14 May 2013

Great WWII Story

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>Schloss Itter

Published last week: The Last Battle by Stephen Harding.

In the waning days of WWII, American forces liberated Schloss Itter, a luxury extension of the Dachau Concentration Camp, housing 14 French VIP prisoners, including former Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; Generals Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand; Jean Borotra, formerFrench tennis champion; Colonel François de La Rocque, the leader of the right-wing Croix de Feu movement; André François-Poncet, diplomat; Michel Clemenceau, son of Georges Clemenceau, and Marie-Agnès de Gaulle, Resistance member and sister of General Charles de Gaulle.

As Andrew Roberts, at the Daily Beast, explains, the remarkable following events provide the perfect plot for a Hollywood war epic.

[O]n 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.

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Funktacular

It’s a good story, but not terribly unique. Allied POWs frequently found themselves fighting alongside the Wehrmacht against the Soviets in the east. Retreat meant execution by the Gestapo, and going over to the Soviets also usually meant death, as most Red Army enlisted men could not differentiate between German and English.

Finally, the 17th SS was never an elite division, especially as it had been decimated by May of ’45. It was a late war creation, with German officers and Romanian volksdeutsche in the ranks. The unit fought reasonably well in 1944, but had been all but exterminated by the end of that year. By May of ’45, it would mostly have been SS administrative personnel hastily made into panzergrenadiers.

The interesting thing about the 17th SS was the fate of the “lost” II battalion 38th Infantry. Three hundred survivors of this unit were captured by the Americans shortly after Malmedy and all executed in retaliation. The mass grave was found by a construction crew in the early 1970s. West German and American authorities paid the surviving family members for their silence, in the interest of NATO solidarity. The fact that most of the men had been Romanian made the task easier.



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