Goering: A Career…

I don’t mean this to sound ‘full of it’ (or as my former Aussie colleagues would say ‘up myself’) but when you’ve spent the bulk of your professional career working in and around World War Two & Third Reich military history and watching TV documentaries on the same, almost daily, (allied to an ever-present hobby in the same vein), you eventually reach a point when you think that you may, possibly, have viewed much of the original period archive-footage available or have heard most of the historical angles expressed by the experts from this important period in time.. that in fact there is not much more to come to the surface that you haven’t already watched, heard or read about at some point in the previous 40-odd years of study!

It is also the case, (and one of the reasons that Tomahawk Films ceased being a distributor of WW-II documentaries to spend more time promoting my own TV documentary, ‘Channel Islands Occupied’), that rarely does anybody come up with something totally new in terms of documentary content or unseen 16mm newsreel footage to warrant yet another ‘look’ at a well-worn subject. In fact it always amazes me our Third Reich newsreels footage on Tomahawk Film’s Hitler’s Combat Newsreels is still, apart from the odd few seconds shown here & there, pretty unique in terms of what turns up on our screens these days and so it always manages to retain its ‘first seen buzz’.

One of the reasons I see so much archival material recycled across myriad documentaries is because we have a TV on in the corner of our production office tuned into the main satellite channels to keep an eye on WW-II documentaries to help us up to date with who is using our German music or Sounds of War combat SFX under contract, or to pick up on the names of new documentary companies who might be interested in using our German archive for future projects…

As I have said many times before, with so many WW-II documentaries airing on the dedicated satellite television platforms, (many being merely repeats from previous years) it is always a happy surprise when something fresh pops up on the TV screen and really grabs your attention. I am pleased to say this has happened to me in recent weeks.. firstly yesterday in the shape of a superb doc called Nazi Hunters, following the immediate post-war efforts of US Forces to bring Jochen Peiper and members of the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ (part of the overall 6th Panzerarmee) to justice for their involvement in the massacre of American GIs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/45… and then on Sunday night (and the previous Sunday to that), in the shape of a real cracker of a superb new 3-part documentary series on the H2 Military History Channel entitle Goering: A Career.

In co-production with Germany’s ZDF Channel and with the ever-superb journalist Guido Knopp listed in the credits, (though this time strangely under ‘lighting’ rather than writer/producer, so perhaps this was an early outing to his subsequent career), this series is offering both some stunning original colour footage and a great script providing further thoughts on Goering, the man, thus making it a really engrossing and very well researched & delivered documentary on Hitler’s Number Two and Head of the Third Reich’s air arm..and still the final episode to go..!

Born in 1893, Herman Goering was a former WW1 Ace in the Kaisers’ fledgling air arm and went onto become the much derided, overweight and somewhat lazy Supreme Commander of Hitler’s new air force, the Luftwaffe. His later addiction to morphine has been well documented down the years and this might explain his often strange military decisions, (or indeed lack of them), at times, resulting in his Luftwaffe High Command often being driven to utter distraction by its leader’s increasingly bizarre behaviour later on in the war…

Indeed had Goering been ‘clued-in’ to the modern concept of aerial warfare, (rather than wedded to WW1 fighter tactics), one wonders if the outcome of the Battle of Britain might have been a much closer thing; nevertheless it appears that from the very outset Goering actually knew that his Luftwaffe was under strength in both aircraft & manpower!

Indeed a regular contributor to yesterday’s episode Part 2 was a former Luftwaffe Test Pilot who admitted that all of the early aircraft promised to Hitler, (and often shown in some strength displaying in the skies above early Nazi Party Rallies), were nothing more than un-tested prototypes so, apart from the legendary ME Bf109, when war broke out in 1939, the Luftwaffe was indeed not the force it was wildly publicised as being or that the Allies believed it to be!

