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

Festung Alderney 1940-45…

For many years just hearing the mere mention of the island of Alderney was enough to send a slight shiver down my spine….. as a young Third Reich history student I had always regarded this tiny Channel Island, lying just off the French coast, to be a cold, bleak outcrop of rock jutting out from an inhospitable sea – the perfect setting for the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil during the Second World War. My fevered imagination had played out all sorts of awful scenes on that far flung ‘island of terror’, the stuff of nightmares in fact!  But the reality in broad daylight could not have been further from my idea of the truth..!

The most northerly of the small group of British Islands, and measuring just 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest, Alderney lies eight miles off the French Cotentin peninsula and, home to a small population of just over 2,000, is a place of truly outstanding, desolate beauty! This surprising revelation hit me in the late 1980s when I was doing the groundwork for my 50′ tv documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ and had just set foot on the island for the very first time after a 15 minute flight from nearby Guernsey, a mere 24 miles away.

With the early Autumn sun glinting off a deep-blue, wave-flecked English Channel, my tiny 16-seater aircraft had banked sharply on its final approach to give me an impressive panoramic view of this incredible little island and my first sight of some of the concrete fortifications of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’  that were abandoned and left to nature after the German garrison surrendered without a shot being fired in May 1945.

Since that first introduction to the ancient and historic Bailiwick of Guernsey’s tiny sister island, I have come to fall deeply in love with Alderney’s untouched, tranquil beauty and to understand and appreciate the sheer variety of its myriad fortifications that have protected this vulnerable outpost down through the centuries.

The Germans were not the first to fortify this island – in fact the most prolific examples of defensive positions were actually built in Victorian & pre-Victorian times: stunning stone forts that have been studied in depth by island residents Dr Trevor Davenport & Colin Partridge. Both experts on the German defences, these two academics have faithfully documented Alderney’s stunning range of fortifications from the period 1940-45, back to the mid 1770s and their publications on these incredible edifices makes for fascinating reading.

For the committed WW-II German ‘bunker hunter’ or Victorian fortifications ‘buff’  then the real beauty of Alderney is that, apart from being a mere 40 minutes flying time from the UK mainland, you don’t actually need a car when you arrive. St Anne, the islands’ pretty little town, can actually be reached on foot from the tiny airstrip in about 15 minutes, whilst the island itself with its high cliffs in the south-west and its flat sandy beaches up at the north-east, is very much walkable in much less than a day.

The wide, open spaces also mean that the majority of the fortifications, both German & Victorian, are readily accessible to view and some to clamber over, with the right clothing and a torch. In fact some twenty-three years or so on from my original film, I never tire of rambling round Alderney, taking in the Victorian forts of Ile de Raz, Tourgis & Clonque and the impressive German anti-tank wall at Longis Bay, the enormous gun emplacements of the marine-artillery gun emplacements at Annes Batterie and the haunting and evocative MP3 naval direction-finding tower dominating the sky-line at Mannez.

Unlike the remainder of the Channel Islands, Alderney was cleared of its local population after the relatively bloodless occupation of this British territory in the summer of 1940. This civilian evacuation was the prelude to the impending fortification, resulting in Alderney joining with the other islands to eventually become the most heavily fortified part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ and a natural extension of the Fuehrer’s grand plan for ‘Festung Europa’ (Fortress Europe).

In 1938 the ‘Organisation Todt’ (set up under Dr Fritz Todt to oversee the production of Hitler’s massive autobahn construction programme), was tasked with fortifying Germany’s western border. Between 1938 and the outbreak of war in 1939, this para-military body built over 400 miles of defences comprising 14,000 individual concrete bunkers & emplacements along the so-called ‘West Wall’.

Following the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain, Hitler decided in December 1941 to fortify the entire coastline from Denmark down to France’s border with Spain, and it was the O.T. that was put in charge of this massive ‘Atlantic Wall’  building programme. By mid-1943 this enormous body, bolstered by forced-labour from the occupied countries across Europe, had grown to over half a million strong.

