A Tiger Tank’s Movie Debut…

A very rare German tank that I first saw many years ago down in rural Dorset as little more than a rusty hull at the beginning of what was to be a long & painstaking restoration has recently emerged from the shadows of the dusty REME (Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers) workshops into the sunlight as it was transformed from an ugly duckling into the beautiful swan of folklore legend.

Thought to be the very last working example of its type anywhere in the world, Bovington Tank Museum’s very own Tiger Tank is not only up and running but is now being hired out to the producers of the new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fury’ currently being shot in and around the village of Shirburn  in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside here in the United Kingdom.

Along with an American Sherman M4 also on hire from this ground-breaking Museum, this superb & almost breathtaking Tiger will add a sense of realism with its sheer power & stage presence on set.. indeed Bovington’s Director of Operations, Richard Smith, said the Tiger was’ “one of the most feared weapons unleashed by the Nazis and was possessed of a formidable reputation as it could destroy an enemy tank from over 2km away..!”

When I first set eyes on it in the workshop it was a somewhat sad shadow of its former glory, completely shorn of its fearsome & powerful turret and talking back then with Curator David Willy, my understanding was that the tank was originally captured in the Western Desert in 1942 after a particularly ferocious clash between General Montgomery’s 8th Army. (the famous’ Deserts Rats’ of legend) and Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel at the head of his equally famous Afrikakorps.

This huge prize (in all senses of the word) was eventually brought back to the UK to undergo evaluation at the hands of the British Army and the Ministry of War’s tank boffins to see exactly what made this mighty German tank, (apart from its obvious & highly feared 88mm cannon), such a deadly & frightening opponent, then once its dark secrets were revealed to the British Army, the hulk was destined to become a target for the development of armour piercing shells.

But miraculously and thankfully for all of us who now either make a professional living from military history or those of us who also appreciate (or more likely ‘revel in’), the sheer power of the armoured fighting vehicles that the industrial might of Hitler’s Third Reich could produce, it survived a potentially ‘sticky end’ to later become the restoration project of today, so bringing it back to life for modern generations to once again marvel at and stand in total awe of..!.

In fact I was lucky enough to see it in all is restored glory when I drove down to Bovington last year to meet up with long-time pal Karl Friedrich Koenig from Hamburg, who was a Wehrmacht Panzer crew-member also serving in the Western Desert during the Second World War. Known to his UK Veteran pals as ‘Charlie’, Karl also features in both word & photo in my book The Military Music and Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945.

Karl and I have been communicating for some 15 years or so and at the time of penning my book he kindly sent me a photo of himself as that young tank crewman, (far left), along with some shots of him with some of his former foes in The Sherwood Forresters, with whom he used to meet up regularly when he came over to the UK each year to resume old friendships forged from the heat of war. (In fact it never ceases to amaze me by just how many firm friendships were made, post-war, between former soldiers of the Third Reich and their Allied adversaries. Enduring friendships created through total respect for each other as honourable enemies, but all with shared experiences as fellow infantrymen, tankers, artillery gunners, fighter pilots, sailors et al.)

During our meet up Karl & I had a chance to take in this most impressive looking tank and I think the next time I see it, it will be in full moving action in the Brad Pitt movie and as David Willy said: “The Tiger was restored so that the public could fully appreciate what a truly fearsome machine it would have been during battle and now for the first time countless numbers of people will have the opportunity to see a genuine Tiger in a contemporary war film.”

Also describing it as “a unique piece of military heritage”, for those worried at how it might be used and abused by the movie crew, he said he was happy to reassure us all that its time on the set would be carefully managed and overseen by a group of museum workshop staff..which is a great comfort, having seen at first-hand how easy it is to wreck things on a movie or television production..!

(I’m told that on the movie set of the 1990 Michael Caton-Jones re-make of William Wyler’s famous 1943 war-time original of Memphis Belle, what started out as a number of rare sets of very valuable Irvine flying jackets and fur-lined trousers… and their US equivalents… all ended up as balls of torn rags after the Extras decided they could still play football in them in between takes… makes you weep doesn’t it! )

But back to today and ‘Fury’ (due for release next October), starring Brad Pitt as a US army sergeant leading an Allied mission behind enemy lines, dropped something of a clanger in that its cameras continued to roll on Remembrance Sunday.. to an obvious outcry!!

Pre-dawn stunt explosions and the use of extras dressed in Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS uniforms on Britain’s national day of Remembrance when the rest of us were spending a few quiet moments remembering those lost in action from World War 1 to the modern day was not the best way the film company could ‘win friends and influence people’! Indeed one movie extra who was filming on that Sunday told a UK national newspaper: ‘this was grotesquely disrespectful… but this is what I do and I cannot just walk off set.”

