By now everybody knows Humphrey Bogart never once said, “Play it again, Sam.” But there was this song, and it’s not the one in the movie. William Shirer, in his epic work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, recounts its origins.
Passing notice must here be taken of one of these encounters, for it provided National Socialism with its greatest martyr. One of the neighborhood leaders of the S.A. in Berlin was Horst Wessel, son of a Protestant chaplain, who had forsaken his family and his studies and gone to live in a slum with a former prostitute and devote his life to fighting for Nazism. Many anti-Nazis always held that the youth earned his living as a pimp, though this charge may have been exaggerated. Certainly he consorted with pimps and prostitutes. He was murdered by some Communists in February 1930 and would have passed into oblivion along with hundreds of other victims of both sides in the street wars had it not been for the fact that he left behind a song whose words and tune he had composed. This was the Horst Wessel song, which soon became the official song of the Nazi party and later the second official anthem—after “Deutschland ueber Alles”—of the Third Reich. Horst Wessel himself, thanks to Dr. Goebbels’ skillful propaganda, became one of the great hero legends of the movement, hailed as a pure idealist who had given his life for the cause.
Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (p. 147). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The Nazis do not sing Das Horst Wessel Lied in Rick’s Café Americain in the movie. But it was for all intents the Nazis’ theme song. Which got to me to wondering as I read Stephen Harding’s The Last Battle.
Whether this was the last battle World War Two in Europe may be debatable, but, five days after German Chancellor Adolf Hitler killed himself and two days before both sides finally decided to call the whole thing off, a squad of American soldiers, in cooperation with a collection of disaffected Wehrmacht troops, fought a significant skirmish to protect a small collection of French prisoners. There’s some history.
France, along with Great Britain and the United States, won World War One, the War to End all Wars. The Germans gave up and retreated to within their borders, ultimately accepting excruciating terms pressed upon them by the victors. In the twenty years following the Germans regrouped, rearmed, and prepared for war again. In the meantime French society tore itself apart in ceaseless political and social strife. Shirer recounts from first hand observation:
PARIS, February 7 
A little dazed still from last night. About five p.m. yesterday I was twiddling my thumbs in the Herald office wondering whether to go down to the Chamber, where the new premier, Édouard Daladier, was supposed to read his ministerial declaration, when we got a tip that there was trouble at the Place de la Concorde. I grabbed a taxi and went down to see. I found nothing untoward. A few royalist Camelots du Roi, Jeunesses Patriotes of Deputy Pierre Taittinger, and Solidarité Française thugs of Perfumer François Coty— all right-wing youths or gangsters— had attempted to break through to the Chamber, but had been dispersed by the police. The Place was normal. I telephoned the Herald, but Eric Hawkins, managing editor, advised me to grab a bite of dinner nearby and take another look a little later. About seven p.m. I returned to the Place de la Concorde. Something obviously was up. Mounted steel-helmeted Mobile Guards were clearing the square. Over by the obelisk in the centre a bus was on fire. I worked my way over through the Mobile Guards, who were slashing away with their sabres, to the Tuileries side. Up on the terrace was a mob of several thousand and, mingling with them, I soon found they were not fascists, but Communists. When the police tried to drive them back, they unleashed a barrage of stones and bricks. Over on the bridge leading from the Place to the Chamber across the Seine, I found a solid mass of Mobile Guards nervously fingering their rifles, backed up by ordinary police and a fire-brigade. A couple of small groups attempted to advance to the bridge from the quay leading up from the Louvre, but two fire-hoses put them to flight. About eight o’clock a couple of thousand U.N.C. (Union Nationale des Combattants1) war veterans paraded into the Place, having marched down the Champs-Élysées from the Rond-Point. They came in good order behind a mass of tricoloured flags. They were stopped at the bridge and their leaders began talking with police officials. I went over to the Crillon and up to the third-floor balcony overlooking the square. It was jammed with people. The first shots we didn’t hear. The first we knew of the shooting was when a woman about twenty feet away suddenly slumped to the floor with a bullet-hole in her forehead. She was standing next to Melvin Whiteleather of the A.P. Now we could hear the shooting, coming from the bridge and the far side of the Seine. Automatic rifles they seemed to be using. The mob’s reaction was to storm into the square. Soon it was dotted with fires. To the left, smoke started pouring out of the Ministry of Marine. Hoses were brought into play, but the mob got close enough to cut them. I went down to the lobby to phone the office. Several wounded were laid out and were being given first aid.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 80-101). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The upshot was this: The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and stepped up the re-armament that had been under way for years in secret. They also instigated a brutal, totalitarian regime and began to dismantle the Versailles Treaty. In the process Hitler began to encroach upon neighboring lands, starting with Austria. Austria was always German, but more recently a separate nation state, nation states being a novelty within the past few hundred years. Next came Czechoslovakia, and the former victors did nothing to stop him. When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Great Britain and France resumed hostilities against Germany, which by now included the former Austria. In the spring of 1940 German forces launched a blitzkrieg attack into France, and that country’s defenses simply fell apart. Within a few weeks German forces occupied northern and western France, and a French government, seated in Vichy in unoccupied France, collaborated with the Nazis.
