JUST AFTER FOUR AM Jack Lee was jolted awake by the sudden banging of M1 Garands, 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.
The young tanker raced down the hallway, across the Great Hall, and out the front door. As he reached the arched schlosshof gate leading from the terrace to the front courtyard, an MG-42 machine gun opened up from somewhere along the parallel ridgeline 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. Almost immediately the German weapon was answered by the slower, deeper thumping of
The big Browning continued to bang away as Lee reached the inner set of gates and yanked open the small wooden door leading to the guard tower on the west side of the gatehouse. Using his red-lensed flashlight for illumination, he pounded up a flight of circular stone stairs until he reached the first firing loop, through which Sutton was methodically loosing rounds from his M1. To Lee’s surprise the infantryman was firing not across the ravine but down into it, aiming into the darkness to the west of the tower. In response to Lee’s shouted query, Sutton said that he’d spotted four troops who had apparently cut through the concertina wire—Waffen-SS he thought, though with only moonlight for illumination it was hard to be sure—dashing the thirty or forty feet upslope to the base of the foundation wall. They looked to be carrying grappling hooks and ropes but were spotted before they could put them to use. When he opened up on the enemy troops, Sutton said, they had scurried back downslope under covering fire from the woods and gone to ground.
Telling Sutton to save his ammo until he had a definite target, Lee continued up the circular stairway to the small door leading into the gatehouse’s cramped upper level. Inside he found Worsham and McHaley lying prone behind the now-quiet .30-caliber, surrounded by spent brass and wreathed by floating dust kicked up by the machine gun’s firing. As McHaley fed another belt of ammo into the weapon, he told Lee that when Sutton had started shooting at the interlopers, the west side of the gatehouse had almost immediately come under rifle and machine-pistol fire from troops hidden on the upper floor of the small inn on the schlossweg. He and Worsham had laid down suppressing fire, aiming at muzzle flashes and the occasional shadowy figure they could see silhouetted in the building’s windows. Despite their somewhat exposed position, they themselves hadn’t been directly targeted, and when the MG-42 had opened up, it seemed to be aimed at Sutton’s position, not at them. When
Cautioning the two young soldiers to stay alert, Lee descended via the circular stairway in the guard tower on the eastern front corner of the gatehouse. Emerging back in the courtyard, Lee knocked gently on one of the inner gates and then eased it open enough to squeeze through into the covered entryway. As he moved inside, he found himself looking down the barrels of Petruchovich’s M1 and Pollock’s BAR; recognizing Lee, the infantrymen lowered their weapons and turned back toward Basse and Szymczyk, who were crouched on either side of the small door that pierced the right half of the outer gate. The door was open just enough to give a clear view of
Conferring in whispers, Lee and Basse agreed that the enemy was obviously looking for a way into the schloss that didn’t require a direct assault down the narrow, sloping approach road toward the sturdy and well-defended gatehouse. Since the Germans on the castle’s upper levels hadn’t fired when the GIs in the gatehouse did, the attackers might not yet have a clear idea of the defenders’ numbers. Given that a full-scale attack wasn’t likely until the besiegers had determined how many men and what type of weapons they were facing, Lee told Basse to rotate the GIs up to the main building in pairs so they could eat and clean up. In the meantime, Lee said, he was going to check on the “castle Krauts.”
When he reached the schloss’s Great Hall he was surprised to find most of the French VIPs gathered in front of the room’s huge, ornate fireplace. Several large logs were burning fiercely, and, in reply to Lee’s pointed query about why they all weren’t in the cellars as he’d directed, Augusta Bruchlen responded simply that they’d been driven upstairs by the cold. They’d emerged—shivering, though all were wearing coats—just after Lee had raced down to the gatehouse, and despite the sounds of battle they’d decided that warmth was a more immediate concern than safety. On behalf of the others, Bruchlen asked Lee if they could remain in the Great Hall; he agreed, but only on the conditions that they stay away from the heavily curtained windows, that no one leave the building, and that they all immediately return to the cellars if the firing resumed. As he moved toward the stairway, Lee also cautioned them not to give in to the temptation to go back upstairs to the relative comfort of their rooms, pointing out that Sepp Gangl and his men were stationed on the keep’s upper floors and that their defensive firing in the event of an attack would almost certainly attract a hail of enemy gunfire.
Heading up to the first floor, Lee found Blechschmidt sitting on a chair to one side of the French doors leading out onto the broad veranda that stretched the width of the building’s south side. With crenellated, five-foot-high parapet walls, the structure offered a relatively safe perch from which to observe the ravine below. Using hand gestures and a few halting words of English, the young German officer explained that he’d stationed a man in the small, circular turret that projected a few feet over the wall at the veranda’s eastern corner, from where the soldier could overlook both the front courtyard and the base of the south foundation wall. Blechschmidt then pointed to a man crouched in the shadows in the opposite corner, from where he could keep on eye on the large rear courtyard and the foundation wall to the west.
Lee clapped the German lieutenant on the shoulder and then moved down the hallway toward the heavy wooden door that led from the main building into the keep. Ascending the narrow stone stairs from floor to floor, he found two Germans on each, one peering out a window on the north side and the other on the south. Gangl and Schrader were on the fourth floor, standing just outside the door to Wimmer’s former suite and looking out one of the two windows on the keep’s east side. Joining them, Lee realized they were keeping an eye on two soldiers who had obviously climbed out the window and down onto the roof of the Great Hall. Gangl explained that he’d directed the men to take up observation positions behind the crenellations on the roof’s far corners. Schrader added that two more men were similarly concealed on the roof of the keep.
Lee smiled his satisfaction with the officers’ preparations. Noticing that sunlight was beginning to peek through the windows of Wimmer’s former room, Lee checked his watch. Even as his mind registered the time—six AM—he heard the unmistakable rattle of an MP-40 coming from the floor directly below. Taking the stairs two at a time with the German officers close behind, Lee emerged on the third floor and immediately saw one of Gangl’s troops—obviously the one who’d fired the MP-40—curled on the floor in one of the south-facing rooms. The man lay directly beneath a shattered window, and incoming bullets were making the curtains dance before thudding into the chamber’s ornate wooden ceiling. Dropping to their knees, Lee and Gangl scrambled across the floor, grabbed the soldier by his ankles, and jerked him out into the relative safety of the hallway.
