‘Gamekeeper-turned-Poacher..!’

Well I suppose, just looking at the number of superb documentaries that are regularly appearing on both the traditional terrestrial channels & myriad satellite channels and the vast array of knowledgeable historians & lecturers with deep wells of fascinating knowledge to share, there was always an outside chance I might have something in between my ears that could prove useful to another producer, (then I woke up!)

However though I would certainly not wish to elevate my way up to the ranks of those superb contributors who are regularly seen on TV as serious & enthusiastic expert ‘talking heads’, after 27 years of working in the field of Third Reich Military Music, I must admit it was rather flattering to be asked if I could make a similar small contribution to a new BBC TV documentary series currently being produced by R K Productions in Leeds entitled ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’…

I have to nevertheless admit it was a somewhat odd and a slightly disconcerting feeling to once again be moving from behind the camera to very briefly appearing in front of the magic lantern, (though I have presented a couple of Travel TV documentaries before), but this time I really had to look as if I knew what I was talking about rather than just point to the stunning scenery & enthusing for the viewers - so no pressure then!).

But then that is always assuming my small contribution makes it to the final edit and is not last seen being metaphorically swept up on the cutting-room floor, (because of course now everything is hi-tech digital edits, so a similar fate would that of being simply deleted & banished out into the ether!)…oh how cruel the world of television can be..!

Mind you, I’ve been around this industry long enough to know how this all usually unfolds, so I am fairly sanguine about how things turn out, but nevertheless I had a superb day on location with the well known professional Ballroom Dancer and judge on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ Mr Len Goodman, in this new role of fronting this superb new series by Roger Keech for the new BBC Four Channel.. (I say ‘new’ but it has been around a while now..and showing some very interesting documentaries).

However I digress, (as is my usual habit), for as many collectors & enthusiasts out there who have come to know my company Tomahawk Films and its now specialist Third Reich Military & Civilian Music output these past 27 years, though a former TV Floor and Unit Production Manager thence Producer myself, these days happily my usual involvement with such fascinating work is very much from behind the camera, either to provide music, film & sound-effects or specialist historical background information to television researchers or to occasionally record the voice-over for the documentary soundtrack in question, if I’m lucky..!

However when Mr Keech, the engaging producer of this BBC Four series & I got talking about supplying some of Tomahawk Films’ German music archive to his series, he kindly asked if I would also care to be interviewed on camera by Mr Goodman, thus contributing to a specific section on Glenn Miller & WW-II German music, to which I happily agreed.

But after all these recent years of standing behind the camera or directing other people’s performances, going on camera myself again felt somewhat strange and very much as if I was turning from Gamekeeper-to-Poacher and, if I am honest, despite having lived a good part of my life on TV sets and in live radio studios, I was amazed at how long it took me to relax and actually think about what I needed to say for the cameras.. (by which time the interview was over..dang!!)

Mr Keech & I had been e-mailing each other as we sought to establish what he needed and what I could talk about and then last Friday I found myself at the former RAF Twinwood Night-Bomber Operational Training air-base north of Bedford, the aerodrome from which Glenn Miller made his fateful flight in December 1944. I say ‘found myself’, which is an over simplification, for this former air-field is well hidden and the only way to find it is to drive through a modern housing estate and then skirt behind a clump of trees then up a long stretch of unmade farm track..yes, quite!

Sadly my Sat Nav got confused and directed me to a house right in the middle of the housing estate; however luckily I managed to collar a local who kindly pointed me in the right direction. I finally knew I was close because as I pulled off the main road onto the dusty track as directed, a rather sumptuous & good-looking Jaguar saloon was just ahead of me and a very distinguished gentleman had got out to open the closed farm gate: Mr Len Goodman himself as I live & breathe, and by crikey, is he tall or what?

I am a fairly reasonable 5’8” when I remember to stand upright, but he towered over me as we exchanged greetings, (and laughed and swapped opinions on just how hard this blessed air-field had been to find) and then I offered to close the gate after he had driven through and I would play ‘tail-end Charlie’ and follow in my car behind his to the airfield!

So the pair of us then bounced up this long rutted track, his huge jag nimbly handling the ruts whilst my new Peugeot, with its low-slung, sporty suspension tried hard to break my spine as I aimed.. and failed.. to miss the holes. But eventually the pair of us in convoy drove on to the old perimeter road and, (though the huge, original concrete runway has since been dug up & restored to farming land),up to the former flight control tower & surrounding buildings, sitting just at the top of this old road.

Today they offer a superb mirror reflecting back those halcyon war-time days as, included on-site, is the official UK Glen Miller Museum; this indeed was the reason for the interviews being filmed here on location, for in the afternoon after my mini-performance on camera, a nephew of former USAAF Major Glenn Miller was also to be interviewed… and what better setting than the base at which his late uncle made his final, and sadly, ill-fated flight from the UK..

Mr Goodman and I eventually found our way into the aerodrome compound to be confronted by a green-painted control tower and a number of typical war-time camo-painted buildings with anti-blast white tape criss-crossing over the windows, plus a NAAFI building and various other assorted out-buildings…

Quite a sight that you would never have believed was still here, almost hidden as it was by the slowly advancing thick, dense forest surrounding this former old World War Two air-base…

RAF Twinwood was an Operational Training Unit for Night Bomber crews flying Mosquitos & Beaufighters and the pilots would be trained here for night sorties over a blacked-out Third Reich. Today the control tower is decked out as it would have been in 1944, with several of the crew-rooms having flying jackets draped over crew chairs, so the whole ‘war-time bomber field vibe’ is very much still there, thus offering a superb back-drop for filming WW-II documentary interviews…

Mr Goodman and I spent a happy half-hour chatting on camera in that evocative RAF tower with all its ghosts and war-time history still hanging in the air and with the Glenn Miller connection, stemming from the fact that this bomber airfield was the closest to Bedford, where his famous war-time Orchestra were based as a safer alternative from Blitzed London. Thus RAF Twinwood was a very convenient base for him to fly back & forth to occupied France for his many morale-boosting troop concerts. It was also at RAF Twinwood on August 27th 1944, that Glenn Miller and his Orchestra performed a concert as a ‘thank you’ to all of the hard-working RAF ground-crew that allowed him and his USAAF musicians free access flying in and out on their musical duties.

Sadly it was to be just 4 months later that, on December 15th 1944, and bound for France, Glenn Miller boarded his Army Co-operation Norseman aircraft outside of the RAF Twinwood Control Tower and set off into the night sky… never to be seen again! Since that day myriad theories as to what actually happened to him remain legion.. I was always of the belief that his Norseman ‘plane flying low across the Channel to France, may have been accidentally hit by returning RAF Lancasters, USAAF B.17 Flying Fortresses or B.24 Liberators who, approaching the English coast, jettisoned any remaining bombs from their missions over Germany ahead of landing back at their bases, and Miller’s plane had simply been unlucky and been hit by one of these jettisoned bombs as he headed out to France in the opposite direction…

However in talking to Keith Hill, (below), a superb aviation artist who now has a permanent exhibition of World War Two US & RAF aircraft in one of the Control Tower’s ground-level rooms, (including a superb painting he produced of Glen Miller’s Norseman plane), he mentioned a new documentary that has come out in the US whereby an expert who has been looking into the mystery of Miller’s disappearance on that fateful December day in 1944. The new researcher has uncovered a witness who saw the Norseman flying over Maidenhead on the night of December 15th, (thereby off course at the hands of a somewhat inexperienced Air Force ‘taxi’ pilot).

