Tomahawk Films’ New Year..

A very happy and contented New Year to all of the fantastic and most loyal customers of the Tomahawk Films’ WW-II German Archive that we have around the world and indeed to the ever-growing band of kind and enthusiastic collectors & students of military history now regularly reading our Blog and are beginning to contact us either to share welcome snippets of information or just telling us they are enjoying what we post from time to time here on the Tomahawk Film’s website…

I must admit, (though my friends & colleagues in the business already know it to be fact, sadly), that being the Luddite that I am, I’m so much happier with just a word-processor to write on; so that having to finally launch ourselves into the modern era of ‘social media’ and leave behind the old Tomahawk Films catalogue mail-order business, (that has served us so well over 27 years), has become a bit of a shock to my system… it’s sad, but I know it has to be done!

Albeit still so embarrassing when I watch a tiny tot happily & confidently typing on a lap-top or using the latest mobile phone with all its latest apps & gizmos with such aplomb… makes me feel a right klutz)! Then I content myself with the thought that said tot could not write and produce a 50 minute WW-II TV documentary..but then again, knowing my luck these mega-bright little sparks probably could.. and judging by some current TV output..actually do!

But I find it really worrying that there is now such a cultural divide (or should that be a cultural apartheid?) opening up between those of us over 50 and those under.. and, yes, I am the man that shouts at World’s Strongest Man contests on the box when the commentator says a competitor is ’1.8 metres high and weighs 128kgs’. Excuse me? Speak English man not some strange continental Euro verbiage.. I can imagine a man at 6” 6” weighing 26 stone..but everything else… just forget it!

However persisting with my desire…well it’s not my desire but everybody else’s it seems, (thanks Malcolm!), I actually spent over 6 hours yesterday at our local IT company hopefully, and finally, sorting out the Tomahawk Films website and ensuring that its upgrade to a new, firmer foundation and with a change-over from Card Net (Lloyds Bank’s credit-card clearing bank) to the more global Barclaycard, goes seamlessly. If it does then within the next few weeks the our distinctive German archival website will both have a more secure footing to stand upon and be an easier, more customer-friendly & ultra-secure experience for those German music & film footage fans that generously want to continue buying our rare German archival products via the website and having Barclays accept their welcome Visa & Master card payments on our behalf, (alongside our continued usage of PayPal of course).

If that wasn’t enough (smelling salts Daphne!) I then went through an intensive couple of hours being shown the rudiments of Twitter, Facebook & You Tube, (thanks to the aforementioned Malcolm, who is our great mate Malcolm Moore who runs the excellent Mist of Time on-line & battle re-enactors militaria operation up there in Yorkshire and who is ‘our man in the north’ (along with felllow friend Anthony at Militaria.net) as it was Malcolm that finally convinced us here at Tomahawk that we have to embrace the new social media..or die.

Sadly it is a case in fact that one of the downsides to our fabulous success of our German Archive as we enter our 28th year of operation is that we are a regular target for the myriad rip-off merchants in Europe, Russia and North America who still appear to be sitting in their back bedrooms copying our CDs on a home computer then offering the contents on–line as if it were their own (or passing it off as genuine Tomahawk Films products) or worse simply banging it all up on You Tube without asking our permission. Indeed infamous US pirate even went to all the trouble of copying our distinctive red cardboard covers and placing our ripped-off material on several well known American on-line auction and book sites, but I think a ‘phone call to the right ears disabused him of that notion, hopefully he is now out of business..well we can hope I suppose!

Some youngsters seem to view my generation who’ve been in Film & TV a life-time (so do actually have a small clue as to what we talking about..well sometimes!) as dinosaurs; however for some reason there is a new breed of techno folk coming through now who either have no understanding of the concept of Copyright..or simply care even less and it is really galling when you do a regular Google test to check where our German Archive sits within their listings.. only to find those rip-off merchants are actually ranked higher than our bona fide archive..frustrating in the extreme!

These techno-herberts may be highly advanced in all forms of on-line technology but none of them seems to have grasped the simply concept of Copyright and that if somebody else has that Copyright you simply do not rip it off and post it or advertise it on-line as yours…I think these folk must wear strange glasses that make the words ‘on-line’ translate into ‘free to plunder’… and the on-line authorities seem to care not a jot..well that has to change if there is any justice!