Propping the man against the wall, Gangl grilled him in rapid German, turning every few seconds to give Lee a rough translation. The soldier—a young Austrian-born private—had spotted a small group of Waffen-SS troopers approaching the castle from the direction of Hopfgarten. The intruders had already gotten past the concertina wire and were running up slope toward the base of the foundation wall when the young soldier—who’d been drafted into the Wehrmacht just weeks before and had no combat experience—slammed the window open and in seconds emptied an entire thirty-two-round magazine at them. His rash action had had immediate consequences: in addition to rifle and machine-pistol fire aimed at the keep, an MG-42 had come briefly to life, raking the entire south side of the schloss before being suppressed by .50-caliber fire from Rushford in
Despite the heated response the young Wehrmacht trooper’s act had elicited, his fire had also apparently succeeded in prompting the Waffen-SS men to pull back into the woods at the bottom of the ravine. Reports from Blechschmidt’s two lookouts on the veranda and from the men on the keep’s roof confirmed that no attackers had made it to the base of the foundation wall. Gangl and Schrader both concurred with Lee’s assessment that the aborted assault was another attempt to probe the castle’s defenses rather than to breach them, but all three officers also agreed that the coming of a new day—and with it, the increasing potential for the arrival of a significant Allied relief force—might well prompt the enemy to launch an all-out attack without waiting to find an exploitable chink in the castle’s defenses.
Though the schloss’s defenders had thus far managed to deal with the enemy’s initial probes, Lee and the two German officers knew that a determined assault by what might well be several hundred battle-hardened Waffen-SS troops could have but one possible outcome. Only the timely arrival of a major relief force could guarantee the survival of Schloss Itter’s French VIPs and their American and German guardians. And though Lee and his newfound allies didn’t yet know it, the two forces dispatched to rescue them would both be significantly delayed—one by enemy action and the other by military bureaucracy.
BEFORE LEE AND his mixed armor-infantry, American-German rescue party left Kufstein the previous evening, the young tanker had been assured by Colonel George E. Lynch that the 2nd Battalion of his 142nd Infantry Regiment would be “right behind them.” As part of the 36th Infantry Division’s advance from the Inn River valley eastward toward Kitzb?hel, 2nd Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Marvin J. Coyle’s four rifle companies—E, F, G, and H—and their supporting artillery and tank units were to strike southwest from Kufstein to W?rgl on the morning of May 5, and after securing the latter turn southeast and move down the Brixental Valley toward Hopfgarten. The advance would take the 2nd Battalion right past the base of the ridge atop which Itter village sat, and Lynch was certain that Coyle and his men would be able to quickly relieve Lee and his troops. But, as so often happens in wartime, Lynch’s plans were derailed and the 2nd Battalion’s advance delayed by unforeseen circumstances.
The trouble started almost immediately after 2nd Battalion’s jeeps, trucks, and half-tracks rolled out of Kufstein at seven AM, led by the attached M4 Shermans of Company B, 753rd Tank Battalion. Coyle’s orders from regimental commander Lynch directed him to follow Lieutenant Colonel Everett Simpson’s 3rd Battalion as far as the junction leading to the S?ll-Sankt Johann road, about three miles south of Kufstein, at which point Simpson’s unit would turn directly east while 2nd Battalion moved on toward W?rgl. The only route toward the junction was a two-lane road that for about two miles of its length was sandwiched between the Inn River and a line of steep-sided hills, and near the hamlet of Kirchbichl the 3rd Battalion ran into a hastily emplaced timber-and-stone roadblock defended by Waffen-SS troops wielding small arms and panzerfausts. It took about thirty minutes to eliminate the resistance and another twenty for the GIs to clear the obstructions and reboard their vehicles, and 3rd Battalion had only moved about another half mile when it encountered a blown bridge. Though troops of the 111th Engineer Combat Battalion were immediately brought forward to deal with the situation, the two infantry units were halted for another ninety minutes.
Nor did the 2nd Battalion’s luck improve. Almost as soon as Simpson’s 3rd Battalion turned off at the road junction, Coyle’s column encountered a massive crater—the result of demolition charges planted by withdrawing German units—spanning both of the road lanes in a built-up area with no available bypass. Fearing an ambush, Coyle deployed dismounted infantrymen to protect the leading tanks and the engineers who came forward to fill the crater. That effort took another hour, and it wasn’t until eleven o’clock that the 2nd Battalion renewed its advance toward W?rgl. Though Austrian resistance fighters who greeted the arriving Americans insisted that all German troops had left the town, Coyle’s soldiers undertook a thorough block-by-block clearance sweep, a process that occupied them for far longer than Coyle would have liked. Even as he prepared the battalion for the move east out of W?rgl, Coyle—having not heard from Lee since the previous night—was already wondering if his men would find anyone left to relieve at Schloss Itter.
Though Coyle didn’t know it, the leader of the other American column trying to relieve Schloss Itter was also wondering whether he’d make it in time. Having gotten on the road just after sunup, Major John Kramers and his rescue force had initially made good time. As Meyer Levin later recalled:
We romped along a fine road lined with cheering Polish, Czech, French and Russian ex-slaves and ex-prisoners, who here, as everywhere, seemed to have sprung up out of the ground the instant the liberation blew their way. It was a fine warm day and the mountain scenery was first class and we had a fine tourist ride for some 20 miles on the road to Worgl.
Their seemingly idyllic road trip through the Inn River valley soon turned sour, however. Just past Jenbach—about halfway between Innsbruck and W?rgl—Kramers’s column was hailed by a group of Austrian anti-Nazi partisans who’d been fighting running battles with Waffen-SS units farther along the road. According to Levin:
Our little party paused for reflection. There we were, alone in what was still Kraut land. Liberating a castle full of big names was important, but it was also important not to get killed in so doing, especially on the day when fighting was supposed to have stopped. To add point to the argument, there came a familiar whine, which we thought we had heard for the last time. Then the blast, and 100 yards away there was a black burst. The boys in the tanks promptly backed among some trees, for cover. The soldiers hopped off their truck, took positions in a ditch, and watched the shells come down.
