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

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