WE LIBERATED WHO'S WHO
Article from the Saturday Evening Post
July 21, 1945
By Meyer Levin
How a handful of Yanks staged a daring raid into
Nazi territory, stormed a prison Castle and rescued such prized
hostages as ex-premiers Daladier and Reynaud, De Gaulle's sister,
Generals Gamelin and Weygand.
During the final weeks of the war in Europe, a favorite army sport
was big-name hunting. Task forces composed of a few jeeps and maybe
an armored car would shoot forward through miles of uncleared territory
to reach towns, prisons, and Castles where important persons would
be known to be held. These rescue parties would return laden with
liberated U.S. airmen, or French generals, or cousins of the Queen
of England. They'd be towing a truckload of prisoners, and they'd
be loaded down with Lugers. That was when things went well. Sometimes
these liberation parties had, in turn, to be liberated by other
liberation parties, and once or twice they didn't return at all.
These task forces weren't merely out for the sport. They went out
in advance of their main elements because one day was often the
margin need for rescue. To the very last, the Germans were dragging
important prisoners to the remotest mountains of the doubt area.
They carried General de Gaulle's sister for several weeks, always
one jump ahead of our troops, across the Rhine and from prison to
prison southward to their last stopping place, the CASTLE OF ITTER,
in the Alps. They carried Leon Blum from Buchenwald to Dachau to
another fastness, in the Italian Alps. And in those last days of
the chase there was always the possibility that the Gestapo would
assassinate their victims, in anger and frustration. So, if the
task force could reach a prison one day before the Germans thought
we could possibly make it, our chances of affecting a rescue was
Although the task-force boys undertook these adventures in high
spirits, they knew that as in every good hunt there was real danger;
the enemy, though on the run, was likely to turn at any instant
and spend himself in a last mad burst of fury. Besides, the terrain
was strange and possibly hostile, and the half dozen vehicles that
composed such a force always ran the chance of hitting road mines,
or being ambushed or of reaching an organization that was ready
to fight rather that to surrender.
The dizziest liberation deal I ever witnessed was quite possibly
the last in the entire southern area. It resulted in the last-minute
rescue of the biggest bag of the biggest big shots, and it was in
an adventure all trimmed up with secret emissaries, trick escapes,
traitors, cut wires, a beleaguered, Castle and frantic SS men. It
wound up in the release of two former French prime ministers, a
former chief on staff, a top general, a famous athlete, a couple
of beauteous secretaries and a most important labor leader, just
as they were about to be slaughtered. As the American tank commander,
Capt. John Lee, of Norwich, New York, summed it up "This sure
was a goofy deal."
The goofy deal commenced on May fourth, when the 103rd Infantry
Division rolled into Innsbruck, the final objective of Major General
McAuliffe, of Bastogne fame. The boys of the 103rd sat down in Innsbruck
with considerable relief for it was common knowledge that surrender
of the entire area was imminent, so their fighting in Europe was
theoretically over. However, an uncleared area of about fifty miles
lay between them and the 36th Infantry Division, on their north,
and there were still a great many Germans back-tracking to the farther
corners of the redoubt through that area, and those Germans might
not know, or care, about the fighting being legally finished.
Out of this area there came character on a bicycle. He was thin,
tried civilian with a decent face. He identified himself at division
headquarters as a Yugoslav political leader, a veteran of the Dachau
concentration camp. His name sounded too improbable to have been
invented; it was Zoonimir Cuckovic. From Dachaun, said Zoonimir,
he had been shipped as a kitchen slave to the prison CASTLE OF ITTER,
which was a high-class branch of Dachau, used as a lock up for important
personages. Today he had come up from ITTER, bicycling forty miles
against the current of frantically retreating SS vehicles, whose
occupants, fortunately, no longer had time to bother civilian cyclists.
Zoonimir carried a message.
The Yugoslav was turned over to Maj. John Kramers, of Philadelphia,
in the military-government branch of the division. Kramers, who
sports a youthful blond mustache, and came to military government
out of artillery, is a spirited fellow who welcomes any task outside
the routine of getting the water and electricity functioning. So
Zoonimier's message brought the shine to Kramer's eyes.
"The American military authorities," it read in solemnly
foreign English, "are hereby informed that the under named
fourteen French statesmen, generals, ladies, and personalities are
confined in the CASTLE OF ITTER. The village and CASTLE OF ITTER
are eight kilometers east of Worgl. (They have plenty of trunks
and bags.)" Major Kramers studied the list of names:
Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former prime ministers of France
General Gamelin, former commander in chief of the French army
Leon Jouhaux, secretary of the Confederation General de Travail
Mme. Alfred Cailliau, sister of General de Gaulle, and her husband
Michel Clemenceau, son of the French statesman
Colonel de la Rocque, chief of the Croix de Feu organization
Jean Borota, ex-Minister of Sports in the Vichy cabinet
M. Granger, a relative of General Giraud
General Weygand and his wife
Mme. Brucklin, secretary of Leon Johaux
Mme. Mabire, secretary of Paul Reynaud
Major Kramers whistled through his mustache and called the division's
French liaison officer, Lt. Eric Lutten, who studied the list and
remarked upon the psychic cruelty of which the Germans were capable.
To lock up in a Castle a group such as this! A labor leader and
a Fascist leader, two prime ministers and the generals who had failed
them, a Vichy cabinet member, and the sister of the leader of French
resistance. But certainly these French personalities had to be rescued,
some of them because they deserved freedom, others because the state
would want an explanation of their conduct. Yes, the CASTLE OF ITTER
contained a hatful. "How did you manage to get out of the place?"