Another tantalising fact emerging from this superb profile is that as Goering indeed knew in advance that he had not the firepower at his command to deliver for Adolf Hitler, (despite always assuring his Führer that he had), behind the scenes he was doing everything he could to avoid another World War, including secret pre-war negotiations with Britain to find a way of averting conflict and his air arm being ‘found out’ in actual combat!

From some of what I heard last night it appears, to my mind at least, that Goering was perhaps more of a sensible individual than we have all given him credit for, despite being undoubtedly lazy and often finding any excuse to  bunk off to his superb castle-like country estate at Carinhall to indulge his love of hunting and spend time with his later accumulated wealth. Which was a complete reversal of his fortunes given that, pre-war, he had escaped from his growing role within the fledgling Nazi Party and fled to Sweden where, as a penniless former fighter pilot, he effectively lived off his wife’s parents. He eventually he returned to Germany to take up his position at Hitler’s side, but ever fearful of the Führer’s moods and stubborn single-mindedness plus his increasing desire for war, he never actively opposed Hitler’s visions for European domination, (even though he knew that half of his ideas were barking!).

Also detailed was Goring’s later wealth, stemming from his ‘success’ as an art dealer, though his dealings, (interpreted as ‘shopping’ in the countries Germany had recently occupied) were straightforward theft. Indeed at vital moments when he should have been taking full command of Luftwaffe air operations in the Battle of Britain and thence the 1941/42 Eastern Front campaign in Russia, he was more concerned with having his staff locate great works of art across Europe, to then be transported back to Carinhall in his own personal train… much to the ill-concealed anger of his elite fighter pilots who felt they were trying to conduct air campaigns on two major fronts with their hands tied behind their backs.

One superb interview thus far was with the Luftwaffe fighter ace and Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves holder Günter Rall, who, (with 275 combat victories in World War Two) later went on to serve with distinction in the post-war German Luftwaffe. A remarkably modest and hugely likeable former pilot with his ever-fluent and superb English, his interviews are always worth watching and listening to and in this terrific second episode he again delivers some very interesting facts & figures, plus a ‘no-holds barred’ appraisal of Goering as an air-force leader..!

Another incredible fact of which I was totally aware was that Herman Goring had a younger brother called Albert…very much a man in the background and who actually spirited a number of leading Jewish businessmen and film-makers out of Germany to America in the pre-war period. Indeed when it came to the ‘Jewish Question’ itself, it seems that Goering himself was somewhat more pragmatic about this whole issue than was hitherto known…and incredibly it appears that he also allowed several leading Jews to escape the Third Reich, (despite being Hitler’s  deputy and replacement Führer should Hitler die), excusing himself with the line: ‘A Jew is only when I say he is a Jew’..another most interesting fact to emerge from this documentary.

I won’t give too much more away in case you have not yet seen this 3-parter as no doubt it will be repeated, (a great many times… and rightly so in this case), in the coming weeks and months amidst the tidal wave of great-to-merely-mediocre Third Reich documentaries now airing across the gamut of satellite TV channels, however this one is most definitely worth a watch..the final episode coming on H2 this Sunday evening!

Just as a final thought when talking about the current crop of WW-II documentaries now appearing on a television set near you: I don’t know if you have noticed, but why has there been allowed to emerge an extremely annoying habit of the experts, when wheeled-in to voice their historical expertise on camera, of constantly talking in the present tense?  A whole raft of rather earnest historians, university lecturers and the ‘great & the good’ are paraded before us to eagerly tell us that ‘Goering is this’, ‘Hitler is that, or Rommel is faced with a tough situation, or such & such squadron is flying against so & so or that a unit of this force is fighting through great odds… and so on and so forth!

I don’t know which producer started this appalling interviewing habit, but everybody’s now seemingly at it. However these are now global events from over 70 years ago, so memo to whomsoever: please use was not is… thank you, I feel so much better now..!

