‘Gamekeeper-turned-Poacher..!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

‘V-Discs’…

One of the interestingly beneficial side-effects of working in the field of German military musical history is just how often it overlaps other archival fields; as was just the case some years back when I was in a German archive and laid my hands on a group of 78rpm records on a label marked ‘V-Disc’ which, upon further examination seemed to contain a vast selection of WW-II era American music as obviously enjoyed by the GI’s in the front-line of the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) between D-Day June 6th 1944 and the Fall of Germany in May 1945….

But the story of these rare records goes back to the Summer of 1942 where, across the Atlantic, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike seeking royalties from the recording industry to compensate their members who were now perceived to be losing work as a result of alleged competition from these new recordings. Dragging on for over a year, it drastically reduced the production of new commercial recordings whilst also cutting off a vital supply of new records being sent out to help entertain the troops now fighting overseas.

However Robert Vincent, a lieutenant & sound-engineer with the US Army Special Services Division, suggested to his War Department that music could be specifically recorded for the Armed Forces and so in July 1943 he was transferred to the music section of American Special Forces in New York where he set about seeking support from the striking musicians together with a waiver of all royalty fees from their record companies & unions.

In return, the US War Department gave a full assurance that all such recordings that were produced under this scheme would be for military personnel only and, after hostilities had ceased, all 78 rpms manufactured would be deemed ‘military surplus’ and so destroyed, along with all of the original master-recordings…

Original known as ‘Special Services Recordings’ Robert Vincent’s secretary coined the name ‘V-Discs’ (the ‘V’ standing for both Victory & Vincent), and this became the official terminology for these recordings when shipped to US Armed Forces serving in foreign theatres! With the sole purpose of providing morale-boosting ‘music from back home’ for the GI’s serving overseas, a variety of entertainment was sourced: from commercial recordings & radio broadcasts to movie sound-tracks & specially commissioned performances from clubs & theatres across the United States.

Technically ‘V-Discs’ were cut with as many as 136 grooves per inch so that more than 6 minutes of music could be included, as opposed to the standard 4 minutes per side. But the most striking difference was that, with the raw material within schellack in short supply, by 1943 ‘V-Discs’ were actually manufactured in vinyl… amongst the very first such records ever to be made!

The first shipment of 1,800 boxes each containing 30 copies of these special ‘V-Discs’ were shipped from RCA-Victors’ New Jersey pressing plant in October 1943 and eventually some 8 million discs containing over 3,000 differing performances from various American artistes would had been manufactured by the time of war’s end and the programme’s rapid cessation some four years later in 1949…

Although most V-Discs were officially destroyed as agreed with the US music industry, a number found their way back to America in the kit-bags of returning GIs in 1945 or, as with this collection I happened upon, were left behind in a civilian house in Wurzburg in Southern Germany at war’s end… my only sadness being that, with such a heavy-handedness with the needles in the field when played by the troops, their quality was so bad that even our star audio-engineer Simon ‘Woody’ Wood could not digitally re-master them into a unique and broadcast-quality addition to The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Wartime Chivalry in the Air…

This is the remarkable story, shared with me just recently, of a crippled World War Two American bomber spared by a Luftwaffe fighter pilot in combat.. and if you haven’t picked up on it yourself, it is just amazing and I’m happy to in turn share it via this Blog as with all of these incredible war-time incidents, the protagonists involved were to have a later quite remarkable reunion in peace-time, which makes this story all the more incredible…

The story harks back to the heavy Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany back in 1943 and in the days before Christmas of that year it was the USAAF that were conducting their almost daily day-light sorties over the Third Reich (whilst the RAF were bombing Germany by night) and bomber pilot, Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown, and his young B17 Flying Fortress crew were about to set-off on their very first raid, the target being an aircraft production factory deep inside Germany’s industrial heartlands….

Heavily suited-up against the bitter winter cold, (down to minus 60 in the upper atmosphere through which they’d be flying at this time of year), and with oxygen masks at the ready, the crew of the newly-dubbed ‘Ye Olde Pub’ taxied their heavily laden bomber onto their US 8th Air Force East Anglian air-strip.

Cleared for take-off, the bomb-laden Flying Fortress opened the throttles and rumbled down the concrete runway and Capt.Charlie Brown hauled his bomber into the air and, in tight formation with many other Fortresses, headed out eastward towards their heavily defended industrial target in the Ruhr….

However after several hours of relatively peaceful flying as the B17 approached Bremen, a curtain of heavy flak was thrown up the Luftwaffe gun-crews on the ground and the heaven’s were rent asunder in a black cloud of lethal anti-aircraft rounds, one of which exploded directly ahead of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, taking out their number 2 Alisson engine and seriously damaging their number 4 and having to feather it..

With such heavy damage sustained to his ‘plane, Captain Charlie Brown could no longer keep the power up and so throttled back and fell out of formation…

In WW-II, USAAF bomber tactics had developed a staggered box formation so that all heavily-armed Fortresses & Liberators would be able to cover each other in flight with murderous angles of cross-fire so making Luftwaffe fighter attacks on these protected formations a very dangerous undertaking, but a single US bomber having fallen out of this protection instantly became vulnerable to enemy fighter attack..

