It would make an amazing Hollywood epic. (Yo! Steven Spielberg! Michael Bay! Are you listening?)
Picture this: It’s May 1945. Hitler’s been dead for slightly less than a week, cities are in ruins and the Allies are well on their way through Europe as World War II winds down.
Deep in the Alps is a small village called Itter, located northeast of Innsbruck in Austria and southeast of Munich in Germany. One of the village’s most prominent buildings is a castle called Schloss Itter. The castle holds a group of French VIPs, among them Marie-Agnès Cailliau (older sister of Charles de Gaulle), former prime minister Paul Reynaud and famous tennis star Jean Borotra (a.k.a. “The Bounding Basque”). The prisoners are a feisty group (!) and all of them don’t get along.
However, all is not well. The SS is on its way, intent on exterminating the castle occupants to prevent them from talking to Allied forces. The people inside the castle are severely outnumbered by the enemy’s military forces.
This is the beginning of The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe by New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harding. Although this small battle gets lost among the massive D-Day invasion, the rescue of Paris and other important events, it’s a great historical story of how people — even former enemies — determined to do the right thing can team up, overcome considerable obstacles and save lives.
The book goes into the history of the war and how and why the French VIPs were sent to the castle. Although life there was more comfortable than a concentration camp, it was still a prison and guarded by some formidable people. The castle’s commandant, Sebastian Wimmer, was known for being particularly brutal but he treated the VIPs in a fairly decent manner since he knew that he’d need someone to speak up for him later. He eventually fled after a senior official came to the castle and committed suicide. The rest of the guards left after that, so the prisoners were on their own along with a group of Eastern European prisoners from Dachau who were the castle servants.
One of the Eastern Europeans, Znonimir Čučković, left the castle to run an errand for the commandant and didn’t return. He made his way through the dangerous countryside with roving bands of hostile soldiers who could have shot him at any time, got word to the Americans and alerted them about the presence of the castle’s prisoners. A German Wehrmacht officer friendly to the Austrian resistance movement, Major Josef Gangl, heard about the upcoming battle from castle cook Andreas Krobot, surrendered to the Americans and pitched in to help along with his own men. SS officer Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, recovering from wounds in a building in town, came to help too.
Captain Jack Lee from the American side led a handful of soldiers, a few tanks, a Volkswagen Kübelwagen (roughly similar to a jeep) and a truck to go to the rescue. The Americans and Germans have to dodge roadblocks and hostiles to drive to the castle, and then they cross a bridge with their heavy tanks. Some tanks make it, but the bridge starts to give way during the last tank. The tank gets across (barely) and has to be turned and moved backwards to block the entrance to the castle’s gatehouse. It’s a tight turn and there’s a nearby ravine just waiting to swallow up the tank.
Lee and the others get inside, finish setting up defenses and await the battle. He asks the VIPs to stay in the cellars (they do but come back because it’s too cold) or to stay inside (at one point they go out into the rear courtyard — sheesh! — but go inside hastily when shells start raining down).
So it’s the Germans, Americans and French inside the castle fighting against some of Hitler’s toughest troops, the Waffen SS, around the castle. The Allied side holds out for a while but they need help, so Jean Borotra volunteers to do something nearly suicidal — pass through the line and obtain more help. He makes it due to his knowledge of the countryside from previous escape attempts during Wimmer’s reign, his wits and his physical fitness. (Borotra loved his daily exercise and would do up to 90 laps around the castle courtyard.) More reinforcements arrive to defeat the enemy soldiers around the castle.
After the final battle, Captain Lee walks over to one tank driver and asks, “What kept you?”
The book is highly entertaining if you’re a fan of World War II history stories (I haven’t told everything — there are still a few surprises in the book if you choose to read it.) It also goes into what happened to the French VIPs, the Americans and the Germans after the war, which makes for interesting reading. Have fun.
(Full disclosure: Steve is a personal friend. If you’re interested in the book or in the other books he’s written, check them out on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.)
And now for some music to get you in the history mood. I suspect some of Schloss Itter’s occupants may have heard it sometime.
Video credit: nalber on YouTube.