Goering: A Career…

I don’t mean this to sound ‘full of it’ (or as my former Aussie colleagues would say ‘up myself’) but when you’ve spent the bulk of your professional career working in and around World War Two & Third Reich military history and watching TV documentaries on the same, almost daily, (allied to an ever-present hobby in the same vein), you eventually reach a point when you think that you may, possibly, have viewed much of the original period archive-footage available or have heard most of the historical angles expressed by the experts from this important period in time.. that in fact there is not much more to come to the surface that you haven’t already watched, heard or read about at some point in the previous 40-odd years of study!

It is also the case, (and one of the reasons that Tomahawk Films ceased being a distributor of WW-II documentaries to spend more time promoting my own TV documentary, ‘Channel Islands Occupied’), that rarely does anybody come up with something totally new in terms of documentary content or unseen 16mm newsreel footage to warrant yet another ‘look’ at a well-worn subject. In fact it always amazes me our Third Reich newsreels footage on Tomahawk Film’s Hitler’s Combat Newsreels is still, apart from the odd few seconds shown here & there, pretty unique in terms of what turns up on our screens these days and so it always manages to retain its ‘first seen buzz’.

One of the reasons I see so much archival material recycled across myriad documentaries is because we have a TV on in the corner of our production office tuned into the main satellite channels to keep an eye on WW-II documentaries to help us up to date with who is using our German music or Sounds of War combat SFX under contract, or to pick up on the names of new documentary companies who might be interested in using our German archive for future projects…

As I have said many times before, with so many WW-II documentaries airing on the dedicated satellite television platforms, (many being merely repeats from previous years) it is always a happy surprise when something fresh pops up on the TV screen and really grabs your attention. I am pleased to say this has happened to me in recent weeks.. firstly yesterday in the shape of a superb doc called Nazi Hunters, following the immediate post-war efforts of US Forces to bring Jochen Peiper and members of the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ (part of the overall 6th Panzerarmee) to justice for their involvement in the massacre of American GIs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/45… and then on Sunday night (and the previous Sunday to that), in the shape of a real cracker of a superb new 3-part documentary series on the H2 Military History Channel entitle Goering: A Career.

In co-production with Germany’s ZDF Channel and with the ever-superb journalist Guido Knopp listed in the credits, (though this time strangely under ‘lighting’ rather than writer/producer, so perhaps this was an early outing to his subsequent career), this series is offering both some stunning original colour footage and a great script providing further thoughts on Goering, the man, thus making it a really engrossing and very well researched & delivered documentary on Hitler’s Number Two and Head of the Third Reich’s air arm..and still the final episode to go..!

Born in 1893, Herman Goering was a former WW1 Ace in the Kaisers’ fledgling air arm and went onto become the much derided, overweight and somewhat lazy Supreme Commander of Hitler’s new air force, the Luftwaffe. His later addiction to morphine has been well documented down the years and this might explain his often strange military decisions, (or indeed lack of them), at times, resulting in his Luftwaffe High Command often being driven to utter distraction by its leader’s increasingly bizarre behaviour later on in the war…

Indeed had Goering been ‘clued-in’ to the modern concept of aerial warfare, (rather than wedded to WW1 fighter tactics), one wonders if the outcome of the Battle of Britain might have been a much closer thing; nevertheless it appears that from the very outset Goering actually knew that his Luftwaffe was under strength in both aircraft & manpower!

Indeed a regular contributor to yesterday’s episode Part 2 was a former Luftwaffe Test Pilot who admitted that all of the early aircraft promised to Hitler, (and often shown in some strength displaying in the skies above early Nazi Party Rallies), were nothing more than un-tested prototypes so, apart from the legendary ME Bf109, when war broke out in 1939, the Luftwaffe was indeed not the force it was wildly publicised as being or that the Allies believed it to be!

Another tantalising fact emerging from this superb profile is that as Goering indeed knew in advance that he had not the firepower at his command to deliver for Adolf Hitler, (despite always assuring his Führer that he had), behind the scenes he was doing everything he could to avoid another World War, including secret pre-war negotiations with Britain to find a way of averting conflict and his air arm being ‘found out’ in actual combat!

From some of what I heard last night it appears, to my mind at least, that Goering was perhaps more of a sensible individual than we have all given him credit for, despite being undoubtedly lazy and often finding any excuse to  bunk off to his superb castle-like country estate at Carinhall to indulge his love of hunting and spend time with his later accumulated wealth. Which was a complete reversal of his fortunes given that, pre-war, he had escaped from his growing role within the fledgling Nazi Party and fled to Sweden where, as a penniless former fighter pilot, he effectively lived off his wife’s parents. He eventually he returned to Germany to take up his position at Hitler’s side, but ever fearful of the Führer’s moods and stubborn single-mindedness plus his increasing desire for war, he never actively opposed Hitler’s visions for European domination, (even though he knew that half of his ideas were barking!).