“They’ve seen us.”
“If they’re shooting for us, that’s lousy poor shooting.”
“Yah, but it’s eight-eights and they got observation on this road.”
Major Kramers made a swift “reccy” up the road, did some radio talk with headquarters, and decided we couldn’t clear the road to Itter without help.
As Kramers was discussing the situation with Lutten, the French liaison officer, the radio in their jeep crackled. It was the division command post, and the news wasn’t good. Not only would they not be getting reinforcements, the 103rd’s chief of staff, Colonel Guy S. Meloy, was ordering the rescue force to turn around and head back toward Innsbruck. Thunderstruck, Kramers reminded the senior officer that the French VIPs were in mortal danger and, as respectfully as he could, asked why on earth he was being ordered to abort the mission when the rescuers were well over half the way to Itter. The answer left Kramers stunned: His column had crossed the map coordinates that marked the boundary between the 103rd and 36th divisions’ respective areas of operation. He and his men were, in effect, “trespassing” in the 36th’s territory.
While Kramers well understood that moving unannounced through another division’s area of operations could be dangerous—friendly forces unaware of his column’s presence might well mistake it for an enemy unit and attack—he also believed at that point that his ad hoc detachment was the only force capable of saving Schloss Itter’s French prisoners. Being careful not to sound insubordinate, Kramers pointed out to Meloy that the question of unit boundaries and areas of operational responsibility had not kept the initial rescue plan from being approved by the division commander, Major General McAuliffe, less than twelve hours earlier. Going further, he reminded the chief of staff that the murder of a gaggle of French VIPs by the Nazis would not reflect well on either American division. Struggling to keep his anger in check, Kramers all but pleaded to be allowed to keep going, but to no avail.
Directed in no uncertain terms to return to Innsbruck, the military-government officer made what under the circumstances was a very gutsy, and admittedly foolhardy, decision: he would send back the four tank destroyers and the infantrymen from the 409th as ordered, but he, Lutten, Sergeant Gris, and ?u?kovi? would continue to Schloss Itter in the jeep. How he planned to either liberate or defend the French VIPs is unclear, given that the only weaponry he now had at his command were the M3 submachine guns and .45-caliber pistols he, Lutten, and Gris were carrying. As Kramers was about to pull away, Levin and Schwab made their own bold decision: despite the obvious folly of driving deeper into what was still enemy-held territory—on roads quite possibly mined and almost certainly crawling with die-hard German troops—the two journalists immediately volunteered to follow along in their own jeep. As dangerous as the trip to Schloss Itter might turn out to be, neither man intended to miss what was shaping up to be one hell of a story.
EVEN AS SCHLOSS ITTER’S two would-be relief forces were struggling to stay on the move, the castle’s defenders were suffering a crisis of trust.
Just after eight AM, as Lee and Gangl were inspecting the defenses on the schloss’s north side, firing erupted from the gatehouse. When the two officers got there, Basse explained that one of Gangl’s men had apparently used a rope to lower himself from the veranda outside the VIPs’ dining area to the base of the sloping foundation wall directly west of the gatehouse. One of the wall’s supporting stone buttresses had hidden him from view until he took off running down into the ravine, heading in the direction of Hopfgarten. With a pointed glance at Gangl, Basse said that none of the “tame Krauts” had opened fire on their erstwhile comrade. By the time the Americans in the gatehouse realized what was happening, the escaping Wehrmacht trooper had run through the breach in the concertina made earlier by the Waffen-SS men and was well into the trees. Though the GIs had opened up with M1s and Pollock’s BAR, they hadn’t hit the fleeing soldier.
A quick headcount by Gangl and Lieutenant H?ckel showed the escapee to be a German-born soldier of no great political conviction who’d probably decided to go over to the Waffen-SS simply to avoid immediate execution should the castle be overrun. Whatever his motives, the man’s escape was a dire development. He knew exactly how many troops were defending Schloss Itter, where they were positioned, the type and number of their weapons, and even how much ammunition they had—information he would almost certainly reveal to the SS men in order to demonstrate his loyalty. What must have been worse still, from Lee’s point of view, was the fact that none of the other Germans had fired at the defector as he loped toward the trees. Did that mean that the man’s comrades harbored the same idea—to find a way to give themselves up to the Waffen-SS and claim they’d been coerced into helping the Americans in hopes of avoiding a bullet in the back of the head?
While we don’t know the exact course of the discussion Lee and Gangl must have had following the deserter’s departure—were there recriminations, accusations, apologies?—we do know that Gangl was able to convince Lee of the remaining Wehrmacht troops’ loyalty by the simple fact that the tanker allowed the Germans to keep their weapons. If Lee had harbored any doubts about the trustworthiness of the remaining German soldiers, he would have immediately disarmed them and locked them away in one of Schloss Itter’s many cells. And though we can’t say with certainty, it’s also probable that having convinced Lee, Gangl then took the time to go about reminding his troops that the best chance they had of surviving the next few hours and going home to their families was to continue to throw in their lot with the Allies.
Having dealt with one setback, Lee was almost immediately faced with another. After their discussion about the German soldier’s escape, the tanker and Gangl had gone up to the top floor of the keep to fill Schrader in on what had happened and to get a better view of any increased enemy activity that might have resulted from the German corporal’s defection. They didn’t have to wait long for an answer: just after eight thirty Lee, peering through binoculars, spotted two ominous weapons—a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon and an 88mm gun—being emplaced in a tree line barely eight hundred yards to the northwest of the castle. The sight likely made Lee cringe; the rapid-fire 20mm was lethal against soft-skinned vehicles and personnel, and the 88 had a fearsome and well-earned reputation as a killer of Allied tanks. But worse was yet to come. Gangl nudged Lee and pointed south down the Ittererstrasse toward Hopfgarten: a string of military trucks was emerging from the town and driving in the direction of the castle. After passing the junction with the Ittererstrasse, the vehicles stopped and began disgorging troops, who immediately ran into the woods at the base of the hill. Focusing the binoculars, Lee could easily see that the troops leaping from the tailgates of the trucks were wearing characteristic Waffen-SS camouflage. The tanker estimated that the new arrivals numbered between 100 and 150, and Schrader pointed out that at least two of the vehicles bore the mailed-fist insignia of the 17th SS Panzer-Grenadier Division.
