Adolf Hitler’s Last Bodyguard…

For those of us regularly glued to The Discovery or History Channels (the latter when it happily showed historical documentaries from World War Two rather than their strange current scheduling of anything but historical programmes), his face was a regular on our screens as an important interviewee when documenting the life of Adolf Hitler being, as he was, one of the last surviving members of the Führerbunker and possibly the last to actually witness the Führer’s body in May 1945… But last week, on September 5th  at the ripe old age of 96 and sadly following a long illness, Hitler’s last remaining bodyguard, Rochus Misch, died in Berlin.

Born in Silesia, Misch joined the SS Verfüngstruppe in 1937 and thence Hitler’s Bodyguard Division, the Leibstandarte-SS having won the Iron Cross 2nd Class in action in the Polish campaign in 1939. At various points during his years of military service throughout WW-II, his duties included accompanying the Führer as part of a 6-man bodyguard and could be seen in one of the accompanying cars following Hitler that you often see on the German Newsreels.

When serving at the Reich’s Chancellery in the German capital, two of the close bodyguard team would man the permanently busy ‘phones and Misch would revert to his secondary career as radio-operator to share the rota and his military life was permanently spent on Hitler’s closet staff roster in Berlin. So it was that on January 16th 1945, following Germany’s heavy defeat during the Battle of The Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes, Hitler moved his entire entourage, including all SS-Leibstandarte personnel, underground into the Führerbunker, Misch included, where he continued to work as a radio operator on the Fuhrer’s personal staff deep from within his subterranean radio-room…

Thus he now stayed almost permanently underground until war’s end in May 1945 and was therefore witness to the unravelling of the Third Reich and then Hitler’s last-minute marriage to his mistress Eva Braun, as well as the deterioration in the Fuhrer’s mental & physical health as the Russian Forces steadily pressed forward from the East and the capital withered under constant Soviet bombardment, whilst in the West Allied Forces continued their inexorable push across Germany..

In these turbulent last days, Misch was regularly on duty handling all personal radio traffic in and out of the Bunker complex and in the direct environs when, on April 20th, Adolf Hitler & Eva Braun jointly committed suicide and thence again on May 1st when Propagandaminister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda horrifyingly poisoned all 6 of their children before both taking their own lives shortly after.

At the Third Reich’s dramatic end, only two Leibstandarte-SS personnel were believed to remain on duty in the Bunker: Rochus Misch and Johannes Hentschel, but Misch managed to escape from underground on May 2nd only hours before the Red Army finally broke through and surrounded the Bunker. Captured and sent transported back East to the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow he was tortured by Russian Forces desperate for details of Hitler’s personal life.

Surviving such appalling treatment, he was to spend the next 9 years incarcerated in Soviet Labour Camps before his eventual release in the early 1950s, along with a number of others, (many thousands of former Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS prisoners having died in Russian captivity), to return to Germany and his wife & family in the leafy Berlin suburb of Rudow.

After several years of doing odd jobs, financial backing from a supporter allowed him to set up a successful painting & wallpaper business which he continued to run very successfully up until his retirement. However with the uncovering of the Führerbunker in 1990 during building work just after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Misch became an ‘in-demand’ witness by the media to those last days in the Führerbunker, and his appearances increased even more so after the deaths of Siegfried Knappe, Bernd von Freytag-Loringhoven, (a respected figure many will recognise from TV interviews), and Hitler Youth Courier Armin Lehmann. Togther with these three, Rochus Misch made up the last 4 surviving military staff members who had served down in the Bunker.

In recent years, before illness overtook him, Misch had become something of a ‘celebrity’ in his own right and was regularly consulted by film & documentary makers for insights on his service with Adolf Hitler and the final catastrophic days of the Third Reich down in the Bunker. When asked for his views, he freely ventured that the German leader was ‘no brute and no monster…very normal and certainly not as was written about him… in fact he was a wonderful boss!’