Which is exactly what happened to ‘Ye Olde Pub’ as no less than 15 Luftwaffe day fighters pounced on the ailing bomber and though the Flying Fortesses’ gunners immediately downed one Luftwaffe fighter, the exposed tail gunner was killed after another German strafing run and four other crew members were injured, including the pilot Charlie Brown..

The only surviving B.17 guns from this murderous assault were the nose gun and top turret.. in addition the plane’s hydraulics were knocked out and the oxygen system failed… and as if this was not bad enough, Brown lost control of his heavily damaged bomber and it went into a deadly spiral heading groundwards.

Despite his wounds and lack of oxygen Capt. Charlie Brown, thanks to a super-human effort, managed to fight the dive and regain control of his all-but doomed B17 and somehow level out at 1,000 feet, but the heavy 4-engined bomber was mortally wounded and almost incapable of defending itself against further Luftwaffe fighter attack, with the bulk of his guns out of action and his crew seriously wounded or killed..

Having successfully saved the ailing bomber and get ‘Ye Olde Pub’ turned around, Capt Brown headed back towards home at a much lower altitude than he would have liked and as he did so, he flew low over a Luftwaffe fighter base at which fighter pilot Lt. Franz Stigler had just landed, having successfully shot down two B.17s from the same raid. Spotting the wounded & low-flying US bomber, he immediately scrambled again to chase after Brown’s heavily damaged ‘plane. But as he would later twll interviewers in 1991, when he caught up with it ‘Ye Olde Pub’ he was horrified by what he saw and the appalling damage the bomber had sustained: its nose cone was smashed, there were major gaping holes in the fuselage and he could see heavy .50 calibre guns hanging unmanned as the gunners desperately tended their wounded fellow air-crew…

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

A stunned Brown stared back through side window, not believing what he was seeing as the German fighter pilot kept gesturing; but there was no way he was going to land. However as he struggled to keep flying his heavy bomber homewards the German pilot stayed with him, keeping other attackers off until they reached the North Sea. When it was clear that Brown wasn’t going to land or veer off towards Sweden but try to make it home, Stigler saluted, and flew away..!

Somehow Capt Charlie Brown just about managed to keep his crippled Flying Fortress in the air and just made it back to East Anglia where he all but crash-landed in a smoking but grateful heap…Brown would say, years later, that if he had been able to comprehend what Stigler was trying to explain to him from his fighter, he would actually have gratefully accepted the offer to land in Sweden.

The American air-crew debriefing was an incredulous affair when the officers taking notes learned of Stigler’s chivalry in the air; but the US Top Brass realised that if word got out to other USAAF bomber crews that Luftwaffe fighter pilots were sometimes this chivalrous towards damaged bombers returning from Germany, then their guard might be lowered, and so the whole affair was hushed up. Furthermore Brown’s deserved recommendation for a American bravery citation for his incredible feat of flying was quietly dropped. The whole affair was classified Top Secret… and there the story ended… or so it was thought..!

Likewise, back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

After the war, Charlie Brown returned to his West Virginia home but, after a stint at college, returned to the US Air Force in 1949 and served until 1965 though Franz Stigler didn’t fare as well in his life as, amidst the ruins of a defeated Germany his exemplary war record counted for nought and he tried his hand at many things, (even including brick-laying), just to survive, finally moving to Canada in 1953, where he became a successful businessman.

This incredible story remained dormant until 1986 when the, by then, retired Colonel Charlie Brown was invited to speak at a gathering of former fighter pilots: somebody in the audience asked for his memories of any unforgettable missions and suddenly the whole story of ‘Ye Olde Pub’ & Lt Stigler came out to an astounded audience..!

The former B.17 Flying Fortress pilot Capt.Charlie Brown had however been quietly trawling US & West German military records looking for any signs of former Luftwaffe fighter ace Lt. Franz Stigler, but when that brooked no results he wrote a letter to a Combat Pilots’ Association..and got a reply from Canada… it was Franz with the simple words:“I was the one..!” Stigler remembered the entire incident with great clarity and Charlie Brown knew that this was the one and the same German pilot who had showed him and his bomber crew such great chivalry on that fateful Allied bombing raid in December 1943…

Both men then spoke on the phone and later met up in person and between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers, before sadly dying within several months of each other in 2008. .An amazing story that restores your flagging faith in humanity… and if you would like to know more, I have discovered there is a complete book dedicated to this incredible and rare feat of aviation chivalry, written by Adam Makos called A Higher Call…. recommended reading… and then some!

Copyright @ Tomahawk Films & Brian Matthews 2014

Nazi Bomb Plot’s 70th Anniversary…

The German Government has honoured a group of Third Reich-era Wehrmacht officers who tried to kill Adolf Hitler on this day, 70 years ago… In a sombre ceremony in Berlin, German president Joachim Gluck called the bombing of Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Eastern Prussia on July 20th 1944 a: “significant day in German history for showing the world that there were Germans who opposed the Nazi regime, as it was from this legacy that the newly founded Federal Republic, (once it belatedly recognized the significance of the military resistance), was able to draw legitimacy…”

The ‘July Bomb Plot’ as recently depicted in the Hollywood movie ‘Valkyrie’ (with Tom Cruise in the leading role), was actually not the first attempt to kill Hitler, but it was the one that came the closest to success: after the German disaster at the hands of Russian Forces at Stalingrad in 1942, many senior military figures believed that a greater German defeat was only a matter of time and by the summer of 1944 this feeling had grown to such an extent that these self-same senior Wehrmacht officers felt that only by opening secret peace negotiations with the Allies could Germany be saved from total & utter disaster… but they realised that the Allies would only take them seriously, once Adolf Hitler had been successfully assassinated..!

