Waffen-SS Musiker Training…

From the earliest days of the Third Reich, the Allgemeine-SS & SS-Verfügungstruppe had begun forming their own elite Musikkorps, so establishing the tradition for the SS leading the way in all things artistic & political and Hitler’s elite Bodyguard Division, the Leibstandarte-SS had successfully recruited fully-trained first-rate civilian professional musicians to join its ranks to establish itself in the pre-war years as Germany’s premier military band. As such it performed at all the most important military & ceremonial occasions in Berlin, including the Sportspalast Concert on January 30th 1934 to celebrate the first anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s spectacular ascent to power.

However, with the creation of the Waffen-SS and the sudden increase in the number of new Waffen-SS Musikkorps as a result, the SS-Musikinspektion  was determined to ensure a constant supply of highly trained  young musicians from within its own ranks by laying down very strong foundations for their formal musical education, having appointed a new generation of Waffen-SS Musikführer.

So a purpose-built Musikschule der Waffen-SS was set up within the grounds of the SS-Junkerschule at Braunschweig under SS-Hauptsturmführer Edgar Siedentopf and admitted its first intake of  60 pupils on July 1st 1940. Maintained & funded by the Reichsführung-SS and the City of Braunschweig, the school recruited its music teachers from the town’s civilian State Music Academy, whilst school discipline and tuition was provided & overseen by SS-NCOs on secondment from the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS Division ‘Germania’.

The school boasted an impressive array of brass and percussion instruments, including some 40 upright & grand pianos and consisted of one large staff headquarters building which contained a big rehearsal room, several practice rooms, an administrative office and both a tailor’s & shoemaker’s workshop to service the school’s domestic requirements. In addition, there was a boarding house containing students’ dormitories, a dining hall & kitchen, and scattered around the school were 3 teaching huts, a further smaller rehearsal room, a gym and several sound-proofed practice rooms for individual student practice.

Young pupils who possessed previous musical training and passed the strict medical could enter the school on or after their 14th birthday for a period of four years and then sign up for a 12 year contract as a musician within the Musikkorps of the Waffen-SS, provided their parents had given clear, prior consent and were then able to contribute 25 Reichsmarks (approx. £2.00), a month towards their board & lodging, clothing and education.

The level of the student’s musical aptitude was ascertained through the sitting of an entrance exam and all successful students were then advised on the selection of a main instrument, (brass), and a secondary instrument, (strings). On-going student progress was tested throughout the year and, whilst at the school, pupils wore uniforms similar in style to the standard field-grey combat uniforms of the Waffen-SS (right). But on their black collar patch was an embroidered lyre, the epaulettes contained the monogram M.S. and the cuff-title worn on the lower right tunic arm bore the legend Musikschule Braunschweig in silver on black. To help further distinguish the young students from the general Waffen-SS rank and file, the young trainee musician’s wore the standard Hitler Jugend armband and silver belt buckle.

In 1942 the SS-Musikschule separated from the SS-Junkerschule to become a separate and totally independent unit, and by 1944 the number of students had risen from that initial 60 to 220, with SS-Haupsturmführer Eberhardt taking over command and head-ship of the school from SS-Sturmbannführer Siedentopf and in keeping with the SS-Musikinspektion’s aim of providing the Waffen-SS with only the finest musician’s available, the Musikschule Braunschweig also ensured that high achieving students could be selected for further training as future conductors & musical directors with SS-Officer rank.

Along with suitable musician’s already serving with existing Musikkorps within the Waffen-SS, selected Braunschweig students were recommended by their instructors for further training and ordered to Berlin to sit aptitude & entrance examinations for the Musikführer’s course, and successful candidates were then attached to the Staff Band, where training took place across a range of musical subjects.

The emphasis in music-leader training was obviously placed on conducting, and the SS-Staff Band was used both in this regard and for the performances of compositions actually written by the probationary musical leaders; as such these future Waffen-SS Musikführer were given a far more realistic and dynamic music leadership training than any other military music school within the Reich.The SS-Musikführer course finished with a final examination and following a pass the successful students were promoted to the rank of SS-Standarten-Oberjunker (trainee officers), with the expectation that they would eventually become musical directors of their own Musikkorps and an accompanying rank of SS-Untersturmbannführer.

It is worth noting that the only two SS-Musikmeister who were not formally trained were Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John and his number two Gustav Weissenborn, (right in civvies), both of the Musikkorps der SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, neatly illustrating the elite and exclusive image that the SS Bodyguard Division enjoyed in the eyes of Adolf Hitler and its Commanding Officer Sepp Dietrich.

Upon completion of their basic military training, Waffen-SS musicians were immediately assigned to the SS-Musikkorps that had suitable vacancies on offer, whereas some newly qualified Wehrmacht musicians, fresh out of basic training, had to wait and scan the notice-boards or the situations vacant pages of the musical magazine Deutsche Militärmusikerzeitung seeking out bands that were advertising for specific musicians.

Military musicians quite often found themselves having to suffer the ‘indignity’ of being assigned to other military duties whilst awaiting their full-time move to a regimental or corps band, for despite the regular flow of Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musicians through basic military training, the German High Command issued strict regulations on the size of a unit’s military band, and new musicians would only be transferred to a band when there was a genuine vacancy.

An exception to this rule was the SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’, whose elite band was much favoured by commanding officer Sepp Dietrich who firmly believed that a good Musikkorps reflected well on the whole regiment. Therefore whenever SS-LAH Musikmeister Hermann Müller-John slapped in a request for two more clarinettists or an additional oboist, Dietrich would say with a rueful grin, ‘haven’t you got enough already….?’, before turning a blind eye to the already over-subscribed Musikkorps line-up and approving the latest transfer. It was in this fashion that the SS-LAH Musikkorps grew from an original 48 musicians to 75 thence up to 120 musicians!

Once the new musical recruits had passed through basic military training and joined a Musikkorps, all Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS musicians were put onto the Wehrmacht Heeresdienstvorschrift (or Army Service Regulation) pay scale HDV 32 and were then very much considered to be full-time professionals. Now, in a complete reversal of their previous status during basic training, they were not expected to undertake any other military duties outside of their creative sphere during peace time and could concentrate fully on advancing their professional Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht military-musical careers.

The only exception to this order was their annual four weeks posting, as serving soldiers, back to a training company to ‘recapture’ their military skills acquired during basic training and to freshen up on what would become their secondary wartime roles as medics, communications personnel, drivers and motorcycle couriers. But once assigned to a Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musikkorps, a musician’s instruments were then provided by the unit or regimental band, (the only exception being the 12.SS-Hitlerjugend who, due to their late formation in 1944, actually provided their own instruments), and then the business of performing professionally in public could really begin in earnest…

A typical military musician’s day in barracks usually consisted of full rehearsals of the Musikkorps each morning followed by individual practice and performance in the afternoon, with many evenings being taken up with small public concerts being staged to entertain the good folk of the garrison town and its outlying regions. Mornings normally began with marching practice for the full band, either practising new movements or brushing up on old ones and rehearsing the military marching repertoire, either on the parade ground or in fields behind the barracks; then it was time to sit down and work on specific concert pieces and performances including overtures and waltzes that would be performed at important public concerts…

Afternoons provided the opportunity for the individual musicians to lock themselves away in whichever quiet spot they could find (the attic, boiler or store room), and work undisturbed on their own specific instrument, before rejoining the band and travelling to the evening concert. This evening entertainment could take place in the local town hall or in the large hall of the local brewery or as an outdoor concert in the bandstand in the town park or perhaps as a more elaborate performance in the local theatre or concert hall. Particularly well received wherever they played were the dance band of the SS-Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ in the distinctive Waffen-SS white mess-jackets they always performed in!

