Nazi Bomb Plot’s 70th Anniversary…

The German Government has honoured a group of Third Reich-era Wehrmacht officers who tried to kill Adolf Hitler on this day, 70 years ago… In a sombre ceremony in Berlin, German president Joachim Gluck called the bombing of Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Eastern Prussia on July 20th 1944 a: “significant day in German history for showing the world that there were Germans who opposed the Nazi regime, as it was from this legacy that the newly founded Federal Republic, (once it belatedly recognized the significance of the military resistance), was able to draw legitimacy…”

The ‘July Bomb Plot’ as recently depicted in the Hollywood movie ‘Valkyrie’ (with Tom Cruise in the leading role), was actually not the first attempt to kill Hitler, but it was the one that came the closest to success: after the German disaster at the hands of Russian Forces at Stalingrad in 1942, many senior military figures believed that a greater German defeat was only a matter of time and by the summer of 1944 this feeling had grown to such an extent that these self-same senior Wehrmacht officers felt that only by opening secret peace negotiations with the Allies could Germany be saved from total & utter disaster… but they realised that the Allies would only take them seriously, once Adolf Hitler had been successfully assassinated..!

Following the previous assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich in Prague in 1942, then a failed attempted on Goebbels life, Hitler had often warned his immediate inner circle that all of them were open to such attacks and he himself took great personal steps to avoid being liquidated by his enemies. So it was that he frequently changed his itineraries and kept all but his closet aides in the dark when it came to his movements around Germany and increasingly spent a great deal of time either secure within in the Reichschancellery in Berlin or up at his favourite mountain-top retreat, the ‘Eagles Lair’ at Berchtesgarten in Bavaria in Southern Germany.

However from 1944, he took further steps with his security by increasingly basing himself within the heavily fortified bunkers of the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ at Rastenburg in East Prussia from where he ran the war with his military high command, safe behind the thickest of concrete walls and with an elite SS guard permanently on duty…as such, any assassin would have found it the most difficult of tasks getting anywhere close to the Führer to launch an assassination attempt.

However plans were indeed being laid down with a view to effecting exactly this, led by the Wehrmacht career-officer Claus von Stauffenberg, a veteran of the 1940 campaigns in Poland & France, before suffering serious wounds in the North African campaign as the result of a low-level Allied fighter attack, resulting in the loss of his right arm, three fingers on his left hand and his right eye. Upon his eventual recovery he was promoted Chief of Staff on the Army Reserve in Berlin whereupon, as a noted patriot, he was approached by a growing band of senior Wehrmacht plotters against Hitler and he agreed to join with them to plan the assassination of the Fuhrer and then open up negotiations with the Allies.

Previous attempts onAdolf Hitler’s life had failed, but in June of 1944 the conspiracy took a major step forward when Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel and made the Chief-of-Staff to General Fromm, whereupon it was now necessary for him to actually attend meetings that were headed by Hitler, whom he first met on June 7th, 1944, just one day after the Allied Invasion of Europe on the Normandy coast-line on ‘D-Day’.

Now  the German Army was facing defeat on both the Eastern & Western Fronts, speed was of the essence if the conspirators were to put their deadly plan into effect and open peace negotiations with the Allies while Germany was still putting up a fierce & stiff rear-guard action.

However in early July the Gestapo got wind of things and starting rounding up those they believed were involved with a potential assassination plot, allied to which a number of senior army officers involved in the plot were being posted away from the capital to both Fronts in France & Russia, whilst former Afrikakorps Commander Erwin Rommel, a senior figure in the plot, was badly injured when his staff car was bounced by a low flying Allied fighter… so with matters going badly astray, Stauffenberg decided to act..!

Knowing that a major military staff conference was being organised at the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Rastenburg, as a severely disabled war hero above suspicion, Stauffenberg would be the perfect officer to carry a bomb… So carrying an attaché case in which a timed capsule full of acid would eat through a wire detonator when broken, thus activating a firing pin on a bomb, Stauffenberg went into a map room with Field Marshall Keitel and placed the bag against a leg of the table top upon which Hitler was looking at various campaign maps; after which Stauffenberg made an excuse that he had to take a telephone report from Berlin and left the map-room.

Instead he went straight to his staff car and as he reached it the bomb went off but Stauffenberg was able to bluff his way through the Lair’s main gates, past the SS guards who thought an air-raid was in progress, and a short while later reached the nearby air-strip and was on a Luftwaffe transport Ju-52 flying back to Berlin.

Unknown to Stauffenberg, just before the bomb exploded, another officer attending the briefing had moved the briefcase to the other side of the table leg he had chosen and the blast was directed away from Hitler who survived with his just clothes burned, a cut hand and damaged ear drums.