One of these companies passing themselves off as ‘professionals’ have simply lifted our rare and original Kriegsweihnachten Christmas Carols CD (that took me 2 years to source and produce), changed the running order, replaced our distinctive cover and, bold as you like, have it offered on their website as ‘legal downloads’ with some obscure German name appended to the recording to make it look as if they have legally acquired the rights….I think not!.. and in fact I’m not sure they would understand the meaning of the word legal if it hit them in them face. Certainly, and as mentioned before, Tomahawk Films does not offer any of our material as digital downloads as happily, (at least for now) our myriad customers still want our complete archival albums on CD and in an attractive sleeve.. (or the real enthusiastic collectors as I tend to call them!) Perhaps ‘digital’ is not the way forwarded as everybody once blithely predicted..indeed look at the newly burgeoning vinyl market with new material being released onto record..who’d have thought it

Sadly as I increasingly make my way through the business world I see there is precious little honour left in business dealings any more (though with wonderful exceptions inall  the people Tomahawk deals directly with in terms of sale & supply!). I suppose with the pirates, where there is a buck to be made from somebody else’s endeavours, then honour is an alien concept, which is really tragic!

But let’s not get down about the dishonest ‘herberts’ infecting the internet and just be thankful for all the good people out there..to whit, thanks to Malcolm, Craig at our IT company CT Central, my director-cameraman Nobbie and his girl-Friday Harriet, Tomahawk are now about to take the fight to the pirates and ne’er-do-wells by opening our own YouTube account so we can legally list and offer some our archive’s music as tasters of the original material to be found in our archive via the Tomahawk Films website… likewise we will open up a Facebook account to keep ourselves updated and see what’s what in the wider world outside of our production offices here in Hampshire..

I have to say that Twitter is the one that I am least convinced by at the moment as what do you say that can be of any meaning in however few characters you are allowed.?. What can you actually say that might be of some importance to anybody else? Since last evening I have started to follow Jeremy Clarkson, BBC ‘Top Gear’ stalwart and a journalist I admire greatly, (though not for his motoring columns as cars, sadly, do nothing for me), but his weekly newspaper columns about life in general are some of the funniest ‘laugh out loud’ musings I have ever seen and happily are now available as delightful book collections, which I read avidly and highly recommend!

For my money, Jeremy is consistently quite the funniest and irreverent writer currently in print,but watching & reading his exchanges yesterday with a female journalist (who I suspect might be London’s Mayor Boris Johnson’s feisty magazine-editor sister) it all seemed quite inane and not really worthy of taking up any of their valuable time and I thought, er why?

The gist of the tweets seems to a bit of slagging for his most impressive Q17 Arctic Convoy documentary that went out last week and was in fact one of the finest war-time documentaries I have seen of late (after the recent Goering: A Career) and I urge you all to take a gander if you get the chance. Jeremy is just a sublime & confident presenter of such war-time docs as his very evident patriotism shines through and his admiration for the veterans he is talking about certainly adds a very personal touch to the programme.

But returning to his ‘tweets’ of yesterday I sort find all these rather unedifying to have such little spats played out in public.  These are bright people so why do they need twitter..something I am still musing about with Tomahawk. Just why do we need a place to leave inane one-liners when we have our website and our Blog through which to express ourselves more fully? .I cringe even more when certain ‘loved up’ couples in the media seem to play out their entire romance on Twitter of the edification of others and I feel like shouting ‘oh do get a room you two’..!

I don’t know whether it is a ‘showbiz thing’ that these folk have to always been seen in public or cannot live their lives without somebody commenting about them…Malcolm & Nobbie have both told me that Tomahawk being on Twitter, (plus the aforementioned You Tube & Facebook), will all help keep Tomahawk Films in the public eye and so keep us right up in the Google rankings, above the very people trying to rip us off..So if it is for the good of the company then we will give it a go..but I can already see Twitter will be the first of these social media to fall by the wayside for Tomahawk Films, as who is going to be sitting in his bath, say, and be interested in the fact that we have just acquired a new German signalhorn for the archive?