For the German military career-musician, Sunday was always the most important day of the working week, with them often being required to perform full-scale concerts organised for the German civilian population most weeks. These were often in aid of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz, or to entertain the workers at local factories during peace time. During the war years they were more likely to perform in support of the Winterhilfswerk (Winter Relief Fund), or visit military hospitals to entertain sick & wounded soldiers shipped back from the front…thus proving Goebbel’s maxim that military music was a vital tool in Third Reich’s Propaganda War..!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2014

Extracted from the book:  The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945                     Published by The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.    ISBN 0-9542812-0-9

‘Got it wrong again, Dad..!’

Well here I am still struggling valiantly on behalf of the Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive with the necessary evils of Social Media… and that’s without even having wrestled yet with the thorny issue of mastering You Tube and posting up bite-sized snippets from our Archive..(seems many others have already loaded up some of our German music clips & CD covers without our permission, so I feel it only polite that we, as the original copyright-holders, actually get a look–in and have a go ourselves!)

But oh boy! is my learning curve still steep.. with so much coming at me since the sad loss of dear old Stan, Tomahawk Film’s web-master, all this technical fannying around has fallen to me to get my head around and as I opined in one of my former Blogs, I am having to assimilate so much in recent months that my head is in danger of exploding.! It must have been great to be born at a time when all of this new media technology just came naturally to you: in fact my much loved & dearly missed mum always used to ask if it was something she should get involved with?… and I always told her in no uncertain terms to avoid it all costs.!

I would have done the same if today’s modern world didn’t view it as such an essential business tool; in fact only yesterday I heard the superb actor Martin Shaw being interviewed on Radio Two about his new series of ‘Inspector George Gently’ (starting tomorrow night on the Beeb) and when the subject came around to Facebook it was more than obvious that he is implacably imposed to it all and also avoids it like the plague.. and I silently thought: ‘lucky blighter that you can..!’

However the next generation growing up with all of this as ‘natural’ merely take it in their stride, but those young shavers have to remember that my colleagues & I come from the generation that glorified in ITV’s The Sweeney when Regan & Carter would have to break off from a high-speed car chase, tailing a ‘motor full of villains with shooters’ in the East End, to find a ‘phone box to make an urgent call back to HQ..! No good the young sniggering about that, as that was just the way it was and so it is that my generation of 50-somethings are now the apparent dinosaurs… great! But when all the satellites ‘go on the fritz’ after being hit by a meteor shower we at least will know how to write & talk to each other… some of us even know how to do long-division (well not me, I was a somewhat ‘theatrical’ History & English wallah with my head in the clouds… and not much change there either!)

However thanks to my great TV director & cameraman mate Ian ‘Nobby’ Fraser and his wonderful Girl-Friday, Harriet, both have continued to expend further valuable time in trying to help me find my way through the trials & tribulations of Facebook though sadly, ‘Dear Listener’ I have to shamefacedly admit I have transgressed yet again..dang!.. and much to everybody’s exasperation, I find myself on the FB Naughty Step… again, for Pete’s sake.. and it’s for 14 bloomin’ days this time!

Apparently I was again spotted by members of the the FB Polizei Feld-Division contacting another couple of fellow WWII German enthusiasts and that is verboten!.. As was noted before, you may contact friends only on FB to which I counter: that is what the pub, the ‘phone and e-mail is for..!

However Nobby very kindly took me to one side and quietly said “Look Bruno you are imbuing Facebook with far too much importance and a business ethic it doesn’t actually possess..it is just a place for mates to swap gossip and send each other cute little pictures of kittens or donkeys standing on their head…it’s not like the public library or theTomahawk Films website where you post up serious archival & historical information and promote yourself in a business sense.. Facebook is like buying a tabloid newspaper, looking at a couple of  lurid stories & interesting pics inside…then throwing it out..it is literally here today & gone tomorrow..!”

And that was my big mistake..I actually thought Facebook was like a company website where you put up your work & allied information for folk to use like a reference source, (and also exchange links with like-minded folk). But once I finally realised that FB is just a bit of lightweight fun & frolics and nothing more and that this ‘Daily Star’ approach to life is actually their raison d’être in place of a business plan, it has made all the difference to my thinking. So rather than post up written articles I am now limiting myself to sticking up interesting Tomahawk archival pictures with perhaps a few lines of explanation, (or stuff I’ve worked on in my career), writing funny captions on other peoples often hilarious images and just enjoying seeing what other people on FB find funny or thought-provoking.

More worrying however is that I too am now going awwww!! at pictures of kittens & Boxers and laughing uproariously at aforesaid mentioned donkeys standing on their head…but the fact that many other like-minded military-historical enthusiasts are now enjoying our Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive Page and following us is a real a bonus..!

My original plan was just to go on FB to help Tomahawk Films get noticed by Google  and so hopefully rise above the rankings of those pirating our original Tomahawk Films archive, but it is actually turning out to be quite a fun place to be and I can now clearly see the attraction… it is also having an unexpected but happy consequence to my own personal & professional life as well!

As kind readers of my Blogs may know, before Tomahawk Films I had a very interesting period as a freelancer in television production plus a parallel 8 years or so as a local radio presenter and as I wrote in a recent Blog, my very first professional job in telly was as Unit Production Manager on Jack Hargreaves’ ‘Out of Town/The Old Country’ working alongside my old pal Phil Wade who was the superb sound recordist on the series. One of the unintended consequences of  now being on Facebook is I then found a Jack Hargreaves Page and as a result of that I  posted a small bit about my former role in the Out of Town story and since then have been welcomed in by Jack’s growing legion of followers which in turn is hopefully leading Phil & I to meet up with the man behind those Facebook pages, Simon Baddeley, Jack’s step-son…

So all of this social media is slowly & gradually staring to weave small links throughout my professional & personal life (which I can see is also one of its many attractions), because this new Out of Town link comes at a time when Phil and I also met up after almost 20 years or so of not being in touch, courtesy of Nobby’s 60th birthday bash just before Christmas..(pictured in the photo are my Dad, Dennis left, Nobby middle, Phil right). At what was a ‘superb do’ that I had not realised Phil was attending, we linked up again and through gales of laughter the years rolled away..!

It seems like only yesterday that Phil & I were working together on the Jack Hargreaves’ shows, (and also enjoying a riotous skiing holiday in Westerndorf, Austria in the first mid-shoot break!) and as we left Nobby’s bash we all made a pact to meet up again on the basis that none of us is getting any older and the only time we have spied each other of late was from opposite aisles at funerals… not a good state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination!

Happy to say we’ve now had our first ‘geriatric lad’s night’ out at the local watering hole: The Phoenix Inn, in my village of Twyford (at which the photo albums came out) and apart from the laughter resulting from comparing lack-of-hair and me being accused of actually dying my hair.. bloody cheek!.. plus a measuring of ever-expanding waist-lines (on some!), we also recalled some of the shoots we did… a couple I don’t recall even being on..that’s age for you!

Since then we have started to slowly catch up on our disparate lives via text ahead of our next monthly meet-up, (at which we are hoping to have 3 more mates from the past join us to also exchange wig-length & ‘beer belly’ statistics), and a surprising thing for me in meeting up again was to learn that Phil’s son Ollie Wade has become a very talented singer… his dad Phil was always a dab hand as a singer-songwriter and he’s obviously passed this skill on to his lad..!