While the appearance of the 88 and the truckloads of troops was certainly not a positive development, Lee and the two German officers agreed that it could explain why the schloss had not yet been attacked in force. The enemy soldiers in the woods along the schlossweg and on the parallel ridgeline to the east were probably just a reconnaissance element tasked with probing the castle’s defenses as they awaited the arrival of the main assault group. Though there was a slim chance that the 88 and the newly arrived Waffen-SS men were being deployed in order to engage the U.S. 36th Infantry Division rather than to assault Schloss Itter, the officers assumed—correctly, though they wouldn’t know that for some time—that the Waffen-SS troops had been specifically ordered to eliminate the French VIPs and their American and German protectors. And, that being the case, Lee, Gangl, and Schrader all understood that the enemy would waste little time before mounting an all-out attack on the castle.
Realizing that the 88 and the large contingent of Waffen-SS troops would pose as great a threat to the U.S. forces advancing from Kufstein as they did to those holed up in Schloss Itter, Lee knew he had to get the word out. But with
Within minutes the Wehrmacht officer was on the line with Mayr, who promised to pass the intelligence on to the first Americans he saw. Then, knowing that Schloss Itter would need all the defenders it could get, Gangl ordered Second Lieutenant Wegscheider and Corporal Linsen to get to the castle as quickly as they could. The two men immediately jumped in a k?belwagen and sped off toward Itter, accompanied by seventeen-year-old Hans Waltl, the only resistance member Mayr and Hagleitner felt they could spare. What would have been a twenty-minute drive in peacetime took the trio nearly forty-five, given that they were forced to take several sudden detours onto unpaved side roads to bypass Waffen-SS roadblocks on the main routes out of W?rgl. By looping to the north of the schloss and then approaching from the northeast end of the Ittererstrasse, the three men were able to avoid most of the troops moving into position between Hopfgarten and the castle, and Wegscheider—deciding that bravado was the only ploy that would get them past the gathering Waffen-SS troops—told Linsen to sound the k?belwagen’s horn as they raced through Itter village and down the last few hundred yards of the schlossweg toward the gatehouse. The soldiers lining the road were apparently taken in by the ruse, because Wegscheider and his companions made it unscathed to the entrance to the schloss access road. Abandoning the k?belwagen, the three men ran the last yards to the gatehouse, where Gangl—who’d come down to warn Basse and the GIs of the men’s arrival—welcomed them with a relieved smile.
The hurried greetings over, Gangl told the new arrivals to follow him to the keep, where he wanted them to take up positions alongside their comrades. As the group traversed the Great Hall, Gangl realized that virtually all the French VIPs were in the rear courtyard in direct defiance of Lee’s orders that they stay inside—Daladier and Jouhaux were strolling upright around the perimeter, looking like they hadn’t a care in the world; Mabire, Reynaud, and the Cailliaus were taking souvenir photos of each other near the central fountain; Clemenceau, Gamelin, and Borotra were deep in discussion near the door leading down into the main building; and Augusta Bruchlen was just walking out of the Great Hall. Even Schrader’s wife and children were out enjoying the morning sunshine and bracing mountain air.
While we don’t know how Gangl felt about the French VIPs’ defiance of Lee’s orders or their cavalier disregard for their own safety, we do know that any rebuke he might have been about to voice was rendered completely unnecessary by the 88mm round that at that moment slammed into the west side of the keep’s third floor, destroying Gamelin’s room and blasting loose a cascade of stone, shattered glass, and splintered furniture. Almost immediately the woods surrounding the castle erupted with automatic weapons and rifle fire; bullets hammered into the castle’s walls and blew windows out of their frames. Then the 20mm cannon to the northwest added its voice to the chorus, coughing out fist-sized rounds that exploded on impact with the side of the keep, gouging holes in the stonework the size of dinner plates.
It was a few minutes after ten, and the battle for Schloss Itter had begun in earnest.
WHEN THE FIRING ERUPTED, Art Pollock and Al Worsham were crouched behind
Struggling to stay upright on the treacherous slope and fearing that at any moment enemy troops would emerge from the nearby tree line, the six-foot-four-inch Pollock was frantically looking for some kind of cover when he heard Worsham yelling, “Pollock, Pollock, are you dead?”
“How the hell am I gonna answer you if I’m dead?” the BAR man responded. “Hell no, I’m not dead.”
“Come underneath the bridge and up the other side. I’m over there,” Worsham shouted.
Pollock hurried through the opening and found the rifleman waiting on the other side. Together the two GIs scrambled awkwardly uphill to the sally port, pounding on it and yelling until it was yanked inward far enough for them to squeeze through. To their amazement, the man opening the door for them was Rushford—they’d assumed he was dead.
Back in the rear courtyard, four of the six Frenchmen who moments before had been calmly enjoying the morning sun were huddled closely together beneath the surrounding parapet wall, having an unusually civil and remarkably calm discussion about what they should do next. That the men were not unduly perturbed by the enemy rounds smacking into the walls around them is not surprising: All had served in their nation’s armed forces, and each had experienced combat to greater or lesser degrees. Nor is it surprising—given that each of the men was strong willed, to say the least—that they unanimously agreed to completely disregard Lee’s orders to stay out of the fight. A second antitank round slamming into the already mortally wounded
I soon saw that, as the tank was burning, the attackers could penetrate from the other side into the courtyard by the bridge which linked up with the flank of the mountain. I dodged into the castle. I got my tommy-gun out of my trunk and went down to the [front] courtyard, where I found some soldiers. Clemenceau had already calmly posted himself at a loophole in case the attackers wished to take possession of the tank. I… took up a position near to him.
Gamelin and Borotra soon reappeared, along with de La Rocque. The trio joined Reynaud and Clemenceau behind the parapet wall in the front courtyard, and all began firing enthusiastically—if somewhat randomly—toward the small inn on the schlossweg and into the trees on the south side of the ravine.
