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Thursday, June 6, 2013
If, in these halcyon days, a Hollywood screenwriter had approached a major producer with a movie script so packed with improbabilities, so extraordinary in its premises and fanciful in its conclusions, he — the screenwriter — would very likely have been shown the door. Even such renowned authors of derring-do as Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin couldn’t beat this one for sheer tension and melodrama.
Start with a medieval castle, perched on a mountain ridge in the “Sound of Music” country of western Austria; convert it from a fashionable resort-hotel to a prison-fortress; staff it with the worst kind of Nazi SS death camp officers and guards; stuff it with a gaggle of prisoners, once high officials of the French Third Republic, hardly any two of whom is on speaking terms with any other, and some who still cling to the ragged trappings of their former glory. That’s Schloss Itter for you, in early May 1945.
Put in the roving remnants of the once-formidable yet heavily armed and fanatically loyal Waffen-SS troops, determined to carry out Hitler’s last orders: Massacre the French prisoners. Against them stack the lead elements of the American 12th Armored Division, a tank company led by tough Norwich graduate Jack Lee, and — chief among the improbables — a veteran German Wehrmacht officer, now bitterly disillusioned with Hitler and Nazidom, and to what a sorry pass they have brought his beloved Fatherland.
Maj. “Sepp” Gangl, with a few equally disaffected German soldiers, risks the firing squad by aiding Lee and his handful of tankers and infantrymen in resisting the encirclement and attack on Schloss Itter.
Stephen Harding, a career journalist and military historian, has put together a fine tale of heroism and cowardice, petty bickering and unselfish sacrifice, and if Hollywood does not snap it up for an epic film, that’s its loss. This volume contains two useful maps, 16 pages of photos, a nine-page bibliography and 22 pages of chapter notes — some featuring interviews with the very few aged survivors — enough to satisfy even the pickiest critic that Harding has done his homework.
The climactic “Final Battle” thrums with tension, whether “the cavalry” will arrive before the bad guys finish off the beleaguered garrison, even as the moments of combat in war-ravaged Europe dwindle to a fraction. The irony almost sings:
“A few months before his death, [former Captain] Lee was asked by a reporter in Norwich how he felt about the long-ago incident. The hero of ‘the Last Battle’ thought for a minute, and then replied, ‘Well, it was just the damndest thing.’ ”
“Damndest thing” indeed, and a page-turner.
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