The United States joined the fracas in December 1941, and by April 1945 American, British, and French troops were running wild in western Germany and also pushing up from Italy into the former Austria. Soviet troops were beginning to pound Berlin, itself. That’s when Hitler shot himself.
What should by now have been over was not by now over. High ranking survivors of Nazism looked for ways to escape the hangman’s noose. Some hoped for a deal that would leave Germany an unconquered nation (in defiance of existing fact). Possibly some wanted to sing das Horst Wessel Lied just one more time. As negotiations began and then began to drag, shooting continued, and people continued to die. Those knowing a noose awaited them beyond the bargaining table cast about for some they wanted to take with them behind that dark curtain. Prison camps began to empty at the turn of a shovel, or even less neatly.
A notable target in peril was a gaggle of French higher-ups who had been less than collegial during the occupation, and the aforementioned Édouard Daladier was among them. The group also included Maurice Gamelin, the general who had been unable to hold off the German invasion; Paul Reynaud, the prime minister who succeeded Daladier (plus Reynaud’s mistress Christiane Mabire); Maxime Weygand, the French general who succeeded Gamelin and further screwed up the invasion defense (plus Marie-Renée-Joséphine Weygand), and a few more.
Over a period of several months these valuable bargaining chips were collected at an ancient castle-turned resort hotel-turned prison in Austria: Schloss Itter, near Wörgl. How Schloss Itter came to be and how the French prisoners worked their way there makes for a great story, and Harding’s research is comprehensive. But it’s all preparation for the story of the battle, which occupies only one of the eight chapters.
Not the least is the story of disillusionment that permeated German forces toward the end. As the fortunes of war went against Germany, starting especially with defeats at Stalingrad and North Africa in early 1943, reality set in. An attempt to murder Hitler with a time bomb in July 1944 failed, and scores of plotters and innocents alike were disposed of in hideous fashion. Additionally, Hitler, and the upper reaches of Nazism, grew increasingly paranoid. A brutal campaign of repression commenced. Even before Allied forces breached the German border, the orders went out for the elimination of all traces of disloyalty and “defeatism.” Defeatism could be as minor as expressing doubts about ultimate German victory, often leading to swift execution without trial.
The German annexation of Austria in 1938 enjoyed popular support, but an undercurrent of resentment grew within a segment of the population, even into those Austrians pressed into Wehrmacht service. It was this contingent, plus additional elements from native Germany, that fortified the plan to save the lives of the French prisoners. In the end, some Wehrmacht troops in the vicinity of Wörgl threw in their lot with Austrian resistance elements in those final days of the war.
