May 5, 1945 Changing Sides

On this day in 1945, a motley group of civilians joined forces with American GIs and a handful of Wehrmacht soldiers to fight the fanatics, of the Nazi SS.

According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States second only, to heart disease. The #3 leading cancer afflicts the lungs, and bronchi.

In 1878 a scant 1 percent of all malignant tumors occurred in the lungs. Mass production and mass marketing of cigarettes, changed all that. By 1918, that number had increased to one in ten.

The American Cancer Society first published studies confirming the link between lung cancer and smoking nearly a decade after World War 2. British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was knighted in 1971 for similar research but the earliest such work, occurred in Nazi Germany.

German physician Fritz Lickint first wrote in 1929 of the connection between smoking, and lung cancer. Ten years later German scientist Franz Müller presented the first epidemiological study linking tobacco use, and cancer.

When Nazis came to power, the new government would tolerate no threat to the health of the Aryan “master race”. Hitler himself quit a two pack a day habit back in 1919. Benito Mussolini quit smoking and drinking, in his 20s. For the fascist states anti-smoking, became a crusade.  By the start of WWII der Führer had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle, who quit the habit. 

“Brother national socialist, do you know that your Fuhrer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?”

Adolf Hitler

In 1942, Itter Castle became headquarters for the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

Itter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government for unspecified “Official use”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter became a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among these were the tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned in Schloss Itter as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the elder sister of Charles de Gaulle. 

A number of Eastern Europeans were likewise imprisoned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lieutenant John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

3 May 45 French and Belgian soldiers as well as civilians shake the hands and greet Yanks entering Innsbruck 824th TD

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  Weiter was murderedon may 2 by an unnamed SS officer, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative. They had to do…something. 

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS fanatics, then in possession of the town.

While his fellow prisoners broke into the weapons room and armed themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lieutenant Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangl with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers, bringing up the rear.

Kübelwagen

It was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town, what remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall. 

Inside of Itter prisoners looked on, in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

ittercdamage

The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for concentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  On the morning of May 5 100 to150 of them, attacked Schloss Itter.   Fighting was furious around the castle, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until being destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off. 

Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted a gallant offer of assistance from the resident tennis pro, Jean Borotra.

Jean_Borotra

Literally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived around 4pm, even as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangl was killed by a sniper while attempting to move Prime Minister Reynaud, out of harm’s way. 

So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought, side by side. Representatives of Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender, two days later. Today, there’s a street in Wörgl, which bears the name of Josef Gangl. 

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very…French…of him.  All that and he never did get to learn the lyrics, of the Horst Wessel song.

May 4, 1945 The Strangest Battle of WWII

72 years ago today, Wehrmacht infantry fought side by side with American soldiers and French civilians, against Nazi SS.

Itter CastleItter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government, for unspecified “Official use”.

Fun Fact:  Most WWII-era Nazis didn’t merely abstain from tobacco use.  Nazis were rabid anti-smokers.  Adolf Hitler himself once smoked two packs a day.  By the start of WWII he had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle who quit the habit.  In 1942, Castle Itter became home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter had become a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among them were tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned there, as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the older sister of Charles de Gaulle.  A number of Eastern Europeans were also interned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lt. John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangel and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS then in possession of the town.

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  He was murdered by an unnamed SS officer on May 2, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now, but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative – they had to do something.  While breaking into the weapons room and arming themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

SchlossItter1979c_SJMorgan
Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lt. Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple of crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment, and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangel with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers bringing up the rear.

KübelwagenIt was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town.  What remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall.  Itter’s prisoners looked on in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside, but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for ittercdamageconcentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  100-150 of them attacked on the morning of May 5.   Fighting was furious around Castle Itter, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off.  Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted Jean Borotra’s gallant offer of assistance.

Jean_BorotraLiterally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived at around 4pm, as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangel was killed by a sniper while trying to move Prime Minister Reynaud out of harm’s way.  Today, there is a street in Wörgl which bears his name.  Germany signed the unconditional surrender two days later.  So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought side by side.

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very French of him.  All that, before he got to learn the lyrics of the Horst Wessel song.