortals of tennis history, to make what was a brave but futile dash. Soon after he left tanks of the 36th were sighted far away.

Guessing that they hadn't received Borotra's message and regarded the castle as simply another German stronghold to be blasted out of the way, Lee and Weygand quickly teamed up on an American 30-calibre machine gun and opened fire sending long bursts crackling into the woods well ahead of the approaching tanks.

"It worked," Lee said. "Later I found that the tankers had their heavy guns trained on the castle ready to fire when they recognized the sound of the American 'thirty' and decided it was a signal rather than a threat."

So the possibility of being killed by their own rescuers was averted for Lee and his men, who included, in addition to those already named, Technical Sergeant William E. Elliott, Corporal Edward J. Seiner, and Pfc. Herbert G. McHaley, Linton RFD 1, Ind.

Sgt. Glenn E. Shermann of Cameron, Mo., served as radioman and gunner on Elliot's tank. Pvt Joseph Wall, Selma, N.C., was left to guard the bridge alone all night, armed only with a carbine, and took a number of prisoners.

The SS, however, had no compunctions about blasting away at the castle. Their 88 shells crashed through thick walls into several rooms, wounding a German.

Last Fight on Front

At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of the 5th, the cautiously-advancing tanks of the relief force, led by Elliott and Sherman, after 16 hours pounded through the opposition and arrived at the castle like mechanized cowboys in a new-style Western movie. Lee's saga was ended. His tank, "Besotten Jenny," as she was fondly dubbed by the Negro troops, was kaput. All the infantry peeps were filled with notables. So Lee and his heroes climbed onto a truck loaded with German prisoners and rode ingloriously back to their outfit. They arrived just in time to hear the radio broadcast that all German troops in the south had agreed to stop shooting that day at noon. Theirs had been the last fighting on the whole southern front.

But there's a postscript: a few days later Lee's promotion to Captain was announced and his men have all been cited for decorations.

 

Reference sites

http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Battle-German-Soldiers/dp/0306822083/ref=as_at?tag=thedailybeast-autotag-20&linkCode=as2&

http://www.lonesentry.com/newspapers/12tharmored/index.html

https://www.facebook.com/LastBattleinEurope

www.world-war.co.uk


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