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

 

A SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ Musikmeister…

As many of our customers will know, all of the pre -1945 German schellack 78rpm records that we acquire, renovate & re-master here at Tomahawk Films & Dubmaster Studios, all come from Germany… however the one rare schellack 78 that we found here in the UK, (at a local Antiques Fair of all things), turned out to be rather prescient: a superb recording by the Musikkorps der Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’.. however the amazing thing is that a senior member of this elite bodyguard divisional band who performed on that record was the very man that I had just returned from interviewing at some length in Germany the previous week for my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45…

As signs go this was a corker..! Not least because I could not consider my book complete had I not interviewed a military musician of Hitler’s Armed Forces; so not only had I just met one of these elusive men, but he was the musical second-in-command to the legendary Hermann Mueller-John of the famous Musikkorps Leibstandarte-SS ’Adolf Hitler’, and so could be called the Reich’s second military band-leader and his name: SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn.

But this would not have happened had it not been for the terrific help & encouragement of Obersturmbannführer der ehemalingen Waffen-SS 1.Generalstabsoffizier der 12.SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” Hubert Meyer, who generously made all of the necessary introductions and presentation of bona fides to his important former comrade from the SS musical arm… and it was this vital introduction that allowed me to travel to Bad Kreuznach  in Western Germany  accompanied by superb military tour guide, historian and friend, Patrick Hinchy, to act as both my personal guide & interpreter.

So following a flight to Munchen Gladbach and then a personal and superb ‘diverted tour’ to take in the Ardennes and the well-appointed Waffen-SS graveyard at Bastogne, relics of the Third Reich’s West Wall and thence a wonderful drive along the rivers Rhine and the Nahe, I arrived at Bad Kreuznach ahead of my meeting with this famous but oh, so modest former SS-Leibstandarte Musikmeister…

Born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1913 and the son of a Musikmeister in the Kaiser’s Army, Gustav passed his state musical examinations and left school to join his father’s civilian orchestra and it wasn’t long before he formed his own band, playing daily at tea-dances & weddings up until June 1933, when the new German voluntary labour service (Freiwilliger Arbeitsdienst), advertised for a bandmaster to take over their organisation’s national band. Applying, and being duly selected, Gustav was posted to Hüls to take command of Nielsgruppe 211 but in the following year, the volunteer labour service having become the Reichsarbeitsdienst, Gustav found the re-titled RAD band did not perform to his expectations and so he began looking around for a new musical challenge.

In the summer of 1933, former Sturm-Abteilung musician Hermann Müller-John, was tasked by Sepp Dietrich of the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ to set up a Musikkorps with strength of 36 musicians.. .and the following year an order was issued for its expansion to 72 and a series of recruitment advertisements placed in the German magazine ‘Variety’: Gustav Weissenborn applied, successfully auditioned in Berlin and thenwsent for four weeks basic military training after which all recruits were issued with their uniforms & instruments and ordered to the SS barracks at Lichterfelde in Berlin. Then on November 8th 1934, he travelled down to Munich to swear the SS Oath of Allegiance at the Feldherrenhalle and returned to Berlin as a fully inducted clarinettist in the Musikkorps of the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’.

Between 1934 & 1938, he served as an SS-Musiker with a life full of band rehearsals & performances at worker’s concerts in factories and for the public at Berlin’s Zoo; then from 1935 the band performed at the Nuremburg party conventions, Hitler’s official birthday celebrations and as part of the SS honour guard welcoming foreign dignitaries to Berlin… and heard through their orchestral performances on German radio and on schellack 78rpm record.