Some of our old group back in our pre-television days had varying rock careers in the music biz: the second band I drummed for, ‘Adam West and The Gotham City Rockers’, lasted for a few very successful years on the local circuit here on the South Coast (during which time Nobby, unbeknownst to me at the time as an aspiring TV cameraman, actually looked after our lighting & gig poster design)… there’s a very spooky early crossing of later lives for you..!

I’m embarrassed to admit now that I was totally unaware of him in those heady times, yet years later he has happily become one of my closet buddies.. In fact we all had great fun in our early, if short-lived, disparate musical careers and though some came closer to a recording contract than others, reality dawned and we realised we had to get proper jobs, (if you can call television & radio a ‘proper job’!)

However it is obviously a case of what is in the genes is almost always passed on and in Ollie Wade I am thrilled to have seen on You Tube, (so yes all this Social media is working & interlocking our lives), what an absolutely superb singer he is, possessed of a very haunting delivery and indeed look.. and those of us who know Phil well can see his dad in him.. very ‘mini-me’. Though I don’t get involved in any promotion of up & coming musicians or media-types these days, (as I feel it is just too much like today’s short-cut reality TV to those of us who spent years practising, gigging, learning our craft and driving to & from myriad venues late at night in battered transit vans, dreaming of an album deal.. or even, gasp, a rare appearance on TV), however with Ollie, this is a very different kettle of fish..!

I linked into his superb You Tube pages yesterday to see B/W footage of his latest cover ‘Say Something’ (which I’d never heard until yesterday, but most spookily yet again, has just come on the radio as I write..how weird and how prescient is that ?) and I am genuinely blown away by his obvious talent.. and I urge you, if you have a moment, to make the link yourself and listen in to this brilliant young man sing..what a voice..his parents Phil & Nicky must be so proud of him...and rightly so!

I pray he doesn’t go down the television wannabe route and be used & abused by the music industry as with so many previous ‘one-hit wonders’ (or X-Factor winners as they are now known!), but gets picked up by trusted music-career professionals and bags a ‘proper’ recording deal for, with his obvious talents, I know Ollie Wade is a star of the future..and remember… you heard it here on the Tomahawk Films’ Blog… go for it Ollie!

….now, where’s that hilarious Facebook photograph of a Boxer puppy driving a German armoured car..?

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Collecting Third Reich Signalhorns…

I must admit that, many years before I penned my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of AH’s Third Reich 1933-45, I’d always had a bit of soft spot for the German signalhorn or bugle having, in my own time, been a bit of a whizz on my old Potters of Aldershot cadet bugle when I was a Petty Officer in the Royal Naval Section of the CCF back at my old Grammar school in Winchester. As such I could often be heard belting out a fair rendition of Reveille or The Last Post through my bedroom window, (embarrassingly much to my poor old neighbour’s on-going distress!)

But it was to be many moons while later, when I had graduated to the world of documentary  Film & TV and was running Tomahawk Films here in Twyford that the alluring aspect of historical German military music would fully emerge ’front & centre’ in my professional life and the engaging world of the bugle would happily re-appear on my radar in the shape of the German Infantry Signalhorn from the Third Reich and the earlier era of the Kaiser and the Great War of 1914-18.

So it was that over the last 20 years or so this lovely but often overlooked battlefield signalling instrument from the German military inventory became something of a passion for me and, as a result of acquiring all of the stunning Third Reich-era military musical instruments that can be seen in my book, many of the infantry signalhorns have since gone into my own personal collection, where today they take pride of place on display in Tomahawk Films’ production offices here on the UK’s beautiful South Coast…

Indeed the whole office used to be crammed full of Third Reich military-musical militaria as I sought out anything & everything in Germany to photograph and illustrate in the instrument chapter of my book, though many of those wonderful instruments now happily grace similar  enthusiastic Musiker collections here in the UK, over the Channel in France and with a number of great collecting mates ‘across the pond’ over in the US where they are similarly treasured as the terrific historical artefacts they undoubtedly are…

But the long search in various nooks, corners & crevices of Germany, (and their subsequent handling by myself and others), over many years has certainly added to my own personal compendium of knowledge of this, hitherto, unsung area of militaria collecting. For it is a matter of recorded fact the military band of the Third Reich was certainly well placed in terms of equipping itself, for not only was that nation renowned for its expertise in the manufacture of certain specific and highly technical items such as optical instruments and cameras, but Germany was also, historically, a major designer & producer of high quality musical instruments.

Indeed the modern brass instrumentation of today’s military bands the world over can be traced directly back to the Germany of the 16th & 17th century, and in particular to the ancient town of Nuremberg which boasted some twenty to thirty small companies who were actively involved in the manufacture of brass musical instruments and their accessories; whilst around Markneukirchen in southern Saxony, a whole host of musical instrument and associated parts makers also thrived. Other towns and cities operating similar thriving instrument ‘cottage industries’ included Augsburg, Vienna, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Breslau, Leipzig, Graslitz (now post-war Kraslice), Linz, and Adolf Hitler’s beloved Berchtesgaden.

The highly skilled manufacture of musical instruments in Germany was very much a family-run affair, often handing down skills and expertise over three and four generations of craftsmen, all working in small companies, many employing no more than eight or nine employees, each producing the various different parts and components, such as valves, bells & decorations required to produced the finished instruments, often put together elsewhere.

Not only was Germany credited with producing the first true brass musical instruments, but it was also the nation that, in the late 18th century, started their mass-production at about the same time that many German instrument-manufacturing families began to spread their wings and move across Europe and further afield to the United States. Kohler and Metzler were two such instrument families who chose to move and they set up businesses in England, where they continued the strong tradition of excellent instrument workmanship, before sadly finally going out of business altogther in the early 1900′s. 

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the instrument families and their cottage-industry continued to flourish, with Kruspe of Erfurt excelling in the manufacture of the ‘Rolls Royce’ of all trombones, cornets and trumpets, whilst Germany’s oldest brass instrument manufacturer, Gebrüder Alexander, established in Mainz in 1782 by Franz Ambrose Alexander, concentrated on producing superior examples of flugelhorn, French horn, tuba & euphonium, creating and introducing many of the skills and techniques that continue to be utilised in instrument manufacture today. Tragically some of these old companies, like signalhorn-maker Oskar Ullmann of Leipzig, were literally blasted out of existence by the Allied bombing campaigns of the RAF & USAAF in the years 1943 to 1944…

Historically, probably the most famous of all musical instrument producing dynasties was the Denner family of Nuremberg, though similar other large scale family firms followed hard on their heels including the Moritz family of Berlin, (manufacturers of desirable and very high quality signalhorn for the Imperial Army of Kaiser Wilhelm), the Heckel & Grenser families of Dresden and the Adler family of Markneukirchen and Leipzig.

Of the many innovations in musical instrument production credited to German craftsmen, perhaps the most revolutionary was the rotary-valve, which they employed with great enthusiasm on their all trumpets, trombones, cornets, French horns and Wagner tubas. So whilst the bands of other European military armies evolved with the piston-valve, German military bands stuck rigidly to their beloved and, some say, superior rotary-valve. This is a very good rule of thumb when trying to identify German military musical instruments from a photograph or at a some distance! 

In addition a great many German-made brass instruments, particularly my beloved Deutsche Signalhorn, were often distinguished by the manufacturer’s practice of embellishing their instruments with the addition of an inch wide nickel silver plated brass collar or band around the bell-end, known as a ‘Girlande’ or garland.

Traditionally a Bavarian and Austrian deluxe adornment, this metal reinforcement fulfilled two roles: that of strengthening the bell of the instrument in the days when metals and manufacturing techniques could not always guarantee a consistent thickness of the bell, so giving a more ‘rigid’ sound to the instrument as a result, and secondly, providing an area of the instrument, upon which engravings or personal and regimental details could be etched by the manufacturer or the musician himself.