Actually that said, I’ll now completely contradict myself and thank John for contacting us having read my Blog relating to such signalhorns & German Bugles to say that he has recently bought a Max Glass-marked example and do we know of the company?… We certainly do for Max Glass (left) was one of the main manufacturers of such signalling instruments and was prolific in distributing them…but oddly Max Glass was also a typewriter-producing factory and was probably as well known, if not more so, for such German Schreiber machines.

Indeed our good pal Shawn over in Texas very generously gifted us an original invoice (Rechnung) dated September 1st 1939 that he picked up recently as issued by Max Glass from Klingenthal, one of the major musical instrument production areas of Germany (also a ski-jumping town I believe?) during both the years of Imperial Germany and the Third Reich. We just missed adding another Max Glass to the archive over Christmas so must ask John if it was indeed his good self that managed to purchase this bugle from a dealer..it had a small waffenampt stamp to the garland, (something I have never seen before so am keen to hear more about that). However our signalhorn collection continues to ebb & flow..as we speak we are awaiting one from Holland and two from Germany but the Christmas back-log seems to have all 3 still in its grip.. so we must be patient!

However back to the social media and it will just remain to be seen if Tomahawk launching itself on to such platforms will be a success or indeed a damp squib…I must admit I have certainly enjoyed writing the Tomahawk Blog which is now just over a year old…though sometimes the ‘old grey matter’ runs a bit dry and it is not always easy to come up with something new opine on…that is why occasionally there are 3 or 4 Blogs in a couple of weeks or nothing for a month. However it is good to see that since we started Blogging the hits to our Tomahawk Film’s website have actually doubled. So we know you guys out there are finding us..and thank you so much for that..great to know we are not sitting in the dark, wittering to ourselves!

On that front, sad news to report that over the Christmas holidays I heard from the family of former Ober-Kanonier Helmut Zimmerman of the 319th Artillery Regiment stationed in Guernsey, (and whom I wrote about in my Blog and magazines articles A Guernsey Gunner’ returns) passed away on Boxing Day and I would like to extend my deepest condolences to his family. Helmut was a wonderful man whom I was pleased to know and spend some time with over in Guernsey… as with many terrific, German veterans he always had a twinkly smile and a warm greeting and was a much loved friend of Guernsey.

So in being able to share both happy & sad news I can see social media does have its part to play in keeping everybody involved & interested in this specialised field of military study & collecting and to that end I welcome any Blog readers contacting me via the Tomahawk Films website to either say ‘hello’ or share any information or comments about anything I may have written here..or indeed any world war two television documentaries you may have watched & enjoyed that I may have missed? Having spent the bulk of my professional career in the film, TV & sporting outside broadcast world, I am still a sucker for a good TV documentary and still enjoy watching them & writing about them, so please feel free to make contact with me, it’ll be great to hear from you…!

Meantime wishing you all a great year of study & collecting in 2014… Tomahawk certainly did much better in 2013 than expected on sales of archival CDs, DVDs & Books so perhaps the Recession is finally lifting its heavy hand from backs & our wallets… here’s hoping!  

           Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

A Tiger Tank’s Movie Debut…

A very rare German tank that I first saw many years ago down in rural Dorset as little more than a rusty hull at the beginning of what was to be a long & painstaking restoration has recently emerged from the shadows of the dusty REME (Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers) workshops into the sunlight as it was transformed from an ugly duckling into the beautiful swan of folklore legend.

Thought to be the very last working example of its type anywhere in the world, Bovington Tank Museum’s very own Tiger Tank is not only up and running but is now being hired out to the producers of the new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fury’ currently being shot in and around the village of Shirburn  in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside here in the United Kingdom.

Along with an American Sherman M4 also on hire from this ground-breaking Museum, this superb & almost breathtaking Tiger will add a sense of realism with its sheer power & stage presence on set.. indeed Bovington’s Director of Operations, Richard Smith, said the Tiger was’ “one of the most feared weapons unleashed by the Nazis and was possessed of a formidable reputation as it could destroy an enemy tank from over 2km away..!”

