When Americans And Germans Fought On The Same Side In World War II

There’s a fascinating story at The Daily Beast about a battle during the closing days of World War II in Europe and a battle in which the American and German Armies were on the same side:

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.

Much more at the link, and the book that it focuses on looks like something that any history buff would love. As someone who’s read a fair amount of history about the war in Europe, I can honestly say that I’d never heard about this battle before, so finding out something new about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago is particularly interesting. And, yes, it does sound like this story would make for an excellent movie.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Sounds like not everybody was “just following orders” in Germany.

  2. @Franklin:

    Did you read a different article than I did. This was a situation where the Wehrmacht was fighting along side the US Army against the Waffen SS.

  3. Dazedandconfused says:

    More history buff porn:

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/episodes/bugging-hitler%E2%80%99s-soldiers-watch-the-full-episode/947/

    Somebody found the super-secret transcripts and recordings the brits had of the captured German generals they set up in a heavily bugged mansion. They spoke frankly between themselves.

  4. Tim says:

    Great stuff Doug! Thanks!

    By the way, I think you misread Franklin’s comment.

  5. @Tim:

    Perhaps I did…..

  6. John Burgess says:

    @Dazedandconfused: You might also be interested in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying, the 2012 English translation of a German book of 2011, I believe.

    It’s based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of German enlisted men — including Wehrmacht, Navy, Luftwaffe, and SS — held in UK and US prison camps. The US camp was a special one, at Ft. Hunt in Alexandria, VA.

    The book is interesting for what the soldiers did and did not talk about among themselves.

  7. Franklin says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I could be mistaken, but I was simply saying those Wehrmacht (which I just understood to be any German armed force) officers weren’t following Nazi orders. Perhaps there is confusion because the Waffen SS was apparently some sort of subdivision of the Wehrmacht?

  8. DC Loser says:

    The Waffen SS was the military arm of Himmler’s SS. While Waffen SS units were subordinate to Wehrmacht commanders in the field, they operated more or less autonomously and were most certainly not part of the regular army (Heeres). They were used in situations were political reliability and fanaticism were required to hold critical positions where regular Army units may not be as fanatical in their willingness to hold out to the last.

  9. Peter says:

    Maybe it’s discussed in the book, but I certainly hope that the SS troops were treated as war criminals rather than merely as POW’s once they were captured. Their attempt to execute the French prisoners when the war was clearly lost could not possibly be justified under any rules of combat.

  10. DC Loser says:

    There’s no mention of this episode in the 17th Waffen SS division history.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/17th_SS_Panzergrenadier_Division_G%C3%B6tz_von_Berlichingen

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Wow. That is a great fwcking story.

  12. roger says:
  13. Rob in CT says:

    Huh. Never heard of this one. It does read like a movie script.

  14. sam says:

    Not surprisingly, a lot of folks don’t know that the Wehrmacht was not the Waffen SS.

  15. sam says:

    @DC Loser:

    There’s no mention of this episode in the 17th Waffen SS division history.

    That wouldn’t surprise me.