However more significantly, there had been a problem in some of the larger bombers with engine parts freezing up in the wintry temperatures, (parts which, unfortunately this smaller Norseman shared), and as a direct result pilots were ordered not to fly in low temperature conditions. However Glen Miller’s pilot did take off into the freezing night sky..and this new research suggests that somewhere off-course and over the English Channel, the Norseman’s engine froze solid as warned… and plummeted vertically out of the sky and into the Channel, never to be traced..!

Whatever the true reason behind this tragic loss of a popular war-time band leader, it is a fitting tribute to USAAF Major Glen Miller that RAF Twinwood, the airfield from which he made his last flight, now boasts its own Glenn Miller Museum, which is open to the public at weekends and where, once a year, a full 1940’s tribute concert is performed in his name. So what remains of RAF Twinwood’s Control Tower & its ancillary buildings here on the edge of the forest was a great location for producer Roger Keech to record interviews for his new BBC series, ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’ which is due for transmission over Christmas…

It was also a perfect setting to get us both talking about our other great passions, WW-II Vintage bomber & fighter aircraft as it turned out he has been very heavily involved in filming with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane (along with the arrival of Canada’s last air-worthy Lancaster to fly alongside our our Lanc), whilst I could swap stories of my time in the US with the Confederate Air Force and Battle of Britain Movie stunt pilot Connie Edwards on his ranch in Texas with his beloved ME109s & Spitfires from the 1969 movie… so hopefully, if the gods are willing, we might be able to share our great aviation passion again before too much longer!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Out of Town with Jack Hargreaves..

Well, I am seemingly getting the hang of this Facebook ‘thing’.. apart from the heinous transgression of having the temerity of contacting like-minded people interested either in World War Two Military History… and I am still sitting on The Naughty Step for another 11 hours..apparently..before I can purge my sins and rejoin the Facebook community and starting befriending folk once more…

However one of the exciting things for me is that whilst looking around FB to see what other folk get up to, I noticed a Jack Hargreaves Page…a wonderful surprise and a trip down memory lane for me for, as a young 22 year old just starting out in the TV business in the early 80s, (and as a real country-boy myself having had Jack as my childhood hero), I am genuinely thrilled to say that my very first job in broadcast TV was as the Unit Production Manager on 60 episodes of Jack’s famous show commissioned by the new Channel 4, (which Jack undertook as a favour to his old pal and fellow Picture Post journalist, Jeremy Isaacs who was, at that time starting up this new and potentially ground-breaking television channel).

Having just turned 56, it is now quite amazing to realise that it was some 36 years ago that, working through Lacewing Productions in based down in the old crypt of the church in St Peters Street in Winchester, (chosen by Jack as his former Southern TV editor & good friend Dave Knowles was a partner in this new Winchester-based film company), our enthusiastic young team were awarded, (and trusted with), such an important television contract for Channel Four. I had only been with Lacewing for a few months as a trainee studio manager when I was asked by Dave if I’d like to be the Production Manager on this new series for Jack…delighted to be asked, I in turn, asked what does a Production Manager do? To get the swift answer ‘there’s a desk, there’s a phone..learn’!

..and learn I certainly did... and within a short space of time we had located Jack’s ‘Out of Town Shed’, (and myriad props) sitting in a hanger in Southampton and so organising a pick-up truck I collected the flats and took this very famous & much-loved piece of Southern Television history over to Meonstoke Village Hall, (the village where TV director Steve Wade lived) in Hampshire where we set about faithfully re-building Jack’s set as per the old days..

Short of an old military stove and a roll-top desk I went up to a props company in London and located just the two items we needed to complete the scene, (and wandering around that company was a story in itself as I recognised props from Dr Who and several other famous shows) and having collected them and completed the recreation of Jacks’ shed, we then proceeded to shoot studio-links effectively as an Outside Broadcast..ie cameras inside and an OB truck parked outside the hall containing director, sound engineer, vision mixer, P.A. & racks engineer), playing in new 16mm film footage (shot by local film cameraman Steve Wagstaff of Jack out & about in the countryside) that had already been be edited in Winchester ready to be played in.

The first 20 episodes went down a storm with the new Channel Four audience and we were ecstatic when another two series were commissioned & awarded to Dave Knowles’ new film company The Production Unit and a further happy 2 years shooting the studio sequences in the lovely village of Meonstoke ensued!

For reasons I can’t remember today, (probably legal!), we could not name this new series Out of Town as previously, so a  new name was needed. I had, in passing, suggested to Jack the title ‘The Old Country’..and that indeed was what those following glorious 60 episodes on Channel 4 went out as and they were such a joy to work on. Oh, that reminds me, we could also not use the original Out of Town song by Max Bygraves for some reason or other so Jack, being a most canny operator, got a television technician of his acquaintance who played guitar to record a very relaxing and extremely fitting instrumental track which then became The Old Country’s official new theme-tune..

Jack was the most fabulous raconteur & joke-teller you could ever imagine and his fund of stories were just fabulous, a number stemming from his days as a tank commander during the Second World War. Not surprising then that during  our lunch breaks taken at the pub in Meonstoke, Jack with pint of real ale to hand, would hold court and the youngsters on the crew (or usually just me!) would find ourselves either hanging on every word, spell-bound, or laughing fit to bust..In fact I recall that on more than one occasion I had to ask Jack to ‘politely’ shut up as my sides were aching from so much laughter…

He once told a story dating from his war-time tanker days where he was standing on a parade ground watching a tank, engine idling, sitting with just one crew member aboard. Said crew member suddenly remembered he had left something in his billet and jumped out, but as he did his foot caught the upper hatch and it slammed shut..and locked! This would have been bad enough but as the squaddie jumped out of the hatch, his heavy boot clipped the gear-lever and the tank was somehow knocked into drive and moved off slowly at a very regal and sedate 2mph… and with not a soul inside to stop it…what a hoot!

Cue much hysterical laughter as Jack vividly explained how this tank then slowly wandered off across the parade-ground, flattening various, huts, including the NAAFI and other sundry buildings, with more squaddies all over the show trying in vain to stop it..!.The way that Jack also brought this story to life was just pure joy and the cue for yet more pains in the side and our crew gasping for breath..!

I also recall on set one day, just as the cameras were about to turn over, he cracked a gag (one of the funniest & dirtiest I have ever heard up until that tender age of 22) and back then we had an much older, rather po-faced, floor-manager who didn’t laugh much as a rule, but as Jack delivered the punch-line with real verve, this FM broke into such gales of hysterical, uncontrolled laughter that we all thought he was either going to have coronary on the studio floor..or wet himself.. or quite possibly both!

But then Jack always knew what he was doing..: his timing was superb and his memory & powers of recall quite unbelievable, allied to which he knew how to deliver both a gag and a story brilliantly. I think it was his old mate & sparring partner Fred Dineage (of ‘How’ & World of Sport fame and now Meriden’s mainstay news presenter in Southampton), who once opined, if I’ve got it right, that if you gave Jack a ping-pong ball and asked him to talk about it, he would hold forth for half an hour without faltering once on the merits of the inside of said ball..amazing!

