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The Battle of Castle Itter and Standoff at Niederhof between the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS

The last days of the Second World War were incredibly chaotic. To nearly every German soldier it became clear the war had been lost, both in the Wehrmacht and even among some ideological diehard Waffen-SS. Europe was filled with large groups of refugees, displaced persons and bands of soldiers that either were looking for another front to fight at or tried to reach the western allied powers before the Soviets caught them. A very curious event happened during this chaotic time: in Tyrol, Austria, a centuries-old castle housed prominent French political prisoners. When a fanatical SS division attempted to take the castle, a German Wehrmacht unit ended up fighting side-by-side with a United States army unit to defend these prisoners. It was the only time during the entire war that the Germans and Americans fought side-by-side, and it is often described as the ‘strangest battle of the entire war.’

Battle of Castle Itter

This castle, Schloss Itter, was used as a prison for French people of interest such as former French presidents, ministers and former commanders of the French army. These people had been seized from France following Germany’s rapid conquest of the country nearly five years earlier and were locked up as political prisoners, as a sort of bargaining chip if you will. Among the imprisoned were former prime ministers Eduard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. 

The entrance of Schloss Itter

Now the Itter Castle wasn’t a regular prison. The guest rooms of the castle had been converted to ‘prison cells’, but the ‘prisoners’ were free to move around. Furthermore, they had a full staff consisting of Dachau prisoners and there was ample food and water available. SS-Totenkopfverbände soldiers guarded them. In early May these men too realised the war was lost. Itter was a subunit of the Dachau concentration camp, and the fact the commandant of Dachau, Eduard Weiter, fled to Itter as the camp was liberated and then proceeded to take his own life was quite the big giveaway the war wasn’t going well for the Germans. Following this event Itter’s prisoner commander fled together with the guards, leaving the prisoners behind. 

Following their abandonment the prisoners armed themselves. They were aware of a hostile SS division in the vicinity and they weren’t too wrong about that. Closeby, the 17th Waffen SS Panzer-Grenadier Division, was preparing itself to recapture the castle. Knowing the allies were close by, the prisoners had already sent an arrested Yugoslavian communist resistance fighter that worked at the castle as a handyman to try and get the Americans to come to rescue them. When he didn’t return the group sent their cook to try and find Allies to rescue them as well.

Meanwhile, the handyman hadn’t disappeared or anything. He managed to reach Innsbruck where US troops were stationed. Innsbruck was over 14 hours of walking away, but roaming SS units occupied all nearby towns. Although the castle wasn’t in their military jurisdiction, the US commander, Major John T. Kramers assembled a small rescue troop to go with the handyman. 

As for the cook, he reached Wörgl, a small Austrian town. The Austrian resistance ruled over it and the cook was brought to its leader, Wehrmacht commander Major Sepp Gangl. Gangl was a highly decorated Wehrmacht officer that had refused official orders to retreat into Germany. Together with his unit, they were somewhat renegades that now occupied the Austrian town and led its anti-Nazi resistance. They realised defeat was imminent and tried to protect the town’s population against SS war crimes. Gangl commanded 20-odd men, not enough to protect the castle against a larger SS division. Realising this, he decided to call in the help of the Allied powers, rapidly advancing in the area. He took a white flag and managed to contact and surrender to a nearby US tank commander, Jack C. Lee junior and explain the situation. Lee agreed to assemble a rescue party, but not before scouting around the castle together with Gangl. It was one of the most curious alliances that were forged during the entire war. A United States tank commander taking a Wehrmacht commander on a reconnaissance mission. Upon return commander Lee assembled his own rescue party. The next morning, together with 14 US soldiers, Gangl, a tank, driver and truck with 10 former Wehrmacht soldiers they approached the castle.

Josef ‘Sepp’ Gangl and Jack C. Lee

But obviously, while all this was going on the situation at the castle wasn’t dormant. As a matter of fact, and this is just one of the many twists in this weird story, the prisoners requested an SS-Hauptsturmführer they befriended, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, to take charge of its defence. So when Gangl and Lee arrived with their troops the situation must have been rather odd – French politicians and persons of interest, under the command of a SS officer, greeting US soldiers and a former Wehrmacht officer coming to their aid.

Nevertheless, the defence force was small. They were vastly outnumbered. Even with the prisoners taking up arms, they would be no match for the ‘black brigades’ of the elite SS division preparing the recapture. The US tank was placed at the castle’s entrance and the men took up defensive positions. 

On the morning of the 5th of May, the SS assault was launched. Around 150 Waffen-SS soldiers chipped down at the castle’s defences. Gangl was shot by a sniper trying to get former French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to safety. Lee’s tank was destroyed, although everyone survived the blast that destroyed it, and the castle walls were heavily damaged. 

