Waffen-SS Musiker Training…

From the earliest days of the Third Reich, the Allgemeine-SS & SS-Verfügungstruppe had begun forming their own elite Musikkorps, so establishing the tradition for the SS leading the way in all things artistic & political and Hitler’s elite Bodyguard Division, the Leibstandarte-SS had successfully recruited fully-trained first-rate civilian professional musicians to join its ranks to establish itself in the pre-war years as Germany’s premier military band. As such it performed at all the most important military & ceremonial occasions in Berlin, including the Sportspalast Concert on January 30th 1934 to celebrate the first anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s spectacular ascent to power.

However, with the creation of the Waffen-SS and the sudden increase in the number of new Waffen-SS Musikkorps as a result, the SS-Musikinspektion  was determined to ensure a constant supply of highly trained  young musicians from within its own ranks by laying down very strong foundations for their formal musical education, having appointed a new generation of Waffen-SS Musikführer.

So a purpose-built Musikschule der Waffen-SS was set up within the grounds of the SS-Junkerschule at Braunschweig under SS-Hauptsturmführer Edgar Siedentopf and admitted its first intake of  60 pupils on July 1st 1940. Maintained & funded by the Reichsführung-SS and the City of Braunschweig, the school recruited its music teachers from the town’s civilian State Music Academy, whilst school discipline and tuition was provided & overseen by SS-NCOs on secondment from the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS Division ‘Germania’.

The school boasted an impressive array of brass and percussion instruments, including some 40 upright & grand pianos and consisted of one large staff headquarters building which contained a big rehearsal room, several practice rooms, an administrative office and both a tailor’s & shoemaker’s workshop to service the school’s domestic requirements. In addition, there was a boarding house containing students’ dormitories, a dining hall & kitchen, and scattered around the school were 3 teaching huts, a further smaller rehearsal room, a gym and several sound-proofed practice rooms for individual student practice.

Young pupils who possessed previous musical training and passed the strict medical could enter the school on or after their 14th birthday for a period of four years and then sign up for a 12 year contract as a musician within the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS, provided their parents had given clear, prior consent and were then able to contribute 25 Reichsmarks (approx. £2.00), a month towards their board & lodging, clothing and education.

The level of the student’s musical aptitude was ascertained through the sitting of an entrance exam and all successful students were then advised on the selection of a main instrument, (brass), and a secondary instrument, (strings). On-going student progress was tested throughout the year and, whilst at the school, pupils wore uniforms similar in style to the standard field-grey combat uniforms of the Waffen-SS (right). But on their black collar patch was an embroidered lyre, the epaulettes contained the monogram M.S. and the cuff-title worn on the lower right tunic arm bore the legend Musikschule Braunschweig in silver on black. To help further distinguish the young students from the general Waffen-SS rank and file, the young trainee musician’s wore the standard Hitler Jugend armband and silver belt buckle.

In 1942 the SS-Musikschule separated from the SS-Junkerschule to become a separate and totally independent unit, and by 1944 the number of students had risen from that initial 60 to 220, with SS-Haupsturmführer Eberhardt taking over command and head-ship of the school from SS-Sturmbannführer Siedentopf and in keeping with the SS-Musikinspektion’s aim of providing the Waffen-SS with only the finest musician’s available, the Musikschule Braunschweig also ensured that high achieving students could be selected for further training as future conductors & musical directors with SS-Officer rank.

Along with suitable musician’s already serving with existing Musikkorps within the Waffen-SS, selected Braunschweig students were recommended by their instructors for further training and ordered to Berlin to sit aptitude & entrance examinations for the Musikführer’s course, and successful candidates were then attached to the Staff Band, where training took place across a range of musical subjects.

The emphasis in music-leader training was obviously placed on conducting, and the SS-Staff Band was used both in this regard and for the performances of compositions actually written by the probationary musical leaders; as such these future Waffen-SS Musikführer were given a far more realistic and dynamic music leadership training than any other military music school within the Reich.The SS-Musikführer course finished with a final examination and following a pass the successful students were promoted to the rank of SS-Standarten-Oberjunker (trainee officers), with the expectation that they would eventually become musical directors of their own Musikkorps and an accompanying rank of SS-Untersturmbannführer.