When the Frenchmen had returned to the courtyard after retrieving their weapons, Gangl had ordered Wegscheider and Linsen to join their comrades on the upper floors of the keep and direct their fire down onto any Waffen-SS troopers attempting to reach the base of the foundation wall. As the two Germans moved off, Lee came running past them and slid into a crouch next to Gangl. After a quick pause to catch his breath, Lee motioned the German officer to follow him and then headed for the schlosshof gate and the steps leading to the front courtyard. Dashing down the stone steps, the two men emerged at the rear of the courtyard and took cover behind the parapet wall. Catching sight of the elderly Frenchmen a few yards farther along the wall, Lee caught Gangl’s eye and, pointing at Reynaud and the others, smiled ruefully.
As the two men were pondering the sight of five of France’s most famous sons blasting away with obvious delight, the rear door of the gatehouse swung open, and Basse, Seiner, and Pollock emerged in a low crouch. Motioning Seiner to stay by the door, Basse briefly conferred with Pollock, who nodded and moved to the eastern corner of the gatehouse. At a wave from Lee, Basse hurried over, being careful to stay crouched below the level of the parapet wall. Leaning in close to be heard above the din of the incoming rounds and the Frenchmen’s MP-40s, the young motor officer explained that though the GIs in the gatehouse had begun laying down defensive fires almost as soon as
While Lee and Basse were conferring, Reynaud moved closer to the gatehouse. Believing the elderly politician would be more exposed to enemy fire in his new position, Lee was about to motion to Seiner to pull him back when Gangl, who obviously also recognized the danger, stood and dashed toward Reynaud. In his haste to stop the Frenchman the German officer ran almost fully erect, and he’d gone barely ten feet when he suddenly dropped to the courtyard’s cobblestones in an awkward heap, his visored hat rolling a few feet past him. Seiner, watching from his position by the rear door of the gatehouse, at first thought the officer had tripped. But when blood quickly began pooling around his head, it was obvious that Sepp Gangl, a man of valor who’d survived the hell of Stalingrad and the maelstrom of Normandy, had been cut down by a sniper’s bullet.
Though stunned by the sudden death of his unexpected ally, Lee had no time to mourn him. The volume of enemy small-arms fire from across the ravine was increasing, and several 88 rounds had crashed into the north wall. Shouting to be heard, Lee told Basse to hold the gatehouse as long as he could and then pull his men back up to the main building. Motioning that he was headed for the top of the keep to get a better idea of what was happening, Lee then headed for the stone steps.
Across the courtyard from Basse, Pollock was about to have his own problems. The young GI had moved into what he believed to be a relatively safe position behind the parapet wall on the east side of the gatehouse, prior to making a dash across the courtyard for the schlosshof. He’d momentarily rested his BAR on the top of the wall and begun scanning for targets, looking away briefly when he saw Lee head up the steps. Just as he turned back, a hail of enemy fire from the ridgeline east of the castle—off to his left—forced him to drop to his belly. As the rounds slapped into the side of the stone wall next to him, Pollock low-crawled to the rear corner of the gatehouse and shouted to Basse that Waffen-SS troops were moving up the steep slope on the north side. Certain that the main enemy effort would be directed at the gatehouse and loath to spare any of the GIs protecting it, Basse turned to Reynaud. Shouting to be heard above the raucous cacophony of hammering weapons, the young officer brusquely ordered the Frenchman to take Clemenceau and hurry over to the other side of the castle to bolster its defenses.
The two Frenchmen scurried to the base of the same stone steps Lee had just ascended and bolted upward. As Reynaud later recalled:
We ran to the other side of the castle in order to defend the surrounding wall, although the ground fell away in a steep slope. A young Austrian patriot [Hans Waltl] with a white and red brassard showed himself very active. The Wehrmacht lieutenant [Wegscheider], glasses to his eyes, pointed out targets against which to direct our fire…. I regret that I cannot confirm that I killed one enemy.
Fortunately, the defense of Schloss Itter did not solely depend on Reynaud’s skill with an MP-40. Wegscheider, Waltl, and Clemenceau were also blasting away, and the Wehrmacht troops in the keep—commanded by Lee with the help of Schrader, Dietrich, H?ckel, and Blechschmidt—were pouring a far more accurate fire down on SS troops attacking from the north, west, and east. Basse and the GIs in and around the gatehouse—aided by Borotra, de La Rocque, and Gamelin—were holding their own as well, though by this time Basse was becoming acutely aware that ammunition was beginning to run low. McHaley, in the gatehouse’s upper level, had already gone through all but a few belts of the 1,300 .30-caliber rounds they’d earlier removed from
Borotra, bent as low as his lanky frame would allow, nodded and bolted up the stone steps. Dodging and weaving as he ran across the terrace, he made it into the Great Hall unscathed and, not surprisingly, unwinded. He was about to start up the interior stairway in search of Lee when the tanker, followed by Schrader and several of the “tame” Wehrmacht soldiers, hurried in through the doors leading from the small patio on the castle’s northwest corner, while rounds from the enemy 20mm anti-aircraft gun to the northwest gouged the exterior wall above the door. As Lee pointed out new ground-floor positions to the men, whom Borotra assumed had become too exposed on the patio, the tennis player quickly relayed Basse’s message.
Lee grimly acknowledged that everybody was running short on ammo and was about to say something else when the shrill ringing of the orderly room telephone echoed through the cavernous room.
AFTER DECIDING TO CONTINUE on to Schloss Itter without infantry and armor support, Major John Kramers had pushed his under-armed, two-jeep relief force hard. The two vehicles had roared along the south bank of the Inn River, occasionally spotting groups of armed German troops in the trees bordering the road but—much to the Americans’ surprise—encountering no roadblocks or resistance. As Meyer Levin recalled: “We whistled through the last 20 miles to W?rgl, which had still been unexplored on our side, and when we got to the place and saw a United States tank sitting there, we let out a joint gasp of relief.”