The battle went on for hours. As the ammunition of the defending force was about to run out at 4 PM that day the column of tanks under the command of Kramer, contacted by the Yugoslav handyman, arrived. Some SS soldiers fled, and approximately 100 were arrested and subsequently sent to prisoner of war camps. The French prisoners were brought to safety and arrived in France four days later.

For his exploits, Lee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Gangl was the only fatal casualty of the assault and was posthumously declared an Austrian national hero. And, well, 2 days after this strange battle Germany signed its unconditional surrender officially bringing the second world war in Europe to an end.

Another Wehrmacht vs SS situation

Now, although this was the only time Americans fought side-by-side with the Germans, by the end of the war, it wasn’t too rare for Wehrmacht soldiers to counter the Waffen-SS actively. One such example is the story of Wichard von Alvensleben, a Wehrmacht officer. When the commanders of various concentration camps realised the war was over during the final weeks of the war, many set up transports of valuable, prominent prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp. In total, 139 prisoners were put on transport, including family members of Claus von Stauffenberg who led the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in the 20 July plot, Dr Hjalmar Schacht, co-conspirator of the plot and Sigismund Payne Best, the British SIS officer that was kidnapped during the Venlo incident preceding the invasion of the Netherlands. I made a video about both events. 

Wichard von Alvensleben (1902-1982)

At any rate, the evacuation of the prisoners was under the command of Obersturmführer Friedrich Bader and Edgar Stiller. Because the communication lines had broken, they only received orders to evacuate the prisoners, unsure what to do with them next. They received the order to execute all prisoners if they risked getting arrested by Allied troops. Waffen-SS and Sicherheitsdienst soldiers guarded the transport of prisoners. In buses and trucks the prisoners were transported, initially to Labourcamp Reichenau in Innsbruck, Austria. But this camp couldn’t house the prisoners so they were moved to the Hotel Pragser Wildsee, a municipality in South Tyrol, where they arrived on the 28th of April. This entire area saw fierce Nazi resistance against the rapidly advancing allied forces.

The hotel Pragser Wildsee was, to the surprise of the captors, occupied by Luftwaffe generals and their staff. The only option was to move the prisoners to the little town of Niederhof, 12 kilometres north of the hotel. In the town, accommodation was prepared for the prisoners, and the SS and SD men went on a drinking binge. Later that night one of the prisoners discovered a note in the wallets of a drunkenly passed-out SD officer that called for the execution of several prisoners. In addition, the drunk guards started to behave more aggressively towards the group of prisoners. 

The next day one of the prisoners, Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, who was imprisoned after allowing a retreat from Warsaw following the Soviet Vistula-Oder offensive, asked the local Wehrmacht liaison office to get in touch with an old friend. He ringed General Hans Röttinger, who had his headquarters closeby in Bolanzo. He identified the high-profile prisoners and communicated the incredibly dangerous situation the prisoners were in and the fear they were to be executed. In response, Röttinger’s superior Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff decided to send a Wehrmacht unit to Niederhof to ensure safe supervision of the prisoners and make sure no laws were broken.

Wehrmacht captain Wichard von Alvensleben was tasked with the protection of the prisoners. Together with two men he went to Niederhof where he ran into Friedrich Bader. Von Alvensleben said he was a representative from generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff and that Bader’s mission to transport the prisoners was completed. As a Wehrmacht Captain he had no authority to give orders to the SS, however, and indeed, Bader refused to accept the order. In a precarious position and heavily outnumbered Von Alvensleben left the town and called for a Wehrmacht group to be dispatched to Niederhof. 

Pragser Wildsee Hotel

Forty-five minutes later 15 Wehrmacht officers arrived, which still was not enough in case chaos would break out. As such a larger army unit was requested, and 150 extra Wehrmacht soldiers arrived 2 hours later. The group then re-entered the town, positioned themselves in the town square and von Alvensleben once again negotiated with Bader and Stiller about the release of prisoners. A tense situation developed where a firefight between the SS-troops and Wehrmacht unit was a genuine possibility. Only after a near-standoff and the realisation among the captors they were heavily outgunned, did they concede. The prisoners were handed over to the Wehrmacht unit that was to protect them from now on, and Bader and Stiller’s men retreated.

They moved inland and the Wehrmacht moved the prisoners back to the Pragser Wildsee Hotel. There they resided with the Wehrmacht protecting them until the Allied forces finally rescued them four days later and the Wehrmacht soldiers, including von Alvensleben, voluntarily surrendered. The soldiers were released from US custody later that year. Both the story of Castle Itter and the stand-off between the Wehrmacht and SS in Niederhof are curious tales from those final days of the second world war, where the line between ally and foe was very blurred, leading to very strange situations.

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