Stranger Than Fiction

Categories: History

Castle Itter was a 19th-century castle located in northern Austria, being used by the Germans as a prison to hold valuable prisoners including French generals, Communists, soldiers, former government leaders, and oddly enough, a French tennis player. On May 3rd, a prisoner successfully made contact with a German SS officer, Josef Gangl, who was sympathetic to their cause. His unit was ordered to retreat prior, but that order was defied, deciding instead to remain in the city in order to counter roving bands of murderous Waffen-SS savages.

Gangl had hoped the American forces would reach the city, allowing him to surrender to them – now, he was planning on seeking them out to and ask for their aid. While this was occurring, a reconnaissance element consisting of four Sherman tanks of the 23rd Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain John C. Lee, were located at the town square of Kufstein, Austria. Approaching them, Major Gangl detailed the situation and asked if they would be willing to aid in a rescue operation.

Promptly gaining permission from his headquarters, Captain Lee carried out a personal recon of the castle with Major Gangl. Leaving two tanks in the town square, he rallied 5 more to the mission, as well as some infantry from the newly arrived 142nd Infantry Regiment. On the way to Castle Itter, he received a request for reinforcements, causing him to send most his detachment elsewhere. This left him with two tanks, 14 American infantrymen, a German SS officer, a driver, and 10 German artillerymen. En-route to the castle, the force destroyed a Waffen SS unit attempting to establish a roadblock.

Further, they encountered a bridge on the approach to the castle, at which CPT Lee left one tank to guard before approaching the castle. Once they arrived, Lee placed the men under his command into defensive positions, and placed the Sherman, affectionately named “Besotted Jenny”, at the main entrance to the castle. Though the French prisoners were ordered to hide, they instead stayed with the American and German soldiers, fighting alongside them.

On the morning of May 5th, a large force of between fifty and one hundred SS troops launched an attack on the castle. The Sherman tank delivered withering machine gun fire from it’s exposed position until it sustained a direct hit from an 88 gun, knocking it out. The tennis player volunteered to vault the wall of the castle and dash through German positions in order to deliver a message requesting aid, which he was successful in accomplishing. By early afternoon, the 142nd Infantry was able to send relief to the castle, arriving just as the defenders were expending the last of their ammunition.

Major Josef Gangl, the commander of the Wehrmacht soldiers who joined Captain Lee, would lose his life as he tried to protect the former French Prime Minister, Reynaud, out of harm’s way. In Austria, he is celebrated as a national hero. Over 100 SS troops were taken prisoner following the arrival of the 142nd, and the breaking of the siege of Castle Itter.

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