The tank, of course, was
When Kramers asked about the situation at Schloss Itter, Elliot—pointing at the castle, just visible atop the ridgeline to the southeast—said he and his men had been hearing heavy small-arms fire and occasional artillery all morning and assumed from the heavy black smoke that Lee’s tank had been destroyed. As Kramers, Levin, and the others trained their binoculars on the castle, noting the smoke pillar, several additional shells slammed into the schloss’s northern foundation wall. When the military-government officer asked if they’d been able to speak with Lee, Elliot said they’d been out of radio contact even before
Roaring through deserted streets lined by buildings from which white flags fluttered, the jeeps made it to the town hall in minutes. Rushing inside, the men crowded around a small telephone booth tucked under a stairway and waited a few anxious moments while the young partisan dialed. To their surprise and relief, Lee picked up after only a few rings. Kramers took the phone, introduced himself, and then asked about the situation at the castle.
After telling Kramers that the castle’s defenders were perilously short on ammo, Lee added, “They’re shelling the bajabers out of us. Listen, better get some doughs [GIs] up here right away.” Before Kramers could ask any more questions, he heard an explosion, and the line when dead.
Though he knew Lee and his men needed immediate help, Kramers also knew that without significant backup he and his little group would likely not even survive the trip to the castle. As he was wondering aloud where he’d find the necessary help, Eric Schwab ran in from the street, yelling that there was an American column rolling toward them. Kramers and the others rushed outside just as six M4 Shermans from the 753rd Tank Battalion clattered into the plaza in front of the town hall, followed by half-tracks filled with men of the 142nd Infantry’s Company E. Quickly locating the unit commander, Captain Joe W. Gill, Kramers told him of the urgent need to get to Schloss Itter. Gill obviously had not gotten the word regarding his regimental commander’s earlier sanctioning of Lee’s rescue mission to the castle or of Lynch’s promise to provide a relief force, as Meyer Levin recalled:
“We’re just supposed to travel down this road and make a link-up with the Hundred and Third. That’s our mission. We haven’t got any order to move out and attack a castle,” [Gill said.]
“Who’s got to give you the order?” [Kramers asked.]
“He’s just left us; he’s gone back up the road someplace.”
Because Gill had more important things on his mind than chasing down his wayward regimental commander to ask about what most probably seemed to the young company commander a rather harebrained rescue effort, he tapped one of his platoon leaders, First Lieutenant Clifford J. Reinhard, to escort Kramers and his retinue. Then, Levin said, the group “chased off in search of Colonel Lynch. We burned up six miles of road in a style that would have gladdened the heart of Darryl Zanuck, and we caught up with a cloud of dust.”
While we don’t know how Lynch reacted to the sudden appearance of one of his young lieutenants with Kramers’s party in tow, or to Reinhard’s news that Gill was unaware of the need to relieve Lee and his troops, we do know that the 142nd’s regimental commander immediately sent Reinhard back to W?rgl with instructions for Gill. The Company E commander was to leave enough men to secure the town’s eastern side and then assemble a relief force and move out for Schloss Itter following the Brixentalerstrasse through S?ll-Leukental to Hopfgarten and then up the Ittererstrasse. Captain Carl P. Matney’s Company G, Lynch said, would advance on the castle from the north, via the village of M?hltal. Minutes later, Lynch added Company F to the mission, tasking Captain Glenn A. Goff to slot his men in behind Matney’s unit.
Racing back to W?rgl, Reinhard relayed Lynch’s instructions to Gill, who tapped three Shermans of the 1st Section of the 753rd’s Company D—the same tanks that had been unable to cross the bridge with Lee’s party the day before—and Rushford’s
The need to chase down Lynch and then put together the relief force meant that Gill and his column didn’t leave W?rgl until almost one PM. Finally on the road, the convoy moved through streets now lined with white flags and growing numbers of welcoming Austrian civilians—many of them wonderfully attractive young women, as Levin later noted—who offered the GIs bottles of wine and bouquets of early spring flowers. Once out of W?rgl, however, the Americans began encountering a rather different sort of people. As Levin recalled: “German [soldiers] began to leak out of the woods. Some were just boys of sixteen who claimed they hadn’t even fired their guns. Then there came older men, in twos, singly, in groups—all, of course, claiming they’d been forced into the fight against their will.” Consisting mainly of volksturm (elderly civilian militiamen) Hitler Youth and second- or third-line Wehrmacht reserve troops, most of those attempting to surrender to Gill’s infantrymen were simply disarmed and told to make their way toward the POW cage being set up just south of Kufstein.
But not all German troops in Tyrol were ready to call it quits. As Gill’s men moved out into the farmland between W?rgl and S?ll-Leukental—barely a mile from where they’d started—they began encountering Waffen-SS men who were vastly more motivated and obviously willing to fight. Sporadic sniper fire erupted, and, Levin wrote, “the old tense expressions settled in. [The U.S. troops] moved cautiously behind the tanks, taking cover in the field. Nobody wanted to get hurt on this day-after-the-last-day of fighting.” The GIs’ caution was more than justified, for as they dispersed on either side of the Brixentalerstrasse, they came under fire from two MG-42s hidden in log-and-sandbag bunkers on a hillside to their south. Though the American tanks quickly silenced the machine guns with HE rounds, Waffen-SS troops engaged the infantrymen with increasingly heavy small-arms fire.
On the far left flank of the advancing column Reinhard’s platoon had crossed to the opposite side of the Brixentaler Ache via a small footbridge they’d found intact. This put the men a few hundred yards ahead of the lead elements of Company G, which was advancing southeast along the two-lane road that paralleled the river. Matney’s unit had encountered only sporadic resistance since leaving the outskirts of W?rgl; indeed, it seemed that most of the Waffen-SS men in the area immediately east of the town were concentrating their efforts against the American troops and vehicles that were obviously intent on moving toward Hopfgarten. That force, which now consisted of the bulk of Gill’s Company E bolstered by Goff’s Company F, was deployed across the southwest side of the valley between the bordering hills and the river.
As Reinhard and his men moved forward in single file beside the trees lining the riverbank, the young lieutenant was probably beginning to think that crossing the Brixentaler Ache had not been the smartest idea he’d had that day. While doing so had allowed the platoon to largely avoid enemy contact and thus advance fairly quickly, the bank’s meandering curve to the southeast meant that the GIs were being steadily separated even more from the bulk of Company E, which was beginning to turn almost directly south along the road leading to Hopfgarten. Moreover, the character of the Ache—which flows northwest toward its rendezvous with the Inn—would also have given the infantry officer pause: though only about four feet deep, the river is fast flowing and constantly roiled by a rocky bed and dozens of small cataracts. Loaded down with weapons, ammunition, and personal gear, Reinhard and his men likely wouldn’t have been able to safely wade across.