When I first set eyes on it in the workshop it was a somewhat sad shadow of its former glory, completely shorn of its fearsome & powerful turret and talking back then with Curator David Willy, my understanding was that the tank was originally captured in the Western Desert in 1942 after a particularly ferocious clash between General Montgomery’s 8th Army. (the famous’ Deserts Rats’ of legend) and Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel at the head of his equally famous Afrikakorps.

This huge prize (in all senses of the word) was eventually brought back to the UK to undergo evaluation at the hands of the British Army and the Ministry of War’s tank boffins to see exactly what made this mighty German tank, (apart from its obvious & highly feared 88mm cannon), such a deadly & frightening opponent, then once its dark secrets were revealed to the British Army, the hulk was destined to become a target for the development of armour piercing shells.

But miraculously and thankfully for all of us who now either make a professional living from military history or those of us who also appreciate (or more likely ‘revel in’), the sheer power of the armoured fighting vehicles that the industrial might of Hitler’s Third Reich could produce, it survived a potentially ‘sticky end’ to later become the restoration project of today, so bringing it back to life for modern generations to once again marvel at and stand in total awe of..!.

In fact I was lucky enough to see it in all is restored glory when I drove down to Bovington last year to meet up with long-time pal Karl Friedrich Koenig from Hamburg, who was a Wehrmacht Panzer crew-member also serving in the Western Desert during the Second World War. Known to his UK Veteran pals as ‘Charlie’, Karl also features in both word & photo in my book The Military Music and Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945.

Karl and I have been communicating for some 15 years or so and at the time of penning my book he kindly sent me a photo of himself as that young tank crewman, (far left), along with some shots of him with some of his former foes in The Sherwood Forresters, with whom he used to meet up regularly when he came over to the UK each year to resume old friendships forged from the heat of war. (In fact it never ceases to amaze me by just how many firm friendships were made, post-war, between former soldiers of the Third Reich and their Allied adversaries. Enduring friendships created through total respect for each other as honourable enemies, but all with shared experiences as fellow infantrymen, tankers, artillery gunners, fighter pilots, sailors et al.)

During our meet up Karl & I had a chance to take in this most impressive looking tank and I think the next time I see it, it will be in full moving action in the Brad Pitt movie and as David Willy said: “The Tiger was restored so that the public could fully appreciate what a truly fearsome machine it would have been during battle and now for the first time countless numbers of people will have the opportunity to see a genuine Tiger in a contemporary war film.”

Also describing it as “a unique piece of military heritage”, for those worried at how it might be used and abused by the movie crew, he said he was happy to reassure us all that its time on the set would be carefully managed and overseen by a group of museum workshop staff..which is a great comfort, having seen at first-hand how easy it is to wreck things on a movie or television production..!

(I’m told that on the movie set of the 1990 Michael Caton-Jones re-make of William Wyler’s famous 1943 war-time original of Memphis Belle, what started out as a number of rare sets of very valuable Irvine flying jackets and fur-lined trousers… and their US equivalents… all ended up as balls of torn rags after the Extras decided they could still play football in them in between takes… makes you weep doesn’t it! )

But back to today and ‘Fury’ (due for release next October), starring Brad Pitt as a US army sergeant leading an Allied mission behind enemy lines, dropped something of a clanger in that its cameras continued to roll on Remembrance Sunday.. to an obvious outcry!!

Pre-dawn stunt explosions and the use of extras dressed in Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS uniforms on Britain’s national day of Remembrance when the rest of us were spending a few quiet moments remembering those lost in action from World War 1 to the modern day was not the best way the film company could ‘win friends and influence people’! Indeed one movie extra who was filming on that Sunday told a UK national newspaper: ‘this was grotesquely disrespectful… but this is what I do and I cannot just walk off set.”

This unfortunate issue forced movie-director David Ayer (who directed the motion-picture U-571 showing Americans as liberating the Nazi code-breaking Enigma machine which, despite the gratuitous re-writing of history, I rather enjoyed), later apologised and expressed his heartfelt apologies for any disrespect caused adding  ”I am a veteran myself!”

But that said, knowing the Film & TV business as I do I am sure it would not have been beyond the wit & wisdom for somebody at the movie company Sony to wonder out loud if having a team of actors & extras rushing around the Oxfordshire countryside in a full array of WW-II German military uniforms on this solemn of all military days here in Britain was not such a bright idea?