                         Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Hitler’s Combat Newsreels on DVD…

From as far back as I can recall, I always seemed to have an abiding interest in military history…my first awareness in my youth being that of the British side of the story in both the First and Second World Wars, (my paternal grandfather having been a pre-war professional soldier who served with the Essex Regiment in the trenches of the Western Front between the years 1914-18).

However thanks to my coming across the eye-popping Third Reich collection of a great mate Phil, in my later teens, (who happened to live just around the corner from my parent’s house), my fascination for military history very much became focussed on the story of the Nazi era, yet it was to be another 10 years before I had a chance to actually turn my private studies into, effectively, a life-time of work in this fascinating historical and archival field of period film & music…

In fact I had been working for some while with small Winchester-based Film & TV company Lacewing Productions, (at that time primarily cutting my teeth as Production Manager on the famous and evergreen series: ’The Old Country with Jack Hargreaves’), when I mooted to the two directors that I thought, with this new-fangled thing called ‘video’ just coming into vogue, (I joined the telly world when 16mm film was still the shooting & programme transmission medium via tele-cine), there was now an opportunity to start re-releasing many of the WW-II documentaries being sold to the collector on super 8mm home-reels onto video… and perhaps even set up a dedicated mail-order company to market such military material straight to the enthusiast?

I was allowed to spend any down-time I had at the studio researching into the viability of my ideas but sadly, by the time that I had realised that I was indeed onto a winner, Lacewing had gone under, so I put all of my notes away safely and went off to work as a freelancer. However several years later, through a circuitous route, Tomahawk Films was created, with me at the helm, and so I went back into the old files and dusted off my notes…

By now several other companies had also realised that WW-II documentaries on video were the ‘latest thing’ and there was now a market for such titles…so Tomahawk very soon became an archival distribution & mail-order company seeking out & sourcing some fantastic WW-II documentary footage and releasing it to an avid video market that could not get enough!

Eventually our World War Two video catalogue, entitled Images of War, offered some 400 exciting documentary titles and we had mail-order customers all over the world…but slowly alongside the original, in-house work that I was putting into producing my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, I was also putting out the word out I was looking for anybody that might be sitting on any captured German film footage. Sounds silly saying it now, but I thought back then that there might just be a chance that amongst the veteran soldiers who brought all sorts of souvenirs back like helmets, flags & badges etc, somebody might have had the chance to ‘acquire’ some film cans…so I put an advert in the old Exchange and Mart, as was back then….and I actually got a reply!!!

A former British intelligence officer telephoned to say that he had pile of rusty German film cans ‘under his spare bed’ if I was interested in coming and having a look…? So not wanting to miss a possible opportunity I jumped in my car and headed north to Yorkshire to meet this lovely old chap..and sure enough there, under that spare bed, was indeed a pile of 16mm mute film.

Pulling out an old British army projector, he started spooling up the first can, and over the next few hours I sat transfixed as I saw some of the most exciting German Propaganda Kompanie combat film footage I had ever seen…(for even by the late 1980s as this was, I was already starting to see the same old film footage being put out in a range of documentaries and was aching to see something new!). By the end of the impromptu film show my head was reeling but I knew that I wanted very much to buy this film footage..so after a fabulous dinner in the nearby town, and probably having imbibed one too many glasses of excellent wine, I offered him £2,000, (a fortune then and not an insignificant amount now), for all 16 cans, to which he very readily and happily agreed..!

During dinner he was able to fill me in a little more and explained that, in 1945 he and his driver had arrived in Hanover only to stumble across Ukrainian troops ransacking the city’s main Gestapo Headquarters and looking for treasures whilst also throwing cine-projectors from an upstairs window!!  Brandishing his pistol he burst into the building and charged upstairs through the Ukrainian troops coming downstairs, loaded with their booty, and on seeing piles of film cans stacked in a blazing room, grabbed 16 of them and retreated back to his jeep to be driven back to his Allied base camp for security analysis… and there they stayed until after the war when, amazingly, he was handed them back, considered to be his own personal ‘booty’ which should be returned!