Following the previous assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich in Prague in 1942, then a failed attempted on Goebbels life, Hitler had often warned his immediate inner circle that all of them were open to such attacks and he himself took great personal steps to avoid being liquidated by his enemies. So it was that he frequently changed his itineraries and kept all but his closet aides in the dark when it came to his movements around Germany and increasingly spent a great deal of time either secure within in the Reichschancellery in Berlin or up at his favourite mountain-top retreat, the ‘Eagles Lair’ at Berchtesgarten in Bavaria in Southern Germany.

However from 1944, he took further steps with his security by increasingly basing himself within the heavily fortified bunkers of the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ at Rastenburg in East Prussia from where he ran the war with his military high command, safe behind the thickest of concrete walls and with an elite SS guard permanently on duty…as such, any assassin would have found it the most difficult of tasks getting anywhere close to the Führer to launch an assassination attempt.

However plans were indeed being laid down with a view to effecting exactly this, led by the Wehrmacht career-officer Claus von Stauffenberg, a veteran of the 1940 campaigns in Poland & France, before suffering serious wounds in the North African campaign as the result of a low-level Allied fighter attack, resulting in the loss of his right arm, three fingers on his left hand and his right eye. Upon his eventual recovery he was promoted Chief of Staff on the Army Reserve in Berlin whereupon, as a noted patriot, he was approached by a growing band of senior Wehrmacht plotters against Hitler and he agreed to join with them to plan the assassination of the Fuhrer and then open up negotiations with the Allies.

Previous attempts onAdolf Hitler’s life had failed, but in June of 1944 the conspiracy took a major step forward when Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel and made the Chief-of-Staff to General Fromm, whereupon it was now necessary for him to actually attend meetings that were headed by Hitler, whom he first met on June 7th, 1944, just one day after the Allied Invasion of Europe on the Normandy coast-line on ‘D-Day’.

Now  the German Army was facing defeat on both the Eastern & Western Fronts, speed was of the essence if the conspirators were to put their deadly plan into effect and open peace negotiations with the Allies while Germany was still putting up a fierce & stiff rear-guard action.

However in early July the Gestapo got wind of things and starting rounding up those they believed were involved with a potential assassination plot, allied to which a number of senior army officers involved in the plot were being posted away from the capital to both Fronts in France & Russia, whilst former Afrikakorps Commander Erwin Rommel, a senior figure in the plot, was badly injured when his staff car was bounced by a low flying Allied fighter… so with matters going badly astray, Stauffenberg decided to act..!

Knowing that a major military staff conference was being organised at the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Rastenburg, as a severely disabled war hero above suspicion, Stauffenberg would be the perfect officer to carry a bomb… So carrying an attaché case in which a timed capsule full of acid would eat through a wire detonator when broken, thus activating a firing pin on a bomb, Stauffenberg went into a map room with Field Marshall Keitel and placed the bag against a leg of the table top upon which Hitler was looking at various campaign maps; after which Stauffenberg made an excuse that he had to take a telephone report from Berlin and left the map-room.

Instead he went straight to his staff car and as he reached it the bomb went off but Stauffenberg was able to bluff his way through the Lair’s main gates, past the SS guards who thought an air-raid was in progress, and a short while later reached the nearby air-strip and was on a Luftwaffe transport Ju-52 flying back to Berlin.

Unknown to Stauffenberg, just before the bomb exploded, another officer attending the briefing had moved the briefcase to the other side of the table leg he had chosen and the blast was directed away from Hitler who survived with his just clothes burned, a cut hand and damaged ear drums.

The planned coup d’état in Berlin that was due to follow the assassination was now thrown into complete disarray with nobody sure whether Hitler had been killed or not, with the only senior Nazi in Berlin at the time being Joseph Goebbels. A Major in the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Wachbataillon, Otto Remer, was sent to arrest Goebbels by the conspirators directing the doomed uprising in the capital, but Remer, a dedicated Nazi was put him in direct telephone contact with Hitler by Goebbels to prove that the Führer was still alive.

Promoted on the spot by Hitler to a full Colonel, Remer was ordered to round up the conspirators and, following a radio broadcast that there had been a failed attempt on Hitler’s life and the Fuhrer was still alive, all of the conspirators, including Stauffenberg, were identified and arrested.

The assassination attempt had failed in a clumsy & spectacular fashion and after a number of speedy courts-martial, the leaders of the coup were immediately executed on the spot by firing squad… but these men got off lightly in comparison as Adolf Hitler’s revenge was then most terrible to behold!

A nation-wide hunt across the Reich then ensued for anybody even faintly conected to the July 20th Bomb Plot and many individuals faced arrest and an immediate sentence of death, but not before enduring a most degrading public show-trial in front of the notorious Nazi Judge, Roland Freisler.

In the most terrifying & unjudicial of court-like like proceedings, this publicity-seeking judge and fervent Nazi publicly harangued & crucified many honourable & long serving senior Wehrmacht officers before also finding them guilty and pronouncing the death sentence on them.