However, we all make mistakes and I am sure by the time ‘Fury’ comes out all this will be forgotten amidst seeing Bovington’s wonderfully restored Tiger Tank in all its awesome beauty… stand aside Brad, let’s see the real star of the show..! 

Copyright@Brian Matthews 2013

Sometimes It’s More Than Luck..!

Every now and then I receive an e-mail relating to some incredible stories from the Second World War: tales of incredible bravery, some of amazing derring-do and some that just make me stop in my tracks and really think for a moment or two and wonder if they are merely apocryphal or are based in fact..!

For the latest to cross my desk, I am indebted to a good pal of mine who is currently working on the impressive German Maisy Batterie, the recently discovered and thence completely uncovered ‘must-see’ D-Day military attraction slap-bang on the Normandy Invasion Coast of France.The exciting discovery of this long-hidden Batterie and the realisation all these years on of its vitally important role on D-Day has attracted great media interest… and I hope to write about it and offer more photos here in future Blogs…

However, in the meantime his recent forwarded e-mail from across the Channel concerns the story of one Elmer Bendiner, who as a young man, was a navigator with the USAAF on a B-17 Flying Fortress flying from its base here in East Anglia during the heavy air campaign over Germany in the Second World War. Elmer has related a most incredible story of one of his war-time bombing  runs over the town of Kassel that had a most unexpected outcome as the result of a direct hit on the fuel tanks of this sturdy American bomber from Luftwaffe anti-aircraft guns defending the city. Elmer takes up the story:

“Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns, which wasn’t unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimetre canon shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot told me it was not quite that simple as on the morning following the raid, he’d had gone off to ask our ground-crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of our unbelievable luck…

The crew-chief told him that not just one shell but 11 had been found in the gas tanks… 11 unexploded shells whereas just one would have been sufficient to blast us out of the sky..! It was just as if the sea had been parted for us… a near-miracle, I thought! Even after all those years, so awesome an event still leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from our former pilot who was later told that the shells had been sent to the armourers to be defused… and they had told him that USAAF  Intelligence had suddenly come in to pick them up and take them away for inspection, without a word as to why..!.

However it later transpired that when the armourers opened each of those shells, they had found no explosive charges… they were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless.. completely empty!  
All except one of them that had contained a carefully rolled piece of paper and on it was a scrawl in Czech. The Intelligence people had then scoured our base for a man who could read Czech and eventually they found one to decipher the note, which set us all marvelling for, when translated, the note read: ”This is all we can do for you now … using slave labour is never a good idea..!”

Indeed whether apocryphal or completely true, (and I’d like to think it was indeed one of those fabulous true stories that emerge from time to time), I’ll let you decide which for, as I wrote at the beginning of this particular Blog, sometimes these stories from the Second World War, whether indeed real or ‘enhanced’ just stop you in your tracks and this was certainly one of those…Talking of which: Part Two of Hitler’s Rise-The Colour Films was aired last night…but at least this time came the voice-over confession at the start of the documentary that the footage had indeed been ‘digitally enhanced’… i.e. colourised, so ‘The Colour Films’ as trumpeted were sadly no such thing, more’s the pity.  As I have often moaned before: ‘Why do they do this..?’

Without meaning to sound too po-faced about this, I personally feel that tampering with original b/w Third Reich film footage through adding colour not only ‘humanises’ some scenes that should remain thought-provoking in their original harsher hues as shot, but also buggering about 70 years after the event by adding such colour that wasn’t originally there is not only akin to inserting newly-written paragraphs in Shakespeare, (or other works of literature years after they were finished & lauded), but somehow seemingly also runs the risk of lessening the impact when the occasional haul of previously unseen Agfa-colour 16mm film (or even 35mm if we are really lucky), still surfaces from time-to-time.

So for these reasons, amongst others, I always find myself thinking they should have left well alone, as the original archival b/w film tampered with in this particular case was absolutely superb and good enough to stand on its own two feet, especially rare footage of Hitler’s Bodyguard divisional band, the Musikkorps Leibstandarte-SS. Indeed the thoughtful commentary running behind some of this superb footage also continued to offer odd snippets of additional background information that the myriad previous documentaries on Adolf Hitler had not thought (or knew enough), about to include and were certainly a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the subject.