It is worth noting that the only two SS-Musikmeister who were not formally trained were Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John and his number two Gustav Weissenborn, (right in civvies), both of the Musikkorps der SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, neatly illustrating the elite and exclusive image that the SS Bodyguard Division enjoyed in the eyes of Adolf Hitler and its Commanding Officer Sepp Dietrich.

Upon completion of their basic military training, Waffen-SS musicians were immediately assigned to the SS-Musikkorps that had suitable vacancies on offer, whereas some newly qualified Wehrmacht musicians, fresh out of basic training, had to wait and scan the notice-boards or the situations vacant pages of the musical magazine Deutsche Militärmusikerzeitung seeking out bands that were advertising for specific musicians.

Military musicians quite often found themselves having to suffer the ‘indignity’ of being assigned to other military duties whilst awaiting their full-time move to a regimental or corps band, for despite the regular flow of Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musicians through basic military training, the German High Command issued strict regulations on the size of a unit’s military band, and new musicians would only be transferred to a band when there was a genuine vacancy.

An exception to this rule was the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’, whose elite band was much favoured by commanding officer Sepp Dietrich who firmly believed that a good Musikkorps reflected well on the whole regiment. Therefore whenever SS-LAH Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John slapped in a request for two more clarinettists or an additional oboist, Dietrich would say with a rueful grin, ‘haven’t you got enough already….?’, before turning a blind eye to the already over-subscribed Musikkorps line-up and approving the latest transfer. It was in this fashion that the SS-LAH Musikkorps grew from an original 48 musicians to 75 thence up to 120 musicians!

Once the new musical recruits had passed through basic military training and joined a Musikkorps, all Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS musicians were put onto the Wehrmacht Heeresdienstvorschrift (or Army Service Regulation) pay scale HDV 32 and were then very much considered to be full-time professionals. Now, in a complete reversal of their previous status during basic training, they were not expected to undertake any other military duties outside of their creative sphere during peace time and could concentrate fully on advancing their professional Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht military-musical careers.

The only exception to this order was their annual four weeks posting, as serving soldiers, back to a training company to ‘recapture’ their military skills acquired during basic training and to freshen up on what would become their secondary wartime roles as medics, communications personnel, drivers and motorcycle couriers. But once assigned to a Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musikkorps, a musician’s instruments were then provided by the unit or regimental band, (the only exception being the 12.SS-Hitlerjugend who, due to their late formation in 1944, actually provided their own instruments), and then the business of performing professionally in public could really begin in earnest…

A typical military musician’s day in barracks usually consisted of full rehearsals of the Musikkorps each morning followed by individual practice and performance in the afternoon, with many evenings being taken up with small public concerts being staged to entertain the good folk of the garrison town and its outlying regions. Mornings normally began with marching practice for the full band, either practising new movements or brushing up on old ones and rehearsing the military marching repertoire, either on the parade ground or in fields behind the barracks; then it was time to sit down and work on specific concert pieces and performances including overtures and waltzes that would be performed at important public concerts…

Afternoons provided the opportunity for the individual musicians to lock themselves away in whichever quiet spot they could find (the attic, boiler or store room), and work undisturbed on their own specific instrument, before rejoining the band and travelling to the evening concert. This evening entertainment could take place in the local town hall or in the large hall of the local brewery or as an outdoor concert in the bandstand in the town park or perhaps as a more elaborate performance in the local theatre or concert hall. Particularly well received wherever they played were the dance band of the SS-Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ in the distinctive Waffen-SS white mess-jackets they always performed in!

For the German military career-musician, Sunday was always the most important day of the working week, with them often being required to perform full-scale concerts organised for the German civilian population most weeks. These were often in aid of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz, or to entertain the workers at local factories during peace time. During the war years they were more likely to perform in support of the Winterhilfswerk (Winter Relief Fund), or visit military hospitals to entertain sick & wounded soldiers shipped back from the front…thus proving Goebbel’s maxim that military music was a vital tool in Third Reich’s Propaganda War..!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2014

Extracted from the book:  The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945                     Published by The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.    ISBN 0-9542812-0-9

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