The Last Battle – Book Review
A small group of French political prisoners, including four very brave women. A few American tankers with a single tank. Two Austrian resistance fighters. An SS colonel. A Werhmacht unit. Throw them into a Bavarian castle / ski lodge and have them defend against several SS assaults in a medieval-style siege (but with panzerfausts and machine guns). If you tried to make this into a World War Two game scenario, no one would believe it.
That it happened is still hard to believe, but journalist and editor Stephen Harding was able to research documents—many of them either in German and French or in top-secret Defense Department archives—and bring to light one of the oddest battles in the history of the US, Germany, France, and Austria.
(Editor’s note: Author Stephen Harding is editor for one of Armchair General’s partner publications, Military History magazine.)
Castle Itter (Schloss Itter in German) had been a fortress since the start of the tenth century, when the Bavarians gained control of the Tyrol and decided to top a strategic hill with a pair of stone keeps. By the late 1200s, this had become an impressive castle with a small village (also named Schloss Itter) at the base of the hill. Passing through many hands, it went from military fort to town storage dump to private home of an Austrian pianist whose houseguests included Franz Lizst, Richard Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. From there a German doctor purchased it, and by the early twentieth century was running it as a high-class hotel and way station for skiers, hikers, and mountain climbers.
The doctor was forced out in 1940, leasing the castle that was his home and business to the SS. Schloss Itter served as the regional headquarters for The German Alliance For Combating The Dangers Of Tobacco. The SS were quite literally anti-smoking Nazis. The castle was used for this odd bureaucracy for about two years; then, the little chicken farmer named Heinrich Himmler decided he needed a secure location to store some high-value French political prisoners. An out-of-the-way Austrian ski lodge with a high outer wall to keep the prisoners secure was just the place.
A more fractious lot would be hard to find. First to arrive was Edouard Daladier, the premier of France who had been forced out of office in the opening days of the war. His successor to the premiership, his political and personal rival Paul Reynaud, also found himself on the outs with the Nazis and was interred at Schloss Itter. Maurice Gamelin had been the commander of France’s military forces at the outbreak of the war, but his failures to stop the German advance got him sacked (by Reynaud) and replaced by Maxime Weygand (who had been replaced by Gamelin at the instigation of Daladier). Four men who could not get along personally, professionally, and politically were now virtual roommates. Add in an anti-fascist trade union leader, a pro-fascist Basque separatist, a Vichy government double agent, two Maquis leaders, the sister and brother-in-law of Charles De Gaulle, and a Serbian carpenter, and you have one hell of a variant on Gilligan’s Isle.
Harding does a magnificent job providing biographies of these fascinating people, each of them worth a book on their own. The women are the most fascinating and, in a way, more brave than the men. Augusta Bruchlen was the lover of union leader Leon Johaux, and when he was captured she voluntarily turned herself in to the Gestapo and requested to be imprisoned with him. Likewise with Christiane Mabire (lover of Reynaud) and Marie Renee Josephine Weygand (wife of Maxime Weygand), they volunteered to be kept at Castle Itter. And when, because of their disheveled clothes, the French couple was about to be sent away to a common jailhouse for collaborating with the resistance, Marie-Agnes Cailliau shouted out “I am the sister of Charles De Gaulle!” And so she, too (with her husband, Alfred, who clearly had his hands full), found herself an “honor prisoner” of the SS, political prisoners held as hostages to their nation’s good behavior.
They were placed under the watch of a brutal SS officer, though he had to curb his natural distemper. Any prisoner who attempted escape would be shot, he announced, although he actually was under orders to re-capture them (which he had to do twice with that Basque, the tennis star and athlete Jean Borotra). For the most part, though, the French stayed put. Although technically a prison, with walls reinforced by razor wire and machine gun nests pointing inwards, it was still a ski lodge with a library and a maintained bar. The prisoners were free to move about the grounds and through the castle during daylight, and the food was good. They could do without each other’s company, thank you, but otherwise it wasn’t bad. Besides, the prisoners took turns hiding a small radio and listening to BBC broadcasts; they heard about victories in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and they knew the war was soon over.
The Germans knew, too. Major Josef Gangl had never been a Nazi Party member, and early on in the war he turned against the government of Hitler. Remaining in his post—loyalty to his country never wavered; neither did he ever forsake the men under his command—Gangl nonetheless used his position to provide information and even weapons to the Austrian resistance. As the Americans pushed into Austria, Gangl had made a pact with his men; they would not be sacrificed in battle, rather he would surrender the region to the first American unit he could contact. When he was first posted to the Tyrol, Gangl made the acquaintance of an SS colonel named Kurt Siegfried Schrader. Schrader had been injured in Russia and sent to convalesce in Schloss Itter with his family (who barely escaped Allied bombers). While visiting the Dachau concentration camp, Schrader—faced with the reality of The Final Solution—in his own words “turned my heart” away from the Nazi party. He made friends with the French prisoners, Major Gangl, and some of the Austrian resistance fighters.
If the first third of Harding’s book seems too much like the set-up for a Hollywood film, wait until you meet the last character to step onto the screen of history. If you went to Central Casting and said, “I need a guy to play a hard-charging, 1940s tank commander, good-looking, happy-go-lucky, loved by his men, with a knowing smirk and a drink in his hand,” they would give you John Carey Lee, a true cavalry officer. He was trained on horseback before graduating in 1942 and being given a tank platoon to command. He was on the spearpoint of the advance into Austria.
Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, the SS troops at Castle Itter felt discretion was the better part of valor. The French awoke one morning to find the guards all gone, though they helpfully left the machine guns and several other small arms behind. The prisoners immediately contacted Schrader and requested his help in keeping them safe from other SS units who were operating in the area as they fell back from the Allied advance. Schrader reached out to Gangl. Imagine John Carey Lee’s surprise one morning when a German major named Gangl drove up to his tank unit and offered to surrender the entire region to him if he’d help some French prisoners in a castle. More units of SS were on their way to the castle, and their orders were scorched earth—kill everyone in Schloss Itter.
Cue the rousing music, start the special effects. This is a movie that should be made, all the more remarkable because it is true. Although the battle itself is truly not that significant—more of a skirmish in the closing days of the war—it is remarkable for who fought it: a single American tank and some US soldiers, two German squads with an anti-Nazi major and SS colonel, and French POWs who bickered even as they fought, against a surge of SS troops. Add in the fact that everyone in the castle knew there would be no quarter, that the SS troops were here to kill them all (especially the German and Austrian traitors), and the battle that lasted barely longer than a day takes on a heroic drama almost equal to the Alamo. I won’t spoil how it ends other than to say yes, there is a heroic last-second cavalry arrival, but that it is very muted by the tragic end of one of the main characters.
Stephen Harding has a great tale to tell, and in The Last Battle he does a great job in telling it. The book actually seems too short, which is the best compliment one can give to a writer. Not only that, but as befits his training in journalism, Harding provides a fantastic bibliography and detailed notes for each chapter, reaching into Norwich, Connecticut newspapers and German war archives to ferret out as much of this story as possible.
If you’re like me, the book will be a quick read because you simply can’t put it down. Tonight I’m drinking an extra Scotch for you, John Carey Lee.
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh. He is currently working on an online comic book and has also provided several gaming and book reviews for Armchair General.