In The Last Battle, Stephen Harding tells the unlikely tale of Allied and former Nazi troops making common cause to protect prominent French prisoners of war from the Waffen-SS.
This Battle of Castle Itter really happened, on May 5, 1945 — three days before victory in Europe. Elements of the American 12th Armored Division, Austrian resistance fighters, defected soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and several of the French prisoners themselves held off an attack by SS diehards before they could be relieved by the 142nd Infantry Regiment.
Among the prisoners were former prime ministers (and bitter rivals) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former army commanders Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and the former leader of the French far right, François de La Rocque, who had turned against Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime to secretly provide intelligence to the British.
One of the most memorable scenes in the book has the elderly generals emptying their machine guns on the attacking SS troops alongside their American and mostly Austrian protectors. If Quentin Tarantino is still looking for inspiration for one more movie, I’m sure he could make hay out of this.
Harding tells the story with great detail. If anything, a little too much detail at times. All the regiments and battalions and types of weapons are hard to keep track of. At least we can be sure he didn’t miss anything, and I did appreciate the little bios of the main characters the author included.
More importantly, he almost makes a novel out of the story. It’s real history, but Harding provides little flourishes, like the weather and what the men were thinking (based on their memoires), that put the reader as close to the action as possible.
If by now you’re wondering why, in the final days of World War II, German soldiers should risk their own lives to defend former French leaders from an attack by other Germans, well, you’re just going to have to buy the book! You won’t be disappointed.