This unfortunate issue forced movie-director David Ayer (who directed the motion-picture U-571 showing Americans as liberating the Nazi code-breaking Enigma machine which, despite the gratuitous re-writing of history, I rather enjoyed), later apologised and expressed his heartfelt apologies for any disrespect caused adding  ”I am a veteran myself!”

But that said, knowing the Film & TV business as I do I am sure it would not have been beyond the wit & wisdom for somebody at the movie company Sony to wonder out loud if having a team of actors & extras rushing around the Oxfordshire countryside in a full array of WW-II German military uniforms on this solemn of all military days here in Britain was not such a bright idea?

However, we all make mistakes and I am sure by the time ‘Fury’ comes out all this will be forgotten amidst seeing Bovington’s wonderfully restored Tiger Tank in all its awesome beauty… stand aside Brad, let’s see the real star of the show..! 

Copyright@Brian Matthews 2013

Hitler’s Combat Newsreels on DVD…

From as far back as I can recall, I always seemed to have an abiding interest in military history…my first awareness in my youth being that of the British side of the story in both the First and Second World Wars, (my paternal grandfather having been a pre-war professional soldier who served with the Essex Regiment in the trenches of the Western Front between the years 1914-18).

However thanks to my coming across the eye-popping Third Reich collection of a great mate Phil, in my later teens, (who happened to live just around the corner from my parent’s house), my fascination for military history very much became focussed on the story of the Nazi era, yet it was to be another 10 years before I had a chance to actually turn my private studies into, effectively, a life-time of work in this fascinating historical and archival field of period film & music…

In fact I had been working for some while with small Winchester-based Film & TV company Lacewing Productions, (at that time primarily cutting my teeth as Production Manager on the famous and evergreen series: ’The Old Country with Jack Hargreaves’), when I mooted to the two directors that I thought, with this new-fangled thing called ‘video’ just coming into vogue, (I joined the telly world when 16mm film was still the shooting & programme transmission medium via tele-cine), there was now an opportunity to start re-releasing many of the WW-II documentaries being sold to the collector on super 8mm home-reels onto video… and perhaps even set up a dedicated mail-order company to market such military material straight to the enthusiast?

I was allowed to spend any down-time I had at the studio researching into the viability of my ideas but sadly, by the time that I had realised that I was indeed onto a winner, Lacewing had gone under, so I put all of my notes away safely and went off to work as a freelancer. However several years later, through a circuitous route, Tomahawk Films was created, with me at the helm, and so I went back into the old files and dusted off my notes…

By now several other companies had also realised that WW-II documentaries on video were the ‘latest thing’ and there was now a market for such titles…so Tomahawk very soon became an archival distribution & mail-order company seeking out & sourcing some fantastic WW-II documentary footage and releasing it to an avid video market that could not get enough!

Eventually our World War Two video catalogue, entitled Images of War, offered some 400 exciting documentary titles and we had mail-order customers all over the world…but slowly alongside the original, in-house work that I was putting into producing my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, I was also putting out the word out I was looking for anybody that might be sitting on any captured German film footage. Sounds silly saying it now, but I thought back then that there might just be a chance that amongst the veteran soldiers who brought all sorts of souvenirs back like helmets, flags & badges etc, somebody might have had the chance to ‘acquire’ some film cans…so I put an advert in the old Exchange and Mart, as was back then….and I actually got a reply!!!

A former British intelligence officer telephoned to say that he had pile of rusty German film cans ‘under his spare bed’ if I was interested in coming and having a look…? So not wanting to miss a possible opportunity I jumped in my car and headed north to Yorkshire to meet this lovely old chap..and sure enough there, under that spare bed, was indeed a pile of 16mm mute film.

Pulling out an old British army projector, he started spooling up the first can, and over the next few hours I sat transfixed as I saw some of the most exciting German Propaganda Kompanie combat film footage I had ever seen…(for even by the late 1980s as this was, I was already starting to see the same old film footage being put out in a range of documentaries and was aching to see something new!). By the end of the impromptu film show my head was reeling but I knew that I wanted very much to buy this film footage..so after a fabulous dinner in the nearby town, and probably having imbibed one too many glasses of excellent wine, I offered him £2,000, (a fortune then and not an insignificant amount now), for all 16 cans, to which he very readily and happily agreed..!

During dinner he was able to fill me in a little more and explained that, in 1945 he and his driver had arrived in Hanover only to stumble across Ukrainian troops ransacking the city’s main Gestapo Headquarters and looking for treasures whilst also throwing cine-projectors from an upstairs window!!  Brandishing his pistol he burst into the building and charged upstairs through the Ukrainian troops coming downstairs, loaded with their booty, and on seeing piles of film cans stacked in a blazing room, grabbed 16 of them and retreated back to his jeep to be driven back to his Allied base camp for security analysis… and there they stayed until after the war when, amazingly, he was handed them back, considered to be his own personal ‘booty’ which should be returned!