But it is almost as if the producers or commissioning editors thought that they wouldn’t get a big enough audience for their black & white footage without somehow sensationalising their documentary for the viewing masses by introducing colour to footage what should have most assuredly remained in its 1930s & 1940s state… especially as in places the colourisers had made a real hash of things resulting in several rather uncomfortable ‘ouch’ moments!

This was a crying shame, and in places something of a diversion as sections of the footage were quite rare… including, (and excitingly for me with this Nazi anthem ever-present in our Tomahawk Films Archive), terrific footage of the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel and the ensuing funeral arrangements after his murder that I’d not previously encountered. In addition, some some of the Hitler Speeches, (and several from Reichs Propagandaminister Goebbels) were actually of the rarer variety and so the visual imagery accompanying them certainly didn’t need any tampering with whatsoever.

It may come as a complete surprise to the young shavers now in charge of the ‘Magic Lantern’ but those of us long fascinated by the history of the Third Reich, both professionally & personally, don’t actually need to be led by the nose in this crass fashion and made to feel that we are not intelligent or sufficiently interested in such historical programmes that we would only watch their documentary if they had jazzed it up a bit first….what a shame and in fact, what arrogance… but then that’s the modern world of television programme-making for you..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

America’s 79th Infantry Division…

Utah, Omaha, Fort du Roule, La Haye du Puits, the Seine River, Parroy Forest, Haguenau, Hatten, Rittershoffen… names forever etched in the minds of the veterans, widows & families of America’s 79th Infantry Division, known by their High Command as ‘the fastest in the U.S. Army’..!

Names that would also become familiar to me as, in the company of the real heroes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, I was invited by military tour director Patrick Hinchy of libertyroad.com to cover the ‘Friendly Convoy’, the return to Normandy & Alsace-Lorraine by the Division’s veterans in the Summer of 2000.

Across France, from the haunting loneliness of the invasion beaches of Normandy to the nightlife of Paris, from the architectural grandeur of Nancy to the cosmopolitan Le Mans, from the parliamentary splendour of the City of Strasbourg to the champagne city of Reims, and through all of the tiny hamlets in between, seemingly all of France had prepared a welcome for the American liberators of the 79th Infantry Division of General Patton’s famous Third Army.

Our party comprised a wonderful cross-section of  all that is good about America; from veterans aged 84 to grandchildren aged 14, sons accompanying fathers, daughters whose fathers were sadly no longer with us and veterans’ widows who had made the huge emotional decision to come to France and each with a special reason for making this pilgrimage; and of course the combat veterans themselves who have longed to revisit places of their youth, where great friendships were forged in the heat of battle and where boys were turned into men so far away from home. The film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with its opening sequence of combat on the invasion beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944 comes the ever closest to illustrating just how horrific real war is and perhaps not surprisingly, the forthcoming 12 days would prove a defining moment for many of my fellow passengers…..

The D-Day museum at Caen, would give the younger members of our tour party a graphic illustration of what this important trip would be about and from the museum we drove to the coast heading for one of the most infamous names of June 6th 1944…Pointe du Hoc, the heavy German gun position high on the cliffs overlooking the invasion beach of Utah in the distance. The awesome destruction on this beautiful cliff- top gave way to the quiet solitude of Omaha Beach below and with a high tide it was hard to imagine this entire beachfront had been the focus of one of the biggest land assaults in the history of human warfare.

Then, met by an American official at the US cemetery above, a heavy silence settled over us and, in what I can only describe as one of the most emotional moments of my entire life, our party stood to attention as the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was played. As the strains of this evocative anthem carried over the heads of our group and died slowly on the gentle breeze, the sad notes of ‘Taps’ were sounded…

All along the invasion coast, other cemeteries containing British & Commonwealth soldiers told the same story but here, overlooking Omaha Beach, the look in the eyes of those left behind was a defining moment. Never in my history of writing on World War Two had I ever felt such an overpowering sense of loss and sadness, standing on my own in that seemingly endless cemetery, my own tears rolling silently down my cheeks…!

