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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 17 - Imagine Mr Tickle... Covered in Swastikas ('That Should be a Film' Week)

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The Battle of Itter Schloss Welcome to Itter Schloss, the oddest battle of WW2. The battle occured on 5th May 1945 – a week after Hitler's suicide in Berlin. It was one of the very last engagements of the war in Europe, and certainly the strangest – because it's the only time the Germans and US fought side by side as allies, and probably the only time a French tennis star, a couple of retired prime minister and Charles De Gaulle's sister joined in as well. So, to set the scene. In 1943 the SS requisitioned the beautiful castle at Itter in Austria in order to turn it into a prison camp for high-profile but troublesome Frenchmen. The best kind of Frenchmen. People who were a thorn in the German's side but couldn't really be gotten rid of without causing a stir. Among the prisoners were former prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; a trade union leader called Léon Jouhaux; French generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; tennis star Jean Borotra; right-wing Frnech leader Col. François de La Rocque; and Michel Clemenceau, politician and son of World War I–era prime minister Georges Clemenceau, and Charles de Gaulle's elder sister Marie-Agnès Cailliau. It was actually considered part of the Dachau concentration camp despite being about 70 miles away, and was staffed by SS guards and Eastern European concentration camp inmates kept there for menial work. But by the standards of German prison camps, life was relatively good for all involved – The French prisoners cells were luxurious guest suites, they had good food and access to the castle library and courtyard, and their contraband radios playing BBC broadcasts were overlooked. The Eastern European labourers meanwhile were regularly sent out into town on errands for the camp staff, which meant the prison was heavily infiltrated by resistance movements, and it was all pretty relaxed. Other than the fact the French DESPISED each other. The Germans didn't need to do any guarding because the French, a combination of old political and military rivals and left/right politicians, couldn't stand each other and were constantly stabbing each other in the back, refusing to be seen or even eat together. Meanwhile outside the castle, Austria after the death of Hitler was a mess. The regular German army were fleeing and deserting in huge numbers, desperate to find the nearest Americans to surrender to in order to avoid being captured by - or forced to fight - the Soviets and suffer a forced march to Siberia. So they were doing anything they could to survive. Meanwhile the SS were tearing up the place summarily executing anyone they suspected of deserting, or any civilians showing defeatist tendancies. This included piling into towns and shooting them up for hoisting a white flag. Life was getting pretty chaotic, and it wasn't helped by a stream of increasingly senior SS officers arriving at the castle loaded with war loot en-route to fleeing Europe, which began to put the guards on-edge. And it was among all this confusion that the Battle for Castle Itter came about. It began on May 3 1945 when the prison commander sent out his handyman Zvonimir Čučković on an errand into town. He was a Croatian resistance member and hid a letter in English in his jacket to be shown to the nearest Americans asking for help. The nearest town of Worgl was only five miles away but was still under German control, so Čučković set out towards Innsbruck, 40 miles away, on foot. He made it by the evening and found some Americans, promptly requesting their help. They passed the note up the chain and the next morning a heavily armed and armoured rescue party was sent out, but then stopped about half way due to heavy artillery shelling. Only two jeeps of non-combat troops made it through. Fearing what Čučković had done and following the death of the head of Dachau concentration camp, who'd shot himself at the castle whilst trying to flee a few days earlier, the commandant of Itter Schloss and his SS deathshead guards fled the castle, which allowed the prisoners to escape, seize their weapons, and fortify the castle. Worried about the SS returning to finish off the prisoners, they agreed to let the prison cook cycle into Worgl to try and get in touch with the Austrian resistance. He did, and it turned out the Germans guarding the town were actually defectors, who had fortified it in order to fight the SS and protect the local population until the Americans arrived and they could surrender – the German commander, Major Josef Gangl, had actually been appointed the leader of the local resistance. I told you it was complicated. Gangl now had to try and find the Americans himself, and set out under a white flag to Kufstein, 8 miles to the North. When the Americans heard his story, they immediately set out with a rescue mission of two sherman tanks, called Besotten Jenny and Bosche Buster, with a platoon of African American troops riding on the roofs, which was very unusual in WW2 to have African American combat troops, even rarer to have them mingling with white soldiers, and the Major in his staff car and a truckload of Germans behind. So already a pretty unusual convoy. All under the command of a Captain John Jack Lee. They picked up some more US troops en route but it all gets very complicated with some having to be left behind because they couldn't all fit over a bridge and getting harassed by the SS. But anyway, they headed for the castle. Meanwhile, ironically, the prisoners had put an SS guard in charge of their resistance efforts. Just because it wasn't complicated enough. The officer was called Kurt-Siegfried Schrader and had been recovering from wounds at the castle for some time, during which he'd befriended the prisoners. So, the Americans arrived. And the prisoners were furious. Their great rescue party consisted of 16 Americans, 11 Germans, and by now just one tank, which was used to block the castle entrance. That, combined with a tennis player, two prime ministers, two retired generals and a President's sister, being led by a badly wounded SS guard. Over the night of the 4th May, the SS began to return to the castle, launching small-scale raids to work out its defences. And in the morning, they attacked in force – 200 men with heavy cannons and machine guns for support. By all accounts, the battle went pretty well for the defenders and they held out – though they quickly began to run out of ammunition. Gangl managed to phone the Austrian resistance for reinforcements, which arrived in the form of two more German deserters and a local teenager. Things did start to get a bit desperate – shortly after phoning for help Gangl took a bullet whilst shielding former French prime minister Reynaud, and the tank was destroyed by German cannon fire, though no-one was hurt as it had been abandoned by everyone except it's probably quite confused and scared radio operator, who had a very lucky escape. And they were almost entirely out of ammunition. Drastic times call for drastic measures Tom. They were all out of handymen on bicycles, so they sent out the next best thing. Tennis superstar Jean Borotra. He literally vaulted the castle walls and ran through the SS lines to deliver an urgent call for support to the American reinforcements down the valley. The message got through, Berotra got rid of his tennis whites and put on a US military uniform like a boss, and the convoy rode off to relieve the castle, arriving at around 4pm, at which point the SS surrendered. Over 100 SS prisoners were taken, meaning over half had been killed by the defenders or fled, which is pretty good going considering the total allied losses were four wounded and only Gangl killed – a pretty heroic death as well for the man who abandoned the German army to defend a town of civilians before signing up to get American help and save the castle. He's now regarded as a war hero in Austria, with streets named after him. Meanwhile the French prisoners were returned to Paris, arriving a few days later, and Lee, the American captain, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. And I'm very pleased to announce that after bloody years, this IS actually being made into a film, finally, by Studiocanal. It'll be called The Last Battle and whilst it hasn't got a release date yet, I cannot wait. Tom's notes:

Historical events that should be made into a film

· I’ve chosen to talk about a period of Scottish, English and thus British history that would make a fascinating film, but has been turned into the atrocious film Braveheart by Mel Gibson

o The First Scottish War of Independence

o A really fun and interesting period of British history


· I’m not being a whinging Pomme

· I’m not upset that the English are portrayed as comic book baddies

o In fact, I really like Rob Roy with Liam Neeson

· It’s just an historically horribly inaccurate film and also a dreadfully directed 1 dimensional attempt a historical epic film (but with a good soundtrack)

o Mel Gibson has directed and produced 3 films

§ Braveheart

§ The Passion of Christ

§ Apocalypto

o I’ve watched all three and they are all appalling

§ If you thought Apocalypto was good, watch Last of the Mohicans and it will blow your socks off

First Scottish War of Independence; 1296 to 1328

· It’s worth saying straight away that the name of this war is very recent; after the American Wars of Independence

o This also leads to a very important point which was this period of history is not a simple us vs them, Scots vs English. The allegiances, loyalties and national identities are fluid and nuanced.

· 1296, King Alexander III of Scotland falls of a cliff having taken a wrong turn on his horse en route for some hanky panky

o He has a granddaughter who is the rightful heir; Margaret of Norway

o She is only a child, so Guardians rule Scotland.

o In 1290, she dies. No bugger.

o When will these monarchs learn; have a boy! Don’t die young! Write a will!

· There is definitely a sense of Scotland at this point in history, but the Scottish are far from unified

o There are two particularly strong rival families; the Comyns and the Bruces

o Scotland could easily slip into full scale Civil War

o Edward I of England is asked to arbitrate and help the Scots choose a leader in what becomes known as the ‘Great Cause’

§ Edward had a reputation as an international arbiter but was also a political opportunist

o Eventually, a chap called John Balliol was made King

o Edward then sees and opportunity to become king over Scotland, starts applying pressure to Balliol and eventually, in 1296, invades Scotland and defeats the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar

§ He demands that all Scottish nobles give homage to him

· In the aftermath of this, we get the figure William Wallace; along with others such as Andrew Moray

o The Scots are pissed off with English interference in their affairs. Scottish governance had been quite hands-off, the English were very hand-on and nobles were expected to do things for Edward I

o Andrew Moray was a Scottish aristocrat who escaped capture after Dunbar and began to fight a guerrilla war against the English around Moray.

o Wallace begins a revolt in Lanark and rapidly becomes the leader of another significant revolt building up momentum

§ It’s worth noting that Wallace a member of lesser nobility; certainly not a commoner

· Battle of Stirling Bridge; 1297

o A force under the joint command of Wallace and Moray face off against an English army sent north to sort out the rebelling Scots

§ This was a tactical and significant victory for the Scots

§ The English heavy cavalry and infantry get stuck on the bridge and surround boggy ground and the Scottish schiltrons

· Circular phalanx

o Moray is killed, Wallace is made Guardian of Scotland and immediately lays waste to Northumberland; driving refugees to Newcastle

· However, Wallace’s military reputation is totally ruined when Edward I personally takes control of military operations in the north and defeats Wallace roundly at Falkirk in 1298

o Wallace survives, resigns his Guardianship and becomes a diplomat to France

Fast forward through a period of military operations, diplomatic toing and goings, Scottish political rivalries, political manoeuvring and turn coating

· Robert Bruce fought for Edward I

· William Wallace, it has been postulated, may have fought for the English as a longbowman in Wales before the War of Independance

Robert Bruce

· Crowned king of Scotland in 1306

o He begins his mission to become a strong leader of an independent Scotland

· Early on he is defeated at the Battle of Methven and he is driven from the Scottish mainland as an outlaw.

o Most of his immediate family are captured; his three brothers are hung, drawn and quartered

· In 1307 he begins to rebuild his support rapidly waging a guerrilla war against the English and slowly defeating his rivals in Scotland

o His progress is helped by the death of Edward I and the ascension of the weak Edward II

· In 1314 we get the famous Battle of Bannockburn

o A disorganised English army gets beaten by a surprisingly offensive, well organise but much smaller Scottish force near Stirling Castle

§ The English were routed and it was a massive victory by medieval standards; the Scots captured heaps of English nobles

o In the aftermath of this incredible victory, Bruce was in a position to ravage the north of England repeatedly

· He eventually becomes recognised widely as the official leader of Scotland

· In 1328 Edward II, with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, basically says I’m going to leave the Scots alone

· Bruce dies a year later having been a successful military commander for 20 years, as opposed to Wallace, who was an average military commander for 2

1996 Film ‘The Bruce’

· Brian Blessed plays Edward I

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