The cans were put into his spare room and remained, untouched, until my E & M advert in the mid 80s stirred his memory, when I was called and subsequently arrived to see all the cans resurface completely intact! Once I had the them safely in Tomahawk’s care we arranged to have the film taken up to the heart of the film industry in London’s Soho, where all of the reels were expertly cleaned & re-oiled to get rid of the years of dirt and so bring them sparkling back to life.

Once lovingly restored we brought in a 16mm film editor to cut & splice the stunning sequences together to effectively produce four exciting video titles from the restoration of these superbly detailed German combat newsreels, which were then transferred to 1” tape thence latterly to Beta SP as new master formats came on-line…

As I alluded to earlier, most of this Nazi Propagandakompanie footage had never been in public before and though it had many sub-titles throughout, there were no soundtracks found with it and we assumed that, as Die Wochenschau (Weekly Newsreels), such footage was destined to be shown in local German cinemas in its silent form with perhaps just piano or other musical accompaniment maybe.

However rather than leave it silent Tomahawk acquired a stirring German soundtrack, (now released as a separate audio CD) and armed with a newly acquired collection of WW-II sound effects (also available as an SFX archive on our CD Sounds of War), we went into the studio, with Simon ‘Woody’ Wood, who was back then a freelancer before the days of his current studio, studio Dubmaster, who really brought this incredibly film to life. In fact it was this German music soundtrack that would eventually set Tomahawk films off into its direction of Third Reich Military & Civilian Music on CD…a direction that we had no inkling of at the time!!

Which also helps explain to our later Third Reich Musik collectors, unaware of our early genesis, why we are actually called Tomahawk Films:   simply because of that fact that we started out as a war-time documentary film company but as, slowly & steadily, our name became synonymous with German Military music we did think about a possible name change to reflect that fact…

However we soon realised that, from a marketing point of view, once you are well known for something in particular, you certainly don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and change your name… so even though 75% of our historical media work is now in the German archival music field, rather than the in ‘pure documentary production film’ arena, the name ‘Tomahawk Films’ stayed and our Third Reich music continues to be happily marketed on CD around the world under our well-known moniker..!

So after Woody, (the first time that Tomahawk Films had actually worked with him, the second being as sound recordist on our 50′ television documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’) had produced his sound-on-film dubbing magic, Tomahawk proudly released the outcome as a 4-part video series, each with its own separate title:

Russian Front Volume I: The all-out action begins as Wehrmacht cameramen cover the combat assault teams across the Dneiper River, taking Minsk, Stalingrad and Rostov whilst close-quarter action intercuts with spectacular footage in the cockpits of Me-110′s and He-111′s battling high above the Russian steppes…

Russian Front Volume II : The intense and bloody combat photography continues in the heat of battle as the German infantry storm Kharkov and Kersch with flame throwers & heavy M.G’ whilst a fascinating record of the siege of Sevastapol offers an incredible sequence on German heavy artillery, including the Wehrmacht’s truly awesome railway guns…

Air Land and Sea: A Kriegsmarine Honour Guard introduces the Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau’s ‘Channel Dash’ under R.A.F. attack whilst rare Dieppe newsreel and the Waffen-SS in Finland leads into ‘Murmansk to Africa’, a lightning overview of the war and ends with some really exciting Luftwaffe in-cockpit action in ‘Air War in the East’.

Finally the 4 title: Afrika Korps: which offers desert combat footage from the war in North Africa, including Ju-88′s in action, Italian assault troops, German troops under canvas with Rommel and the Fall of Tobruk; also Luftwaffe footage of the air attack on Malta and finally a great sequence offering ground crews ‘bombing-up’ and close ups of Kesselring and fighter ace Marseille…

At a later date we took the decision to then re-edit all four titles together to make an exciting and more cost-effective 90 minute video for our customers entitled: The Combat Newsreels of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich,which in turn became a world-play DVD of the same name, still with its incredible 16mm footage and stirring German music and combat effects soundtrack…

Over the years I have often thought about writing a  script and narrating it for the DVD, but do you know what?.. the film footage is so exciting and so gripping that any random voice-over, (however well or pertinently I had written a script), would have added little to the viewer’s enjoyment and possibly merely insulted their intelligence.