SS Captain Sebastian “Wastl” Wimmer was an unlikely commandant of a prison designated for treating prisoners kindly. The French notables were intended to be protected and coddled, for possible use as hostages or pawns in a future bargaining session. Wimmer’s previous roles had served to fulfill his depraved indifference to human life. At Schloss Itter he was now obliged to not only see that his charges were well fed, but treated courteously—right up to the moment they were no longer needed. As Allied troops neared in the opening days of May 1945, Wimmer saw a rope noose in his future and slipped away without fanfare, leaving his prisoners, and their guards to fend for themselves. The guards took the hint, and the prisoners were left unguarded, and also unprotected. The area swarmed with die-hard SS units, ready and well-practiced at meting out extra-judicial death upon laggard soldiers and lackadaisical civilians, as well. Foreign prisoners would be a prime target.
Into the breach stepped Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, a hardened SS veteran. He turned out to be the salvation of the French prisoners. Having fought in the worst of the Wehrmacht battles and watched the destruction of entire fighting units toward the satisfaction of Hitler’s fetish for conquest, he resolved to end the killing before his country lost its soul. He was recuperating from the most recent of his many battle wounds in Wörgl when Wimmer tapped him to succeed at Schloss Itter.
Wimmer’s departure coincided with that of prisoner Zvonko Čučković. Wimmer sent the handyman on an errand and never saw him again. Instead of going to install some lights for Wimmer, Zvonko pedaled his bicycle through no-man’s land between German and American lines and encountered Major General Anthony C. McAuliffe’s 103rd Infantry Division, freshly arrived in Innsbruck.
German Wehrmacht Major Josef “Sepp” Gangl was another unlikely ally of the prisoners. He had previously thrown in his lot with the local resistance while maintaining his position in the German Army. With their guards AWOL, the French sent Czech prisoner-cook Andreas Krobot on yet another bicycle mission. Krobot was able to contact Major Gangl in Wörgl. On nothing but bluff and nerve, Gangl was able to penetrate the frontier and reach the American 23rd Tank Battalion, of the U.S. 12th Armored Division, in Kufstein.
It was ultimately Captain John C. “Jack” Lee Jr., commander of the 23rd, who was to be the first to reach the Frenchies’ prison, already festooned with defecting German soldiers. Captain Lee was able to bring only a single Sherman M4 tank and a fraction of his troops to the castle. It was with this that the American Army fought the last European battle of World War Two.
A time line:
- 30 April 1945: Adolf Hitler and his bride, Eva Braun, killed themselves in the Berlin bunker.
- 3 May (Wednesday): Wimmer sent Čučković on his bicycle errand.
- 3 May: (late) Wimmer slipped away.
- 3 May: Captain Lee crossed into Austria.
- 4 May: The prisoners realized the guards had left. They began their plans for battle.
- 4 May: Captain Lee arrived at Schloss Itter.
- 5 May: The battle
- 7 May: The German High Command signed the surrender documents in Reims, France.
- 8 May: The war in Europe officially ended.
Probing through enemy lines was no day trip, even with the Wehrmacht in the final stages of disintegration. Captain Lee initially reconnoitered the route to Schloss Itter in a German vehicle:
In his response to Jack Lee’s radio message regarding Sepp Gangl’s appearance in Kufstein, 23rd TB commander Kelso Clow had directed Lee to deal with the situations in Wörgl and at Schloss Itter as he saw fit. Apparently not wanting to put the bulk of his task force in danger until it became absolutely necessary, Lee made what can only be described as a characteristically gutsy decision: He told Gangl that he wouldn’t move the column into Wörgl or mount a full-blown rescue mission to Schloss Itter until he’d undertaken a personal reconnaissance to both places. And Lee, in an obvious test of Gangl’s good faith and veracity, said they’d make the trip together in the major’s kübelwagen. We don’t know how Gangl felt about Lee’s ultimatum, but we can be fairly certain that the GI whom Lee tapped to join him on the jaunt behind enemy lines— his twenty-nine-year-old gunner Corporal Edward J. “Stinky” Szymczyk— probably wasn’t too pleased to be “volunteered” for the mission.