In fact in all of my long-ish TV & Broadcasting career to date, I have never ever met another man such as Jack that did not use a script or autocue in his day-to-day work! In fact it used to irk me more than a little when folk talking to me about working with Jack would state with much certainty that’ “you could see him looking off camera at a script”..which was complete rubbish and I used to get quite offended as towards the end I actually came to look on Jack as a surrogate grandfather and was, (like all of our crew), very protective of him & the programmes we were producing!

What Jack was doing was, in fact, talking directly to us, his crew, standing behind or just off the camera. We were very much a small family unit, (as Jack liked it to be), and we all used to sit on set watching him and he would simply keep looking off camera at us as he talked…almost drove poor old Steve the director nuts as he wanted Jack looking straight to camera and not at us… Happy Days indeed!

After 60 episodes of the Old Country Jack then ‘retired again’ and we thought that was that.. until he was later asked by former production colleagues up in London, if he would come out of retirement again to produce another 28 episodes for world distribution. So it was that the former ‘The Old Country’ television director Steve Wade, his son Phil, again on sound, and myself (excited to be asked to reprise my former role as Unit Production Manage)r, all very happily teamed up once again. This time however we used Jack’s real shed, (full of his beloved props), over at his home in Shillingstone in Dorset, went into production mode once more, this time using his favourite old film sequences from his days at Southern TV..

We shot the links in his shed and then moved inside his house where, sitting in his arm-chair, he’d voice-over the film-clips into a Nagra recorder as Phil & I sat at his feet having our own personal performance of Out of Town, whilst marvelling at the truly wonderful presenter that Jack was, narrating without a script in sight!

And a further laugh for me was that during filming the 60 episodes of The Old Country over at Meonstoke folk would say to me ”ah I can see he is in a  real shed” to which I would reply it was a set, then when the 28 episodes shot in his shed at Shillingstone aired on regional TV, those self-same folk would say “ah yes, I can see that is a TV set” to which I would have to say, wrong again, this time it is his real shed..! In fact I think the header photo of him on the ‘Jack Hargreaves Facebook Page’ is indeed a publicity shot from his shed when we were filming those last 28 episodes from his home in beautiful, deepest Dorset!

In recent months I have noticed that several companies are now offering boxed versions of ‘Out of Town’, (one set listed as the ‘Lost Tapes’ or some such), on DVD and wonder if it is actually these last 28 episodes that we shot in Jack’s ‘real shed’?

But all-in-all, I am extremely proud of the 88 episodes I worked on with Jack, (in my long-lost freelance days before I formed Tomahawk Films and became a voice-over artiste), and count myself very fortunate (and ever grateful to Dave Knowles) to have had such an opportunity of working so closely with that boyhood hero of mine…  I also know that he was not just a hero to me for wherever I still go today and talk about my TV & broadcasting career, when Jack’s name crops up, I am simply staggered by the amount of folk that, like me, also grew up with him and love to talk to me about working with him as I did..!

It’s funny to remember back when my school mates rushed home to watch the footie on TV, whilst I’d rush home to watch Out of Town.. never knowing that years later it would be my first production job in broadcast television. I consider myself both lucky & honoured to have been so closely involved with this great broadcaster and ‘man of the countryside’…..

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

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

Third Reich Spielleute…

As one thought or action invariably leads onto another so, as the bugler and drummer/fifer are forever linked historically down the ages, did I find myself moving from former naval cadet bugler to rock-drummer with ‘Adam West and the Gotham City Rockers’, amongst other bands, early on in my pre-television professional life.

However, like many other tub-thumpers I have also endured much stick as a result, for we un-sung souls, (beavering away at the back of the stage to ensure the ‘rock gods’ in the spotlight at the front kept time & looked good), are always the much-mocked ones and never taken seriously by our fellow musicians… though have you ever tried playing a full 5-piece rock kit and seen just how difficult it is? So perhaps having mastered this complex instrument myself I wasn’t quite the knuckle-dragger as depicted by the ‘real’ musos!

However on the basis of ‘once a drummer, always a drummer’ my continued long–time interests in the infantry bugle also helped keep alive, (once I’d given up active rock drumming), my interest in the snare-drum in its military role with the company bugler and drummer & fifers… an integral part of any military column throughout history.

Markedly different from the ‘standard’ German military musician and forever at the head of the company on the march, the Spielleute…literally playing people… have, with their fife & drums, (together with my beloved signalhorn), seemingly forever been a part of military lore. In fact the fife is very much an historical instrument in its own right having been given to the world by the ancient Greeks, and then picked up by Swiss mercenaries who used them in conjunction with drums as far back as The Middle Ages.

Adopted by the British army in the 18th century, the Third Reich’s Hitlerjugend was to take to fife & drumming with a great enthusiasm and ready zeal in the 1930s and today fifes, (along with bugles), are always associated with drums, with the German military term Trommelflöte in fact meaning ‘drum flute’. Made of black ebony and normally tuned in C of normal tuning the fife (or Pfeife in German) measured approximately 15 inches in length and when not being played was kept in a brown or black leather fife case suspended from the bugler or drummer’s leather belt to the rear of his bayonet and frog.

However, the oldest of all the military instruments is the snare or side-drum dating right back to The Crusades and, used in conjunction with the fife, was an effective way of keeping an army in step and on the move; like bugles they were also used to signal & transmit orders. In the 17th century, German armies went into quarters during the winter until a spring offensive could be launched, with soldiers being billeted in a town or village and with only the locals inns and hostelries for entertainment.

To encourage the soldiers to return to their billets at the end of the evening, the inn-keepers would turn their ale-taps off promptly at 10pm. This ‘witching hour’ would then be communicated to inn-keepers and soldiers alike by the garrison drummers who, in the company of an officer and sergeant, would set off around the town beating out a rhythm, whilst checking and ensuring all soldiers were on the move. From this action the word Tattoo’ which we are all now very familiar with in today’s military phraseology is thought to have been coined, derived directly from the Dutch phrase: Doe-Den-Tap-Toe or ‘Turn The Taps Off’!

Wehrmacht snare drum barrels were made of a brass and their batter heads made from calf-skin whilst snares were made from four catgut cords which were strung tightly across the lower drum skin and were held in place by a brass knob on one side and a hook and cord-screw on the corresponding side opposite. The skins were held in place by a wooden inner ring and an outer ring, the latter having a thin covering of copper, and the complete drum was held together by 5 stretching screws  evenly spaced around the body. Additionally a piece of strong curved wire, either covered in field-grey cloth or bound in leather, was riveted to the drum’s bottom rings as protection for the drummer’s trousers or breeches…

By a German army order of August 1933, all military snare and side drums were to be painted white on the inside and on top of the wooden drum rings, whilst the outsides should have 39 red lacquered isosceles triangles along the outer edge, with 39 black triangles along the bottom edge, both pointing inwards, with the resulting squares pattern formed between the triangles in white.

