No soldier wanted to be the last man killed in action against the Nazis
Here are the opening pages to the amazing and bizarre story of THE LAST BATTLE: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of WWII in Europe
On the morning of May 4, 1945, Captain John C. “Jack” Lee Jr. sat cross-legged atop the turret of his M4 Sherman tank, comparing the narrow streets before him with the terrain features marked on the map that lay partially open across his lap. Lee, a stocky twenty-seven-year-old from Norwich, New York, had spent the last five months leading Company B of the 23rd Tank Battalion—and, at times, much of the entire U.S. 12th Armored Division—on a headlong advance across France, into Germany, and now, in what would turn out to be the last days of World War II in Europe, into the Austrian Tyrol.
Lee’s tank was parked at the intersection of two streets in the town of Kufstein, Austria, three miles southwest of the German border on the south bank of the swift-flowing Inn River. All three of the 23rd’s tank companies had crossed the frontier the day before, leading the 12th Armored Division’s Combat Command R on its drive southward from the suburbs of Munich. Lee’s company had spearheaded the drive into Kufstein and had fought its way through a well-defended German roadblock before quickly clearing the town of its few defenders. Now, with the situation stabilized and lead elements of the 36th Infantry Division moving in to assume responsibility for the area, Lee and his men could catch a few minutes’ rest.
Just a few miles to the southwest another tired officer was also scanning a map, trying to determine what the coming hours would hold for him and his men. Josef “Sepp” Gangl, a decorated Bavarian-born major in the German Wehrmacht, knew that the American juggernaut was rolling his way and that its arrival would likely be heralded by thunderous artillery barrages, the roar of tank fire, and the rattle of automatic weapons.
Gangl was not unduly troubled by the possibility of his own death; he’d come to grips with his own mortality fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front and the Allies in Normandy. He was concerned about the men he led, however, for not all were soldiers, and many weren’t even German. A few days earlier, knowing the war was lost and loath to spend any more lives defending a system he’d long before stopped believing in, Gangl had declared his own personal armistice and joined forces with the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance. His only goal now was to keep the advancing Americans—and, for that matter, any German units still loyal to the fuhrer and the Reich—from butchering the men who’d chosen to follow him.
Atop a rocky promo overlooking the flatlands over which the Americans would soon advance, a gaggle of argumentative Frenchmen were also pondering what fate had in store for them. Peering over the battlements of a castle that had stood atop its mountain for centuries, and that had been their prison until that very morning, the men knew their newfound freedom was no protection against the wrath of die-hard SS units still roaming the thick forest around them. They needed deliverance, and they needed it soon. If help did not come before the sun set, they would almost certainly die within the walls of their Tyrolean fortress.
The warmth of the spring sun and Jack Lee’s exhaustion made it difficult for him to focus on the map. He was profoundly tired and hoped, more fervently than he let on to his men, that Kufstein would be Company B’s last battle. Like virtually every other soldier in the European theater of operations, Lee knew that the war could end at any moment—Adolf Hitler had killed himself five days earlier, and organized German opposition was crumbling—and, while the young officer would in some ways hate to see the conflict come to a close, he didn’t want any of his men to be the last American killed in Europe.
As Lee pondered what the war’s end would mean to him and his fellow tankers, events were unfolding literally just down the road that would shatter his men’s dreams of peace. Though he didn’t yet know it, Lee was about to be thrust into an unlikely battle involving the alpine castle whose icon was obscured by a fold in his map, a group of combative French VIPs, an uneasy alliance with the enemy, a fight to the death against overwhelming odds, and the last—and arguably the strangest—ground combat action of World War II in Europe.