Take a handful of GIs, a group of surrendered German soldiers and some high-ranking French officials (along with their wives and mistresses), arm them all to the teeth and let them team up to defend a medieval Austrian castle against an onslaught SS storm troopers. While it sounds like the premise of a far-fetched Quentin Tarantino action flick, it’s actually the subject of a remarkable new book by journalist, historian and author Stephen Harding entitled The Last Battle.
According a review of the book on The Daily Beast, on May 5, 1945, a small detachment of troops and tanks from the American 12th Armored Division rolled into Schloss Itter castle in Austria. The group’s mission was to liberate a collection of high-ranking French government officials that had been held captive in the stronghold since being taken into German custody in 1940. French prime ministers Paul Reynauld and Eduard Daladier along with generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were just some of the detainees and many were imprisoned with their female companions. With the Third Reich in its death throes, the Allied high command deemed it vital that these high-ranking inmates be freed safely.
Amazingly, the American troops had some unlikely help in their mission – German infantry under the command of a 34-year-old major named Josef Gangl. The Wehrmacht officer who had recently surrendered his unit to the Allies warned his former enemies that the occupants of the prison were to be executed by elements of the 17th Waffen SS Panzer Grenadier Division whom at that moment were en route to carry out their bloody orders. Gangl and his men even accompanied the Americans on the rescue mission. Although the group managed to liberate the castle, the SS arrived before they could make good their escape.
What followed was perhaps one of the most outlandish battles of the Second World War – the only one that saw Germans soldiers fight along side American troops (not to mention French government officials and their wives and mistresses) against an entire outfit of die hard Nazis.