‘The Last Battle’ tells fascinating story of U.S. and German soldiers teaming up to protect French VIPs from SS attack.
At the heart of “The Last Battle” is a largely unknown story that (a) seems implausible, (b) would make a great movie, and (c) reminds us that almost 70 years after the end of World War II there are countless tales still to be told.
Author Stephen Harding’s new book examines a strange alliance of American and German troops in the final days of the war in early May of 1945 — between the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the Reich’s surrender — to fight off elements of Germany’s Waffen-SS.
The unlikely allies fought side by side to save a group of mostly French VIPs who had been held prisoner at Schloss Itter, a castle in Austria’s Tyrol state near the border with Germany. The prisoners, who had been left unguarded when the castle’s garrison fled, most likely would have been executed by the advancing SS troops.
The story of the bizarre alliance of rescuers takes on an added twist in that the French prisoners were an aggregation of political rivals, many of whom had a deep hatred for one another before, during and long after their rescue.
“The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe” expands on Harding’s 2008 article for World War II magazine titled “The Battle for Castle Itter.” Harding, a historian and senior editor of Military History magazine, reportedly spent more than 20 years researching the incident and its principals.
Harding’s skills as a researcher and dedicated historian are apparent. He explains in detail every character and military unit involved, the evolution of the 13th-century castle, German military terms, prewar French politics and weapons of the era, along with more than 30 pages of detailed notes and sources.
Unfortunately, that strength also is a weakness. Though the book isn’t long, some readers may have trouble wading through much of the first half as Harding meticulously lays the foundation for the battle at Schloss Itter by giving us far more than what we need to understand the impending drama.
But for those readers who stick with it — or skim through the dense portions of Chapters 2, 3 and 4 — their effort will be rewarded when Harding begins telling what at times feels like a moment-by-moment real-time report of the events from the viewpoints of the Americans and prisoners, in particular. The book changes from plodding to page-turning.
Though there are many personalities involved in the incident, the key figures in Harding’s story are Capt. Jack Lee, a 27-year-old American tanker from New York, and Josef “Sepp” Gangl, a 34-year-old decorated German major.
With the war in Europe just days from officially coming to an end, Lee — in command of a task force of the U.S. 12th Armored Division in Kufstein, Austria — expected that his time in combat was over.
Gangl, however, knew of the prisoners at the castle and the threat from the nearby die-hard SS units, and he decided his best chance for defending them — and ingratiating himself to the Americans — was to surrender his command to U.S. forces and alert them to the situation. When Gangl drove into Kufstein and surrendered to Lee, it set off a joint American-German rescue operation led by Lee but including Gangl and some of his soldiers.