Next in the path of the American advance in that late summer of ’44 was La Haye du Puits, and our tour bus drove into the centre of town on the morning of July 9th, exactly 56 years to the day that the 79th Division had liberated it..!

A Vin d’Honneur, a  very simple, but deeply meaningful act of welcome, had been organized and as we slowly walked the town hall in the pouring rain I came up alongside former 315th Inf. Regt PFC, Earl Hammontree  a wonderful, mischievous ‘ole devil’ with a twinkle in his eye and a lovely, slow Southern accent, who saw out his war as a radio operator at the Nuremberg Nazi War Trials in 1946.

Obviously overcome by the preceding events, but the only evidence of the viciousness of his war was his admission that as the combat continued, his “bitterness towards an enemy who wouldn’t give up, increased”!

All around us the stunningly beautiful French countryside was giving up its history: almost every lane down which we travelled offered a tiny D-Day museum, over every hedge was the scene of a once important fire-fight all those years ago; and our day was not yet over, for we still had the other American famous invasion beach of ‘Utah’ but a few miles drive away from us.

With the tide well out by the time we arrived, one could imagine with closed eyes the scene of organized chaos, deadly enemy fire and a horizon full of ships, assault landing craft & olive-drab uniforms in every direction. Now an  almost deserted sandy beach, the shoreline still seems to radiate a powerful echo of what went before.

Some of our party were determined to quietly breathe in the atmosphere, whilst others wandered through the sand dunes, looking at the massive iron anti-tank tetrahedra that still litter the brow of the beach, marvelling at the array of US military monuments & armour that stand guard over this evocative place that will forever be American soil.

As I stood looking at a heavily up-gunned Sherman Tank, ‘Doc’, a former Corporal in the 315th Inf. Regt, (and better known as William H. Long), quietly moved beside me and from his pocket brought out a damaged  copy of a little New Testament. I asked its significance and he gently fingered a large piece of shrapnel lodged through the outer cover into the pages, “this, boy” he drawled in his wonderful deep accent, “is what saved my life!”

The little book, he explained, had been in his breast pocket when enemy fire sought him out and was the only thing that protected his heart at that very moment. I had heard of such stories of wallets and cigarette cases taking a bullet and saving the life of its owner, but this was the first time that I had ever seen it at close hand; it was truly a moment to stop and think!

So ended another emotional day but the morrow would see us back on the road travelling through the rebuilt St Lo and southwards towards Avranches with its imposing site of the Patton Memorial, marking the beginning of his Third Army’s ‘Big Push’.

Across northern France, seemingly every town wanted to pay homage to its former American liberators and just down the road it was the turns of Loue and Neufchateau then it was back onto the road and to another of the 29 United States military cemeteries on French soil. The Epinal Cemetery honours amongst its 5,255 graves, 377 members of the 79th Division including that of Captain Alexander Patch III, ‘C’ Company Commander of the 315th Infantry Regiment, who was killed by German heavy artillery at Embermenil October 22nd 1944.

The following day saw us in a wooded countryside that was the fox-holed home to many in the 315th Infantry Regiment during its drive to Strasbourg. then it was ever onwards still following the fighting path of the 79th Division on the eve of the great French holiday ‘Bastille Day’. Our party was further feted in the beautiful town of Hatten before returning to Strasbourg in readiness for the spectacle that was to be our party’s involvement in a full military parade in the garrison town of Haguenau, another of the names inextricably linked with the 79th’s advance across the continent of Europe.

Now into our last week-end of this roller-coaster of emotions, our little ‘Band of Brothers’ was on the road from Ritterhofen  heading to the citadel town of Metz, scene of more fierce fighting in the final months of the war, via the American Military Cemetery at St Avold for a final act of remembrance, before heading through the Argonne to beautiful Reims, capital of France’s ‘champagne country’.

Our last day and the earlier waves of emotion were to be revisited as we reached the small town of Epone near Paris, which was liberated by the 79th Infantry Division on Saturday August 19th 1944. Welcomed by the American Legion in Paris, citations were exchanged and  Les Brantingham presented the town with its very own ‘Stars & Stripes’ flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington DC on May 8th 2000, on the 56th anniversary that the German surrender was signed in Reims in 1945.