The cans were put into his spare room and remained, untouched, until my E & M advert in the mid 80s stirred his memory, when I was called and subsequently arrived to see all the cans resurface completely intact! Once I had the them safely in Tomahawk’s care we arranged to have the film taken up to the heart of the film industry in London’s Soho, where all of the reels were expertly cleaned & re-oiled to get rid of the years of dirt and so bring them sparkling back to life.

Once lovingly restored we brought in a 16mm film editor to cut & splice the stunning sequences together to effectively produce four exciting video titles from the restoration of these superbly detailed German combat newsreels, which were then transferred to 1” tape thence latterly to Beta SP as new master formats came on-line…

As I alluded to earlier, most of this Nazi Propagandakompanie footage had never been in public before and though it had many sub-titles throughout, there were no soundtracks found with it and we assumed that, as Die Wochenschau (Weekly Newsreels), such footage was destined to be shown in local German cinemas in its silent form with perhaps just piano or other musical accompaniment maybe.

However rather than leave it silent Tomahawk acquired a stirring German soundtrack, (now released as a separate audio CD) and armed with a newly acquired collection of WW-II sound effects (also available as an SFX archive on our CD Sounds of War), we went into the studio, with Simon ‘Woody’ Wood, who was back then a freelancer before the days of his current studio, studio Dubmaster, who really brought this incredibly film to life. In fact it was this German music soundtrack that would eventually set Tomahawk films off into its direction of Third Reich Military & Civilian Music on CD…a direction that we had no inkling of at the time!!

Which also helps explain to our later Third Reich Musik collectors, unaware of our early genesis, why we are actually called Tomahawk Films:   simply because of that fact that we started out as a war-time documentary film company but as, slowly & steadily, our name became synonymous with German Military music we did think about a possible name change to reflect that fact…

However we soon realised that, from a marketing point of view, once you are well known for something in particular, you certainly don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and change your name… so even though 75% of our historical media work is now in the German archival music field, rather than the in ‘pure documentary production film’ arena, the name ‘Tomahawk Films’ stayed and our Third Reich music continues to be happily marketed on CD around the world under our well-known moniker..!

So after Woody, (the first time that Tomahawk Films had actually worked with him, the second being as sound recordist on our 50′ television documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’) had produced his sound-on-film dubbing magic, Tomahawk proudly released the outcome as a 4-part video series, each with its own separate title:

Russian Front Volume I: The all-out action begins as Wehrmacht cameramen cover the combat assault teams across the Dneiper River, taking Minsk, Stalingrad and Rostov whilst close-quarter action intercuts with spectacular footage in the cockpits of Me-110′s and He-111′s battling high above the Russian steppes…

Russian Front Volume II : The intense and bloody combat photography continues in the heat of battle as the German infantry storm Kharkov and Kersch with flame throwers & heavy M.G’ whilst a fascinating record of the siege of Sevastapol offers an incredible sequence on German heavy artillery, including the Wehrmacht’s truly awesome railway guns…

Air Land and Sea: A Kriegsmarine Honour Guard introduces the Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau’s ‘Channel Dash’ under R.A.F. attack whilst rare Dieppe newsreel and the Waffen-SS in Finland leads into ‘Murmansk to Africa’, a lightning overview of the war and ends with some really exciting Luftwaffe in-cockpit action in ‘Air War in the East’.

Finally the 4 title: Afrika Korps: which offers desert combat footage from the war in North Africa, including Ju-88′s in action, Italian assault troops, German troops under canvas with Rommel and the Fall of Tobruk; also Luftwaffe footage of the air attack on Malta and finally a great sequence offering ground crews ‘bombing-up’ and close ups of Kesselring and fighter ace Marseille…

At a later date we took the decision to then re-edit all four titles together to make an exciting and more cost-effective 90 minute video for our customers entitled: The Combat Newsreels of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich,which in turn became a world-play DVD of the same name, still with its incredible 16mm footage and stirring German music and combat effects soundtrack…

Over the years I have often thought about writing a  script and narrating it for the DVD, but do you know what?.. the film footage is so exciting and so gripping that any random voice-over, (however well or pertinently I had written a script), would have added little to the viewer’s enjoyment and possibly merely insulted their intelligence.

So in the end I opted to leave these incredible Combat Newsreels with just their rip-roaring music & combat sound effects sound-track where pertinent…and happily I made the right decision judging from the enthusiastic customer feed-back we get..and the fact it still keeps selling in its many thousands..!.

Even today, I have still seen very little of this footage used in the myriad TV documentaries that keep appearing on television, so I still bless the day that my old appeal for German footage via the pages of the Exchange & Mart came up trumps..!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013