A Tiger Tank’s Movie Debut…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright@Brian Matthews 2013

Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013