WWII's Most Unusual Rescue
TODAY 1945, a contingent of international hostages held by Nazi SS guards was liberated at the most breathtaking of sites—the Hotel Pragser-Wildsee—in northern Italy near the Austrian border.
It was a scenario even the most creative of Hollywood scribes could not have imagined. Days before liberation the hostages were actually rescued by a most unlikely cavalry: troops from Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's 14th Army.
It began when Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered the transfer of high-profile prisoners from areas soon to be overrun by the Red Army to a safer location near the Austrian-Italy border. The group, it turned out, was a Who's Who of political and military leaders, including: Léon Blum, former prime minister of France; Miklós Kállay, former prime minister of Hungary; Kurt Schuschnigg, former chancellor of Austria; Richard Schmitz, former mayor of Vienna; Friedrich Leopold, Prince of Prussia; Lt. General Alexandros Popagos—Commander in Chief of the Greek Army—and four of his generals; Russian General Ivan Bessonov; and four German officers who had fallen out of favor with Hitler—General Franz Halder, former Chief of the General Staff, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, former head of the military government of occupied Belgium, General Georg Thomas, one of the planners of Operation Barbarossa, and Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, Chief of the Operational Branch of the Army General Staff.
Also in the group was SOE Captain Peter Churchill, along with a dozen British officers.
As the lorries lumbered toward Villabassa, Italy, one of the prisoners stole the wallet of an SS guard. Inside were ominous instructions from Heinrich Himmler's office: Execute all British officers and other military personnel at Villabassa.
When the group arrived, Colonel von Bonin slipped into a post office and made a call to Kesselring's headquarters. Knowing that the Wehrmacht despised the Nazi SS thugs, von Bonin requested that a company of Germany's finest come to rescue them at once. Troops were promised to arrive at six o'clock the following evening.
The next morning von Bonin called the captain of the SS guard aside and told him that soldiers from Kesselring's army were on their way, and that the Nazis would be wise to disappear pronto. They did.
When Kesselring's troops arrived, the party moved up the mountain to the Hotel Pragser-Wildsee and von Bonin placed the soldiers in a protective ring around it. In a strange twist of loyalty, they were protecting the former prisoners against other Germans—namely, SS guards—who might wander by.
Captain Churchill and some of the British officers then piled into two cars and drove toward where they assumed the Americans were advancing. Some ten miles into the journey they came upon an American officer, Captain Attwood, with a small advance party, the main force being days behind.
When Attwood and his men arrived at the hotel, another strange thing happened: Attwood didn't disarm the Wehrmacht soldiers. Thinking that the Germans would be needed if the SS returned, Attwood kept them in their perimeter post until Americans from the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions arrived days later.
It was a story for the ages.
To read the entire story, along with Captain Peter Churchill's work and romance with his SOE courier, Odette Sansom, pre-order Larry's nonfiction thriller, CODE NAME LISE: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II's Most Highly Decorated Spy (Gallery/Simon & Schuster).