Whilst Luftwaffe and Heer & Waffen-SS snare drums had a standard brass barrel, it was custom and practice for the Kriegsmarine to over-paint the brass in a dark or medium blue. Hitler Youth & Sturm Abteilung snare drums, produced in 3 differing sizes, were painted in red and white alternating triangles, whilst those of the Allgemeine-SS & Waffen-SS sported alternating black and white triangles… and if you actually get to see or handle one ‘in the flesh’ very attractive items they are too…

Incidentally, talking of the Spielleute and their musical armoury of fife, drum & signalhorn, (another subject I write about in some length in the Tomahawk Films-produced book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45), the bugle itself was originally developed, way back in the dim & distant past by the French as a hunting accessory. In fact ‘bugle’ is actually the French word for ‘young bull’ and it was to be the German & French armies that adopted the instrument for military use, and its primary role was in the passing of signals on the battlefield and in camp, including ‘To Arms’ or ‘Last Post’.

As such it soon became an instrument of major significance within the German military, with all units parading its own signalling bugler.

However, finally as a sign-off for this particular Blog, whilst having dwelt primarily on the subject of the snare drum, though not an instrument of the Spielleute but very much harking back to those aforementioned Swiss and indeed German mercenaries of the Middle Ages, is the Landsknecht drum that was peculiar to the Hitler Youth and Deutsche Jungvolk. Certainly a most formidable-looking and very attractive military instrument, its skins were made from calf-hide, and its wooden drum rings were secured top and bottom by rope cords tautened by leather thongs.

Often used en-masse as part of the formidable Nazi propaganda machinery, these impressive drums were worn suspended on a black leather strap over the right shoulder and hanging down at an angle on the drummer’s left and in place of the standard drum-sticks, it was played by two cane-stick beaters with thick white felt pads on the end…

The usual or standard colour-scheme for these beautiful drums was a most dramatic, almost vivid red & white burning flame design for drums paraded by the Hitler Youth, and a similar black & white flame design for the Landsknecht drums of the  Deutsche Jungvolk. The DJ drums also appeared as a very dramatic design of black with a white runic device to the front. In terms of drum size, as with military snare drums, smaller sizes for the shorter boys were produced and issued.

In addition, though a musical instrument forever linked with the propaganda film newsreels of Hitler’s Germany, they were also used later on in great numbers in post-war East Germany, where they were repainted in blue & yellow of the FDJ and re-issued for use by the myriad Communist Youth bands, so as the saying goes: ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

A Hurricane Downed over Guernsey..!

When wandering the tranquil lanes & backwaters of the beautiful islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey it is sometimes hard to believe, especially on a drowsy, sunny, early Autumnal day that, between 1940 & 1945 this Crown Dependent landscape was occupied by the military forces of Hitler’s Third Reich!

Indeed sometimes amidst the peace & quiet of these intrinsically agricultural islands you could be fooled into thinking the Bailiwick had been completely untouched by war and that the sound of heavily studded boots and the clinking of German mess-tins on gas-masks and lusty voices raised in soldier-song on these narrow lanes was all but a fantastic dream..!

However although the Channel Islands are dotted with some very serious German fortifications, (some of which were doomed to be destroyed post-war until it was realised the civilian-commissioned demolition teams were to be beaten by the sheer amount of concrete involved), it is only when you visit some of the well kempt graveyards or see the myriad memorials in the occupation museums or renovated German military sites & locations that you realise that it did indeed happen…and how!

As to be expected, there was a large human cost involved despite this ‘benign occupation’ as the late Guernseyman Frank Stroobant called it and the German cemetery at Fort George is both another place of ‘pilgrimage’ for me as well as being a part of the closing sequence in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied.

Here, high up on the cliffs overlooking St Peter Port, some 113 German graves lie with full public access and where one can see headstones of some 19 Kriegsmarine matelots, 88 soldiers & 4 German merchant seaman killed, some as the result of Allied assaults and some of illness or natural causes during the years of occupation. All of these graves all beautifully tended & manicured by locals and a paternal eye is also kept by the German War Graves Commission, however there would have been many more German graves across the Bailiwick but for a concerted effort by the German authorities in the 1960s to exhume and repatriate many bodies of former serving Wehrmacht and Organisation Todt personnel from the Bailiwick.

Slightly macabre evidence of this very sombre act can be seen today in Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest.. sight of which I must admit rather stops me in my tracks and causes more than a few moments of quiet thought! But why some bodies were removed and re-interred in military graves in France & Germany, whilst the 113 in St George were left quietly in this most stunning of locations, I have yet to find out… it may be that by the 1960s their families were now stranded behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany or their families were no longer around… or maybe that their surviving loved-ones thought it perhaps best to leave them quietly at rest here in this most peaceful location on Guernsey.

However it is a further contemplative moment when you wander amongst these many German headstones in St George’s cemetery and note the varying ages of those lying here: from late teens to late 40s/early 50s, plus the varying ranks & branches of service of those former servicemen laid to rest here. Indeed there is a member of the NSKK, (Nazi Germany’s political motoring arm), a Wehrmacht veterinary officer, a Kriegsmarine ships stoker, a Luftwaffe flak gunner, a senior army officer… just casting an eye across this cemetery is a history lesson in itself.

Then, set just atop all of these German headstones that step down in tiers below it, is one of a Canadian pilot, 22 year old Flight Sergeant Biddlecombe RCAF, shot down over the Bailiwick in 1944 when either conducting an air assault on Guernsey’s German fortifications or having baled out when in the vicinity of the islands… and again I am wondering if that, as his family was so far away across the Atlantic, they too perhaps thought it best to also leave his body here in peace on the island of Guernsey.

This then led me on to wondering just how many Allied air crew had actually been killed over the Bailiwick – and the number was surprisingly readily forthcoming: 111. Indeed at Richard Heaume’s Occupation Museum at Forest there is now a very attractive little propeller memorial to these airmen sited in the corner of his car park as you venture from your car towards the museum entrance as testament to this fact.

When you think about it, 111 is a huge number of lost Allied air-crew even for the  5 years occupation of these islands, (on average just over 22 a year), and a number of these would have come as a result of probing low-level fighter-bomber offensive attacks conducted against the islands by the RAF and USAAF, whilst others, (which would account for the somewhat high number of losses) would be from British, Canadian or US bomber crews shot down on the return legs of their missions over the Ruhr or the Reich’s capital Berlin.

These would undoubtedly have been shot down as they strayed off course and got bounced by Luftwaffe night & day fighters flying from nearby France, or by the ME109s scrambled from Guernsey’s Luftwaffe base. A number would have also been shot down by the many heavy flak crews sited both on the islands and again over the water in France.

Happily not all Allied crew that baled out or crashed over the Bailiwick were killed… and I am indebted to my pal Major Evan Ozanne, late of the Guernsey Tourist Board and more recently editor of his former parish’s newsletter ‘Les Tortevalais’, who told me of a Hawker Hurricane pilot that baled out over the island early on in the war and the tale surrounding the pilot’s family who had recently come to Guernsey looking for information on his war-time escapades!

Lesley Sutherland and her husband Alastair had flown over to the Bailiwick from their home in Glasgow, intent on researching the story of her father, Robert Stirling, who crashed off Lihou island during the war. Staying at a local hotel they picked up Evan’s magazine and there, before her eyes, was her father’s story as penned by Evan … and a subsequent meeting up with him and thence with Simon Hamon from the Channel Island Occupation Society (Guernsey) added more vital information to their research.