Rochus Misch’s memoirs were published under the title, Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness), in 2008 and after the diagnosis of his terminal illness, gave his last interview to an English national newspaper in May 2011, almost 68 years to the day that he last saw Hitler’s charred remains as he exited the Führerbunker for the last time..

Talking of Hitler, I just caught the last half hour of a new French, 2-part documentary production here on UK television on Sunday evening entitled Adolf Hitler – The Colour Years, which I eagerly looked forward to… that was until I realised that, yet again, the producers had decided it would be a real hoot to colourise original war-time 16mm black & white footage! Just why on earth do they feel compelled to do this..apart from the fact it is also inherently dishonest..?  Along with the earlier First World War and thence the later Korean War, these 3 wars were ostensibly ‘fought in black & white’… and to my way of thinking should remain so for later historians and students of the subject..

It is always a cause for celebration on the very rare occasion that original colour Agfa 16mm film footage turns up, (and is therefore an exciting & stunning colour window onto a war), but I find that messing about with the original B & W footage is one of the most annoying things as a viewer looking in and of late has absolutely ruined my enjoyment of what should be good documentaries supported by well researched film footage. Instead of being impressed I find my mind wandering as I gaze at the horrendous greens & blue hues that the colourisers have managed to wash the film footage with… it may all be technically very clever but, for me, it does absolutely nothing for the documentary storyline… quite the opposite in fact!

That said, some of the footage in this new two-parter does look like original colour material and the actual telling of Hitler’s early days is rather well done and has offered some  additional facts to the standard telling, which I had not come across before in all of my years of study. If the researchers are right, the early uniforms of the Sturm Abteilung (Hitler’s first bodyguard) were bankrupt stock bought up by the fledgling Nazi Party from the Hungarian Customs Service, (which would make sense, if you take a close look at the uniforms, particularly the kepis). Plus a certain Henry Ford used to donate all the profits from his German-based car manufacturing plants to the early Nazi Rallies..!

Both facts of which I had not stumbled across before..just goes to show, ‘you learn something every day’!!      

                     Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Kalamazoo’s ‘Air Zoo’ Michigan USA…

Standing in the shower this morning listening to Chris Evans’ BBC Radio Two breakfast show I was fascinated to hear the studio take a call from a ‘weekend display’ pilot of a veteran aircraft, talking about the cockpit of a former de Havilland Vampire jet, (the second jet-fighter to enter RAF service, just missing out on WW-II), that he had sitting on his drive-way!

Bought ‘on impulse’ at an auction of a former independent aircraft museum up north that had ‘gone west’ and was subsequently having to sell off all its wonderful exhibits, including a number of original aircraft cockpits of varying hues & conditions, the chap had bought this particular decrepit cockpit, restored it and was now looking for a museum that would like to take it away from his driveway and have it on display for other enthusiasts to enjoy.

With my other ‘great historical love’ being Second World War vintage aircraft this radio exchange immediately called to mind a superbly displayed ‘front half’ of a twin-engined, USAAF B-26 Marauder bomber, (an aircraft that had operated with great distinction from UK airfields and flew in the skies above Germany during the Allied heavy bombing campaign of WW-II), that I saw at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington on one of my many US trips… and my mind then drifted further to another superb air museum that I was also very lucky to have seen on another of my exciting US jaunts:

Whilst over on another US Veterans’ gathering as a result of the treasured contacts I had made when travelling with the US 79th Infantry Division on their pilgrimage back to Normandy’s D-Day beaches in 2000, I was staying with my great mates up in the stunningly beautiful state of Michigan, when it was suggested that I might like to visit the Kalamazoo Zoo.. (and yes, Kalamzoo does actually exist – it’s not just a song..!)

Thanking my hosts (the Brantingham family), for their suggestion and imagining what strange North American wild-life might be housed within: Moose? the odd Raccoon? or perhaps even evidence of the original Big Foot?… I was soon put right!  We were indeed talking about an exotic collection… of ‘cats’…for the small, friendly American town of Kalamazoo is home to the Flight of Cats, a mind-boggling collection of Grumman fighter aircraft lovingly restored and displayed on the edge of the town’s small airport.