Whilst a firing squad bullet was the ultimate fate for many of the convicted officers, a number of them were summarily hanged by piano-wire hastily thrown over beam in a nearby shed in brutal retaliation for this attempt on the Fuhrer’s life! (Though fate ultimately caught up with Freisler and he was killed in an Allied bombing raid on Berlin not long after!)

Today’s official recognition of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, (alongside 200 other plotters either executed or who committed suicide), as a symbol of the war-time resistance, some 70 years after the July 20th Bomb Plot, finally honours all the brave German patriots who stood up to the tyrannies of the Third Reich and gave their lives in an attempt to prevent Germany’s destruction in the ashes of the Second World War…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Images Courtesy of Tomahawk Films & Reuters

Choir Training in the Wehrmacht…

Throughout the history of German military music, the twin performances of full regimental band & soldiers’ song, by a single voice or full field-choir have run parallel with both vital to troop entertainment in the barracks or in the field. Compared to other field-entertainment such as cinema & theatre or concert performances, a choir raised from combat troops was seen as being on-hand & ready to sing in all locations and in all conditions when a band was not available.

The importance of singing in the Armed Forces of the Third Reich was underlined by Generalfeldmarschall von Keitel who said in the foreword to the Handbuch für die Singleiterder Wehrmacht (Army Handbook for Those in Charge of Soldiers’ Singing): “Throughout the ages, songs have been the comrades of German soldiers in good times and bad; for soldiers on the march, at rest or at play, singing is always the living expression of soldierly comradeship. Whoever is in charge of soldiers singing has himself to be in possession of a great wealth of knowledge and has to have a happy way of passing this knowledge on…He also has to understand the deeper purpose of soldiers’ song and music. In times of struggle, music is a source of joy, of up-lifting, and inner strength for the people. Those in charge of singing have to unlock this source of strength for their men…..”

Writing in the same manual, Hauptmann Wilhelm Matthes summed up the value of song to the German Army in 1940: “Whatever moves a soldier’s innermost feelings most strongly, be it battle, victory, death, comradeship, loyalty, love of weaponry, love of homeland, love of wife and family, all these emotions find their immediate expression in the wealth of beautiful soldiers’ songs which have been handed down through many generations, and also in the great number of new songs which give expression to the experiences of the current war….”

Set against this widely held belief, the Wehrmacht High Command decreed it desirable that, given the appropriate good will and organisation, every division or regiment in the German armed forces should be in a position to set up its own small choir, despite the demands of military duties or the restrictions put upon it by being a front-line unit.

Understanding that such choirs could only function with the full support of its commanding officer and the skill of the conductor, it was also stated in the Wehrmacht Handbook that: choir singing should be seen and rewarded as a part of service to the troop, and not just as a simple leisure activity. This should be achieved by recruiting eight good singers who have a rudimentary knowledge of how to read music. All too often such ventures fail because an advert is placed simply saying “Volunteer Singers Wanted” and then the applicants are accepted with no further selection.

These eight singers will then motivate others by performing comparatively simple songs to a high standard, so attracting others to come forward, and once the choir has reached 24 to 28 members, it can then cope with more tasks and the change of personnel that will undoubtedly occur within a combat unit….”

Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s advice on selecting a choirmaster was: “to search for a conductor with previous experience of amateur choirs, someone who knows how to handle a variety of voices and who can combine educational flair with energy and staying power. Most of all, that soldier should know how to capture and hold his singers’ attention and how to inspire them, be he a good amateur or a professional…”

On programme selection, the training manual also suggested that it was: “far better to undertake a simple song rather than dishearten a choir by attempting something far too complicated. Conductors of field choirs have a unique opportunity to influence the tastes of a wide selection of the population by choosing music of an artistic value as found in folk songs and truly popular music…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Musikschulen für Jugend und Volk…

During the Third Reich, the Hitlerjugend evolved into a very powerful political youth organisation whose leadership, the Reichsjugendführung (RJF), soon began to control & direct every aspect of music, from the recruitment of musicians and the selection of songs & music, to setting & laying down the very strict standards required for German musical education.

However, the RJF realised that to achieve its aims a completely new generation of politically motivated young musicians had to be raised & trained from scratch. So between 1934 and 1936, detailed plans were developed & implemented for the creation of ‘Musikschulen für Jugend und Volk’ (Music Schools for Youth & People).

It was seen as vital that these new musicians be taught by the ‘right’ minds and so this period also saw the creation of a national state music school, the Staatliche Musikschule Berlin, for the training of youth orchestral group leaders in the required subjects: choir schooling, instrumentation, cultural & educational policy and the theory of civilian & military music.

So, in the pre-war years, gifted young people at regional & national levels within the HJ were sent to the Musikschulen für Jugend und Volk and the Staatliche Musikschule Berlin, with many students receiving grants from the Department for Schooling & Culture within the RJF. From this early musical & political education within the Third Reich would come many highly talented future Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS military bandsmen, conductors & musical directors.

In order to show off its achievements, further integrate music into civilian German life and attract additional high quality musical recruits, the RJF regularly organised music festivals at both regional & national level across the Reich! Such national events, known as Reichsmusiktage der HJ, took place at Erfurt in 1935, Braunschweig in 1936, Stuttgart in 1937, Weimar in 1938 and Leipzig in 1939. Now that the Hitlerjugend had established its musical credentials and successfully taken control over all aspects of youth musical education, many well-known and sympathetic musicians & performers were invited to these, by now, famous events.