So whilst many brass instruments encountered sporting a garland will be of German & Austrian origin, a number of nations took note and subsequently copied this design feature, including early French produced instruments. Indeed, in American musical circles, the addition of a garland on instruments produced between 1920 and 1940 was considered a rather swanky personal customisation, and was a sure sign of the owner’s affluence!

However, on close inspection of a garland, those emanating from German craftsmen will traditionally be seen to have the lower edge of the silver band actually wrapped around the rim of the instrument’s bell to become slightly tucked under. Non-Germanic garlands will generally be affixed in the opposite manner with the rim or lip of the bell rolling back over the garland and effectively holding it down. In addition, certain manufacturers could be identified by the specific ornamentation and engraving etched onto their garlands.

Another sign of Teutonic origin is that all German-produced silver used in the manufacture of garlands & instrument parts contained a much higher nickel content in their alloy mix; as a result Germans refer to nickel-silver simply as ‘German silver’ even today.

Apart from making the material much stronger, this had the beneficial effect of giving the silver finish a much brighter, polished feel, whilst other manufacturers around the world using a lower nickel content in the mixes had to make do with their silver-plated instruments having more of a greyish quality in their finishes. Thanks to their stronger nickel-silver mixes, German manufactured musical instrument parts, particularly nickel-silver tubing used for the sliding parts, were very much in demand the world over, especially from American manufacturers… and this is very much the case today.

The actual range of instruments in a Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS military band, (as opposed to just the bugles, fife & drums of the spielleute), depended primarily on the overall manpower of the band in question, and on whether it was employed on standard & ceremonial duties or required to perform in a concert situation. These further matters I detail in my Tomahawk Films’ published book: The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Fortress Guernsey – Autumn 2013…

My pal Dr Trevor Davenport, a renowned German & Victorian Channel Islands fortifications expert dwelling on my beloved walking island of Alderney, (most northernmost island of the 7 islands that make up the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the one from which you can see the coast of France in the shape of the Cap de la Hague), often tweaks me about my ‘apparent’ lack of interest in German heavy fortifications whenever I am over on that sceptred isle… and our discussions (invariably) turn to the actual construction of such concrete beasts across all of the islands.

But my reply is, (almost in a whisper as such words are almost heresy to the committed ‘bunker hunter’), that my overall interests on this subject are more to do with the actual story of the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, (which I addressed in some detail in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied), from the personal perspective of its civilian population and the German occupying forces. As such I feel that I am more of a student of this particular aspect of this incredible Second World War story rather than being ‘purely’ a bunker hunter or ‘fortifications wallah’ myself..!

But I always add the caveat that I am indeed also interested in the Organisation Todt construction of these incredible German concrete towers & bunkers in the context of the Occupation, especially as a number of these highly specialised constructions can only be found in this part of Adolf Hitler’s mighty Atlantic Wall. But I am willing to admit that after several continuous hours of inspecting such impressive, (and often rare), fortifications I find my interest wandering and I want to get to grips with other aspects of the occupation. This usually means getting stuck in at Richard Heaume’s superb Occupation Museum up at Forest or the brilliant Military Museum deep underground down at La Valette in St Peter Port, where Peter & Paul Balshaw’s incredible private collection of both German Occupation artefacts and Guernsey Militia is also on public display.

However, when it comes to fortifications, (and this should please Dr Trev no end and get me back in his good books,) when happily back on Guernsey I always head straight for the beautiful Pleinmont headland down in the south-east corner of the island and the mouth-dropping Batterie Dollmann; not only is this the site of the superbly restored gun emplacement within the Dollmann Batterie itself by the lads of the Guernsey Armouries, but is also the site of the breath-taking & almost awe-inspiring L’Angle MP4 Naval (Kriegsmarine) Range & Direction Finding position high on the cliff tops, which originally boasted an important Freya radar located up on its roof throughout the German occupation…

This haunting construction, (redolent of the beautiful superstructures of the infamous Scharnhorst or Gneisenau battle cruisers of the Kriegsmarine’s High Seas Fleet), is complimented by its sister tower, the equally haunting MP3 tower just around the headland to the right, (now leased by Richard Heaume and open to the public on certain afternoons throughout April & October).

Dr Trev will be delighted to know that both of these incredible towers, (Marinepeilstanden und Messstellen to give them their correct German military monikers and which are a peculiar feature of the Channel Islands, for nowhere else do they appear on the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’) really do get my heart beating just that little bit faster whenever I am lucky enough to lay my eyes on them.

One of my favourites is Le Prevote on the island’s southern coast which was actually the first of these range-finding towers built early on in the occupation by Wehrmacht Fortress Engineers (before the Organisation Todt took over this construction work), and they based their design more on the many Victorian Martello Towers that dot the Bailiwick.

Former Deputy Director of Tourism major Evan Ozanne and myself at one point considered joining forces to buy this historic tower when it came on the open market some years back… needless to say this and the other main towers on Guernsey really capture my imagination, as does the superbly uncovered & fully restored gu-pit that sits squarely betwixt the two towers on Pleinmont’s headland.

It was on June 30th 1940 that the forces of the Third Reich invaded and took control the Bailiwick of Guernsey, (along with Jersey to the south and Alderney to the north), and it was to be an occupation of 5 long, hard years before the islands would once again be free.

However it was not until October 1941 that Hitler issued orders for the heavy fortification of these stunningly beautiful British islands; this was due in part to his fear of an Allied assault, for he wanted to ensure his massive propaganda coup on occupying a ‘little piece of Britain’ was secure, in addition to these islands being his planned stepping stone or launching pad to a full-blown invasion of Britain, just 80 miles to the North.

In fact, just as an aside, one of the tricks the locals used to play on the German occupying forces was to point north-east to Alderney just a couple of miles hence and tell them that was the Isle of Wight, which many German soldiers believed! The other trick that was perpetuated early on against the Germans, (or rather more of an omission in not telling the Kriegsmarine, as told in my documentary by the late Frank Stroobant), was just how high the tide came into St Peter Port.. and in contrast therefore, just how low it was on its ebb, so that initially Kriegsmarine minesweepers tied up at the harbour side were on a short hawser, thus when the tide went out these self same vessels were left, literally, hanging in the air… a rather jolly jape that caused great amusement amongst the locals, but which was soon punished by the occupying forces that had been made to look foolish… so it was not such a jolly jape after that!

However back to the fortifications of these wonderful islands and returning to my favourite area of Pleinmont where the Marine Coastal Artillery Batterie Generaloberst Dollmann covered a large area of the headland & where, in German military mapping parlance, it was designated the name ‘Westberg’. For as a part of the German occupation of the islands, all gun positions & fortifications were give German names as, in addition, were the island’s original 13 parishes.

In fact everything on the Occupation map of Guernsey was now given a permanent German moniker or military designation!.

So it was that Batterie Dollmann at Westberg was equipped with 4 WWI French 220 mm cannons that had been captured by the Germans during their attack on France and brought to Guernsey as a part of their fortifying process. In support of these large 22 kilometre range guns, 105mm field-guns, mortars, machine-gun pits & searchlights were deployed in defence of the headland; whilst criss-crossing this impressive coastal position were personnel shelters, ammunition stores & minefields to complete the picture of a very well defended stronghold..!

In the middle of all of this activity is an intriguing low, squat-like Command Post or Leistand that was originally built to a naval design, but then handed over to the army mid-way through construction and today, thanks to the lads of Guernsey Armouries, you can freely walk around the Batterie Dollmann gun-pit and explore the personnel slit trenches, bunkers & tunnels surrounding the site courtesy of their expert and dedicated restoration of this most important occupation site.

