Monday, August 19, 2013

Book R & R: The Last Battle

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe" by Stephen Harding.

"The Last Battle" is the story of the Battle for Schloss Itter in Austria that took place on May 5, 1945. This was five days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide and just two days before the end of WWII in Europe. The castle outside the village of Itter, Austria was used by the Nazis as a VIP prison for (mostly French) political prisoners during the war. It was under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp, less than a hundred miles to the north in the suburbs of Munich. As the war was winding down and American forces were advancing, the castle's guards deserted and left the prisoners to their own devises. The French diplomats correctly assumed that retreating SS units would arrive at the castle and execute them. They sent runners to find American forces to come to their aid, while also contacting the local Wehrmacht (German Army) commander who had let the local resistance forces know that he was anti-Nazi and wished a peaceful surrender.

An American rescue mission comes in the form of a platoon-sized task force from the 12th Armored Division commanded by CPT Jack Lee. Unfortunately because of various problems on the road during this behind the lines mission, Lee arrives with only one Sherman tank and about fourteen American soldiers. The Wehrmacht contingent who voluntarily chose to join the Americans and help defend the castle against the approaching SS forces consisted of two officers and about ten soldiers. This small force of Americans and Germans, along with a few of the French prisoners, defend Schloss Itter against an attack by the Waffen-SS from the early morning hours of May 5th until a relief column from the American 142nd Infantry Regiment arrives late in day.

This story is a perfect example of the legitimacy behind the cliche that "sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." Stephen Harding tells a good story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to us. Unfortunately it is a short story, although that is not the fault of the author. The Battle for Schloss Itter is too long a tale to be abridged into a magazine article, but too short for a 300-page monograph. "The Last Battle" comes in at about 173 pages not counting the back matter. That includes a thorough history of the castle and the biography of each of the French prisoners, which slows the story down for those who are anxious to hear of this unique situation where "regular" German soldiers joined with their American and French enemies to fight the SS. Other than that, once the Americans come into the area of operations, the story becomes a "page turner." What I found most interesting (as I usually do) is the epilogue where the reader learns what the players in this story did with the rest of their lives.

"The Last Battle" is a good story well told of an improbable episode in WWII history.

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