The planned coup d’état in Berlin that was due to follow the assassination was now thrown into complete disarray with nobody sure whether Hitler had been killed or not, with the only senior Nazi in Berlin at the time being Joseph Goebbels. A Major in the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Wachbataillon, Otto Remer, was sent to arrest Goebbels by the conspirators directing the doomed uprising in the capital, but Remer, a dedicated Nazi was put him in direct telephone contact with Hitler by Goebbels to prove that the Führer was still alive.

Promoted on the spot by Hitler to a full Colonel, Remer was ordered to round up the conspirators and, following a radio broadcast that there had been a failed attempt on Hitler’s life and the Fuhrer was still alive, all of the conspirators, including Stauffenberg, were identified and arrested.

The assassination attempt had failed in a clumsy & spectacular fashion and after a number of speedy courts-martial, the leaders of the coup were immediately executed on the spot by firing squad… but these men got off lightly in comparison as Adolf Hitler’s revenge was then most terrible to behold!

A nation-wide hunt across the Reich then ensued for anybody even faintly conected to the July 20th Bomb Plot and many individuals faced arrest and an immediate sentence of death, but not before enduring a most degrading public show-trial in front of the notorious Nazi Judge, Roland Freisler.

In the most terrifying & unjudicial of court-like like proceedings, this publicity-seeking judge and fervent Nazi publicly harangued & crucified many honourable & long serving senior Wehrmacht officers before also finding them guilty and pronouncing the death sentence on them.

Whilst a firing squad bullet was the ultimate fate for many of the convicted officers, a number of them were summarily hanged by piano-wire hastily thrown over beam in a nearby shed in brutal retaliation for this attempt on the Fuhrer’s life! (Though fate ultimately caught up with Freisler and he was killed in an Allied bombing raid on Berlin not long after!)

Today’s official recognition of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, (alongside 200 other plotters either executed or who committed suicide), as a symbol of the war-time resistance, some 70 years after the July 20th Bomb Plot, finally honours all the brave German patriots who stood up to the tyrannies of the Third Reich and gave their lives in an attempt to prevent Germany’s destruction in the ashes of the Second World War…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Images Courtesy of Tomahawk Films & Reuters

Songs of the Waffen-SS Veterans…

During my career as a producer with Tomahawk Films I have been blessed to receive much help & generous support for my on-going work with the German Soldier Song, not least of which was from the Waffen-SS Old Comrades association in Germany, a very proud organisation unashamed of both its musical inheritance and tradition of being widely regarded as the finest fighting soldiers the world has ever seen.

Sadly it is no longer as once was and despite there being no specific German military musical veterans associations in place today there were, when I last specifically checked, just 33 surviving musicians from the Musikkorps der SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler‘which was quite some number, given their ages…

Obviously a number have passed away since I began my work and studies including, at the end of last year, their spiritual leader Obersturmbannführer der ehemalingen Waffen-SS 1.Generalstabsoffizier der 12.SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” Hubert Meyer, but of the remainder who are still with us, some are still able to meet up each year to relive the old days when they served as bandsmen in the Hitler’s elite SS-Bodyguard Division. In fact a number of former SS-LAH bandsmen went on to have post-war musical careers in West German theatres and orchestras, though none of them play today, for as late SS-Musikmeister Gustav Weissenborn remarked to me during our time together in Germany, “their teeth are now like the stars, they come out at night…!”

HIAG, the official German umbrella organisation of the Waffen-SS Veterans Association, though no longer active, very much strove to keep the musical aspect of their short military history alive and back in 1975 their SS Veteran’s Soldatenchor in Minden, comprising former soldiers with the elite Waffen-SS units ‘Das Reich’, ‘Germania’, ‘Wiking’ ‘Der Führer’, ‘Totenkopf’, ‘Deutschland’,Hitlerjugend’ and the SS-Leibstandarte’ Adolf Hitler’, all under the driving leadership of Willy Casselmann, set about recording on tape some of their most favourite Waffen-SS Marschlieder in their true, unaccompanied fashion.

During the research for my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45, Willy kindly shared their story with me:

‘At the age of 76 I have been chairman of the Minden HIAG Association for some 45 years, and as much as my age permits, I manage to hold & keep all the comrades drawn from former Waffen-SS units (and many now in their eighties) together. In addition, and along with the late editor of the German Munin publishing house, I was the main driving force behind the making of our record  ‘Lieder die wir einst sangen’ (Songs we used to sing).

Over the years, and with the help of amateur choir-masters, we rediscovered our love for military songs and at the end of almost every monthly meeting of our Waffen-SS Old Comrades Association there would be an informal sing-song, and again whenever we met up in the beer hall. However, it took us a while to gather up all of our courage before we were able perform our songs for the entertainment of other old soldiers’ associations!