After passing temporary command of the task force to his executive officer, Lee wedged himself into the kübelwagen’s cramped rear seat, with Szymczyk beside him and Gangl in the front passenger seat. As Corporal Keblitsch put the vehicle in motion, the two Americans settled back, their helmets most probably on the floor so as not to attract undue attention and their M3 submachine guns almost certainly laying cocked and ready on their laps. The party didn’t encounter any hostile troops on the road to Wörgl, and the Wehrmacht soldiers they did meet were all loyal to Gangl. Lee checked several small bridges for demolition charges, and those he found Gangl ordered his men to remove. The kübelwagen rolled into Wörgl at approximately four thirty in the afternoon, and within minutes Lee had formally accepted Gangl’s surrender of the town and its remaining garrison. In what can only have been both an obvious gesture of trust and a pragmatic acknowledgment that Gangl and his men were the only force capable of fighting off Waffen-SS units that might assault the town, the American tanker allowed the Germans to keep their weapons.
Harding, Stephen. The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe (pp. 121-122). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
One of the French prisoners was Tennis star-turned political activist Jean Borotra. When ammunition ran low during the fight at the castle, the now middle-aged athlete volunteered to trek through enemy lines for help.
After disguising himself as an Austrian refugee— complete with ragged bedroll and gnarled walking stick— Borotra waited for a brief lull in the firing and then clambered over one of the low parapet walls on the castle’s north side. He dropped some fifteen feet to the ground, rolled easily, and in seconds was back on his feet. His daily training runs stood him in good stead, for he dashed quickly across forty yards of open ground, made it into the woods that bordered the castle’s northwest side, and started down the steep slope toward the river. After carefully eluding several groups of SS men, some of whom were firing upslope at the castle, Borotra burst from the trees at the bottom of the hill and came face to face with two soldiers manning an MG-42 machine gun sited so it could fire at both the castle and at any Americans approaching from the direction of Söll-Leukental.
No doubt equally as startled by Borotra’s sudden appearance as the Frenchman was by theirs, the Waffen-SS men nonetheless held their fire, apparently taken in by the tennis star’s “harmless refugee” disguise. He reinforced their first impression by calmly bending down to gather some herbs and then relieving himself against a nearby tree. When it was clear that the soldiers had dismissed him as a possible threat, he sauntered to the bank of a large stream and, holding his bedroll and walking stick over his head, waded into the swift-flowing, waist-deep water. Though he slipped once or twice, he kept his footing and made it to the other side. Climbing to the top of the bank he looked back at the soldiers, tossed them a friendly wave, and started toward Söll-Leukental. As soon as he thought it safe, he began the slow and steady jog that ultimately led him to Reinhard and Lévesque.
Harding, Stephen. The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe (p. 158). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
Borotra used the knowledge gained from his outward trip, and, leading American troops back the same way, one of the first obstacles they eliminated was the German machine gun post.
Waffen-SS forces assaulted the castle on the night of 4 May, initially to probe its defenses. They followed up in the morning with a full scale attack, and the fire fight was intense. The tank, left parked in front of the prison gate, was destroyed by a round from a German gun, and shells from 88mm AA guns plus a 20mm gun stitched the castle walls. Small arms fire shredded the interior of the lavish living area.
The French prisoners were ordered to remain in the cellar, or at least out of range of the cross fire. This did not work for the former French officers, who had seen combat in the previous war. These elderly elites of French society picked up weapons and blazed away from the castle parapets. Some claimed they may have scored hits.
Sepp Gangl was the sole Allied fatality, felled by a sniper during an intense exchange. The day was saved by the arrival of American reinforcements, and the SS men, with possible exceptions, melted away into the woods.
Jack Lee earned the Distinguished Cross for his actions, but his life following the war was all down hill. He died at the age of 54. War criminal Wimmer was never tried in for his atrocities against prisoners and civilians, but it was not necessary. He killed himself in 1952.
For the German soldiers who assisted the reward was an end to the killing of innocents. Following the Schloss Itter action they headed off to POW camps.
The Frenchies returned to politics and activism following the war, some regaining high political office.
Harding has provided an eight-page bibliography and 22 pages of reference notes. The research shows admirable diligence. And this Kindle copy is clean as far as I can tell, absent transcription errors, possibly indicating the original was crafted on a keyboard. It’s an easy read, sending me only rarely to a dictionary, broken up into eight cohesive chapters.