Guests included pianist Elly Ney, who observed that “music and culture were in the best hands within the HJ because the youth trusts its leaders without reservation and because their leaders have adopted Hitler’s idealistic aims are a living example to those who lead…”

However, whilst not all musicians throughout the Reich were quite as effusive as Elly Ney in their support, most, nevertheless, appreciated the prominence and backing being given to music, the level of instruction and training being offered and the enthusiasm with which it was being received by the nation’s youth! Accordingly many renowned musicians such as violinist Georg Kulemkampff, pianist Edwin Fischer, conductor Hermann Abendroth, and several ensembles including the Dresden String Quartet, were happy to join Elly Ney in performing at a series of Youth Concerts staged by the RJF between 1940 and 1942.

The musical policy of the Hitler Youth was certainly bearing fruit with over thirty per cent of these concerts being performed entirely by musicians, soloists and conductors drawn from Hitler Youth musical schools across the Reich alone.

It is also very interesting to note that a conscious political decision was made that entry to all of these Youth Concerts should not be free, but an admission charge of 50 Pfennigs would be levied, in the belief that ‘German youngsters should learn that culture is something of value’!

By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there were over 1200 HJ brass bands (or Musikzüge), orchestras, fanfare groups and marching bands (or Spielmannzüge), totalling some 36,000 members. In addition, a considerable number of Germany’s youth also gained their first ever experiences of music whilst watching and listening to these bands’ regular performances during the maelstrom years of the Third Reich 1933-1945…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Wehrmacht Military Musical Training…

“The essence of being a soldier, the inner and outer discipline, the readiness for action finds its most compelling expression in the march, which even today, we simply refer to as the ‘military march’. As a soldier is expected to think, speak, look and act, even when not on duty, he is similarly expected to sound like a soldier when making music”…so quoted the Handbuch für die Singleiter der Wehrmacht when first published in 1940…

Viewed with the same seriousness as combat or specialist personnel, career military bandsmen of the Reich were recruited from the following four backgrounds: firstly there were the professional musicians in civilian life or former musicians with the Imperial German Army or Reichswehr who answered adverts in the Deutsche Militärmusikerzeitung (German Journal for Military Musicians) for specific musical posts within the newly formed Wehrmacht and SS Musikkorps during the pre-war period of 1933 to 1939, or who applied to join a military band having been called-up for general military service after the outbreak of war in 1939.

Second category would be young, fully trained Hitlerjugend musicians or gifted amateurs spotted by a SS or Wehrmacht Musikmeister and subsequently invited to join the unit or divisional band.. whilst a third grouping were drawn from young soldiers and part-time ‘hobby’ musicians who, having undertaken their pre-war six months training with the Reichsarbeitsdienst, then joined the Wehrmacht and were spotted by their regimental bands as potential recruits and recommended for formal military music training.

The final group would be comprised of professional military bandmasters and musicians recruited upon completion of their musical training in the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS respective military music academies (Heeresmusikschule Bueckburg & SS Musikschule Braunschweig) or the elite Berlin Music Academy.

In the previously quoted Third Reich’s official German Army Musician’s handbook ‘Handbuch für die Singleiter der Wehrmacht’, Major Ernst-Lothar von Knorr on the staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German High Command) confirmed in his writing:

“Only professional musicians or young men with substantial musical training can become Wehrmacht musicians; they are either recruited as volunteers or by the Wehrbezirkskommando (regional army administration), once they have reached call-up age. Posts are advertised daily in newspapers & specialised publications and musicians are tested in their musical ability by the Musikmeister. The new military musicians must have mastered their main instrument to such a degree of competence that they can immediately take up their place in the band, which they will do upon completion of their basic training.

If a post becomes vacant, they will be assigned to it after signing a 12-year contract and if showing the required aptitude, will be admitted to the training programme for musician NCOs. This admission depends on a favourable report by the Musikmeister. Apart from a wide-ranging knowledge of music history, successful candidates are required to play not only their main instrument but a secondary one as well.

If they show exceptional ability and leadership qualities, two further career paths are open to them: without reference to their previous length of service they can be made Korpsführer; in this position they will stand in for the Musikmeister and bear the rank of a senior NCO,which in the Wehrmacht is either a Musikoberfeldwebel or a Musikoberwachtmeister.

The second option is the training to become a Musikmeister: candidates are nominated by their own Musikmeister who will oversee their preparation for admission to the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (State Musical Academy), in Berlin where they will enjoy reduced military duties to assist with their studies. The academic training at the university takes 3 years and music students follow a set curriculum which comprises both practical & theoretical subjects.

Apart from purely musical duties, students are also trained for the military leadership of a Musikkorps (regimental band), and a Spielmannszug (fife & drum corps), and the course culminates in practical musical and an equivalent military examination. Before they embark on this course of study, successful candidates have to sign up for an additional 6-year contract over and above the general 12-year one, and a Musikmeister can expect to progress to the rank of Obermusikmeister and Stabsmusikmeister.

The musical demands of young military musicians are high and the daily rehearsals are serious work, therefore their selection and training is a matter of great seriousness….”