Also detailed was Goring’s later wealth, stemming from his ‘success’ as an art dealer, though his dealings, (interpreted as ‘shopping’ in the countries Germany had recently occupied) were straightforward theft. Indeed at vital moments when he should have been taking full command of Luftwaffe air operations in the Battle of Britain and thence the 1941/42 Eastern Front campaign in Russia, he was more concerned with having his staff locate great works of art across Europe, to then be transported back to Carinhall in his own personal train… much to the ill-concealed anger of his elite fighter pilots who felt they were trying to conduct air campaigns on two major fronts with their hands tied behind their backs.

One superb interview thus far was with the Luftwaffe fighter ace and Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves holder Günter Rall, who, (with 275 combat victories in World War Two) later went on to serve with distinction in the post-war German Luftwaffe. A remarkably modest and hugely likeable former pilot with his ever-fluent and superb English, his interviews are always worth watching and listening to and in this terrific second episode he again delivers some very interesting facts & figures, plus a ‘no-holds barred’ appraisal of Goering as an air-force leader..!

Another incredible fact of which I was totally aware was that Herman Goring had a younger brother called Albert…very much a man in the background and who actually spirited a number of leading Jewish businessmen and film-makers out of Germany to America in the pre-war period. Indeed when it came to the ‘Jewish Question’ itself, it seems that Goering himself was somewhat more pragmatic about this whole issue than was hitherto known…and incredibly it appears that he also allowed several leading Jews to escape the Third Reich, (despite being Hitler’s  deputy and replacement Führer should Hitler die), excusing himself with the line: ‘A Jew is only when I say he is a Jew’..another most interesting fact to emerge from this documentary.

I won’t give too much more away in case you have not yet seen this 3-parter as no doubt it will be repeated, (a great many times… and rightly so in this case), in the coming weeks and months amidst the tidal wave of great-to-merely-mediocre Third Reich documentaries now airing across the gamut of satellite TV channels, however this one is most definitely worth a watch..the final episode coming on H2 this Sunday evening!

Just as a final thought when talking about the current crop of WW-II documentaries now appearing on a television set near you: I don’t know if you have noticed, but why has there been allowed to emerge an extremely annoying habit of the experts, when wheeled-in to voice their historical expertise on camera, of constantly talking in the present tense?  A whole raft of rather earnest historians, university lecturers and the ‘great & the good’ are paraded before us to eagerly tell us that ‘Goering is this’, ‘Hitler is that, or Rommel is faced with a tough situation, or such & such squadron is flying against so & so or that a unit of this force is fighting through great odds… and so on and so forth!

I don’t know which producer started this appalling interviewing habit, but everybody’s now seemingly at it. However these are now global events from over 70 years ago, so memo to whomsoever: please use was not is… thank you, I feel so much better now..!

                         Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Great Escape of 1944…

Over the weekend I sat down to watch a superb documentary produced by Windfall Films and aired on Channel 5, devoted to the recent uncovering of the actual tunnel dug and used in the fabled 1944 ‘Great Escape’ from the German  Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft III located in what is now western Poland…

Untouched for almost 70 years, this underground passage, nicknamed ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners, was sealed by the enraged and embarrassed German authorities immediately after the audacious break-out from the camp and despite on-going interest in this subject, (not least as a result of the 1963 John Sturges-directed Hollywood movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence et al) it has  remained undisturbed down the years because of its location behind the later Iron Curtain and of it being of no interest to the Soviets!

Now, post-Fall of the Berlin Wall, a team of archaeologists, lead by Briton Peter Doyle (his father was a POW in Stalag VIIIb) & American Larry Babits, (whose late father was a US bomber pilot with a reputation for always getting his air-crew safely home), have located and excavated this important war-time legacy from its sandy tomb in what is now a rather beautiful Polish silver-birch forest.

Over a three week period in August they located the actual entrance to the ‘Harry’ and in the course of this dig the team also stumbled across another tunnel, called ‘George’, whose exact position had not been charted, though this one was never used as the 2,000 remaining prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached Stalag III in January of 1945.

But it was during this recent excavation of ‘Harry’ that Peter & Larry, watched on by veterans of the original war-time tunnel construction, discovered many remarkable secrets that still abide within this 111-yard long wood-lined passageway out from the camp and under the former perimeter fences and tantalisingly close to what was, back then the surrounding woods. (The camp having been designed with all its POW huts on legs and away from the perimeter fences and a large swathe of woodland outside of those same perimeter fences felled and cleared so the Luftwaffe guards could, supposedly, always see what their prisoners were always up to!)

As all of us avid Great Escape movie-watchers know full well, the first tragedy of this daring  ‘Boy’s Own’ escape (conducted under British military leadership along the lines of the rules of cricket), was that the eventual opening of the completed tunnel came up dangerously short of the wood and so the escapees would have to come up with the risk of being spotted by the Luftwaffe guard’s watch-towers. This is why, despite help from a well-timed Allied air-raid just as the escape was on and the fact that one of the first out of the tunnel remained just inside the wood and dropped a rope back into the tunnel, giving two tugs to those within to indicate when the Luftwaffe guard had reached the far end of his patrol and it was safe to emerge, only 76 of the planned 200 prisoners got out and into the welcoming protective cover of the forest.