Indeed the gun barrel you see was recovered and sited onto a specially commissioned and re-built gun cradle using original blue prints from Krupps of Essen and the wheels, which for many years had been ‘gate guardians’ to a Boy Scout hut at St Sampson to the north of the island, were also acquired and re-matched to the cannon. So what you see today is a complete and accurate restoration of the original gun-pit over a number of years… a site which had lain filled-in by the Royal Artillery after the German garrison’s surrender in 1945, before the Guernsey Armouries got busy in recent years with their heavy excavators and uncovered the treasures you now see expertly restored and laid out before you now.

Likewise around the coast at about 800 yards or so is  the most impressive and highly evocative Pleinmont MP3 tower, standing almost on guard as it overlooks the famous Hanois Lighthouse , (which until recently was the last working example in British coastal waters). ‘Pleinmont’ as many of us simply refer to this most striking of all of the Bailiwick’s towers , has been lovingly cleaned and renovated by Richard Heaume. On certain levels he has also managed to restore original range finding equipment to several floors, (it being the case that each separate floor in these towers controlled their own separate heavy Marineartillerie gun batteries sited around the headland.)

However it is not just the Pleinmont headland that boasts a superb restoration of the island’s former original German gun positions and bunkers, for down at Fort Hommet, a striking promontory on Guernsey’s beautiful West Coast, more German bunkers and casemates have been, (and are in the process of being), restored to their former glory…

During the war the Germans renamed the Fort Hommet headland ‘Stutzpunkt Rotenstein’ and this particular area of the coast boasted some 12 fortifications all aimed at deterring Allied landings on the considerable amount of wide sandy beaches that this part of the island offers the tourist and sun-seekers of today…

Richard Heaume MBE opened up one of the casemates, which, with the assistance of his ‘trusty liegeman’ Ernie Gavey, (himself also an author of several superb books on Guernsey’s fortifications), is open to the public during the summer season. As you’d expect with Richard, he’s invested a lot of time & effort in recreating the many scenarios that you would expect to find in such a defensive gun position during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945.

This includes a superb crew room with bunk beds & mannequins recreating ‘down time’ of a Marineartillerie crew during the war. Indeed not so long ago, enthusiastic battle re-enactors came over from the mainland to spend a weekend living & sleeping in this bunker, (all in kit, which must have caused a slight storm amongst the locals). But not so unpleasant as you might think as the expertly crafted O.T. fortifications, with their wood-lined crew rooms, were known for being cool in summer and warm in winter.

Actually that reminds me, for the opening sequence of my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, we dressed our sound-man Simon ‘Woody’ Wood (he the later technical genuis responsible for superb studio production of Tomahawk’s Third Reich Musik CDs) up in one of Richard’s original greatcoats & helmet and stuck a rifle in his hand and had him stand-to in one of the coastal bunkers, in a moody silouette, as if on coastal look-out..!

As we had hoped, this turned out to be a most evocative opening shot for my documentary when later viewed in black & white; but after taking the shot the crew & I just could not prise him out of this original garb and after we ‘cut’, Woody marched determinedly around the headland for a jolly… only come to face to face with a poor lady innocently walking her dog… and the look on her face was a picture… oops, so sorry madam!

But back to the plot and less than a 100 yards away from Richard’s exciting case-mate, the lads of Festung Guernsey have also again been very busy on their own accord, with the uncovering and restoration of a 5cm Machinengranatwerfer M19 automatic mortar bunker. According to weapons expert and Festung Guernsey member Terry Gander, the M19 was designed as an anti-personnel weapon and the mortar itself was mounted in a steel cupola, level with the ground, with only the muzzle of the weapon visible and at full stretch it could fire 120 rounds a minute… enough to cause any invading force assaulting from the sea a major head-ache..and then some!

Only 4 of these M19 mortar bunkers were built in Guernsey during the German occupation and sadly after the war, all were extensively damaged by explosives during the great scrap drive of the 1950s when mainland companies came over to recover as much metal from the former German fortifications as they could, damaging or totally destroying many fortifications in the process.

Happily Festung Guernsey, as a part of their personal remit to uncover and restore as many of Guernsey’s German fortifications as they can, (at which news Dr Trev is doing hand-springs..me too in fact), began excavating this M19 bunker in March 2010 Sadly the crew-room proved to be shattered and a very large crack (resulting from the scrap men’s less than careful work), was seen to run from the turret room to the rear wall. However despite the bunker being flooded the rest of the bunker seemed to be in generally good order, so thanks to the ever-willing band of volunteers, this restoration of another of the island’s important German defensive positions has preserved it for future generations interested in this most incredible story of World War Two.

Likewise over my weekend I was pleased to visit Richard Heaume’s stunning German Occupation Museum at Forest to catch up with the man himself and to check that the 20′ version of my Channel Islands Occupied documentary was still playing OK in his small cinema (it was!) and to again wander around this superb museum and re-capture that first excited feeling I had some 30 years ago when first I happened upon it and share those feelings with my dad, who was certainly most appreciative of what he saw…

Likewise I was also able to get down to the Balshaw brothers superb museum at La Valette down in St Peter Port, (my first visit for some years) and though I sadly missed catching up with the lads, I was quite amazed to see their new frontage. Not so long ago you had to walk up a grass bank then down some steps into the opening of their former U-Boot refuelling tunnels that are set back in the cliff but now, after some obviously major excavations, you can walk right in from road level to this most extraordinary museum.

Once again it was fantastic to see so much of  the brothers own personal collection beautifully displayed in these very evocative tunnels and to be able to introduce my dad to to this terrific museum here on Guernsey with its very evocative location & setting down in these impressive German tunnels. What was supposed to be for a long weekend off to relax and show my father the sights & sounds of Guernsey actually turned into yet another part-working trip as I came across more stories, which I plan to pen in forthcoming Blogs, meantime I hope you will enjoy this further Guernsey German Occupation update. Visiting these beautiful islands for you, gentle reader, is such a tough job…but somebody has to do it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The End for the Reich’s Musicians…

First-career military bandsmen were not usually employed on the front-line, (except in the case of those transferred back to their secondary duties as infantrymen, combat medics or despatch riders), and so were not normally in danger of being captured during the early years of the war.

However, with the North African campaign in the Western Desert in 1942 and 1943 and the routing of the Afrikakorps at the hands of Montgomery and the Desert Rats of the 8th Army, complete German divisions began to fall into the hands of the British & Commonwealth forces, bandsmen included…

Former allied veterans of the desert campaign have since stated that the continued mood of defiance and arrogance of many of these young soldiers and musicians going into the bag, still convinced of ultimate German victory, was very noticeable, with many of these DAK prisoners lustily singing out of sheer defiance at every opportunity!

In addition Afrikakorps bandsmen captured, along with their instruments, were allowed by Allied camp commanders to continue to practice and perform and so give occasional concerts, before being transferred to the permanent Prisoner of War camps in the UK, Australia and Canada.

However after the end of the campaign in the Western Desert, full-time German military bandsmen prisoners were something of a rarity until after D-Day on June 6th 1944, when the Second World War began to turn slowly but surely against the Third Reich.

With the Allied forces massing on the Western borders of Germany and the Russians closing in on Berlin from the East, manpower throughout the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS was very much at a premium and those military bands that had survived the 1939 ‘cull’ now found themselves being dramatically cut back as unit commanders demanded all musicians to be pressed into service as supply troops, signal operators, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers and cooks!