It transpires that Robert Stirling was a 23 year old Sergeant-Pilot with 87 Squadron RAF flying a Hurricane Mk1 on a night-intruder patrol from its base in South West England in the vicinity of the Channel Islands on the night of April 11th/12th 1941, when his plane actually ran out of juice over the Bailiwick. Making a swift decision to try to force-land at Guernsey’s airfield unfortunately the Luftwaffe heavy flak crews defending the air-field opened fire on his Hurricane and Robert decided to bale out instead of being shot down and safely came down on the end of his parachute onto the tiny all-but inhabited island of Lihou just off the south-west corner of Guernsey.

Fortunately it was low-tide so he made his way back across the causeway to the mainland and, surviving both a German minefield and a mined road, walked to the nearest house he could find, that of Mr Tom Brouard who took him in and gave him a cuppa, (of bramble tea no doubt!).

With an island-wide night curfew and Tom having no ‘phone Robert was given bed and in the morning, he gave himself up to the German authorities… and Tom? Well sadly for all his endeavour the Germans gave him 4 weeks in prison for harbouring a British fugitive… despite not being able to inform the authorities that the downed RAF pilot was with him..! and that might have been the end of the story but for Robert’s daughter Lesley who, later in their holiday, was chatting to Marion Henry at the Bruce Russell Gold & Silversmith showroom and mentioned the purpose of their trip.

She showed Marion Major Ozanne’s magazine article and said she & her husband had learned that a Mr Tom Brouard had sheltered her father on that fateful night he was shot down…to which Marion replied:’Tom was my uncle’…a very small world if ever there was..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013       (Robert Stirling photos courtesy: The John Goodwin CIOS Archive)

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

A Soldier’s Grave…

I first stumbled across it by chance..!   It was tucked away in the corner of the churchyard surrounding Twyford’s beautiful Parish church and, being off the main pathway, it had long given up the struggle against ivy and long grass. I think it was the shape that caught my eye as I wandered absent-mindedly through that tall grass and I stopped, picked away at some of undergrowth that had attached itself to the headstone and, underneath years of neglect, there appeared some metal lettering affixed to the concrete face…

It read:  ‘Private John Douglas Small of the London Regiment ‘Kensingtons’. Son of Albert and Emmie Small of Elfords, Hastings. Died at Hazeley Down Camp, Twyford September 29th 1916 aged 18’.

The words said everything, yet told me nothing. Who was this young soldier who had been stationed at the big First World War pre-embarkation camp in the village? That, in the third year of that terrible conflict, this soldier, not long out of basic training, had died at such a young age was obvious… but how and why?

Had he made it to the Western Front and returned to die of his wounds? Had he been taken ill awaiting the move to the trenches of Flanders?… or was there a more sinister story behind this innocent headstone? More intriguingly, why did this soldier’s grave have a private headstone whilst other soldiers who’d died at the camp, and were also buried here in Twyford’s churchyard, have the instantly recognised white official military headstone with Regimental badge?  So many questions, but where to begin to find the answers?

Having lain undetected for so long, the answers were not to be eventually found locally, however a letter to a local newspaper in the Hastings area appealing for information brought a breakthrough for me. Several Hastings residents remembered the family of John Douglas Small, then came the big tip-off: ‘Douglas’, as he was apparently affectionately known, had a younger sister who was actually still alive and living in a nursing home in Battle and, armed with this information, I made my way to Sussex to meet Constance ‘Connie’ Small.  A former school teacher and now in her nineties, this lovely old lady was as bright as a button and, obviously touched that I had taken over the tending her late brother’s grave, she talked to me about his tragically short life.

Douglas was her favourite older brother and on leaving school at 16, he took a job in his father’s motor-vehicle garage. Called up at 18, he enlisted in Chichester as 6120 Private Small in the 13th Battalion, the London Regiment,  a Territorial unit known colloquially as the ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’. Following basic training, his Regiment was despatched to Hazeley Down, Twyford, in preparation for its transfer across the Channel to France and the Western Front.

But on the morning of the 26th September 1916, as the lads were called to muster at 7am ready for the ‘off’, Douglas could not be roused from his bed; the camp doctor was called and he was transferred to the military hospital at Haslar in Gosport down on the South Coast, where meningitis was diagnosed. Tragically he died three days later and his body was returned to Twyford and the Hazeley Down camp.

By his untimely death, Douglas Small  was spared the horrors of the Western Front, but I asked Connie how her brother came to be buried in Twyford: “My father made that decision. In those days getting around the country was not easy and as Douglas loved Twyford and was a popular figure around the village, my family thought it would be fitting for him to be buried there and a private headstone was bought”.

The ‘War Casualties’ listing in the Hastings & St Leonards Observer on 7th November 1916 confirmed her brother’s popularity: “Private John D Small was buried with full military honours in the Twyford Village churchyard. There was a very large attendance at the graveside: about a thousand military and civilians being present, including the Officers, NCO’s and men of the Regiment and the Regimental Band”.

Sadly, today very little remains of the 105 acres of this enormous camp other than a distinct echo of military boots, barked orders, and the long shadows of thousands of young men on their way to an horrific war from which they would never return. A scene belying its previous frantic activity, lines of impressive trees now mark where the camp’s roads once ran, whilst the odd First World War-constructed hut still lines the grassed valley of our very historic village.

The Ministry for War first commandeered this rich farming land, owned by the Best family, in 1915. Work immediately began to build a massive wooden military complex to house the young ‘Pals Regiments’ on their way to the docks at Southampton to join the vast Allied armies at war with the Kaiser’s army in France. To this day some elderly villagers still remember the vast khaki columns as they marched from Hazeley Down into Twyford, either to pick up the troop trains at close-by Shawford railway station or to continue through the village on a full route-march down into the Port of Southampton.

In addition to Douglas’ London Regiment, (known fully as Princess Louise’s Kensingtons), Hazeley Down Camp was also home to the 14th Battalion (London Scottish),  15th Battalion (Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles), 16th Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), 17th Battalion (Poplar & Stepney Rifles), 20th Battalion, (Queen’s Royal West Kent), the Royal Garrison Artillery, The Tank Corps and, representing the British Commonwealth, Canada’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Finally the Great War came to an end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 and Twyford’s Hazeley Down, the scene of much hectic war-time activity, became a holding base, garrisoned by a few ‘old salts’ of the regular army until 1921. Then the entire camp and its contents were sold off by auction on the orders of the Ministry of Munitions in that year and the land reverted back to its peaceful and most beautiful of pre-war farming days.

Hazeley Down briefly hit the headlines again in the Second World War when a Luftwaffe Junkers 88 engaged in bombing Southampton docks, overshot and was attacked by a marauding Spitfire on August 15th 1940, at the very height of the Battle of Britain. Struggling to stay in the air, the pilot, (who, incredibly, studied at nearby Winchester College before the war, so knew exactly where he was!), eventually jettisoned his entire bomb-load across fields around the site of the former camp and crash-landed in the valley, the crew being rounded up by Twyford’s local Home Guard detachment and escorted away as Prisoners of War… their war over!

