Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Last Battle by Stephen Harding -- When American & German Soldiers Together Fought German SS Troops in the Last Days of WII

In The Last Battle (Da Capo, 173 pages), author Stephen Harding tells the fascinating, little-known story of the firefight for an Austrian mountain-top castle called Schloss Itter in northern Austria in the closing days of WWII in Europe May 4th and 5th, almost a week after Hitler had committed suicide.  American units were advancing into northern Austria, confronting roving and scattered bands of German troops, many of which were eager to surrender but some of which were fighting on, the latter mostly fanatical SS units that even terrorized and killed German soldiers and civilians trying to surrender.

The castle housed a German army prisoner of war facility whose inmates included 10 or so high ranking French VIPs, including two former premiers (Daladier and Reynaud) and two former top generals (Gamelin and Weygand).  The small regular German army prison garrison, interested in staying alive until they could surrender, came to learn that fanatical Waffen SS troops in the area were preparing an attack in order to kill the French VIPs.  In order to improve their post-war position with the near-by advancing Americans, the Germans in charge allowed two prisoners to leave to try to reach the advancing Americans for help in defending the castle.  The two went in different directions, and each was successful in reaching American lines.  Not wanting to fall into a trap, each American unit sent only a small detachment on a rescue mission. 

The small force destined to reach the castle in time fought off minor German army resistance on the way, reluctantly left most men and equipment behind when a bridge threatened collapse, linked up with a friendly group of German soldiers wanting to join in the rescue, and left some men and a tank to guard an avenue of retreat.   The tank and crew left to guard the escape bridge hid between buildings in a small town, joined by 10 or so Austrian partisans, and stayed silent as many still-fighting German troops moved through the town during the night.  Finally arriving at the castle were 7 Americans with just one tank, all from the spearhead of the advancing 12th Armored Division and led by a burly tank commander named Captain Jack Lee, along with about 10 German army soldiers (some of them conscripted Poles).  The Americans’ radio was broke and so they had no communication with their lines.  The assaulting Germans had a small cannon, a lethal 88mm gun, and between 100-150 men.  A battle ensued.

In light of the pre-war and early-war utter incompetence and malfeasance of the imprisoned senior French officials that directly led to the overrun of their country by the Germans, whether any American lives should have been risked rescuing and defending them is an intriguing and unaddressed question.  The book is an easy read, though perhaps too detailed early on in providing background on some German jailers who weren’t even around by the time of the assault.  Overall it’s an engrossing story of heroism and tactics under fire, and great movie material.

R. Balsamo

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