Overlord'S Blog: Besotten Jenny
Thanks to Madest (EU server) for mentioning this story.
In the early hours of 2nd of May 1945 two gunshots rang out through the darkness at the Castle Itter in Austria. The castle was lit by candles and lanterns due to lack of fuel for the castle's generator. As the Germans searched for the source of the gunshots they found the body of Eduard Weiter, the ex commander of Dachau Concentration Camp. He'd been killed by a bullet to the heart and one to the head. Some suggest he'd committed suicide, and managed to shoot himself a second time after shooting himself in the heart. Others say he was killed by one of his retinue for deserting from his post as commander of Dachau, which had just been liberated by the Allies. When the Germans tried to bury him in the local churchyard the priest refused to sully his graveyard with the body. In the end his retinue dumped the body into hole in the ground, tossed a few handfuls of dirt on top, and they then fled.
This left the commander of Castle Itter, Sebastian Wimmer, feeling a little worried and concerned. The castle had been transformed into a prisoner camp in 1943, previously it had been the home for the German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco. As a camp, for purely administrative purposes it had been in the hierarchy of Dachau. But as it housed political prisoners who were deemed useful by the Nazi's it was a vastly more pleasant incarceration. About twenty of the guest rooms were converted to cells and the rooms held a large number of French politicians, and their wives. The castle also had a small number of guards and some prisoners from the main camp who acted as menials.
Now Wimmer knew the Allies would be arriving shortly, and his boss had just died on his doorstep. Equally he was, without doubt an SS member. Through the previous weeks he'd seen a steady stream of Nazi party officials using his castle as a staging post as they fled the Allied advance. It was at this point Wimmer decided to join the exodus.
As he fled the prisoners grabbed what weapons had been left behind and decided to prepare to defend themselves. The French had a variety of backgrounds and included the French former Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. Equally former Commander in Chiefs of France's military Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were held there. Even some ex-Vichy politicians. Needless to say there were bitter differences between the group. However when faced with an imminent threat these elderly gentlemen stepped forward.
The group had sent out a pair of volunteers to seek help from the nearby Americans. One, Zvonimir Čučković had bluffed his way out of the castle claiming to be on an errand for the commander, he had left the day before Wieters death. Unknown to the castle's inhabitants he'd actually made contact with American forces, who'd sent out a force to liberate the castle. However they quickly realised they'd cross a divisional boundary. Even in modern warfare crossing a unit boundary like that is considered a bad idea, as the chain of command is fragmented and it massively increases the likelihood of friendly fire incidents. For that reason the force was recalled.
The second volunteer was a Czech named Andreas Krobot, who approached the village of Wörgl on the 4th of May. There he found a Wehrmacht force that was attempting to defend the area from roving bands of Waffen SS. It was working with the local Austrian resistance. The motley band was under the command of Major Josef Gangl.
Maj Gangl had known of Castle Itter and its status as a camp, and had wanted to free it. However, being short of manpower he was unable to assault the place. The news that the castle was now held by friendly forces altered matters. Knowing he'd have to assault through hostile territory he marched out to find the nearest US forces to surrender and propose a joint rescue attempt. He found such a unit eight miles north, the leading element of the US 12th Armoured Division, which was one of the few American combat units that allowed coloured troops to serve in the front line. The unit was led by Captain Jack Lee.
|Major Josef Gangl
The confused situation in the area between the front line of the US forces, and the Castle Itter meant that only one Sherman tank, Cpt Lee's "Besotten Jenny", seven coloured US soldiers, Maj. Gangl's Kubelwagen and a German truck with ten German artillery men arrived at Castle Itter to join the fourteen or so prisoners.
|Captain Jack Lee
While Maj Gangl was unfailingly polite it appears that Cpt Lee got on Paul Reynaud's neves. After the war Reynaud described Cpt Lee as "Crude in both looks and manners, if Lee is a reflection of America’s policies, Europe is in for a hard time."
With the war about to end, at 0800 the next day, what could go wrong?
Part two will be next week.
www.slate.fr and www.warhistoryonline.com