The Last Battle by Stephen Harding

When I saw the title to the last book that I read (The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe) , I was intrigued. I had never heard of Americans and Germans joining to fight on the same side – I assumed it might have been to fight the Russians in an effort to prevent them from occupying more territory in Germany or Austria.

Harding recounts a fascinating piece of World War II history. Here is a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher:

May 1945. Hitler is dead, and the Third Reich little more than smoking rubble. No GI wants to be the last man killed in action against the Germans. But for cigar-chewing, rough-talking, hard-drinking, hard-charging Captain Jack Lee and his men, there is one more mission: rescue fourteen prominent French prisoners held in an SS-guarded castle high in the Austrian Alps. It’s a dangerous mission, but Lee has help from a decorated German Wehrmacht officer and his men, who voluntarily join the fight.

The book is an easy read at 223 pages with several pages of black and white photographs. It is based on 20 years of research by Harding, including personal memoirs of the participants, interviews, and official American, German, and French histories.

Harding includes short, but complete biographies of the French prisoners, their American and German liberators, and the Nazi commander of the Austrian castle (Schloss Itter) that held the prisoners. I particularly enjoyed reading about the animosities between the French leaders – especially between Generals Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand and former French Prime Ministers Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. Their hatred ran so deep that it threatened to undermine any attempts to rescue the prisoners.

Another interesting facet of the book is Harding’s coverage of the German officers (including one from the SS) who helped Captain Lee free the French. He explores their motivations for switching sides in the waning days of the war – both were obviously disenfranchised with the Nazis, but Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl (a native-born Austrian) also had joined the local Austrian resistance. If it was not for their assistance and that of other resistance members, the Americans would not have been able to rescue the French.

Harding writes an engaging story about a battle that helped save many of France’s political elite from certain death by the SS.

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