Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Obersturmbannführer der ehemalingen Waffen-SS Hubert Meyer…

It was with great sadness that Tomahawk Films recently learned of the passing of Obersturmbannführer der ehemalingen Waffen-SS 1.Generalstabsoffizier der 12.SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” Hubert Meyer at his home in Germany on November 16th of last year…

Born in Berlin in 1913 and a highly decorated & twice wounded combat officer who, after training at the SS Officer School at Bad Tölz in Bavaria, served with great distinction in Poland, France, Holland, the Balkans & Russia, (where he won the Cross in Gold to his previously awarded EK.1), the then SS-Hauptsturmführer Meyer held senior rank with both the elite Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ and 12.SS-Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend’.

After continued exemplary leadership in the field, a newly promoted SS-Sturmbannführer Meyer attended the General Staff Officer course at the Wehrmacht’s War Academy and after graduating, was appointed Senior Staff Officer of the newly formed 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’, taking temporary command in 1944 following the capture of Kurt Meyer.

After relinquishing command to Fritz Kraemer later in ’44, Meyer resumed his role as Ia of 12.SS-Panzerdivision‘Hitlerjugend’ and was promoted to SS-Obersturmbannführer, (Lt Col), remaining on the Divisional staff throughout the remainder of the war, finally surrendering to the Americans with the rest of his Division on May 8th 1945.

Post-war, Herr Meyer lived quietly & studiously near Cologne, West Germany where, in addition to becoming a much respected senior representative and official spokesman of the Association of Veterans of the Waffen-SS, (HIAG), he also became a concise & passionate ‘keeper of historical knowledge, ultimately writing the definitive 2-Volume history of the 12.SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” that was published in English only as recently as 1994.

In the later part of his life, Herr Meyer, was a most wonderful friend to, and great supporter of, Tomahawk Films and our archival work devoted to the traditional German soldier song and through his ever enthusiastic help & encouraging word, we were granted the exclusive rights to re-master & re-produce both of our SS-Veteran Soldatenchor Minden’s post-war recording sessions, (through his kind introductions to choir-master Willy Casselmann, also formerly of the Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’), and so allow Tomahawk the proud opportunity of raising some modest sums by way of royalties from these two CDs to donate to HIAG for the support of needy Waffen-SS veterans and their families.

In a further much appreciated gesture that was so in keeping with the generous spirit of the former officer we knew, Herr Meyer later kindly suggested that Tomahawk Films should be allowed to keep all future royalties from these two Soldatenchor Minden recordings, the better to help with our ongoing study and promotion of much loved German military music…and this we will gladly and most sincerely continue to do in his memory!

Very importantly to Tomahawk’s work, it was also former Leibstandarte-SS and 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend officer Hubert Meyer that very kindly sought out and so generously made all of the necessary introductions and presentation of bona fides to a former important comrade of his from the musical arms of both the Leibstandarte-SS ’Adolf Hitler’ & 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ that subsequently allowed me to travel to Bad Kreuznach  in Western Germany during the writing of my book: The Military Music & Bandsmen of AH’s Third Reich 1933-45.

With a planned chapter hoping to document the life & times of a German Military Musikmeister I was able to meet the retired musician & band leader, former SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn… and not just any Musikmeister, but in Herr Weissenborn I was meeting & interviewing the musical second-in-command to the legendary Hermann Mueller-John of the world famous Musikkorps Leibstandarte-SS ’Adolf Hitler’, before taking musical command, in his own right, of the military band of 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’.

In interviewing Herr Weissenborn in his beautiful home town on the banks of the Name river, I was also meeting a senior Waffen-SS musician who had both served in, and led, two of the greatest military bands in the world.. and the only two out of three elite Third Reich Musikkorps that still performed their musical duties right up until April 1945, just a month before war’s final end in May 1945.

Herr Meyer’s wonderful help & involvement in our work was something quite out of the ordinary and in fact every military researcher’s dream and I simply could not have imagined my book being the complete or finished work it eventually was, (nor indeed where Tomahawk might be today), were it not for his terrific stamp of approval upon what my little company & I were trying to achieve.

I am therefore personally moved when I say that, in Herr Meyer, Tomahawk Films could not have had a more supportive former serving senior Third Reich-era German officer when it came to the study, production and hopefully the on-going preservation of WW-II German military music and its ever attendant & evocative ‘Soldier Song’ and we shall miss his hugely encouraging letters and Christmas cards greatly.

So with great sadness at the news of the passing of this highly respected & most honourable of military men we would very much like to extend our sincerest & deepest condolences to his immediate family who have, just as generously, offered Tomahawk Films their unstinting and most generous help & support in relation to our labours in the field of this evocative and exciting of military music. 

Hubert Meyer was a most dignified and very proud former combat soldier who was revered & respected by his men in equal measure, even more so when, post-war, he headed up that highly regarded German welfare organisation, HIAG, in order to look after the well-being of so many former soldiers of the Waffen-SS and their families…

These were wonderful ex-combat veterans who proudly served their country but which, in turn, cruelly and unjustly denigrated them and the incredible service & sacrifice they freely gave for that country they loved so unconditionally, and I know his sad passing will be mourned by many in Germany and here in the United Kingdom…

                     Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Die Musikkorps der Wachbataillonen-Berlin…

Some while ago several Tomahawk Films’ customers contacted us, actually with the same query, regarding a new CD that had been released in the US which they had bought, purporting to be a compilation of military music tracks all performed by the band of the army’s elite Regiment, ‘Grossdeutschland’, (the army’s Wachbataillon during the era of the Third Reich)… but were bit confused when they discovered that this album also contained a number of tracks performed by the Luftwaffe’s Wachbataillon as well, and should this be the case..?