Then there was just one final important act of pilgrimage as a marvellous line up of US Army jeeps & trucks carried the veterans in convoy to the site of one of the 79th Division’s greatest triumphs, the crossing of the River Seine.

In August 1944, 14,000 men and vehicles made the water-borne crossing from Rosny-sur- Seine to Guernes to establish thebridgehead and begin the final push into the Reich and it seemed fitting that our final day of the tour should be spent on the banks of this impressive river and it set the scene for our last evening together. At a most emotional final farewell, tears and laughter once again flowed in equal quantity, with friendships pledged & plans for our next meeting made.

As a military journalist I had been very privileged to follow this tour, (as the only writer so invited), and I was deeply moved that so many of the veterans and their families often sought me out to quietly share their most private of thoughts and the often deeply personal feelings that were triggered as our tour unfolded… of which many more are written in my complete and unexpurgated e-Book, ‘The Friendly Convoy 2000′ which is available as a free down-load on-line via the Tomahawk Films archival website…

I am also very touched at the trust shown to me that, as an Englishman, I would honour their American story; in fact for as long as I live I will never forget the experiences I underwent on that incredible pilgrimage and the life-long friends that I made on the ‘Friendly Convoy’… a truly wonderful cross-section of American veterans who had seen real combat…

Warm, witty, utterly modest men all and I salute the veterans, the widows and indeed all of the families of America’s 79th Infantry Division of World War Two…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

Taps..!

For British & Commonwealth Forces it is the moving ‘Last Post’ whilst for Germans it is the haunting ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’: both tunes guaranteed to stir the souls of veterans especially when played at military ceremonials or periods of official Remembrance.. But what of the American equivalent?

My first experience of the U.S. military’s most revered tune was, as the sole journalist on the Friendly Convoy, standing amidst American graves high on the cliff above D-Day’s ‘Omaha Beach’. Around me, Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division had gathered at this famous cemetery, (made all the more so by its inclusion in the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’), to honour comrades who had fallen during the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe on June 6th 1944.

As those wonderful veterans, widows, friends & family gathered at the foot of the statue for American Youth, the sound of ‘Taps’ was born high on the wind and over the invasion beach as heads lowered and tears welled in this unbelievably beautiful and tranquil resting place for tens of thousands of young GI’s so far from their home-land..!.

It is anybody’s sad guess just how many times this American call-to-arms has been played down the years, in how many far-flung wars and for just how many lost sons of the United States, but where does this simple tune originate from… and how has it become so ingrained in the American military psyche?

The story is actually very simple, but totally heart-rending: it came about in 1862 in the American Civil War when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was marshalling his troops near Harrison’s Landing in the State of  Virginia and facing the Confederate Army, who were on the other side of a narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’.

During one night, Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay mortally wounded on the battlefield and, not knowing if the soldier was a Union or Confederate, the Captain decided to take his life into his own hands and try to bring the stricken soldier back to his side of the lines for medical attention. Crawling out under enemy gunfire, Captain Ellicombe reached the wounded soldier and began to slowly drag him back, but when he finally succeeded in reaching his own lines, he discovered that not only was the soldier a Confederate, but he was already dead.

With a heavy heart the Captain lit a lantern, then caught his breath and going numb with shock as in the dim light he saw the face of the soldier and recognised that of his own son!  It later transpired that his boy had been studying music in the Deep South when the war had broken out, and without telling his father, had joined the Confederate Army..!

The following morning the heartbroken Union officer sought permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial with a Union Army band in attendance, despite his ‘enemy’ status. But the Union High Command refused to grant him the full ceremonial he craved because his boy was a soldier in the Confederate Army, but out of respect for his father, granted him a single musician to mark the burial.

Captain Ellicombe chose a lone bugler and asked that he play from a sheet of musical notes found in his music student son’s uniform pocket… and so the haunting American funeral march that we now know as ‘Taps, was born:

Day is done, Gone the sun,

From the Lakes, From the hills, From the sky,

All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh…

Fading light, Dims the sight, And a star gems the sky, Gleaming bright,

From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night…

Thanks and praise, For our days, ‘Neath the sun, ‘Neath the stars, ‘Neath the sky,

As we go, This we know, God is nigh….’

                                                      Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013