Having located these impressive bomb-holes in my youth, some years later I was given a large piece of the original perspex from the JU-88’s cockpit canopy; thence a few years on, a former crew member’s summer Luftwaffe flying suit was located in the shed of a former Home Guard member and this was also gifted to me.

Other souvenirs were spirited away at the time, for the Canadian fighter pilot who despatched this German bomber, circled the crash site before carefully landing his Spitfire on the grass-strip alongside where the stricken bomber made its wheels-up landing. Then in front of the astonished Twyford Home Guard members, the fighter pilot jumped down out of his Spit’s cockpit, ran over to the JU-88, leaned inside its now canopy-less cockpit and, with a practiced twist of his wrist & a flick of his fingers, unscrewed the bomber’s dash-board clock, stuck it in his flying jacket pocket, ran back to his idling fighter and took off, never to be seen again..!

In addition, I had long heard that the pilot’s Luger pistol was still lurking somewhere in the village, having been surrendered to the Home Guard; but despite my regularly pumping the elderly locals for gen, ( at least once a week), in our former local, The Dolphin Hill, despite many winks & ‘knowing-nudges’ of each other, I never got a straight answer as to its whereabouts. So one lightly-used Luftwaffe-issue Luger is still sitting hidden somewhere here in my village of Twyford and that, sadly, is how it will probably stay… unless I get lucky and someone weakens under my ceaseless interrogation!

Meanwhile back to Hazeley Camp, where today an imposing cross, erected by the Best family as a memorial to the tens of thousands of young men who passed this way, can be seen, set back from the Hazeley Road amidst the few remaining wooden barracks from the First World War that still dot the hillside…

As for the grave of her brother that Connie never got to see, it is now lovingly cared for in Twyford’s little Parish church, by myself and latterly the War Graves Commission, its sad history now finally known!

Connie died shortly after I visited with my photos of her beloved brother’s grave and I take comfort knowing I was able to show her where ‘Douglas’ was laid to rest and assure her his grave was now looked after and that each November a British Legion Red Poppy is placed upon it…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Movie Stunt Pilot: Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards…

I can well recall the great excitement I felt when, back in 1969, my mother took my brother & I into Winchester’s Theatre Royal during our long summer holidays to watch the new Guy Hamilton-directed movie: ‘The Battle of Britain’.

It was my first real experience of a major World War Two motion picture up on the ‘big screen’… and, oh boy, what an action-packed film it was, (still is in fact), and it really was the talk of my school and amongst all of my other pals that had similarly also seen the movie during their holidays!

Once back at school after the break, as well as talking about the movie we’d all seen and thoroughly enjoyed during the summer, there was then the added excitement of the swaps & trades of the associated chewing gum ‘cigarette cards’ doing the rounds that were issued to co-incide with the movie’s release. Based on the myriad official press stills from the movies,  I remember that my young pals and I soon had our fill of the revolting, bland gum contained within the packs that new school term as we laboured hard to collect all of the fantastic cards in the series..!

At the time I had absolutely no inkling whatsoever that I would, a lifetime later, actually be standing in a huge aircraft hanger over in deepest Texas clambering over & around the actual Messerschmitt Bf-109s and lead Spitfire from the movie and interviewing the chief stunt pilot in charge of all the American ‘crop dusters’ who flew the vintage fighters in the movie!

One of the reasons for my Texan trip all those years later was to interview an ME-109 pilot, however unfortunately the fighter that was due to be at the Confederate Air Force’s annual weekend show at its air-base at Midland-Odessa had been forced to ditch somewhere in the desert en route to the show. Mercifully, though the pilot was OK, the plane wasn’t thus leaving me casting my eyes around for another opportunity, if that were at all possible.

Then somebody asked me if I knew of Connie Edwards…”Connie who?” I asked in dreadful ignorance…to be told that not only had Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards’ been the lead stunt pilot on The Battle of Britain, but he also owned about a dozen or so of the movie’s Spanish-built ME-109s… and he lived just a 50 mile drive from Midland…

Connie’s number was found and I made a tentative call that was answered by a bluff voice that immediately mellowed when he heard my English voice. Apparently Connie was not in the habit of giving media interviews but as an ‘Anglophile’ said he’d would love to meet me if I would to come out to his ranch. So the following day, hire-car booked, I found myself on the highway driving out to Big Spring looking for his ranch, not realising that it was nearly half the size of Texas..!

I still remember the look on the faces of the construction workers on the side of a very hot & dusty road in the middle of nowhere when I stopped, wound down the car window and politely asked, (in something of an ‘Oxford-English’ accent), if they would kindly point me in the direction of Connie’s ranch..!

Once found, I began the long drive from the highway over hill & dale all through huge cotton fields to a long air-strip with massive hangers and, parking up, I walked over to the nearest and opening a small door, stepped in out of the blistering heat to see a huge Catalina flying boat and the backsides of two men in overalls bending over tinkering with some engine part on the floor.

Mr Edwards?” I called out and up popped Connie, typical farmer’s oily dungarees, a grimy baseball hat to the back of his head and a grin from ear to ear…”Welcome boy…c’mon in and have a beer’..the warm Texan greeting I was beginning to get used to in this wonderful part of America. After our initial chat and introductions he invited me to jump into his old pick-up truck outside and, (accompanied by the most ferocious looking ‘attack dog’ I had ever seen that alarmingly jumped in behind me and stuck its head between the two front seats and slavered alarmingly near my right ear), we shot across the tarmac strip to another equally large hanger.

Here again stepping inside out of the searing noon-day heat, as my eyes slowly accustomed to the gloom I was met by the most incredible sight… a’ multiple plane crash’ with parts of ME-109s all over the shop, wings here, fuselages there, tails hanging from the roof… what on earth had just happened..?

Seeing my confusion, Connie quietly explained that for the movie in ’69, the production company had spent years scouring the world looking for the required ME-109s, few if any remaining in Germany. However the Spanish had been a customer of Messerschmitt during their Civil War and had acquired a number of the latest ME-109s in the late 30s, including a rare 2-seat trainer used, post-war WW-II, by a Spanish Air Force Colonel, and these had continued to fly into the 1950s and early 1960s.

Producer Harry Saltzman had managed to buy all of the ME-109s, (plus several still-flying Heinkel-111s), from the Spanish Government and these, with Rolls Royce replacement engines fitted, were the planes used in the aerial action scenes.

Connie was tasked with gathering together a ‘squadron of bush pilots’ to come over to Europe and fly most of the aircraft, including the Spitfires that we now see on screen… in fact Connie took the lead Spitfire role and so it was even more of a school-boy dream when we wandered into the next hanger to see the actual Spitfire standing there, albeit covered in dust & grime, before my eyes… but as I was still reeling from seeing so many of the movie aircraft from my youth standing here in various states of disrepair, my first questions to Connie had to be: “why and how..?”

Apparently, according to Connie, the finished movie that we now regularly see on TV was not quite the film that was due to be eventually shown as much of the air sequences ended up on the cutting-room floor and indeed as the film company was running short of money, a number of short-cuts were taken. So when it came to being paid off, such was the shortage of money that Connie, (so obviously a fabulously wealthy oil-billionaire), simply said ‘fine, I’ll take the aircraft as IOUs’… and he actually had all of the ME-109s plus the two lead Spitfires subsequently crated up and shipped back home to Texas in lieu of his movie payment!!!