Having first found the concealed tunnel entrance in the ruins of what was originally POW Hut 104, the modern archaeologists excitingly then uncovered the ‘fake’ concrete panel that had disguised the tunnel opening inside the hut, then one of the metal hooks fashioned by the POWS to help with its removal. After this the team then dug down some 30 feet  into the sandy forest loam to uncover the tunnel itself and found that many of the originally harvested hut bed-boards, which had been used in mining fashion all those years previously to shore up the tunnel to stop it collapsing were all, incredibly still in position and expertly doing their protective job even today!

The original ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as ‘Klim Tins’, (milk backwards) was still in working order and as they moved further down through the excavation site, the team also found many parts of old metal buckets, hammers & crowbars, all cleverly fashioned into tools of many & varied designs in 1944 by the POWS from scavenged bits of metal and then used to hollow out the escape shaft & tunnel.

In all a total of some 600 Allied prisoners-of-war worked on three tunnels nicknamed Tom, Dick & Harry at the same time, (with the hope that if the German guards discovered one of them…as actually happened… then they could continue working on the other two), and these tiny shafts were just 2 feet square for most of their full length… not a happy undertaking for those suffering claustrophobia..!

Originally lit by candles made from fat skimmed off the top of their meagre bowls of Ox soup, later scavenging harvested enough wire for the former electricians within the prisoner escape teams to be able to secretly plumb into the German supply and have electric light along the lengths of all 3 tunnels… and so it was that on the night of March 24 & 25 1944, 76 Allied airmen successfully escaped through Harry, complete with their fake identity papers, suitcases and expertly mocked-up German military uniforms & civilian garb.

Barely a third of the originally-planned 200 prisoners managed to get through the tunnel and into the woods before the Allied air-raid was over, and the camp floodlights came back on and the 77th escapee was spotted by an alert German guard. At this point ‘the balloon truly went up’ and all of the remaining escapees in the tunnel were discovered and, along with those waiting in the huts for their chance, were rounded up inside the camp… but not before a great deal of the precious fake German documents forged in the previous year were quickly put to the flame inside the huts..!

3 Allied airmen successfully made it back home to fight again but in the second tragedy of this whole episode, some 50 POWS were rounded up and handed over to the Gestapo and such was Hitler’s apoplexy at this enormous breach of security that orders were given for all 50 prisoners to be executed by firing squad! But something I had not known until watching this excellent documentary was that the Luftwaffe Camp Commandant was so horrified by this cold-blooded killing of so many of the rounded-up POWS that in an amazing act of contrition, he allowed surviving prisoners from Stalag Luft III to go outside of the camp to build a memorial to their murdered airmen Comrades. Still there today it is interesting to note that the memorial missed off the final numeral: it reading just 1939 to 194 because, of course, those surviving prisoners didn’t know when the war would end.

But back to the actual tunnel excavation itself and from the film we learned that in all some 90 boards from bunk-beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels & blankets were all squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to help aid their ultimate escape plan, which successfully took place right under the noses of their Luftwaffe captors despite the German attempts to ‘keep a lid on things’.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise (and the Steve McQueen motorcycle sequence is a true motion-picture classic moment), no Americans actually escaped through the tunnel as all of the USAAF airmen involved for many months in the preparation of the tunnels allied to all of the required forgery and costume creations for such an operation were transferred, at the last minute, to another camp that had been built to specifically imprison just downed American bomber-crew and fighter pilots.

However, as is often the case with Hollywood producers rewriting World War Two history as they are oft wont do: (i.e. anything to do with D-Day always seems to forget British & Canadian troops storming the nearby beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword, that the spectacular capture of a Top Secret Enigma machine from a German U-Boot was undertaken by Royal Naval personnel not, as in last night’s film U571, by US seamen or, indeed in that awful CGI-dominated film Pearl Harbor, where the impression was given that just one US airman flying with the RAF had been personally responsible for winning the Battle of Britain single- handedly ..thus stretching the meaning of ‘The Few’ to a quite extraordinary length!)

However whilst American air-crew personnel were very much involved in the vital planning stages of the Great Escape, on the day of the break-out the POW’s were presominantly British, Canadians, Poles, ANZACS & South Africans and this modern day dig, (brilliantly interspersed for TV with some superb actor-recreations, something readers of my Blogs-various know I don’t usually rate), really was a wonderfully engrossing and modern day telling of this amazing war-time story.

Now all these years on from 1944 along with the several American veterans watching the excavation with rapt interest was Gordie King, a former RAF radio operator who, luckily for him in the end, was 140th in line for ‘Harry’ and so didn’t get away. As a result he lived to tell his story and to see the tunnel briefly opened up to the world & recorded on film, before being filled back in and hidden away from the world’s gaze once more.: ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories,’ he said, wiping away a tear, ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found..!’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013