And this is certainly borne out by the Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS musicianship evident on the original 1933-45 schellack 78rpm recordings, digitally re-mastered to CD and on offer in The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

The You Tube Generation…

Finally, after many years Tomahawk Films have been dragged kicking & screaming into the on-line world of Facebook and You Tube, courtesy of a small video, (kindly bolted together by our colleague Craig who helps us out with on-line technology), which showcases some of our stunning Third Reich-era musiker images… but more importantly are set over an exciting 8-track medley of digitally re-mastered Third Reich-era schellack 78rpm records that are available to the collector & motion-picture & TV producers on CD from our Third Reich-era German Archive here in the UK.

For a while now we have been using this evocative sound-track medley on our Tomahawk Films’ website as a useful marketing tool though which pending customers, who maybe unaware of the broadcast studio-quality of our re-mastered recordings, could get a ‘taster’ of our audio output, before putting their hand in their pockets and handing over their hard-earned cash..!

As producer, I admit I’d withstood this technical development for a long while as, way back when, with the varying quality of people’s audio-playback on their computers, there seemed little point in us spending a small fortune at Dubmaster Studios in Hampshire re-mastering our albums and getting the very best digital quality that we could from these wonderful 70-year old schellack 78rpm records, only to then find that somebody was playing back our medley through a computer with ’tinny speakers’ and so neatly undoing all our hard work in the studio in a trice!

However computer speakers & audio play-back has, happily, advanced in leaps & bounds and my own office computer is testament to that with high-grade speakers and a ‘boom box’ under the desk, (ooh, get me!), which plays back all my computer- stored tracks in superb high-definition, bass-led quality that is almost better than my personal hi-fi at home;  so now seemed the right time that we venture into the You Tube world. Besides with so many people out there merely putting up our copyrighted tracks & images on You Tube without asking our permission, we are now working on the theory of ‘if you can beat ‘em, join ‘em’… so it will be interesting to see how many people do now actually find our new You Tube page and give the 8 tracks on there a spin.. and then, if we are lucky, place an order!

Many of you successfully locating that page will actually find some of the tracks quite familiar as these form the basis of the most popular tracks that the movie & television production companies ask our Archive for when we supply our original German Third Reich-era music to their production sound-tracks: from Bruce Willis’s Hollywood motion picture ‘Hart’s War’ to the recent superb 2-part series ‘The Rise and The Fall of the Third Reich’ on the Discovery & History Channels, plus all the other programmes we have supplied music, combat sound-effects and my voice to. (Our Production Credits are listed on our website for those interested in the TV & Movie side of Tomahawk Films!).

It is certainly good to still be getting important credits on TV and in the movies for our soundtracks as this obviously also gives our welcome customers around the globe the confidence that, in buying our studio-quality products, they are getting the best Third Reich archival music available on CD.

To this end we are still resisting going down the path of digital downloads ourselves, for despite several companies ripping us off and offering our tracks as their own ‘original’ downloads without asking us nor indeed paying us the required royalties for using our material, we have noticed that our global audience still prefer to buy a complete CD with its track listings and attractive & distinct ‘Tomahawk Films Red’ covers and have a ‘proper’ collection of our material, rather than a few somewhat ‘bald & antiseptic’ digitally downloaded tracks with nothing to go with them.

It was much the same in the early days of video… many people eagerly bought an expensive VHS or Beta video-recorder to tape documentaries, (primarily the ever-superb The World at War series narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier), however after a while enthusiastic collectors, (including me back in the late 1970s), preferred to buy the actual video complete with box & sleeve notes to proudly build up a collection of WW-II documentaries on their shelves in much the same way as we still do with reference books…

So as long as our customers, (who range in age from the their mid-20s to the their mid-80s), still want our Third Reich German Archive on standard CD & DVD then we will keep releasing them on those formats. No doubt, the next wonder formats will come and go… but we will certainly keep marketing our products on those that most collectors still have and wish to keep making use of… never fear!!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

The World of Battle Re-enactment…

A recent report from somewhere ‘up north’, where a local council, (no doubt Labour- controlled as they are always seemingly politically-correct, utterly hidebound by their own prejudices and love to get upset on behalf of other groups..who aren’t usually in the least bit upset themselves!), had announced that nobody dressed in German uniforms would be allowed to attend a local recreation of a World War Two event. Excuse me?

So apart from making me wonder who these loons were and how it was that they could hold down an important council job whilst being so ignorant of WW-II history, (in that they apparently had no idea who the Allies were fighting in Europe between the years 1939 and 1945..Noddy perhaps?), it led me onto thinking about how far battle re-enactors have actually come in the 27-odd years that I have been running The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive here in the UK..

Since I last appeared in a war-time television drama series myself with a very 1939 ‘four-penny all off’ hair-cut, I have noticed, merely as an innocent by-stander watching from the wings these days, just how far the standard of latter day war-time re-enactment has come, both from the male and particularly the female perspective. The amazing progression has been to such an extent that these wonderful re-enactors are now, to my eyes, all but full-time professionals in their approach to this work… No longer are the recreations I’ve witnessed made up of little fat blokes with decidedly non-military hair-cuts running around like a group of little Cub Scouts full of e-Numbers on a excited day out, but are 9 times out of 10 well honed, well drilled and well disciplined groups of individuals determined to ‘get it right’ and do justice to those that went (and, tragically, often fell) before them..