As the young platoon leader was pondering his next move, several jeeps bearing soldiers of Company G’s small reconnaissance detachment rumbled across the field behind him and slewed to a stop. As Reinhard walked over to speak to the new arrivals, he noted that one of the men wasn’t carrying a weapon, nor was he wearing a regulation uniform. Glancing at a small insignia sewn to the man’s British-style field jacket, Reinhard realized that he was a civilian reporter. Though the young infantry officer didn’t know it at the time, the man was French-Canadian war correspondent (and future premier of Quebec) Ren? L?vesque. The then twenty-three-year-old journalist had spent the previous months attached to various U.S. Army units and had witnessed the liberation of Dachau. He’d been accompanying the 142nd Infantry for several days and had chosen to ride along with Company G on the rescue mission to Itter.
As L?vesque later recalled in his memoirs, he was about to introduce himself to the men from Company E when a shout from the GI acting as point man for Reinhard’s platoon focused everyone’s immediate attention on a strange apparition: a tall, thin, and athletic-looking man—apparently an Austrian peasant from the look of his clothes—was approaching, “running at an unhurried pace, jogging before the invention of the word. Being a tennis buff I recognized him almost immediately,” L?vesque later recalled. “It was Borotra, an all-time champion. He was hardly winded and told us that he’d just walked out of the chateau-prison of Itter a few kilometers up the road.” Borotra, the famed Bounding Basque, had escaped from Schloss Itter yet again. But this time his goal was more than just his own freedom, he said; this time, he’d made it over the walls bearing both a message and a plan.
WHILE KRAMERS’S CALL to Schloss Itter from the W?rgl town hall had let the castle’s defenders know that help was actually on the way, it hadn’t improved their immediate situation. Their ammunition was perilously low, Gangl was dead and two of his Wehrmacht troops were seriously wounded, and though the Waffen-SS attackers hadn’t yet managed to breach the fortress’s walls, they were pressing their attack with what Jack Lee would later call “extreme vigor.”
At about the same time that Cliff Reinhard was relaying Lynch’s instructions for a rescue force to Company E commander Gill, Lee realized that he was running out of options. The telephone line had been Schloss Itter’s last communications link with the outside world, and it had been severed before Lee was able to give Kramers any intel about the location, strength, or weaponry of the attacking Waffen-SS troops. Without that information the relief force could well end up wasting precious time fighting enemies it might otherwise be able to avoid, and anything that delayed the advancing Americans only made it more likely that Schloss Itter’s VIPs and their defenders wouldn’t survive the afternoon.
At this critical juncture Jean Borotra stepped forward with an audacious—and quite possibly suicidal—proposal. He would go over the wall and make his way to the nearest Americans to both hurry them up and show them the quickest way to get to the castle. When Lee rightly pointed out that the tennis star’s chances of making it through the enemy cordon were slim, at best, Borotra replied that his previous escape attempts had given him a unique knowledge of the surrounding terrain and of several ways to leave the castle unobserved. He confidently predicted that he’d reach the advancing Americans “in no time,” and Lee, with no other options, reluctantly agreed to let the tall Frenchman try.
After disguising himself as an Austrian refugee—complete with ragged bedroll and gnarled walking stick—Borotra waited for a brief lull in the firing and then clambered over one of the low parapet walls on the castle’s north side. He dropped some fifteen feet to the ground, rolled easily, and in seconds was back on his feet. His daily training runs stood him in good stead, for he dashed quickly across forty yards of open ground, made it into the woods that bordered the castle’s northwest side, and started down the steep slope toward the river. After carefully eluding several groups of SS men, some of whom were firing upslope at the castle, Borotra burst from the trees at the bottom of the hill and came face to face with two soldiers manning an MG-42 machine gun sited so it could fire at both the castle and at any Americans approaching from the direction of S?ll-Leukental.
No doubt equally as startled by Borotra’s sudden appearance as the Frenchman was by theirs, the Waffen-SS men nonetheless held their fire, apparently taken in by the tennis star’s “harmless refugee” disguise. He reinforced their first impression by calmly bending down to gather some herbs and then relieving himself against a nearby tree. When it was clear that the soldiers had dismissed him as a possible threat, he sauntered to the bank of a large stream and, holding his bedroll and walking stick over his head, waded into the swift-flowing, waist-deep water. Though he slipped once or twice, he kept his footing and made it to the other side. Climbing to the top of the bank he looked back at the soldiers, tossed them a friendly wave, and started toward S?ll-Leukental. As soon as he thought it safe, he began the slow and steady jog that ultimately led him to Reinhard and L?vesque.
Within minutes of that meeting Borotra was talking to Lynch, who had set up his regimental command post in a farmhouse only a half mile away, from where he could see the castle silhouetted atop the towering ridgeline to his south. After delivering his message—that the situation at Schloss Itter was dire and help was needed immediately—the Frenchman presented his plan: he would lead the American infantrymen back to the castle via the quick route up the north slope and along the way point out to them all the German positions he’d observed. His only request was that he be given an American uniform and a weapon.
Suitably attired and armed, Borotra led Reinhard’s platoon and most of Matney’s Company G back across the open farmland toward Schloss Itter. After eliminating the MG-42 and its two-man crew, the Americans crossed the stream—aided by ropes—and started up the steep hillside, killing two more Waffen-SS men and capturing twelve without a single U.S. casualty. Borotra led the way, determined to be the first to reach his beleaguered comrades in the castle. Unfortunately, that honor would not be his.
