The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe, by Stephen Harding
I heard of this book first less than a week ago, when a fellow Norwich University alum posted about this battle, one of whose heroes was a hard-charging Norwich alum for whom this battle represented the pinnacle of his life before a long and sad, slow decline involving alcoholism, three failed marriages, and an early death in his 50’s. Yet he was far from the only hero in this battle, including a couple of Germans who risked their lives, one of whom died in this battle as a result of sniper fire, and a gaggle of feuding French VIP criminals and their wives/mistresses. The battle for Schloss Itter, the subject of this book, marks the only time in history that the United States army has fought in defense of a medieval castle, and the only time in World War II where Americans and Germans fought on the same side.
The book does not spend a great deal of time discussing the battle itself, largely because the battle itself was fairly short, if intense, with a dramatic and successful ending, leaving the Americans in possession of the fairy tale castle in the Tyrolian Alps, and leaving the victorious Americans and their unconventional allies with some German prisoners. The book spends a bit of time talking about the aftermath of the battle, in which some of the people involved fade unknown into history, while others sought to restore their reputations and many of them feuded with each other for decades to come, not using their time as honor prisoners to develop any sense of solidarity. Additionally, and lamentably, none of the American soldiers apart from their leader, Captain Lee, ever received honors as a result of their heroism for defending the French prisoners and successfully holding off a German force that outnumbered them at least 5 to 1. ‘Murica. The time spent in the battle is, in many ways, a payoff to the extremely detailed way in which the book brings together the people involved through telling their stories, a rich narrative that is almost cinematic in scope.
Even the author, in his lengthy and gracious acknowledgements section, comments that someone told him it read as well as a historical narrative as it will as a screenplay. This is not mere flattery. This is precisely the sort of odd and true history that deserves to be made into a movie. It has gripping World War II heroic drama, features a divided German army with some people willing to side with the Allies and accept the inevitable defeat of the Nazi regime while others fight to the bitter end. It features brave Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who refuse to hide in the cellar and who instead show themselves willing to fight in their own defense, with the women just as courageous as their men. It features a concentration camp inmate on loan from Dachau who manages to escape from the castle-cum-prison and help lead reinforcements to the castle in time to turn the tide. A solid historical film made from this movie could easily win quite a few Academy Awards. It’s just a wonder that no one has told this story yet for film. Here’s hoping we can see it done, as this battle and its people, from resistance hero Josef Gangl to cigar-chewing Captain Jack Lee to Croatian Dachau prisoner Cuckovic to squabbling French VIP prisoners Gamelin, Daladier, Jouhaux, Reynaud, Borotra (the escaping tennis hero), Weygand, de La Rocque, and Clemenceau, several of whom had their wives/mistresses with them in prison by the choice of the women themselves, all deserve to be better known and seen in their most positive light, when they joined together against the Waffen SS in the closing days of World War II.