Opened in 1979 with nine aircraft, the Air Zoo was the brainchild of war-time ferry pilot Sue Parish and husband Pete. A former member of the American Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, Sue’s own Curtiss P40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft, (after which our archival company Tomahawk Films is named), is on show complete with its ‘lipstick pink’ paint-work. The pink hue was originlly the ‘planes undercoat showing through its 1942 desert livery and today is one of the star attractions of this much loved fighter collection.

Excitingly, the whole of the illustrious Grumman fighter family is on display at the Zoo: from the famous US Navy carrier-borne fighters of the Pacific War, the Wildcat, the Hellcat and the Bearcat, through to the F7 twin-engined Tigercat that just caught the end of World War two, but which distinguished itself as a night-fighter in the Korean War, up to the modern day and the awe-inspiring and beautiful front-line carrier-borne F14 Tomcat, an example on loan from the US Navy’s ‘Fighting 84t.h’ Squadron.

Far more than just a collection of static aircraft, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, (much like our very own Imperial War Museum’s Airfield of Duxford, where our SFX CD Sounds of War, offering a number of original WW-II aero-engine sounds is on offer), is actually a living, breathing museum, with a daily display flight by one of their restored aircraft, a comprehensive reference library & education centre and a fully working aircraft restoration and renovation department.

With over 70 aircraft on display, museum guests will find a small, dedicated team of ‘Docents’ (tour guides), drawn from a collection of war-time pilots, including Canadian Bill Clearly who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain with Tangmere-based 601 Squadron. Known as ‘Pranger’ due to several mishaps whilst with a ‘Mossie’ squadron, Bill was eventually credited with four kills in the Battle and ended his war flying Lysanders on spy-drop missions behind enemy lines in Northern France.

In fact the log-books of many of these formally-trained museum guides read like a plane-spotter’s dream; from ‘Black Widows’ to the amazing F82 ‘double-mustang’ from the B25 Mitchell bomber to the P39 Aircobra and all these animated, former fighter pilots are eager & willing to share their amazing war-time experiences with the visitors.

I must admit that in chatting to one of these, now elderly, gentlemen, I finally found out where the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ actually comes from: apparently early machine-gun belts in the wings of Allied fighter aircraft were 27 feet long and when returning pilots were greeted by the armourers, if the pilot had expended all of his ammunition, the ground-crew opening up the gun-ports would exclaim: ’well he certainly shot the whole 9 yards..!’

Many similar nuggets of information were forthcoming and such is the importance placed on learning that the Zoo has appointed an education director, Gerard ‘Jerry’ Pahl, who showed me their Restoration operation at the centre of which was an amazing project: the rebuild of one of the X-planes. In fact the XP-55 ‘Ascender’  which Jerry proudly pointed out is the last surviving example and, as an affiliate of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, the Air Zoo was tasked with its important renovation upon behalf of the American nation.

Maintaining another local connection is the on-going restoration project to restore a superb Douglas SBD Dauntless naval carrier-borne dive-bomber that was recovered from the bottom of the nearby Lake Michigan. During the war, local paddle steamers were pressed into military service and converted into training carriers upon which Dauntless naval aviators could practice the hazardous business of carrier landings & take-offs; however some 300 aircraft were lost into the lake during this training period and many still lie in the silt at the bottom to this day.

However a number of successful recoveries have since been made by aircraft recovery groups and the Air Zoo now has one of these rare aircraft in the main hall alongside its other exciting exhibits, which also includes a flying version of the Bell P39-Q Aircobra in the markings of the 67th US pursuit squadron… one of the world’s only 3 surviving airworthy examples of the 9,585 originally built.

World War Two aircraft buffs & students of US Naval carrier history passing through this lovely Great Lake State would be well rewarded with a stop-over at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo and its amazing collection of combat aircraft… I certainly was!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013