So in the end I opted to leave these incredible Combat Newsreels with just their rip-roaring music & combat sound effects sound-track where pertinent…and happily I made the right decision judging from the enthusiastic customer feed-back we get..and the fact it still keeps selling in its many thousands..!.

Even today, I have still seen very little of this footage used in the myriad TV documentaries that keep appearing on television, so I still bless the day that my old appeal for German footage via the pages of the Exchange & Mart came up trumps..!

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

A Wehrmacht Gunner’s Return to Guernsey..!

It is now approaching some 70 years since the dark cloud of Nazi occupation was lifted from the beautiful British Channel Island of Guernsey and its wonderful islanders, (many of whom came so close to starvation along with most of the former German garrison back in that terrible winter of 1944/45), could begin to rebuild their lives and savour real freedom for the first time in nearly six long years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the immediate post-war years all things German were regarded at best, with complete indifference and at worst, with barely suppressed loathing; however as the long shadows of the war and the hardships of that World War Two occupation now soften and bathe the stunning seven islands of the Bailiwick in a more gentle light, Guernsey has come to welcome back a number of German soldiers, sailors and airmen from the former garrison. Many of these veteran soldiers now return year after year to visit their previous billets and batteries, striking up new friendships with islanders & tourists alike and in some cases rekindling special and very treasured old ones……

During my much-enjoyed 5-year tenure as media consultant to ‘Fortress Guernsey’, amongst the many wonderful people I continued to meet in the Bailiwick was one such veteran: former German army Oberkanonier Helmut Zimmermann. A most delightful, kindly & very funny ex-Wehrmacht soldier who has made several unannounced return trips to Guernsey, (the first in 1990), quietly and without fuss touring the island with his lovely English wife Geraldine, seeking out his old stomping grounds.

His visits would have gone completely unnoticed, but for Peter & Paul Balshaw, owners & curators of the stunning Underground Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port, who by chance got talking to him on an early visit as he inspected their wonderful perdonal collection of German occupation artefacts, preserved and displayed in the incredible U-boat refuelling depot hidden away deep under the rocks overlooking the harbour and Castle Cornet!

A good friendship developed between the two born-and-bred Guernseymen and the former German occupier, which all three generously allowed the directors of Fortress Guernsey, ( the Tourist Board’s initiative to promote and preserve the  incredible story of the WW-II German Occupation of Guernsey), to tap into one summer in the late 90s when Helmut once again flew to the Bailiwick from his home in Lincolnshire to be interviewed for an American documentary about his duty on Guernsey between the years 1943 and 1945:

Born in Neundorf in Eastern Germany, Helmut left school in 1939 to become an apprentice blacksmith and thence from April 1942 worked in the Junkers aircraft factory at Reppen until January 1943 when called up for service with the Reichs Arbeits Dienst (German Labour Service). Three months later he reported for military service and was sworn into the army at Frankfurt an der Oder and he entered the artillery branch, undergoing training in Poland and Russia in the Summer of ‘43.

In September 1943 a group of young soldiers including Helmut found themselves travelling westwards by train, arriving at St Malo then, after a short sea crossing he and his comrades found themselves in the harbour at St Peter Port where, upon seeing a palm-tree, was convinced they had arrived in the Med! Joining Artillery Regiment 319, the new intake marched from the harbour with full-kit and rifles up to their new billet at Catel, where Helmut was to serve with an army coastal defence unit operating one of four 10cm Czech-made Skoda guns in open emplacements at Batterie Wolf.