In the wake of the occupation of the Channel Islands in that beautiful summer of 1940 Alderney, along with Guernsey,Jersey and to a lesser degree Sark, were initially fortified to a limited degree by army combat engineers. However, following Hitler’s fortification decree of 1941, it was realised that that the army would not be able to cope on its own, so the Organisation Todt moved in with the role of permanently fortifying the islands and providing the coastal defences capable of providing cover for German shipping routes along the western coast of France, from St Malo to the Cotentin peninsula. Flak Artillery was provided by the Luftwaffe whilst coastal defence was to be undertaken by army & marine-artillery units under the control of the Kriegsmarine.

Whilst the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey retained much of their local population, despite a fairly high level of pre-German occupation evacuation to mainland Britain, on Alderney from 1941 onwards the civilian population was all but replaced by the constant inward flow of German manpower, plus the military hardware and building material required to turn this small island into a fortress. Aided by the construction of a huge jetty down in the harbour, (originally destined for use as part of an artificial harbour for ‘Operation Sealion’ – the aborted invasion of mainland Britain), the original military garrison of 450 assorted personnel in 1941 was to eventually grow to over 3,000 by 1944, whilst the German labourers of the OT, boosted by forced-labourers from as far afield as Russia, would bring the total war-time occupation force on Alderney to some 7,000.

Most Wehrmacht personnel were either billeted in St Anne or alternated between hutted accommodation constructed around their flak coastal batteries or underground in their heavily reinforced, wood-lined concrete crew-quarters that made up a part of the complex maze of bunkers & slit-trenches surrounding each fortified position.  However in early 1942 a priority was given to house the influx of German O.T. workers & forced-labourers which resulted in four specific camps being constructed within a six-month period by a volunteer force of French workmen who arrived on the island in January 1942.

Each was named after a North Sea island: ‘Helgoland’ at Platte Saline, ‘Nordeney’ at Saye Bay, ‘Borkum’ at the Haize and ‘Sylt’ on edge of the grass air-strip, (disabled to deter Allied landings), and ‘Lager Sylt’’  which was eventually handed over to 1.SS Bau-Brigade. This SS Construction Unit took charge of the Russian forced labourers previously under O.T. control so becoming the only SS-run concentration camp on British soil.

Unfortunately many salacious and fanciful stories concerning the fate of these Russian workers at the hands of their SS guards have magnified themselves over the years, whilst the real truth regarding the terrible conditions that some of those wretched workers endured under such SS rule has been shrouded in mystery, compounded by a lack of surviving witnesses and the fact that the SS destroyed the camp before the German occupation came to an end in 1945.

What is known is that by 1943 all four camps housed between 3 & 4 thousand volunteer & forced-labourers and at least 330 of these workers died or were killed during the fortifying process, including many of the Russians who were subsequently buried in make-shift graves on Longis Common. Following the German surrender in May 1945, ‘Bunny’ Pantcheff, a British officer in military intelligence, (and a former peace-time visitor to Alderney), was sent to the island to conduct a full enquiry into any German ‘mis-deeds’ and his compelling summary was later turned into a small paperback book entitled Alderney Fortress Island’ in 1981.

As the long shadows of history now fall gently across this breathtakingly beautiful Channel Island, the welcome visitor, armed with a map from the small tourist office in town, will find it possible to locate many of the German and Victorian fortifications that still dominate the scenery – even the former gate-posts to SS-Lager Sylt stand alone & forlorn by the side of the now tarmac airstrip, as an accusing testament to what awful deeds may have taken place within the camp perimeter those many years ago.

Standing looking at these innocent gate-posts today or indeed standing atop some of the huge coastal bunkers or amidst the  massive gun emplacements up on the cliffs I must admit that even in such beautiful location as this, a slight tingle still runs up my spine as I take in the haunting atmosphere and think back over 70 years to Adolf Hitler’s forces occupying this small, but heavily fortified outpost of the British Empire and wonder… what if mainland Britain had actually been next..?

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013