Major Kramers asked Zoonimier.
"Why, the commander sent me out."
"What commander? The German commander?"
"Yes, the German commander. You see, he is responsible for
the safety of these important people, and he is afraid the SS might
shoot his prisoners at the last minute. So he hopes the Americans
will come quickly."
That sort of thing had happened before. A prison commander who
knew the jig was up and wanted to get a good mark on our side of
So the next morning a task force set out. It was composed of four
tank destroyers, several jeeps, a truckload of soldiers to deal
with the SS men who didn't know there was an armistice on, and an
empty truck for the trunks and baggage of the personalities. We
romped along a fine road lined with cheering Polish, Czech, French
and Russian ex-slaves and ex-prisoners, who were here, as everywhere,
seemed to have sprung up out of the ground the instant the liberation
blew their way. It was a fine warm day and the mountain scenery
was first class and we had a fine tourist ride for some twenty miles
on the road to Worgl. Then, at a crossroad, a bunch of Austrian
partisans waved us down. Breathlessly, they described a brush they
had with SS, fighting as rear guard for the mountains.
Our little party paused for reflection. There we were, alone in
what was still Kraut land. Liberating a Castle full of big names
was important, but it was also important not to get killed in so
doing, especially on the day when fighting was supposed to have
stopped. To add point to the argument, there came a familiar whine,
which we thought we had heard for the last time. Then the blast,
and 100 yards away there was a black burst.
The boys it the tanks promptly backed among some trees, for cover.
The soldiers hopped off their truck, took positions in a ditch,
and watched the shells come down.
"They've seen us."
"If they're shooting for us, that's lousy poor shooting."
"Yah, but it's eight-eights and they got observation on this
Major Kramers made a swift "reccy" up the road, did some
radio talk with headquarters, and decided we couldn't clear the
road to ITTER without help.
Meanwhile, exciting events were taking place in the Castle. Among
the war criminals fleeing along that final road was one whose face
was among the most hated images in the minds of thousands of men
who had died in Dachau. This was commander Edward Waiter. He reached
Dachau's last outpost, the CASTLE OF ITTER, whose frightened keeper,
Hauptstrumfuher Sebastian Wimmer, gave him a room next to Paul Reynaud.
In the morning, Reynaud heard two shots. The chief executioner of
Dachau had committed suicide; his first in the breast had failed;
the second shot went through his head.
All that day, Watier's SS entourage tried to bury their chief.
They wanted to bury him in the little village cemetery just outside
the castle bridge, but the village priest refused to have the SS
man buried in consecrated ground. Moreover, the SS men found it
impossible to get a coffin up in the Castle's narrow stairway; in
the end, they dragged Waiter feet first, wrapped him in an sheet
and sullenly dug a grave for him on the hillside. Hearing that Americans
were on the road, they camped further into the Alps.
The local chief, Hauptsturmfuhrer Wimmer, had received a call informing
him that we were twenty miles from Worgl. He bid his charges farewell,
piled his wife and his belongings into a car, and departed, leaving
in the Castle only a half dozen guards who wanted to remain and
surrender to the Americans in the presence of their former prisoners,
who, they hoped, would say a kind word for them.
Wimmer did one thing. In the village beside the Castle he looked
up a personal friend, a young Waffen SS captain who had recently
returned home and was now wearing civilian clothes-"discharged"
from the army. Wimmer, to goof up the situation completely, asked
the SS captain to look after the safety of the important personages
in the Castle. It was due to this curious twist that a captain of
the Waffen SS was found in the Castle, fighting side by side with
Americans against SS men attacking the fortress from outside. His
sudden switch of loyalty was, of course, a gamble on the future;
when we finally liberated ITTER, this SS man ran around from room
to room, sweating, begging the former prisoners-the French politicians
and generals-to sign a paper testifying to his courageous participation
in the battle on their side.
Late in the afternoon, when our little force from the south was
stopped on the road to Worgl, there was another outfit making its
way toward the town from the north. This was a tank company from
the 12th Armored Division, attached to the 36th Infantry Division.
The company was commanded by an impetuous and convincing young captain,
John Lee, of Norwich, New York. Captain Lee wasn't looking to liberate
all the former prime ministers from France. He was simply out there
to mop up the road. With a row of tanks behind him, he clinked along,
collecting prisoners by the hundreds.
His method was simple. He announced that the war was over, which
was true for that area.
Lee arrived in Worgl toward evening, having with him only two tanks
and a German major he had captured. A band of Austrian patriots
had liberated Worgl, and, when they saw the American tanks, their
excitement made the whole thing seem more like France than Germany.
The Austrians hailed Lee with wine and flowers. The Nazis had fled,
the told him. Now all that remained was to liberate the important
prisoners in the CASTLE OF ITTER, eight Kilometers up a side road.
Lee had never heard of the CASTLE OF ITTER, but he was quite willing
to liberate any prisoners of the Germans. So he left one tank as
a rear guard in Worgl, while he and the German major and a few infantrymen
rode the tank of Lt. Harry Basse, of Santa Anna, California, up
the mountain to ITTER. They encountered no resistance. The tank
squeezed through the town's one narrow street, and came upon a little
bridge spanning a ravine. On the other side was an ornamental stone
gateway of the Castle, which sat atop a conical hill with densely
wooded steep slopes, and a stream below and mountains all around.
It was the real thing, all right, a twelfth-century Castle of fairy-tale
Houston University, Texas
Submitted by Ian J. Itter