Not speaking English, Helmut and his comrades had no real contact with the Guernsey people, seeing only the farmer on whose land their battery was sited though occasionally they ventured into St Peter Port clutching their prized army permit to visit the cinema. They had little money, (their weekly wages in Guernsey Occupation Marks being deducted by a contribution to the German war effort back home), but he recalled there was little to buy anyhow!

Helmut’s battery had a fairly uneventful war; life was routine and pretty regular and early on rations from France were good and he learnt to drive and gained his army driving licence, but there was no petrol available so he couldn’t try out his new skill!  Nominated number one gun-layer, as a former blacksmith, Helmut was also put to work repairing anything from military hard-ware to buckets & locks and later in the war, as supplies from France dwindled, he turned his hand to making wooden sabots, (sandals), for his unit. He also remembers his hardy woollen uniform surviving the lack of replacement materials but not so his socks, so he became something of an expert in darning!

During his time on Guernsey, Helmut had just one spell of home-leave, but remembers spending most of his time dreaming of going home for good. Initially unaware of the way the war was going for the Reich, Helmut was able to listen into a nearby Funker, (signal unit), and was surprised to hear of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944 even though he knew something was up by the number of aircraft visible in the early dawn-sky heading towards France. However even when he realised it was the long-awaited invasion and opening up of the Second Front in Europe, he still thought Germany would ultimately win the war!

As the Allies broke out from the Normandy bridgehead in late Summer 1944, German garrisons on the Islands found themselves cut off from France. Unable to take advantage of life-saving supplies delivered by the Red Cross ship SS Vega to Guernsey’s suffering civilian population, Helmut and his comrades faced a very tough winter as their army rations dwindled to a point that the young soldiers were reduced to boiling nettles for food.

Tragically one of Helmut’s pals ate a poisonous plant & died and he quietly recalled his sadness at acting as pall bearer at his military funeral.

In the wake of D-Day, and increased Allied air activity in the skies over the Channel Islands, guard & sentry duties increased and Helmut remembers a tiring life of 4-to-5 night guard duties per week, plus gun-laying drills each day, eventually becoming so exhausted that one night he  fell asleep leaning on his rifle. Luckily he escaped punishment, which could have come in the terrifying shape of an immediate transfer to the dreaded Russian Front…

In fact Helmut escaped a second time when he was caught trying to knock apples out of a tree, being given just 3 days on bread and water. however a fellow gunner was not so lucky, and caught stealing cigarettes, was sentenced to 3 months hard labour on the island, though when he was returned to his unit, his Hauptmann gave strict instructions that no reference be made to the punishment.

The Third Reich finally crumbled and the surrender of the Islands’ German garrisons came on May 9th 1945, the day after the official surrender of all German forces across Europe. Now a Prisoner-of-War Helmut spent 2 weeks working in the kitchen of the British army cook-house of the liberating Force 135, before being marched down to the harbour and onto a US troopship bound for Southampton; an onward trip to the German prisoner stockade at Kempton racecourse followed, thence to the P.o.W. camp at Driffield in Yorkshire. A prisoner until 1948, Helmut was put to work again as a blacksmith on a local farm where the first English word he learnt was ‘brush’ as in “Helmut!… brush the yard!!”

One of the estimated 100,000 German P.o.W.’s who stayed on in the UK upon release, Helmut met his future wife Geraldine in Skegness in 1949, married her in 1951, raised two sons Nigel and Paul, (both of whom grew up to become submariners with the Royal Navy), and continued to work as a blacksmith until 1990, having become a British National in 1960.

Now living happily in retirement in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the United Kingdom where he enjoys playing bowls and going dancing with his beloved Geraldine, Helmut’s personal army Wehrpasse, Soldbuch and driving licence can be seen today proudly displayed in Peter and Paul’s Military Museum at La Valette in St Peter Port on Guernsey, CI.

A confirmed lover of the Bailiwick and a most welcome guest, Helmut firmly believes that his lucky posting to Guernsey in 1943…actually saved his life!

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