In the last days of World War II in Europe, it was obvious that Nazi Germany was going to lose the war. In many cases, German commanders were surrendering to Allied commanders. However, others, mostly in the Schutzstaffel (SS), were carrying out what reprisals they could, in some cases executing civilians and prisoners in areas about to be liberated.
One German army officer in Austria, Major Josef Gangl, had chosen to defy orders to retreat in order to protect local civilians from such reprisals, and had joined the Austrian Resistance. His intention had been to wait for the Americans to come, but when a messenger from Castle Itter came, reporting that a number of high-value French prisoners (many former government and military leaders, plus a tennis star) were at risk of being executed by an oncoming column from the SS 17th Panzergrenadier Division.
Gangl acted quickly, linking up with an American reconnaissance unit led by Captain John Lee. Lee immediately informed his superiors, and soon, a combined force consisting of 14 American troops and a Sherman tank under Lee, as well as some of Gangl’s men, linked up with the French prisoners who had armed themselves. The combined American-Wehrmacht force fought their way through an SS roadblock before arriving at the prison on May 4, 1945.
Lee’s polyglot force arrived just in time. The next morning, as many as 150 Waffen-SS troops, backed by an 88mm gun, launched their attack on Castle Inner. The defenders held on, receiving some reinforcements from the Austrian Resistance, but their situation grew dire. However, by the afternoon, troops from the 36th Infantry Division arrived, and put an end to the SS assault.
Lee would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in saving the French prisoners. Josef Gangl was the only fatality among the defenders, hit while shielding former French prime minister Paul Reynaud.