When the bulk of Company E and all of Company G had turned south onto the road to Hopfgarten, the resistance that had bedeviled them on the way out of W?rgl slackened considerably. Though occasionally fired on by snipers and the odd machine gun, the column had been able to quicken its pace down the Brixentalerstrasse. Upon reaching the northern outskirts of Hopfgarten, Company G had dropped out to secure the town, allowing Gill and his company to start north up the steep and narrow Ittererstrasse toward the castle. It wasn’t a cakewalk; the GIs encountered several well-defended roadblocks, and at one point an antitank gun mounted on a halftrack fired at the lead Sherman. It missed, and one of the other M4s quickly knocked out the German vehicle with an AP round and then killed its fleeing crew with .30-caliber machine-gun fire. But Gill—now with his battalion commander, Marvin Coyle, riding along with him—was a man on a mission, and he pushed his men up the road as fast as he could. As Meyer Levin recalled: “There were short bursts of fire—machine guns, burp guns, ours, theirs. [But] the tanks reached [Itter] village. They let out a long roll of machine-gun fire, and presently a few dozen jerries came piling out of the houses, hands up. In a few minutes, the Joes were through the town.”
AS SOON AS BOROTRA had gone over the wall, Lee—always the pragmatist—had begun planning what he and his shrinking command would do if the relief force didn’t show up in time. Securing the agreement of Weygand and Gamelin—both of whom had deferred to the young American throughout the battle despite their own exalted ranks—Lee began pulling defenders off the walls and shepherding them and the French VIPs toward the keep. The American tanker, aided by Schrader and the other German officers, deployed the troops and the armed Frenchmen at windows and the top of each staircase.
Daladier, for his part, sequestered himself in one of the second-floor bedrooms, where:
two of the German soldiers who had come with [Gangl] had taken up positions, with their rifles resting on the window sills. They pointed out [SS troops] firing at the “castle” from a few hundred yards away, near the little electric plant, on the edge of the forest. The two soldiers returned the fire. I took advantage of a moment of calm to exchange a few words with our defenders. They told me in German that they were Polish. When I told them I was French, one of them started shaking my hand while the other pulled a bottle out of his coat and offered it to me. It was a bottle of Fernet Branca; where the devil did he get that? I drank a bit; it was really bad. Then he laughed and told me Hitler was kaput.
Down on the schlossweg, a squad of Waffen-SS troops was at that moment pressing the attack. Just as one of them 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. Seconds later the SS men evaporated into the woods, just as
Within minutes the castle’s jubilant defenders—American, French, and German—poured down into the front courtyard, out the gate, and past
1. Introduced in 1942, the Maschinengewehr-42’s readily identifiable sound resulted from a rate of fire of more than one thousand rounds per minute.
2. The red lens provides illumination in low light without revealing the user’s position as a white light would.
3. Daladier, Prison Journal, 337.
4. The 142nd’s actions in support of the Schloss Itter rescue operation are drawn from Operations in Germany and Austria, 1–10 May 1945, 4–6.
5. Battalion Diary for Month of May 1945.
6. Levin was speaking in comparative terms: the high temperature in the area that day, according to the weather forecast included in the 103rd Infantry Division’s daily operations report for May 5, was 38 degrees F.
7. Levin, “We Liberated Who’s Who,” 96.
9. As it happened, Kramers’s small force was not the only 103rd ID unit operating in the 36th ID’s area. A small element of the division’s 103rd Reconnaissance Troop under the command of Lieutenant Herbert had reached the outskirts of W?rgl on the afternoon of May 4, spent the night, and was making its way back toward Innsbruck even as Kramers was arguing with the division’s chief of staff. The recon troops did not know about the French VIPs at Itter; the GIs’ only mission was to establish contact with the lead elements of the 36th ID and then return to Innsbruck to report that contact. How the two groups failed to encounter each other on the road along the Inn River remains a mystery. See Regimental History, 409th Infantry Regiment, 1–10 May 1945, 68–71.
10. Levin, “We Liberated Who’ss Who,” 96.
11. Operations in Germany, 1–10 May 1945, 70.
12. According to the account of the action in Resistance and Persecution in Austria, 1938–1945 (597), the weapon was a 2cm Flak 30.
13. Operations in Germany, 1–10 May 1945, 70.
15. Paul Reynaud, in his In the Thick of the Fight (655), says that after the event he was informed by General ?mile Antoine B?thouart, then commander of the French 1st Army Corps and postwar French high commissioner in Austria, that the Waffen-SS soldiers were there specifically to kill the French VIPs.
16. Resistance and Persecution in Austria, 1938–1945, 598.
17. Cailliau de Gaulle, Souvenirs personnels, 101.
18. Interview with Arthur P. Pollock.
20. Fortunately for all concerned, Besotten Jenny’s “wet” storage kept its 76mm main-gun ammunition from detonating.
21. Schrader, “Erinnerungen, Gedanken, Erkenntnisse.”
22. Ibid., and L?on-Jouhaux, Prison pour hommes d’Etat, 154.
23. Reynaud is using “tommy-gun” in the generic sense, to mean any type of submachine gun. The weapon he wielded during the fight for the castle was actually a German MP-40 machine pistol.
24. Reynaud, In the Thick of the Fight, 655.
25. Cailliau de Gaulle, Souvenirs personnels, 101.
26. Interview with Edward J. Seiner.
27. Interview with Pollock.
28. Reynaud, In the Thick of the Fight, 655.
29. Levin, “We Liberated Who’s Who,” 98.
32. Gill was himself a bona fide hero; just over two weeks earlier he’d personally led an attack on an enemy position that ultimately resulted in his being decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military award for valor.
33. Levin, “We Liberated Who’s Who,” 98.
35. Operations in Germany and Austria, 1–10 May 1945, 2. M?hltal, as mentioned earlier in this volume, is about a mile northeast of Schloss Itter, on the road from W?rgl east to S?ll.
36. Unit Journal, 1–10 May 1945, 53.
37. Levin, “We Liberated Who’s Who,” 98.
41. Indeed, the Brixentaler Ache is still a popular destination for whitewater kayakers.
42. He was also the postwar founder of the separatist Parti Qu?b?cois and a prime mover in his province’s attempts to gain political independence from the Canadian Confederation.
43. L?vesque, Memoires, 96–99.
44. Ibid., 98.
45. L?on-Jouhaux, Prison pour hommes d’Etat, 156. See also Smyth, Jean Borotra, the Bounding Basque, 157–158.
46. L?on-Jouhaux, Prison pour hommes d’Etat, 157.
47. Operations in Germany and Austria, 1–10 May 1945.
49. Levin, “We Liberated Who’s Who,” 98.
50. Daladier, Prison Journal, 338.