In the Kriegsmarine, the naval ratings, including ships’ company musicians attached to the big battleships & battle-cruisers that had been bottled up in the northern German ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven by Allied naval & air activity for most of the war, now found themselves transferred to shore-based roles and often into the Waffen-SS as combat infantrymen.

Many career military bandsmen dusted down only on annual two-week refresher courses, swapped their musical instruments for rifles and Panzerfäuste, and were thrown directly into the front-line as combat infantrymen, a role which many were not really prepared for and tragically many were subsequently killed as a result in the ensuing final battles raging across the Reich.

As far as Music Schools were concerned, in 1944, after a devastating air-raid on Brunswick which damaged both buildings and musical instruments, the SS-Musikschule Braunschweig was moved to Bad Saarow in Brandenburg. When the school was finally closed in January 1945, all of the young students were sent home to their parents. Meanwhile across the Reich, other Wehrmacht music-schools quietly shut their doors with all staff and military personnel being effectively demobilised or returned to their units for combat service.

But with so many German military bandsmen having been transferred to other duties, other musicians found themselves at the surrender on May 8th able to slip away quietly and return home to their families. Many other less fortunate found themselves rounded up and taken prisoner, minus their instruments, which in some cases they had manage to hide in various places (often in the barns of local farmers), in the hope of coming back at some point in the future to reclaim them!

Sadly however, many highly talented German career & part-time military musicians were killed at their home garrisons as Allied air-raids took hold from 1943 onwards, whilst a very high number of superb Waffen-SS musicians who transferred back to their units as infantrymen & combat medics (along with many Wehrmacht musicians dramatically transferred to front or second line units) were to be tragically killed in action. As a result many musical careers were to be cut short in a swift & brutal fashion!

Across north-west Europe, in the last months of the war before the final surrender of German arms in May 1945, vast POW camps began filling up with Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS prisoners. Though totally exhausted and dejected at the final annihilation, many were quietly grateful to have survived such a destructive war, and for them, ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’ was a constant reminder of comrades who weren’t so lucky!

At the capitulation of all German Forces on May 8th 1945, just over seven million soldiers of the Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS laid down their arms and found themselves prisoners of the Allies. However, unlike their comrades taken in combat during the earlier years of the war, this enormous mass of military man-power was classified as disarmed personnel’ so as to distinguish them from their comrades, many by now already languishing in POW camps in Canada and Australia.

Those soldiers who surrendered in the West were processed through the numerous POW clearing stations set up by UK & US forces, before being transported to the French coastal ports for the short trip by tank-landing craft to the main South coast ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. From here the enormous convoy of field-grey was moved by train under Military Police guard to the large handling camps across the UK, such as the huge ‘cage’ set up on Kempton Park racecourse. At these massive pens, all prisoners were de-loused and cleaned before their despatch to the various camps right across Britain.

Not surprisingly, the defiant singing of the Marschlieder, as witnessed by Afrikakorps prisoners ‘going into the bag’ in 1942 and 1943, was not in evidence now, as the men were sent to converted hotels, former stately homes, colleges and old army barracks, in addition to the newly constructed camps specifically built to house this huge influx of men, locations such Kingsfold Camp in Sussex, Henllan Bridge Camp in Cardiganshire and Eden Camp in Yorkshire.

Camp leaders known as Lagerführer were appointed at each camp, and German military discipline was very much enforced. With much of Britain’s manpower still in uniform, some 158,000 of the good-conduct German POW’s were put to work on the land, taking care of hedging & ditching and harvesting under the watchful eye of the Military Police and local army units, or handed over to the responsibility of the individual farmers concerned. Nearly 100,000 other POW’s were seconded by the War Office for coastal defence clearance, dismantling of prisoner-of-war camps no longer needed, and generally being put to use helping to re-build the infrastructure of our Britain’s shattered nation and its economy.

However, whilst a number of prisoners continued to be transferred to Canada and America, some 394,000 in the UK soon found themselves eligible for the first wave of repatriations back to Germany, which began in September 1946 and as true non-combatants, many career military musicians were actually amongst the first wave to be released.

Those not eligible for this early repatriation settled down to a regular routine and a weekly food ration probably better than those which they had been receiving whilst still in the German Armed Forces towards the end of the war: 14oz of meat, 3oz of bacon, 4oz of margarine together with 8lbs of bread and 9lbs of potatoes. ‘

The prisoners also received token wages in return for their labours off-camp (around 3 shillings for a 48-hour week), which could only be spent in the camp canteens on personal effects and toiletries such as cigarettes and razor-blades.

Entertainment was limited though individual Allied Camp Commanders often decided that performances by German bandsmen would aide the morale of their fellow POWs and so allowed the musicians to perform with scrounged or borrowed musical instruments.

Christmas 1946 saw a sea-change of opinion towards these young German prisoners, now a regular sight in the local communities, and a series of reconciliation church services took place across the county at which many thousands of POWs were invited to take part and by the New Year of 1947 saw the majority of restrictions on German prisoners lifted; British guards no longer oversaw working parties, barbed wire around the camps came down, and many young Germans were actively welcomed into British homes.

With a number of these ex-soldiers falling for local girls and feeling that Soviet-occupied Germany was nothing to go home to, many opted to stay in the UK, keep their farming & labouring jobs, marry and eventually take out British citizenship, several military bandsmen included. For many, however, being allocated to a Release Group and so obtain a Form D-2, the prisoner-discharge certificate, was all they could think of, and by Christmas 1948, all of the so-called parole-prisoners had been given a new German passport, some measure of back-pay and a ticket home to their families and loved ones after so many long years apart.

In Russia, sadly the picture was much grimmer. Having lost over 16 million of its citizens during the course of the Second World War, Russian treatment of its German POWs was so appalling that of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, many were to die in captivity. Just over 45,000 survived for eventual release and a return home to Germany in the early 1950s.

Such was the vengeance wreaked by the Russian authorities for the many millions of its citizens that Motherland lost during the Second World War, that some former Waffen-SS soldiers, including medics & musicians, were made to suffer the deprivations of the terrible Soviet P.O.W camps right up until the early 1960s. 

More photos and an extended chapter looking at how the war ended for so many fine German military musicians can be found in my book:The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45…

Copyright Brian Matthews @2013

 

America’s 79th Infantry Division…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

A SS-Leibstandarte ‘Adolf Hitler’ Musikmeister…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….and I simply had no idea..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

German Tunnels in Guernsey, Alderney & Sark…

These days when there are something like ten thousand books a month being published here in the UK alone, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a subject that hasn’t already been ‘done to death’ as everywhere you look there are literally hundreds of books all on the same subject, (just Google ‘Adolf Hitler’ or ‘Waffen-SS’ to see just how many in this particular genre alone!)

So whilst some are good and some indifferent, the ‘Holy Grail’ has always been to find something new and so I‘m excited to bring news of a book that I’ve personally long wanted to see… and which has now arrived on my doorstep:The German Tunnels of Guernsey, Alderney & Sark’…

I am even happier that this wonderful new reference work has been researched, written & produced by friends & colleagues in ‘Festung Guernsey’, the private group of individuals that have took up the earlier cudgels of Guernsey Tourism’s initiative ‘Fortress Guernsey’, to continue the excavation, restoration and promotion of so many of the Bailiwick’s German fortifications. Long involved with myriad structures on the surface, the group has now successfully turned their attention to what actually lies beneath the islands of Guernsey, Alderney, Herm & Sark: a complete network of differing tunnels, all of which were excavated during the Nazi Occupation of the British Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945.