As such it is therefore no wonder that TV & Motion-picture producers now actively seek out these wonderful enthusiastic hobbyists who, (with all their often expensively acquired uniforms & accoutrements), so accurately portray their historical counterparts as a result of which they bring nothing but an authentic historical touch to the expensive & important filming at hand.. Brad Pitt’s new Hollywood movie ‘Fury’ being just the latest example of their dedication.

I almost wish I was young enough to be involved once again now that such battle re-creations are very a highly skilled, polished, (and as I say) almost professional undertaking… so how these blinkered little ‘Town Hall Hitlers’ can object, (and in so doing exhibit exactly the ignorant & almost fascistic little prejudices that they purport to hate), is totally beyond me… but perhaps best for my blood pressure that I don’t venture any further down that particular path of thought..!

However on a happier note… members of our smashing group of Tomahawk Films‘ customers occasionally drop us an e-mail and recently Leon, did just that and wrote to generously talk about his enjoyment of our output and in one of his missives he very kindly attached a couple of photos of him and his colleagues in battle re-enactment mode and I was incredibly impressed and asked him if I could include them in this Blog about re-enactment and he kindly agreed and replied:

“I actually took part in a special re-enactment at Cornet Castle, Guernsey and we re-enacted the German surrender which features in your documentary. I’ve include 2 photos, one is of us at Cornet Castle representing flak troops…plus a photo as what we normally represent, Fallschirmjäger…at Mapledurham where they filmed ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, you may recognise the water wheel” (pictured at top).

I hope those of you who kindly read my musings here in these Tomahawk Blogs (and manage to stay awake through the experience), will be as impressed as I was… in fact talking of the Occupation, if you do follow these Blogs you will know that in addition to being the producer of ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, (my 50’ TV documentary on the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney between 1940 and 1945), I also spent a very happy 5 years as the Media Consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board, helping them promote their story of the German occupation, riding shotgun on other producer’s films to make sure the story told was the correct one, (as liberties were often taken, especially in terms of the subject of the imported foreign slave labourers used by the German occupying forces), and generally being their Occupation Story spokesman on both Television & Radio…

As a part of this happy work it was my job to help promote Guernsey’s two superb Occupation museums, the wonderful underground U-boot refuelling tunnel museum in St Peter Port owned by Peter & Paul Balshaw and Richard Heaume MBE’s stunning museum collection at Forest, plus his case-mate bunker out on the West Coast and Pleinmont Tower out on the Pleinmont headland… The reason that I mention the case-mate bunker is that during my tenure as Guernsey Tourism’s Media Consultant, a superb German battle re-enactment group representing the former Wehrmacht Pioniere Btl 146 from nearby us here in Hampshire (led by Lee Attwells) actually came over to Guernsey and spent an authentic weekend living in Richard’s casemate bunker.

Fully dressed in the correct uniforms of the time, they lived as former Naval Marineartillerie troops, and I’m indebted to them for these superb photos which I hope they won’t mind me re-posting here… I’m not sure if their Pioniere Btl 146 alter-egos have ever been back to Guernsey, but it certainly looked good ‘back in the day’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Totems of the Third Reich’s Musikkorps…

‘The Army of the Reich must gradually be steeped in the old traditions, especially those of Prussia, Bavaria and Austria…” so said Adolf Hitler in 1941 and amidst the pomp & tradition of Hitler’s Germany, one of the most enduring aspects of the Third Reich was the magnificence of its dress: a whole nation in uniform, with a tailored outfit, dagger and ornate accoutrement for every conceivable occasion. But it was perhaps the myriad visions of Nazi flags, banners & drapes, with their mix of Roman & Wagnerian imagery that would remain long after the Reich crumbled in the ashes of Berlin in 1945.

The word ‘flag’ is derived from the ancient German or Saxon word ‘flaken’, meaning ‘to fly’ or ‘to float in the wind’, and whilst Roman legions carried their ornate eagle atop a banner as a standard, the use of a flag as a means of identification began with the Vikings and was later used to great effect in the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

In 1848, the original German Federation adopted a tricolour of black, red and gold, colours based on the black coats, red collar piping and gold buttons worn by German university students who were raised as a volunteer force by Major Lützow in 1813 to assist in the struggle against Napoleon. Bismarck, however, later replaced this flag with the national tricolour of black, red and white, but at the end of World War One, the new Weimar Republic declared that the official colours of the new German republic were to revert back, and so in 1919, black, red and gold once again became the official colours of the German nation.

With the increasing unrest and upheavals in Germany in the 1920′s and 1930′s, the Weimar colours increasingly came to remind those on the right of Germany’s capitulation and subsequent humiliation brought about by the Versailles Treaty in 1918. As a result of this association, when the National Socialists came to power, one of Hitler’s very first acts was to abolish the loathed Weimar tricolour of black, red and gold. On April 22nd 1933, he decreed that a new national flag of black, red and white would henceforth be flown in conjunction with the NSDAP party flag of a black swastika within a white circle on a blood-red background.

As far as the armed forces were concerned, no official unit colours had been presented or indeed carried during the period of the Weimar Republic; however, one year on from the reintroduction of military conscription in 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that unit flags, banners and standards would once again be issued, and between 1936 and 1937, the vast majority of Wehrmacht units were presented with new official colours.