Unbelievably, in a third hanger I saw through the further gloom a pair of sleek, but completely dust-covered, piston-engined fighter aircraft in an unusual gray & green camouflage: and when I looked closer my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I realised I was actually looking at 2 World War Two-era USAAF P.51 Mustangs..!

Again Connie saw my querying expression and answered, “yep, two original Mustangs: I flew them in the Nicaraguan Civil War and they couldn’t pay me either… so I had these two beauties shipped home as well!”

I have to say in all of my working life I have never met such a character as Connie, he was truly a Texan one-off and my time with him and his WW-II aircraft was just out of this world… but the strangest thing was yet to come. I was already being to realise that I was in the company of both a kindly man and a true eccentric and bordering on eccentric myself I certainly recognise the signs. However having taken me on a tour of the ranch and then walked me out, chest-high, into the middle of a cotton field (and when I enquired what the rattling noise near my feet was, told. “Oh that’s just a rattle-snake!” Jeez, I never realised I could move so fast!!), he calmly asked me if I’d like to take a look at the ’house’ he was building?

By now I was ready for anything, or so I thought, and after another drive  we crested a hill and there before me… was a half-built Camelot! Connie had become so enamoured of our history during his time in the UK that on his return to Texas he set about building himself a true English castle – even down to building himself a ‘castle brick-making machine’..!

A guided-tour of this castle, (including a visit to his office to see photos on every wall of him in the cockpit of almost every fighter aircraft you could imagine), eventually led me to a huge oak wooden door through which was Camelot HQ, a huge hall with minstrel galleries & shields & lances on every wall, a massive banqueting table and even an entrance down on the rock floor through which you could swim from his outside pool, dive under the outer wall and come up in the main baronial hall..!

By this time I was beginning to wonder if the heat was getting to me as I continued to wander in stunned fashion after Connie around his castle… seeing all those original WW-II fighter aircraft in his hangar was one thing, but this was another.

However there was one final joke to come from this jovial ‘Anglophile’:.. leading me down an old, dark  passage-way in the stygian gloom, we came up against another a massive old door.. “go on son, open it up…” Connie grinned, as he stepped back to let me through…

Gripping the huge wrought iron handle I opened the door and pushed the heavy weight inwards accompanied by a real ‘Hammer House of Horror’ squeal of rusty hinges… to be faced with a mass of cobwebs, and pushing through the dust & muck I realised I was in an ‘old’ wine cellar. Connie came past me and reached for a bottle and pulling it down off the dusty rack, blew away the cobwebs to proudly show me the bottle label… with last months’ date on!

Connie had only gone and built himself a cobweb-making machine as well… and there I was thinking it was only we Brits that were so wonderfully eccentric..!

Truly an incredible day… truly an incredible man..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

Third Reich-era CDs versus the Computer..!

Despite being totally immersed in the production & voice-over work that I undertake for Tomahawk Films, I must admit that there is just the odd occasion when I feel a bit ’left behind’ in terms of my own levels of technical expertise..(which  suppose is why I became a producer: so I could simply hire or bring in the  brightest of the young ‘techies’ to assist with our work!!).. and quite how I managed to ‘self-op’ a top-flight radio studio for so many years of working as a local radio presenter without taking myself off air, I’ll never quite know..must have been more in the way of luck than judgement..!

Nevertheless, I must admit that I have rather been dragged ‘kicking & screaming’ into the technological era and the learning curve of new technologies & systems has been rather steep, what with  Tomahawk’s new website design & operation, the new Blog, our newly created Amazon shop-window, the world of PayPal & Sage-Pay secure on-line banking and even finding my way around my own personal i-Tunes account, (to which I now enjoy down-loading rock music, having been a fairly successful rock drummer myself in the days before I entered the ‘heady’ media world!), it’s all been a bit frenetic… though I still draw the line at Facebook and having an i-Pad..you can have too much of a good thing…not!

I suppose had I a young family of my own with a small brood of  ‘techie wunderkind’ then I would be far more advanced, and perhaps more relaxed, in my actual hands-on usage, though with the myriad audio & computer-based technology available on tap these days a certain ‘knowledge of’ has to be there at our professional level of Music & TV production, so thankfully I must be picking up a lot of the new skills than I realise by Osmosis, but I thank the gods I am surrounded by a team of young technical wizards who are blessed with a frightening level of expertise..!

Though only in my mid 50’s, in my defence I have to say that in the 30-plus years I have been in involved in television & radio production and thence producing Third Reich/Nazi-era music recordings for Tomahawk Films, I have witnessed technological advances in audio & picture editing on an incredible scale….indeed when I entered the television industry at the beginning of the 1980s TV documentaries were transmitted either from tele-cine (film), or on 2” video-tape and the ‘humble’ home VCR machine had not yet hit our high street shops.. so that’ll give you some idea of just how fast & far things have progressed during my career!

However as a Film, Television & Musik production company, Tomahawk Films has tried to keep abreast of the times, (where possible and certainly where pertinent to our work), even though we are a company dealing with archival material that is anywhere from 60 to almost 100 years old, it sometimes seems almost incongruous to me to talk about  that old material being played both in a modern era and on technologically advanced formats..and to be honest sometimes I feel as if there is a real clash of cultures that I am not always comfortable with…

I realise the day of the wind-up gramophone is long past, so in truth it is all about finding a happy balance and not asking your archival material to do in the New Millennium what its original German producers some 70-odd years ago either could not, or had no intention of doing…nor were they even possibily possessed of any credible vision of just what future technologies might bring in terms of editing & playing formats and so forth.

Indeed some years ago this was clearly illustrated to me when a fantastic young American customer called up Tomahawk Films to complain that though he dearly loved one of our CDs when played on his top-of-the-range hi-fi in his home, he was somewhat disappointed that he could not replicate  the same sound when playing it on his enormous ‘Boom Box’ in the boot (trunk) of his car… I must admit I laughed my head off and said ‘I’m not surprised, mate..!

The German music producers of the 1930s had only just progressed from recording live bands playing into a single microphone, with very little in the way of edit or enhancement facilities.. and so any talk of a ‘Boom Box’ (whatever that may be m’Lud!) would have been complete Double-Dutch back then!

I suggested to our young American friend that for those producers of the 30s, (as talented as they so obviously were when we now look back to their superb work), to somehow imagine his sort of technological future, let-alone produce an audio recording that, in 70-odd years time would sound superb when played through his massive ‘Boom Box’ would be akin to putting 1940s Spitfire or P.51 Mustang aviation-fuel into the tanks of a modern carrier-borne F-18 Super Hornet naval jet fighter… and then wondering why, when launched, it simply fut-futted to the end of the deck and merely fell over the edge instead of rising majestically into the air…you are simply asking too much performance from a 70 year-old historical item in a modern digital age..!

Our friendly American pal kindly grasped my point and went off quite happily to keep playing our Tomahawk CD on his ‘normal domestic hi-fi’ whilst, (I assume) keeping his Boom Box for his selection of Gangster Rap! But this ‘old re-mastered into the new’  does call into question the myriad modern methods of playing music, as from time-to-time our customers tell us they want play our High Street-produced CDs on their home computers..!