I must admit that I have been totally fascinated by these incredible tunnels for many a long while now and so I’m very pleased to say that this new book is everything I’d hoped for… and more… for in truth I was expecting more of a slimmer volume, but this is a chunky, well-produced, good looking, photo-rich, heavily researched reference work that I’m only too delighted to add to my own personal library of Channel Island Occupation books.

Written by Ernie Gavey, with contemporary photos by Steve Powell, this gorgeous, glossy, high-quality, paper-back boasts some 350 pages and 600 colour & B/W photos, including a fantastic selection of really fascinating war-time & post-war ‘then and now’ shots, allied to some delightful reprints of the sumptuous colour-plates from the original German ‘Festung Guernsey’ presentation volumes of OT architects’ plans.

Not only is this a lavish, exhaustive and well-documented account of just how busy the Organisation Todt was with its tunnelling activities in the Bailiwick, (and how the States and the islanders viewed the varying tunnels post-war), but it is also a carefully and fairly crafted commentary that will hopefully finally lay to rest some of the wild stories spun relating to the alleged atrocities involving ‘slave labour’ that went on during the construction of these incredible underground caverns.

Built for a variety of reasons, though primarily for storage and the secure housing of ammunition stocks down away from feared RAF air-raids, every time the question of these tunnels, (and indeed all of the concrete fortifications across the islands), arises here on the mainland, there is always seemingly somebody ready to opine erroneously about: ‘how many Russian slave labourers were killed and thrown into the concrete and so whichever tunnel you are in or concrete gun-emplacement you are looking at, it is probably a war grave containing the remains of these poor wretches from Russia, Ukraine, Poland etc, who died under the harsh treatment and who were simply pushed into the concrete foundations or tunnel linings when their lives expired..!’.

Whenever you start talking about this subject, there will always be some idiot making such fanciful claims whereas, yes, the conditions for the ‘Forced Labourers’ were undoubtedly extremely tough and it must have been pretty unpleasant for the men as they worked hard to excavate these tunnels and build the enormous fortifications, (that are now a symbol of Channel Island occupation), for their Nazi masters…and indeed a large number did die during this dangerous work…, but such fanciful tales of 100’s of Russian Forced Labourers being thrown over the cliff or buried in the footings, are just that, fanciful, and should be avoided at all costs!

Therefore, with all of the accurate facts available and compiled by these Guernsey ‘keepers of knowledge’ this captivating account of the German’s tunnelling proclivities, together with  some of the best photos & plans of the resulting underground storage facilities and their myriad uses, (post-war as well), is a totally fascinating read. Especially so given my own interest through both my 5-year consultancy for ‘Fortress Guernsey’ and my years of research in advance of my TV documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’.

It was not surprisingly perhaps, that during both of these terrific career periods that I became totally absorbed by this whole tunnelling question and to which I recently returned in a recent Blog when I talked about the U-Boot/Luftwaffe refuelling tunnels that now hold the superb museum of Peter & Paul Balshaw at La Valette, Guernsey,which are also well documented in this new book.

In ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ my crew and I also filmed in two of the magnificent tunnel complexes featured in this book:  Guernsey’s Underground hospital at St. Andrew, (Hohlgang.40 Lazarett), and at the late Derek Traisnel’s fascinating small museum in the tunnel of Hohlgang.12 under St Saviour’s church on Guernsey, (a fascinating back-ground story in itself), where much of the German occupying force’s ordnance, equipment, steel helmet’s & gasmasks and so forth were put into deep storage and sealed, just after German surrender in May 1945.

Exploring, and then filming, in both of these tunnels was a most eerie & exciting experience as I very much caught a real feeling of the former German occupying forces’ presence… perhaps I should look at German hauntings next..!

The final chapter devoted to the post-war scrap drive of the late 1940s and early 50s is a true collector’s delight, (both in terms of photos of the German  equipment that was uncovered and copies of the letters between the States Government and the various scrap companies). It is tinged with a certain sadness though when realising just how many tanks, vehicles and items of  German equipment were pulled out of those previously sealed-up tunnels only to be put to the scrap-dealers’ oxyacetylene torches… though thankfully Richard Heaume MBE ‘did his bit’ and managed to save a number of rare pieces for his superb German Occupation museum in the Parish of Forest…

On another personal note arising from this last chapter: in my teens I had lucky cause to visit a very large and hugely famous Film Properties supply company out in the sticks of Wiltshire, (way before my long & very happy association with the Bailiwick of Guernsey), and in one of their many stables housing literally tons & tons of military equipment of all hues, (what an Aladdin’s Cave!), were pile-after-pile of rusted German steel helmets, standing 8 or 9 lids high, which were destined to be used to dress various up-coming movie battlefield scenes.

I was informed that all of these helmets had come directly from Guernsey’s very own St Saviours’ Tunnel during one of those early scrap drives… indeed I was given one of the piles containing 8 rusty lids as a memento of my visit, including one that, under the rust & dirt, actually bore a Waffen-SS decal…now that’s an interesting subject for another day..!)

But back to the book… and even if you have only a passing interest in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, the gripping topic of these Bailiwick’s OT-built tunnels will certainly appeal to many and I cannot recommend this lovely tome highly enough as Ernie, Steve & their colleagues in Festung Guernsey have done a stunning job, for which I heartily congratulate them all… whilst thanking them personally for producing a book I have always longed to own..!

Priced at £15.95 plus p&p, I bought my copy as soon as I heard first word of its launch and have not been able to put it down since..!

If you are in Guernsey look out for them at Richard Heaume MBE’s German Occupation Museum, (and all good tourist outlets), or if you are not lucky enough to visit this beautiful part of the world, you can order via mail-order directly from Festung Guernsey.

..and my advice is: don’t hang about..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

War on the Line..!

Your papers please..!”  barks the Military Policeman from the US 101st Airborne at the hapless passenger cringing in his 3rd class seat: the carriage goes quiet as the soldier then casts his eyes over the proffered Identity Card… “That’s OK!”.. then, in a cloud of Blanco dust and bristling military efficiency, he’s gone and the passengers breath a collective sigh of relief!

War on the Line the annual recreation of the momentous Summer of 1944 had once again returned to Hampshire’s famous Watercress steam railway line…

Battle re-enactment once something of a ramshackled hobby practiced by a few well-meaning but somewhat disorganised enthusiasts has, in recent years, very much become a recognised branch of the entertainment world, particularly in today’s TV documentary-making business, where original film footage is either non-existent or, if it actually still exists, then almost certainly prohibitively expensive. Therefore commissioning one of the many semi-professional specialist groups across the country to re-enact a particular scenario from an important point in history for the cameras is, if undertaken professionally, with the correct look, feel & sound effects, is more often than not a quite satisfying substitute..!

So completely taking over a renovated steam railway-line for the week-end to act out a specific war-time theme is no longer a total surprise, but simply further evidence of the growing range of scenarios that these amateur, highly knowledgeable enthusiasts like to re-create and so arriving at Alresford’s old station one lovely sun-drenched Hampshire Saturday morning in summer as I did, with a genuine a steam engine, idling contentedly at the platform in a cloud of happy steam, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered onto the set of a major war movie..!

American military policemen sitting in their jeeps cradling their carbines expectantly, ramrod-straight Grenadier Guardsmen in sentry-boxes with their Lee Enfield Mk IV rifles gripped tightly, station windows taped-up as protection against bomb blasts and barbed wire strewn across the station entrance: then suddenly the station forecourt comes alive as a small, bedraggled field-grey group of helmet-less ‘German soldiers’ are marched from the station door under escort towards the waiting jeeps..!

