I’ve read multiple books this year about WWII, and even more than discuss the implications of post-WWII life in the economic, political, and social realms. The latest book I’ve read from this era was about the invasion on Omaha Beach by the Big Red. Stephen Harding’s book, however, takes place in the little village of Schloss Itter (e’s sound like a’s in German and r’s at the end of a word are silent, so this is pronounced “Scholhs Itta”), Austria. The exposition of this story begins in the waning days of WWII, as the Nazi’s are in full retreat admist the invasion from both the Soviets from the East and the Americans from the West. Harding touts the battle for Itter Castle the last, if unlikely, battle in the European Theater during WWII.
Itter Castle was transformed into a Nazi political prisoner camp in the early 1940’s, but was not completed until much later in the war. It held high ranking political prisoners, mostly French, and their families. While WWII raged on, these prisoners lived in a somewhat comfortable manner compared to the Jews being slaughtered in nearby Dachau Concentration Camp.
During the last days of the war, Itter Castle was left unguarded by Nazi SS troops, leaving the political prisoners a chance to arm themselves and wait for Americans who were about a days journey from Schloss Itter. Luckily, an unlikely hero came to the rescue, one Major Joseph Gangl, formerly a Nazi Officer. He and some Nazi soldiers contacted Lt. John, “Jack” Lee of the 23rd Tank Battalion, B Company, who provided one tank in the defense of Itter Castle temporarily until the reinforcements arrived.
The SS troops ruthlessly attacked Itter Castle, unaware that former Nazi soldiers were aiding the political prisoners. Tragically, in the most moving section of the book, Major Joseph Gangl was killed in action, perhaps the last combat casualty of WWII. The ragtag group of defenders were able to hold out until the brunt of the American forces were able to eradicate the threat of SS troops.
Cracked.com posted an article entitled, “5 Shocking Ways Enemies Worked Together During War,” and, to no one’s surprise, the way Lee and Gangl worked together came in at number 2. This really is a beautiful story and Harding’s scholarship is unprecedented, as I’ve talked about before. It’s truly sad to realize more people do not know this story. Hopefully, through Harding’s book, the heroic details of the last battle in Europe will live on in infamy.