Despite not having heard this album myself, nevertheless from the track listings & credits read out to me over the ‘phone, my personal thoughts were, ‘absolutely not’..! The ‘Grossdeutschland’ was the army’s Berlin-based Wachbataillon or Honour Guard only, (as well as being the Wehrmacht’s elite combat unit in the field), whilst the Luftwaffe’s Wachbataillon was a totally separate elite Honour Guard belonging to Herman Goering’s powerful German Air Force so providing some of the best Luftwaffe musik ever heard in the capital.. thus being a case of: ‘never the twain shall meet’..!

However, it was certainly the case that from time-to-time certain military musicians within the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS Musikkorps did actually change their arm of service and transfer over to another Musikkorps, if a suitable musical vacancy came up within another regimental band or orchestra… and very often this was directly as the result of a Situations Vacant advertisement posted for the player of a certain required instrument in the pages of the German entertainment magazine ‘Variety’.

But such a move would be deemed a complete change of uniform & service regulations as these career-musicians were joining a completely new branch of the German Armed Forces: so as far as the ‘Grossdeutschland’s’ superb band was concerned, its full-time professional musicians may have moved in and out on odd occasions, but it was always an Army Musikkorps, and in turn the Luftwaffe Musikkorps stayed completely separate as an Air-Force military band..!

So I have to agree with those callers in that whilst this American-produced ‘Grossdeutschland’ CD offers some military music tracks performed by the Army’s elite Honour Guard Musikkorps, to then also include other tracks performed by the Luftwaffe’s Honour Guard does seem a little erroneous..!

I must admit our Production Office ‘phone only started ringing with these customer queries after Tomahawk Films had produced & launched our specific Berlin Honour Guard CD which combines the performances by both of the capital’s elite Musikkorps of the Luftwaffe & Army Wachbataillonen… and thus its title Die Musikkorps der Wachbataillonen-Berlin…The Wehrmacht’s Elite Guard Detachments 1937-1945...as it contains an exciting blend of seven tracks performed by the Musikkorps der Wachbataillon ‘Grossdeutschland’ supported by six from the equally skilled Stabsmusikkorps Wachbataillon der Luftwaffe..

But this whole question of Berlin’s Honour Guards during the period of the Third Reich is a quite fascinating one, for it was actually in 1921 that Berlin’s first Guard Detachment since 1918 was created with the Reichswehr’s Kommando der Wachtruppe, together with a Musikkorps der Kommandantur-Berlin led by the very famous military Musikmeister: Friedrich Ahlers.

Tasked with Honour Guard duties at the Neue Wache, (or New Guard House), in Germany’s capital city, manpower for it was drawn on a rotational basis from army battalions across the country and with the coming of the Third Reich in 1933, it was re-named Wachtruppe-Berlin.

Nazi Germany then re-armed in 1935 and the Wehrmacht was subsequently created and with it, a new three-battalion Wachregiment-Berlin came into being in 1937, with the band re-designated Musikkorps der Wachregiment und Kommandantur-Berlin and whilst peacetime military bands averaged 28-38 musicians, this elite army band now boasted some 48 members.

Nazi Germany’s new Air Force was also created in 1935 and a similar Luftwaffe Wachbataillon, tasked with guarding Goering’s Berlin Air Ministry, also found itself deputing, once a week, for the army as it stood in for the Wachregiment as the Wehrmacht’s Guard Detachment at the Neue Wache.

Meantime, Luftwaffe Inspector of Music, Prof. Hans-Felix Husadel had appointed the highly talented Stabsmusikmeister Hans Teichmann to head and lead a new Stabsmusikkorps der Wachbataillon der Luftwaffe which was only too eager to show off its prowess and panache at many open-air concerts around the Capital and also to the massed German audiences via the Sunday night Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht radio shows.

In addition, this superb Air Force military band was also an important staple of Germany’s wider commercial music industry and regularly recorded at Telefunken’s famous Berlin studios with many subsequent schellack 78rpm recordings produced on their label actually surviving through to today, if you can hunt them down!

Meanwhile yet further changes came in April 1939 with the army’s Wachregiment, still under the direction of Stabsmusikmeister Friedrich Ahlers, being renamed Infanterie Regiment ‘Grossdeutschland’ and its band, the Stabsmusikkorps der Wachbataillon Infanterie Regiment ‘Grossdeutschland’ und Kommandantur-Berlin; (rather unwieldy and something of a real mouthful, so not surprisingly many record labels simply shortened the name to simply Musikkorps ‘Grossdeutschland’..!)

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, many Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS bands were disbanded ‘for the duration’ and the musicians transferred to their war-time roles of radio operator, despatch rider or combat-medic. However, the army’s prized Musikkorps Infanterie Regiment ‘Grossdeutschland’ (along with just two other elite bands, Musikkorps SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ & Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’), remained in operational… and in fact played almost up until war’s end in May 1945.

Today, some nearly 70 years on from their last performances, it was a real pleasure, (and another yet another fascinating history lesson), to produce & re-master Tomahawk’s Wachbataillonen-Berlin CD which, in my humble opinion, contains some of the very best Third Reich musicianship so expertly performed by the leading military performers of the day….just superb!!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2012