This was a scene that must have been re-enacted countless times for real across the whole of Southern England in those summer days immediately following the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day June 6th 1944.

Back then and less than 50 miles away, paratroopers from the U.S.101st & 82nd Airborne Divisions had jumped into Normandy as British & Canadian Infantrymen were fighting their way off the UK-designated invasion beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword and the Americans similarly from their allocated beacheheads of Utah & Omaha… and in the ensuing and very bloody melee that followed, many thousands of German soldiers were swiftly captured by the rapidly advancing Allied forces.

Rounded up and brought back across the Channel in the returning landing craft, these stunned & defeated soldiers of Hitler’s army would arrive at Southampton Docks under the stern gaze of British & US military policemen, many of whom had just taken part in the first wave of assaults on the Normandy coastline but who were now being sent back on ‘R&R’ only to find themselves pressed back into service as P.o.W. escorts. Now from the quay-side at Southampton the mixed bags of German prisoners would be marched onto waiting trains and escorted to the stockades on the Kempton Race course, their war well and truly over!

Today, at several stations all along Hampshire’s famous Watercress Line such scenarios from that Summer of ’44 are now faithfully acted ever year: ‘downed’ Luftwaffe fighter & bomber pilots and captured SS infantrymen from the SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment ‘Theodor Eicke’ are paraded on the platforms, under the watchful gaze of amazingly authentic-looking regular Grenadier Guardsmen and older Home Guard soldiers.

At Medstead & Four Marks station, local re-enactor Bryan Webb had spent over 6 months on the war-time transformation of this country railway station and now found himself dressed as a private in the Home Guard unit of the 21st Battalion, (4th Southern Railway), Hampshire, who would have actually been responsible for guarding the railway lines across Southern England at that stage of the Second World War.

Bryan explained how his friends like to recreate the less glamorous side of the British Home Front: “My Dad served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, so I thought I’d like to show that side of the war”. His friend, Italian P.o.W. ‘Benito’, better known as Mick Burkenshaw from Britain’s Blacked Out Museum, agrees: “All re-enactors want to portray the glamour, but our group prefers showing what our parents went through on the Home Front”.

His parents should be justly proud of their work, for there on the platform everybody was accurately represented: young Land Army girls with their long auburn hair sitting on a bale of hay eating their sandwiches, an ARP warden busy dealing with unexploded incendiaries whilst the station master in waistcoat & steel helmet stands patiently awaiting the next train..

Everywhere the standard of re-creation is quite extraordinary and the efforts of these young actors is well-received by the older audience, but was this emotional week-end just a trip down memory lane? Mid-Hants Watercress Line company secretary Mrs Jo Boait explained: “ As a company we are here to keep the image of the old steam railway alive for everybody, but an important event like ‘War on the Line’ not only helps to capture the atmosphere but also shows a younger generation just what those days were like”.

Then, as if right on cue, another sullen group of captured German infantrymen are escorted from this beautiful old Victorian-style railway station by stern-faced US Military Policemen, past a small group of small wide-eyed children, who can only stand & stare, open-mouthed… no doubt very much the same reaction that would have been exhibited by their young counterparts nearly 70 years ago, I’ll wager..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Third Reich Music in ‘Operation Daybreak’…

Good to see another airing for this excellent Lewis Gilbert-directed 1975 movie over the weekend… I must admit it is a very long time since I last saw this Warner Brothers’ docu-film based on the Alan Burgess novel ‘Seven Men at Daybreak’: the dramatisation of the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Hitler’s Reich Protector of Bohemia & Moravia..

Featuring the late German actor, Anton Diffring, as the ill-fated Nazi officer and three very young-looking British & American actors Martin Shaw, Timothy Bottoms & Anthony Andrews playing 3 young Czech soldiers, (Karel Curda, Jan Kubis & Josef Gabcik), parachuted into their German-occupied country in 1942 under the operational code-name of ‘Operation Daybreak’  this is that real-life story lying behind the Czech & British combined operation to eliminate ‘The Blonde Beast’!

This gripping movie very much mirrored the actions of the Second World War’s Special Operations Executive-trained ‘Operation  Anthropoid’  that, with the full backing of the Czechoslovakian Government-in-Exile in London, was ultimately successful in ambushing Reinhard Heydrich whilst driving in an SS-escorted convoy in the capital city of Prague on May 27th 1942.  Though surviving the Czech operatives’ grenade attack on Heydrich’s open-topped limousine, ‘The Blonde Beast’ finally succumbed to his appalling wounds days later on June 4th dying, it is said, as a result of subsequent blood poisoning resulting from shrapnel and horse-hair from his car’s upholstered seats having been driven into his body by the force of the grenade explosion..

Though the military operation was deemed a success in terms of actually achieving its assassination aim, Shaw’s character in the movie, Karel Curda, subsequently betrays the other members of his team to German security forces and a terrible denouement to the film occurs, with a siege situation that involves huge loss of life on both sides. However this was to be almost dwarfed by the resulting viscous retribution handed out by the German occupying Forces in terms of the merciless execution of many hundreds of innocent Czechs, including the infamous razing to the ground of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and the murder of all  their inhabitants in a truly barbaric act that will be forever remembered as the tragic outcome of the  assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s effective Head of all Occupied territories in the East.

The film itself, whilst having one of the bleakest of ends I can ever recall in a World War Two drama, is actually a very gripping war-time movie that offers two highly authentic German musical performances: the first being a very evocative rendition of the German Christmas Carol: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht  (Silent Night, Holy Night), performed by a young group of actors portraying Hitler Youth and Adolf Hitler School pupils in front of Diffring’s character, Heydrich. All the more impressive because most of the carol is happily sung in almost its entirety rather than just the odd frustrating snippet that the viewing audience is very often only treated to..!

Elsewhere in this very effective movie is an excellent scene depicting  the arrival of Heydrich’s train in Berlin which is met on the platform by The Führer and the Musikkorps of the Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ and again the actor-musicians give a very impressive performance of the ‘Deutschlandlied’, albeit it more than likely dubbed on in post-production..

Like many people I suspect when watching such historic films & documentaries, one thing that usually gets my goat are the ‘anoraks & know-alls’ who immediately take-pen-to-paper to complain about some minor mistake or other that they, (but often nobody else), has noticed, though as a producer myself accept that it is always the gamut we have to run after we have put ‘heart & soul’  (and usually not an inconsiderable amount of our own money into a production or publication), but nevertheless we all still dread the subsequent letter or helpful ’phone call pointing our our error..!

However for once in my life I have to, (somewhat embarrassingly), break my own personal rules about not levelling any criticism at another producer’s work to say that, though I enjoyed this movie very much, sadly the sight of over-sized, gaudy (and plain wrong), Waffen-SS decals pasted on the wrong side of the prop German helmets, plus an additional close-up shot of a purported Waffen-SS infantryman actually wearing an ‘army-decalled’ prop helmet, rather disappointed me and took a little of the edge from my overall enjoyment of this fantastic film.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but I say ‘disappointed’ because it still amazes me that when you’ve bought a book’s rights, invested millions of dollars turning it into a superb motion picture by commisoning the screen-play, brilliantly cast believable actors, shipped the whole production to an overseas location to get the ambience just right and had a brilliant stab at getting the uniforms broadly correct… to then trip yourself up by not investing a few bob more to add a German military uniforms’ specialist to your massive payroll to ensure that a glaring costume error, (that would have many knowledgeable folk in the audience shouting at their screens), isn’t made, is such a real shame..! But it happens, (though we constantly pray it isn’t a goof made on ‘our watch’), and of course it’s very easy to be wise after the event… but even so!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013