I must admit this is a spectre that, as a producer, always makes my heart sink as we are a production company not a computer company and I always feel somehow that is just wrong to play music CDs on a computer, especially when we hear on the very odd occasion that, because of the many vagaries of modern computer technology, the track listings sometimes don’t always match-up in their correct running order and so gives the impression to the uninitiated that the CD may be at fault.

Happily, 99 times out of a 100, the music CD not only plays pitch-perfectly though a computer, as originally & lovingly produced in the studio, but all of the track-listings load perfectly as well…  but very occasionally they do go awry and whilst that is a bit of a disappointment for the collector & enthusiast, it is not the fault of the CD. From my varying conversations with CD-manufacturing experts & replication houses, music CDs are still designed with the domestic & professional music hi-fi usage in mind…the fact that they also mostly play & correctly track-list in home computers is something of a bonus, but should certainly ‘not be taken as Gospel..!

During one of my many & varied chats to ‘those in the know’ a young computer wallah obviously fought his particular corner and said: “you should put a sticker on music CDs saying, ‘may possibly not play in a computer’ “ to which I, as the music producer, countered: ‘quite the opposite matey, any sticker were it produced should read “might play happily in a computer.. if you are lucky!’ “..and so in the words of the old UK Football Pool results: we left it as a score-draw..!

But on a serious note, Tomahawk Films is well known as being something of a very sensitive, if slightly old-fashioned, company in that we deal with very old archival material from what was obviously a troubled era and produce it primarily with the committed hi-fi archival music enthusiast, collector & historian in our minds and not really, (if we are honest) for the much younger modern generation of computer buffs!

However we are delighted when the younger, (and not so younger), ‘techie audience’ do buy our wares as they often find their own manual ways of ensuring track listings are exactly as they were produced and laid down in the studios, (if they do list slightly out of sync),  if they must insist on using a computer as their ‘hi-fi of choice’… I just have no idea what they do, (must call in the chief ‘wunderkind’ again), but it obviously works, from the happy feed-back we receive!!.

But this does focus the mind on what a modern CD or DVD will or will not do… indeed the ‘umble Compact Disc’ when first launched to a massive fanfare was hailed as ‘the answer to a maiden’s prayer’… but you only have to see & hear how many times a CD fails to perform properly to realise this ain’t necessarily so…

Quite often when you listen in to your local radio station, or you’re playing your favourite rock CD at home it will jump as a result of something as simple as a thumb-print marking the playing surface.. or in a worst case scenario you come back to a CD some 2 or 3 years after its last play and the damned thing has become a complete blank…Ouch!

But this was never meant to happen… according to the original inventors of this incredible advance in audio technology, you could happily drive a 60-ton Battle Tank over a CD ..and it would still play..yeah right! (though quite how it would still play when the area containing all of the digitally stored information is damaged beyond belief has always been an interesting question to muse on.. and one I shall leave to far brighter minds than mine to resolve!!)

However the fact that the CD still does as much as it does all these years on, is a  terrific endorsement of this means of music storage & play-back, particularly for digitally re-mastered German historical recordings that are the staple of Tomahawk Films’ daily working life..but the medium is far from infallible.. despite the desperately offered ‘60 ton Battle Tank scenario’… (and here the boffins at Kodak have some very interesting thoughts & observations which I’ll keep for a future Blog!)

Happily Tomahawk’s ‘failure rate’ in CD production/play back since we moved over from the much loved audio cassette, (see? I told you we were old-fashioned!),  back in 1999 is so small as to be ‘statistically zero’… less than a handful of CD failures in fact from the many hundreds of thousands we’ve sold around the world…and those particular faults were actually traced back to the odd duff blank as supplied from the manufacturing plant to the duplicating house: i.e. the ‘good stuff’ was unknowingly recorded straight onto the ‘duff stuff’… still mighty frustrating though as we always aim for a 100% record in everything we put our minds too..!

Which also reminds me of the gentleman who called Tomahawk  Films up to complain that one CD he’d had for some very long while did not play any longer, which was upsetting so we immediately offered to replace it free-of-charge as a goodwill gesture… only to have ‘this thing’ arrive in the post at our production offices that I think I ‘might’ just have recognised as once being one of our lovely Third Reich Music CDs..!

Somewhat hard to tell when 75% of the silver face coating had completely disappeared and all I could see was clear plastic and my hand showing through from the underside….I was absolutely dumbfounded and assumed the customer had been using it as a Frisbee for his pet Rottweiler..yet in that totally wrecked state he honestly expected it to still play: ‘good luck with that one fellah’.. but we replaced it anyway for his cheek, but pleaded with him not to feed any more of our cherished recordings to his faithful mutt..!

But I make no apology for Tomahawk Films taking a certain pride in  being ‘old fashioned’ in our professional approach to our archival  work, (and I have to say also in our approach to our many thousands of valued customers, even those who feed our stirring music to their household pets), and this is one of the main reasons that we professionally stay well clear of the whole download  issue… because we feel it is just not a part of what we do…

From long experience dating back to when Tomahawk Films was a WW-II film & video distributor we always found that the real collectors, enthusiasts & historians, (much like us), always wanted to buy an actual WW-II video in its box with a designed cover, so they could have something sitting smartly on their selves at home, rather than merely tape something straight from TV..advert breaks and all..!.

True collectors always did, (and I think always will),  like to own something tangible, be it a book, a DVD or CD with a slip case & printed cover bearing supporting information, and so too with our German WW-II archival products. Tomahawk’s brilliant band of loyal customers tell us they love to have an actual factory-produced & packaged item in their hand, especially with some of our CDs offering my accompanying voice-over offering a brief introduction to what they are about to hear… plus our ever-present free descriptive catalogue that comes with every Tomahawk Films CD or DVD purchase!

What our customers don’t seem to want, however, is a somewhat disembodied, single digital download for an i-Pod or computer that tells them nothing and is a part of er, well nothing in fact..and on this point I can’t say we blame ‘em!

As both a producer/historian & fellow collector myself I personally wouldn’t want to down-load an archival track as I feel my little i-Pod is purely for ‘modern music’  for me to listen to when out hiking or sitting on a ‘plane or at an airport… and when quite often there is only actually one decent track I want to down-load from my chosen rock album anyway.

Personally for me, with such beautiful & stirring Third Reich/Nazi-era recordings, I want the whole works: the CD album complete with exciting artwork cover and a contents detail that I can handle, play, read about and collect as a part of my ‘proper’ World War Two German collection…

Hopefully not being quite the Luddite I seem, (by slipping in the fact I do actually own an i-Pod and know how to download rock tracks to it), I fully appreciate that the younger, (and indeed now some of the older,) generations are growing up to think of downloads as the ‘only way to go’…and that is great for them and good luck with it..!

But having said that, and understanding how future technology is going, for the present this is simply not what The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive is, or will be all about..!

So for as long as our valued customer around the globe (and there are many!), feel there is still a place for an unashamedly old-fashioned archival Film, TV & Music Production company like us that continues to produce this rare archival material onto the ‘good old CD’  that you can lovingly hold and proudly display in your collection, then that is what Tomahawk Films will keep doing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2012