Up until 1936, SS-LAH concert tours were overseen by civilian managers but now Gustav Weissenborn took charge and during this hectic period, climbed the ladder of promotion: in March 1935 he was promoted SS-Sturmmann, then SS-Rottenführer in January 1937 and SS-Scharführer in March 1938… that year also saw Gustav Weissenborn leave the SS-LAH to pursue a career as a civilian orchestra leader, joining the Kraft durch Freude organisation, who had just commissioned a 25,000 ton cruise liner to provide holidays for the German ‘Volk’.  Named M.S. ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ Gustav led a 24 strong ship-board orchestra and it was on the ship’s maiden voyage that he met his future wife Elizabeth, a passenger on the cruise.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Kriegsmarine commandeered the Wilhelm Gustloff’ as a hospital ship and Gustav’s orchestra transferred to shore-based duties and began performing ‘Front Shows’ to audiences across German-occupied Europe and by August 1942, with some 700 concerts under his belt and preparing for a tour of the Russian Front, (he didn’t relish!), bumped by chance into Hermann Müller-John, who suggested that he rejoin the Leibstandarte instead of heading east. Gustav accepted the offer and was inducted back into the SS-LAH, and promoted SS-Oberscharführer on December 1st 1942.

He soon confirmed his position as Hermann Müller-John’s deputy and with the musicians in the band having an average age of just 23, Gustav again became closely involved with organisating & conducting SS-LAH concerts and was promoted SS-Hauptscharführer. In October 1943 he was tasked with forming a new Musikkorps for the 12.SS-Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ and by December this new band had completed its training and so in February 1944, Gustav was appointed its Musikmeister, a band with an average age of just 18. In the summer of 1944, it found itself quartered in France following the Allied invasion on June 6th and its young musicians were withdrawn back to Germany.

Despite the end of the war staring the Third Reich in the face, Gustav received orders from Berlin to form another new Musikkorps and so 45 to 50 musicians from the Musikkorps SS-LAH and the 12.SS-Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ were despatched back to their Lichterfelde, Berlin barracks but found themselves drawn into the final battle for the city as infantrymen against the advancing Russians, many falling in battle… Meanwhile  April 1945 saw the remaining 12.SS-Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ musicians sent to combat units in Hungary and were soon involved in vicious fighting around St Polten whilst Gustav was ordered to Worgl in Austria to ensure the band’s instruments & orderly-room contents were put into storage.

The beginning of April 1945 also saw the end of the Musikkorps SS-LAH with its  musical instruments, black uniforms & orderly-room documents stashed in a farmer’s hay barn and the remaining musicians picking up rifles to face the advancing US forces. Having hidden the band’s instruments, the rearguard 15 SS-LAH musicians under Hermann Müller-John were ordered to Soll in Austria, where they met up with Gustav and the remainder of his SS-Hitlerjugend musicians, and were attached to a Wehrmacht combat unit. Orders were received for one final move to St Johann on May 7th 1945, but before receiving confirmation of promotion to SS-Untersturmführer, Gustav heard the capitulation of all German military forces would take place the following day, with all weapons to be handed in by 10pm that night!

The war in Europe ended the following day, May 8th 1945 with many surviving musicians taken prisoner and subsequently serving varying terms in POW camps; however, there was a tragic post-script, for SS-LAH Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John who, just ahead of the advancing American forces, shot dead his wife & child who’d joined him, then turned his gun on himself & committed suicide. Happily, however, SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn was able to make his way back to Wiesbaden, where, reunited with his wife, he was able to hang up his uniform and quietly return to an anonymous civilian life… until he kindly agreed to speak with me all these years later and so generously allow me to chronicle and put down on record his military musical life for my book, a much longer version of which appears in The Military Music and Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45!

One other final postscript that resulted from the eventual publication of my book is that, several years later, having searched high & low for such a fascinating German military musician as Herr Weissenborn during my pre-production research, and then travelling to Germany to meet and interview him, I got a call from a lovely lady who lived not 5 miles from Tomahawk’s office:

In a sad telephone call, she told me that had she had wanted to make contact as she’d read my book and wanted to let me know that she had just lost her much-loved German husband… a former Luftwaffe military musician whom she had met as a young girl when he was a Prisoner of War working on day release from the nearby Hursley Stockade here in Hampshire..

She also told me that he would have loved my book and so too would his old school pal, who was a musician in the Leibstandarte-SS, and who actually used to come over from Germany to spend each summer with his old musical comrade…

So there it was, completely unknown to me during my studies: two veteran professional Third Reich military musicians, one of them from a Luftwaffe Musikkorps and the other from the Musikkorps SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’, both of whom would also have loved to have talked with me about my work.. and both of them not a stone’s throw from where I was quietly beavering away…

….and I simply had no idea..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013