All subsequent unit insignia, from flags to pennants, were to incorporate and refer back to the initial unit colour issued, including regimental bands. Emblems displayed on or within flags & banners during the Third Reich usually included, in addition to unit details and/or towns of origin, the evocative images of either the German eagle, swastika, iron cross, SS runes or death’s head.

The origins of the eagle as Germany’s national emblem can be traced back to the ninth century and Charlemagne, who saw himself as the successor to the emperors of Rome and adopted the eagle upon the legionnaire’s standard as the symbol of his rule.

During the later periods of Hohenstaufen and the Holy Roman Empire, the German eagle developed into its distinctive upright stance, with its single-head, spread-wing and out-stretched talons, which became known as the ‘displayed’ eagle. This impressive image was adopted by the German Second Reich in 1871 and continued by the Weimar Republic in 1919, before coming to real prominence with the National Socialists in 1933.

This new eagle incorporated the National Socialist’s emblem of the swastika, mounted within a garland of oak leaves – the traditional German symbol of strength and longevity; thus the combination of eagle & swastika was enshrined as the official emblem of the Third Reich and as such was officially adopted by the German armed forces:

The army and navy adopted a differing version from the standard political eagle, known as the ‘Wehrmachtadler’, a ‘displayed’ eagle whose wings were only half open; whilst the Luftwaffe, as the newest branch of service, desired a more distinct emblem in the shape of an eagle & swastika whose wings gave the impression of flight.

Seemingly associated with Germany since time immemorial, the symbol of the iron cross actually dates back to the Crusades where German knights, ruling over Prussia, Estonia and Kurland, adopted a white surcoat upon which was displayed a distinctive cross in black. Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia later adopted this black cross and, having watched Napoleon create the Legion d’Honeur medal for bravery in 1802, introduced the Iron Cross as a German military award for gallantry some 11 years later.

1871 saw the iron cross adopted by the Kaiser and incorporated into the flag of Imperial Germany, whereupon it became the focus of a nation during the Great War between 1914 and 1918, before its adoption by the incoming National Socialists in 1933. Such is the historical bond with Germany and the iron cross that a Maltese-style version continues to be the symbol of the post war Bundeswehr’s displayed on its fighting vehicles & aircraft.

An ancient symbol, the swastika was traditionally a sign of good fortune and is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Su’, meaning well and ‘Asti’, meaning ‘being’. Used widely as a Buddhist emblem, the swastika was also the pagan Germanic sign of Thor the god of thunder, in addition to being a featured symbol in the Nordic runic alphabet. During the nineteenth century, the swastika was widely regarded throughout Europe as a symbol of nationalism, and was adopted by the Ehrhardt Brigade and other Freikorps units during the German uprisings, following the defeat at end of the WW-I.

Adopted by Adolf Hitler, the Hakenkreuz (literally ‘crooked cross’) came to represent National Socialism, and in the years 1933 to 1945 was displayed on most flags and banners, either individually or with the traditional German eagle.

Perhaps the eeriest of all German insignia was the ‘Death’s Head’ adopted by the SS in 1934, but whose Germanic associations date back to 1740. Often thought as a design to terrorise the nation’s enemies, the Totenkopf  actually has strong links with German medieval literature, where it was a symbol of death & destruction. However, as a piece of German military insignia, it made its first appearance as a large, silver bullion jaw-less skull & bones, embroidered on the black drape at the funeral of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I. In tribute to Friedrich, the elite Prussian Royal Bodyguard Divisions (the Leibhusaren-Regimenten no.’s I and II), formed after his death, adopted black uniforms with large silver Totenkopf affixed to the front of their large busbies (Pelzmützen).

During the First World War, a number of crack Imperial German flamethrower & storm-trooper units also adopted the death’s head, and in 1918 it appeared painted on the steel helmets of the Freikorps in the German uprising, where it became a symbol of both war-time bravery and post-war anti-Bolshevism! Not surprisingly, members of the Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler took up the Totenkopf as their distinctive emblem in 1923, and with the coming of the National Socialists in 1933, the Stosstrupp’s successor, the Schutzstaffel, adopted the Prussian jaw-less skull as their symbol.

However, when the Wehrmacht’s new elite Panzer-Korps decided they too wished to be represented by the Prussian death’s head, the SS devised & ordered their own particular ‘grinning skull’, which became the standard death’s head for both the Allgemeine and Waffen-SS. Used in conjunction with the SS’s own distinctive version of the displayed wing eagle & swastika, the Totenkopf was used through to 1945 on all SS uniform insignia, vehicles, flags, standards, trumpet banners, drapes and drum covers.

Inextricably linked with the Totenkopf, the ‘twin lightning’ runes of the SS were derived from the historical alphabets and figures used by Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe. The standard single Sig Rune was long regarded historically as a symbol of victory, and by the end of the Second World War, some 14 variations were eventually in use by the Waffen-SS.

The double-SS runes originated in 1932 when SS-Mann Walter Heck, graphic designer with Bonn insignia manufacturer Ferdinand Hoffman, put two single sig-runes side-by-side to create the infamous SS-Runen. The SS leadership paid him the princely sum of 2.50 Reichmarks for the full design rights, and the organisation thereafter utilised the runes throughout all branches of service to represent the Allgemeine/Waffen- SS during the entire period of the Third Reich.

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