It took many hours of practice, discipline and hard work before we were able to raise our singing to a recordable quality, but we did and then found ourselves gathered in a small room above a beer-hall in Minden to record some of our favourite old songs. Mind you, the function room above the beer hall had a creaking floor, so no-one was allowed to move their feet during the recording; we were also very nervous and our amateur choir-master present had some difficulty in getting the fifty veterans present under control!

However, we were very fortunate that we had with us on that day, along with our Munin editor, a musical expert in the shape of SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Bunge, who was not only the former Chor-und Musikmeister with the elite Waffen-SS regiment ‘Deutschland’, but had written the Munin-published book ‘Musik in der Waffen-SS’. He took charge of the session; all went smoothly and everybody was very happy with the end recording, which we released on a limited record run under the title ‘Lieder  die wir einst sangen…”

Sadly Fritz Bunge died shortly after that famous recording session in the room above the beer-cellar, but several choir members, despite their great age, are still singing just as lustily today!

That original recording was to lay untouched for many years until 1998 when, by chance I unearthed an old copy and, re-naming it ‘Die Waffen-SS Alte Kameraden Singen!, was able to have it digitally re-mastered by the legendary Simon ‘Woody’ Wood up at Dubmaster Studios and released, by kind permission of Willy Casselmann and the SS-Veteran’s Soldatenchor Minden, first as a 14 track cassette and thence onto to CD through an exclusive arrangement with the Tomahawk Films World War Two German Archive.

This then led to a second Veteran’s recording that Tomahawk Films were additionally granted exclusive rights to. Released under the title: Soldatenlieder und Hornsignale der Waffen-SS it featured more superb acapella choir recordings interspersed with original Waffen-SS bugle calls performed by former SS-Hornist Arthur Schulte.

In addition, following the SS-Veteran Soldatenchor’s local success with their recording venture,  Willy Casselmann and his Minden comrades placed an advert in the Waffen-SS Association’s in-house magazine ‘Der Freiwillige’ (The Volunteer), appealing for readers and fellow old comrades to send in any German Marschlieder lyric & music scores they might still have in their possession.

Their plea was well received, and from the numerous replies received, the HIAG Association was able, through their publishing company, Munin Verlag of Osnabrück, to compile, print and publish their own individual and very personal song-book (also entitled ‘Lieder, die wir einst Sangen’, after their record title), a copy of which I was given during my book research and which, Tomahawk Films were given kind permission to re-print in 2000.

Interestingly the preface written by Karl Cerff  read: ” The collected songs of a nation are an expression of its attitude to life. The Germans are amongst the most song-loving of peoples and their treasure of songs is varied, widely known and sung wherever German people live.

The soldier’s song plays an important role within these songs as it represents a part of the soldier’s life. It recalls memories of comradeship, of home and family, of a soldier’s love and a soldier’s death. Those who have been in the armed forces themselves will particularly know the strength of a soldier’s song. Such a song had the power to raise a whole company after a great action and enable them to renew their efforts. Ex-servicemen will also remember many a day in the barracks, in the quarters, in the field or on exercise, that was brightened by both sad and cheerful songs.

Of equal importance as the soldier’s song is the folk song. It reflects the soul of our people, it is part of traditional lore & the beauty of the German mother tongue resonates from its verses & melodies: natural cheerfulness or pensive earnestness, joy of life or deep sorrow. They all find expression in folk songs as the feelings of a people from the same way of life.

Even if the hardship of the past decades has dampened the joy of singing, we are encouraged by a re-awakened longing, which in print one only dares to refer to as nostalgia, to publish this small collection of songs that we once sang.The collection is incomplete and worth completing.

We would like to thank all our comrades and friends for their co-operation and we hope that the Songbook will give some pleasure and that it will become indispensable at old comrades’ meetings, at celebrations, on hikes, even at gatherings of friends or families. Let song become a bridge between generations..!”

Looking through it, all the old classics were there: ‘Im Feldquartier’, ‘Deutschlandlied’, ‘Lebe wohl du kleine Monika,’ ‘Mein Regiment, mein Heimatland’, ‘Ich hatt’ einem Kameraden’, ‘Wenn alle untreu werden’, ‘Im Grünen Wald’, ‘Es ist so schön, Soldat zu’ sein’, ‘Drei Lillien’, ‘Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss’ and ‘Jawoll das stimmt’ (which appears under a different name as ‘Nordsee’).

Certainly the former members of the Waffen-SSand indeed those  of Germany’s equally famous Afrikakorps need no encouragement before bursting unselfconsciously into song at any given opportunity. But the question often arises in my mind: what happens when the last of the World War Two German veterans are no longer with us to carry on this fine military musical tradition..?

                    Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013