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HIAG, the official German umbrella organisation of the Waffen-SS Veterans Association, though no longer active, very much strove to keep the musical aspect of their short military history alive and back in 1975 their SS Veteran’s Soldatenchor in Minden, comprising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

German Music in the Movies – Pt 2

Continuing the theme of tv & movie music sound-tracks, possibly the most repeated requests Tomahawk regularly receives relate to the identity of German marching songs whenever the satellite channels show their regular re-runs of Jeremy Isaac’s 1973 ground-breaking 26-part series The World at War. Featuring the most stunning film footage, the series is actually made by the spine-tingling Shakespearean tones of Sir Laurence Olivier.. (oh, to be able to deliver such mellifluous voice-overs as that.. I’d certainly die a happy man if I could come even close when I’m narrating WW-II documentaries!!).

But correctly identifying Third Reich Military Music/Nazi-era music tracks from a mere ‘description’ is not always easy, especially as Tomahawk Films was not actually in existence when that hallowed series was in production and so we did not contribute to that never-to-be-bettered, series. However in the late 1980s, when Tomahawk Films was happily up & running, we did market vast numbers of the World at War series during our early distributor days, though sadly we have never been able to access the Music Cue Sheets.

Nevertheless when pressed we still try to get our hands on the volume in question and offer an opinion to a customer desperate for an track I.D; and fortunately, we usually have a good bash at getting it right, (very often after a customer has hummed or whistled the tune down the ‘phone at us to give us a head-start in matching up his rendition to a track or commercial CD in our archive..and that happens on a good deal more occasions that you could probably imagine!!)

Probably the second most requested track customers call in to our Production Office about is the Panzer Song as featured in the 1965 Warner Brothers Hollywood epic movie Battle of the Bulge...

Directed by Ken Annakin and starring the movie world’s leading men of the day, such as Henry Fonda & Telly Savalas, (amongst a stellar cast of the great & the good), the leading German character of SS Colonel Hessler is/was played by the great Robert Shaw, (and believed, by some, to have been modelled on the true life of Waffen-SS Standartenfuehrer Joachim Peiper).

In the build-up to the film’s climax comes a memorable war-film scene so beloved of German military music fans when Hessler, (Shaw), is introduced to his new, young & very clean-cut tank commanders and, keen to demonstrate their bristling zeal & loyalty to their tank arm, they burst into a very moving acappella rendition of the Panzer Lied   for him, (i.e. unaccompanied in the manner of a Church or Welsh Choir), in something of a show-stopping performance!

But of course, (like the previously-discussed modern ‘Battle Of Britain March’), what you hear on screen is purely a movie confection, though very adroitly sung by the actors in the cast; however the actual Panzer Lied as sung in that marvellous scene is a true replication of the original and famous German Tanker’s song… and those singing it with much gusto on celluloid do an absolutely fantastic job, it has to be said!

However, Tomahawk Films does have a most superb acappella version of the Panzer Lied as sung by the original Waffen-SS Veteran Choir of Minden; composed of 50 former soldiers from the most famous SS Regiments, such as the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’, Wiking, Das Reich & Der Fuehrer, (and all now local members of the SS Alte Kameraden organisation), they all got together in a meeting room above a bier-keller in the German town of Minden to sing & record a selection of their most favoured marching songs from the war years, the evocative Panzer Lied being one of them….

The choir members had, previous to the recording, spent a long time gathering up together the sheet-music & lyrics to some of their favourite soldier songs, back from the days when they were very much in the vanguard as Hitler’s elite fighting men and, through our links with senior members of the Waffen-SS Veteran’s Organisation, we were very fortunate to be able to acquire the exclusive world rights to this fabulous recording which indeed includes that fabulous rendtion of the Panzer Lied.

We also acquired a second exclusive recording from the Minden SS-Soldatenchor in which a former Waffen-SS Stabshornist, (Company Bugler), Arthur Schulte, additonally performed, alongside more evocative accapella songs, a unique selection of 11 original Waffen-SS bugle calls, and Tomahawk re-mastered & released both of these superb, rare recordings on commercial CDs as Die Waffen-SS Alte Kameraden Singen and Soldatenlieder und Hornsignale der Waffen-SS.

The selection of their chosen soldier songs on both of our two CD releases is beautifully delivered, as you would expect, in their strong Bass & Tenor voices and, as with all of these emotive songs as sung by these SS Veterans, it certainly raises the hairs on the back of your neck when you listen in. Sadly however we have not yet been able to nail down a pre-1945 copy of the Panzer Lied as sung by war-time a Musikkorps und Chor, so this stunning post-war Veterans’ example will have to fill the gap for now…however we may stumble across that war-time version at some point along the way.

Meanwhile ‘Cross of Iron’ and ‘The Mackenzie Break’ are two other television-shown movies that we also regularly receive questions about because of their musical content…both excellent films in their own right and again we always know when they have just been given an airing on television as the ‘phone starts ringing soon afterwards regarding a particular Soldier Song from each film that the enthusiastic audience always wants us to identify for them…

Firstly, the 1977 Sam Peckinpah-directed Cross of Iron’ starring James Coburn as the hard-bitten Wehrmacht NCO Steiner and his bete noire Maximillian Schnell as the Infantry Officer Stransky who applies for transfer to the white-heat of combat on the Russian Front from a soft billet in France in an effort to finally win the infamous combat award of the movie’s title.

Filmed in Yugoslavia, in an effort to replicate the Kuban Bridgehead of 1943, the combat scenes have been described as some of the best ever shot, however one of the other memorable scenes is not a combat one, but a reflective moment involving a superb rendition of “Im Feldquartier”  which, if memory serves…and it is a long while since I have personally seen the movie… may have been sung by James Coburn’s grizzled character sitting by a camp fire.. (though Coburn was certainly not known for his singing skills so almost certainly an over-dub), nevertheless it is a most contemplative scene made all the more so because of the haunting melody of this very moving Soldier Song..!

However, whomsoever actually sang it in the movie, Tomahawk Films has a wonderful pre-1945 version of it as performed beautifully by the bass voice of Wilhelm Strienz… and in answer to those many such questions, this can be found, (along with his famous signature tune: ‘Gute Nacht Mutter’), on our CD: The Songs of Wilhelm Strienz 1935-1945

The other major ‘movie music question’ surrounds the equally watchable 1970 British-made & Lamont Johnson-directed The McKenzie Break’  which is another in that gripping line of classic PoW Films about captured German submariners & airmen imprisoned here in the UK.

Starring Helmut Griem, Brian Keith & Ian Hendry, a sinister German U-Boot Commander (played by Griem) sets about challenging the authority of the British Camp Commander, (as played by the legendary Hendry), as he plans a mass breakout of his men from the Prisoner of War camp..

Based on a true story surrounding a war-time escape attempt from a German PoW camp in Cumbria, the location of this fictional camp is set in Scotland and during an intense tale involving the murder of a German prisoner, a game of ‘cat & mouse’ is played out between the opposing sides…and in one of the earlier scenes the German ‘actor-prisoners’ perform a superb acappella version of ‘Erika’

One of the most popular of all German period marching songs, Tomahawk Films posses a number of superb and differing versions of ‘Erika’, both in our Archive and on CD… one of the best being a full Musikkorps und Chor version on our CD release: Musik in der Luftwaffe…

As a German marching song, ‘Erika’ is hard to beat and it also holds up very well when performed and sung with a lighter tempo & delivery by a Third Reich civilian orchestra, such as the The Heyn Quartett as featured on our most evocative 2-CD set entitled Wunschkonzert fuer die Wehrmacht..

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2012