The Strangest Battle of WWII: Americans, Germans, and POWs

 June 14, 2023

In the turbulent twilight of World War II, an event transpired that would earn the moniker of the Strangest Battle. This was not a clash of opposing armies, nor a typical theater of war, but a peculiar convergence of allies forged in the heat of conflict. As the echoes of gunfire began to quieten across Europe, deep in the heart of Austria, a remarkable story unfolded. One where foes became friends, and the lines of allegiance blurred in the face of a greater evil.

At Itter Castle, a former prison for high-profile captives, a band of soldiers prepared for a battle unlike any other. They were a motley crew, comprising of American and German troops, French prisoners, and Austrian resistance fighters. With the specter of the fanatical Waffen SS looming over them, they set aside their differences, bound by the common goal of survival and the preservation of freedom. This was the stage for the Strangest Battle, an event that would etch an indelible mark in the annals of World War II.

Prelude to the Strangest Battle

The road to the Strangest Battle began in the last days of World War II, as the world began to sense the imminent collapse of the Third Reich.

Hitler had met his fate in a bunker in Berlin just five days prior, and the official surrender of Germany was a mere two days away.

Amidst the chaos of these final days, a small castle in Austria, Itter Castle, was left in an unusual predicament. The German military had transformed the castle into a prison for "high-value" prisoners such as French prime ministers, generals, sports stars, and politicians. With the surrender of Germany all but certain, the guards abandoned the castle on May 4, 1945.

Despite the absence of their captors, the prisoners were far from free. The Waffen SS, a fanatical paramilitary unit commanded by Heinrich Himmler, planned to retake the castle and execute all the prisoners.

Trapped within the castle walls, the prisoners had no choice but to prepare for a fight for their freedom.

The Strangest Battle Unfolds

With time running out and their lives hanging in the balance, the prisoners managed to team up with an unlikely group of American troops, local Austrian resistance fighters, and even soldiers from the Wehrmacht, the regular German army. This unlikely coalition was led by American Capt. John 'Jack' Lee and the highly decorated Wehrmacht officer Major Josef 'Sepp' Gangl, both of whom would become the heroes of the Strangest Battle.

The battle that ensued was as chaotic as it was unprecedented.

The defenders of Itter Castle, vastly outnumbered and facing a force of 100 to 150 SS troops, were put to the test over the course of a six-hour battle.

The SS managed to destroy the sole American tank and Allied ammunition ran dangerously low. It was only the timely arrival of American reinforcements that forced the SS to retreat.

By the end of the battle, the Allies took approximately 100 SS troops as prisoners. Tragically, Major Gangl lost his life to a sniper's bullet, becoming the only casualty among the defenders.

In recognition of his heroism, the nearby town of Wörgl later named a street in his honor. Meanwhile, Capt. Lee received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery during the battle.

Significance of the Strangest Battle on WWII

While the Strangest Battle might be overshadowed by larger, more well-known battles of World War II, its historical importance should not be underestimated.

In a small corner of Austria, a unique event unfolded that encapsulates the very essence of human resilience and ability to unite against a common foe, even in the most dire of circumstances.

The battle was a testament to the bravery and resilience of those involved, all of whom were willing to put aside their differences and work together for a greater cause.

The Strangest Battle also exemplifies the unpredictable nature of warfare. This shows how dramatically events can shift, even in the final days of a global conflict, paving the way for scenarios that one would consider improbable in a conventional context.

Moreover, it stands as a powerful reminder of the individuals who, like Major Josef 'Sepp' Gangl, chose to defy the horrific ideologies of the Nazi regime, even at the risk of their own lives.

Their actions serve as a beacon of courage and resistance against tyranny.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Strangest Battle of WWII

1. What was the Strangest Battle of World War II?

Historians also know the Strangest Battle of World War II as the Battle for Castle Itter. It happened on May 5, 1945, five days after Hitler's suicide and two days before Germany's unconditional surrender. The battle is considered "strange" because American and German troops fought side by side to defend Itter Castle in Austria against an SS division​1​​2​​3​.

2. Where did the Strangest Battle take place?

The Strangest Battle took place at Itter Castle, a small castle located near the town of Itter in Tyrol, Austria. The Germans had converted the castle into a prison camp for high-profile prisoners, including former prime ministers, generals, sports stars, and politicians from France​1​​3​.

3. Who were the main figures involved in the Strangest Battle?

Key figures in the Strangest Battle included Capt. John 'Jack' Lee from the American side and Major Josef 'Sepp' Gangl from the German side. Both Lee and Gangl led the defense of Itter Castle. The Military world especially honors Gangl as a hero in for his heroism in the anti-Nazi resistance​1​​2​​3​.

4. Why did Americans and Germans fight together in the Strangest Battle?

With the German military collapsing, the commander of the prison and his guards abandoned Itter Castle. The prisoners, fearing a recapture attempt by the Waffen SS, enlisted the help of nearby American troops and local resistance fighters, including German soldiers from the Wehrmacht​1​​3​.

5. How did the Strangest Battle begin?

The battle began when a Yugoslav handyman and a Czech cook from Itter Castle sought help from American forces and Austrian resistance fighters. Their messages led to the arrival of American and German soldiers at the castle just as SS troops were planning an attack​3​.

6. What was the outcome of the Strangest Battle?

The defenders of Itter Castle, despite their outnumbered status, successfully repelled the SS attack until reinforcements came. They took approximately 100 SS troops prisoner. A sniper's bullet tragically claimed Major Gangl, the only casualty among the defenders. After the battle, they evacuated the French prisoners and transported them towards Paris ​1​​3​.

7. How did the Strangest Battle affect the end of World War II?

While the Strangest Battle was just a small skirmish, it was significant for its oddities, such as Americans and Germans fighting together and French prisoners taking up arms instead of seeking cover. The battle took place during the final days of World War II, just before the unconditional surrender of Germany​3​.

8. Was there a notable act of bravery during the Strangest Battle?

Yes, French tennis star Jean Borotra performed a notable act of bravery. When the defenders of Itter Castle needed to relay information to an approaching relief force but couldn't due to severed communications, Borotra volunteered to run through SS strongpoints to deliver the information himself. He was successful and even joined the troops upon their arrival​3​.

9. Has the Strangest Battle been depicted in popular culture?

Yes, the Strangest Battle of World War II has been depicted in popular culture, notably in the book titled "The Last Battle" by Stephen Harding. This book thoroughly covers the events of this unique battle and its participants.


  1. That time when Americans and Germans fought together during World War II
  2. World War II’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together
  3. The Strangest Battle Ever?

An Oft Forgotten Chapter of WWII History

The Strangest Battle of World War II is a unique testament to the human spirit's ability to rise above enmity and unite under extraordinary circumstances.

This battle, fought in the final days of the war, brought together unlikely allies against a common enemy, creating a powerful narrative that still resonates today.

As we look back on this event, we're reminded not only of the horrors of war but also of the potential for unity and cooperation even in the face of horrifying odds.

The Strangest Battle thus remains an important chapter in the annals of World War II, a beacon of courage and unity amid a time of global conflict and despair.

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