Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht…

As I depict in a dedicated chapter in my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945, the outbreak of the Second World War saw the introduction of probably the most important and popular light entertainment programme broadcast nationally on Grossdeutsche Rundfunk: ‘Das Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht’ (Request Show for the Armed Forces). First transmitted on October 1st 1939, it became a regular and eagerly awaited feature of Sunday afternoon listening and, with an audience of some 80 million listeners at its height, could rightly stake its claim to be the first mass appeal light entertainment show in the history of popular radio.

Opening with Master of Ceremonies Heinz Goedecke’s words of welcome: ” This is Greater German Radio: dear soldiers, dear listeners in the home country, dear friends beyond the borders, the fanfare is summoning the Request Concert for the Armed Forces…” the Wunschkonzert offered a fascinating and entertaining collection of variety songs, popular hits, stirring instrumental marches, unit & korps marching songs, comic sketches and light classical music, all requested by the fighting men themselves and mailed in from the different German theatres of World War Two.

A German ‘Forces Family Favourites’, the Wunschkonzert was the soldiers’ very own show and forged a powerful link between the German armed forces fighting at the front and their families back in Germany, manning the home front. As such it became a show-case for some of the best German music and light entertainment of the day, in addition to being the launching pad for a number of famous songs, not least ‘Bomben auf Engeland’, which had its first public performance on the Wunschkonzert.

In the first weeks following the outbreak of the Second World War, German domestic radio programming was totally dominated by the advance of the Wehrmacht in the East; however once the invasion of Poland was complete and the situation stabilised, it soon became evident that there was a need for some form of communication between the soldiers and their families. So it was that Deutschlandsender’s director of broadcasting Albert-Ingemar Berndt broadcast an appeal for requests from the troops at the front and on the very first day after that appeal the mail office at Broadcasting House was swamped with 23,117 letters earmarked for the Wehrmachts-Wunschkonzert!!

Heinz Goedecke and Wilhelm Krug were given the joint responsibility for putting the show together and, after admitting that they were actually totally unprepared and unsure of a proper running order or artiste roll-call for this first programme, both were, however, sure that the essence of the concert should be to make those at home feel close to the soldiers at the front and give those manning the front lines the real feeling that the ‘home front’ was listening.

So with precious little real preparation time, the show’s production team plunged in and virtually ‘ad libbed’ the very first programme from start to finish with runners managing the bank of telephones and relaying messages to the sound engineers who were to play the 78rpm shellac records and the band & orchestra leaders who were to conduct the musicians and singers performing live in the studio!

Judged a great success, this first broadcast was also to include a heart-rending request that was to establish a song which would become the very heart and soul of the armed forces request show…Gute Nacht Mutter! about which I have written about here in another Tomahawk Blog, so no need for me to repeat that story, save to say that this hauntingly beautiful and achingly sad song became a staple of the new Wunschkonzert..

The essence of the Wunschkonzert was that it should be a ‘one way traffic’ from the front to the homeland, and at the height of World War Two it offered to the 14 million Germans, who had registered to receive radio broadcasts, a diversion from the harsh realities of the conflict whilst forging a strong link with soldiers’ loved ones. Its proud motto boasted: “the front line reaches out to the home front..the home front reaches out to the front line”.

Letters and cards from the various fronts also varied in their requests: rather than songs or selected pieces of music, one group of soldiers who, in civilian life, had all worked for the same building firm, requested that the sound of a pneumatic drill be played over the air because “this meant as much as the butter on their bread”. Meanwhile the kitchen staff of an army pioneer battalion in France wanted to hear the Potato Soup (call to eat) Fanfare.

This was taken up with so much enthusiasm by the studio’s fanfare trumpeters that soldiers asleep in their barracks emerged from their bunks, somewhat drowsy and confused on hearing this well-known call at an odd hour!

As the war progressed into 1941 and 1942, and other campaign theatres opened up, German troops soon found themselves fighting in Norway and Africa and the Wunschkonzert had to take these listeners into account as well. After the victory at Narvik, a special postal connection spanning some 2,000 miles was opened up, and at the studio special baskets for Feldpost from the north were established.

Everybody who was anybody in Germany was keen to be associated with the Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht and  so not surprisingly many famous German films stars and much loved singers of the day, such as the German Forces very own Lale Andersen together with Mimi Thoma & Zarah Leander and of course, the wonderful bass voice behind the show’s ‘Gute Nacht Mutter’ Wilhelm Strienz, gave their time freely in support of the broadcast. Perhaps therefore it was only a matter of time, before Reichspropagandaminister Goebbels, (never one to miss a passing bandwagon and jump upon it), decreed that this programme was henceforth regarded as a Nazi ‘national broadcasting treasure’.

As the Second World War progressed and events slowly began to turn against Germany, the general output of the Reich’s Broadcasting Network began to change, subtly at first, then with more and more blatant propaganda broadcasts beginning to take over from the earlier musical entertainment; not surprisingly a more sombre mood began to replace the previous gaiety of the earlier years. However, despite German forces facing severe reverses on all fronts, the Wunschkonzert was the one programme that escaped the long shadow being cast over other programmes, and the weekly show very soon became the main focus for a nation desperate to escape the harsh realities of a war suddenly turning against them.

So important, and indeed vital, a programme did the Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht become in maintaining the morale of a German nation now facing the complete unknown, that Reichspropagandaminister Goebbels was even moved to rescind his earlier ban in 1935 on the playing of jazz music in an effort to keep the nation’s spirits up!

But from 1943 onwards, as the Allied bombing offensive against the Reich began to increase in intensity, the radio audiences tuning in on medium wave found their listening increasingly interrupted by something called the ‘Kuckucksruf’ (cuckoo call), a melodious two-tone signal that would suddenly break into the music to tell the nation that the first Allied bombers had been spotted over the Reich.

The music would then resume, only to be interrupted again by the call a few minutes later, then at the third call, an announcer would confirm that Allied bombers had entered German airspace, giving exact location and map co-ordinates so allowing the audience to keep track of the air-raids as they unfolded in the skies above their homeland..! As the war finally turned irreversibly against the Reich, German radio broadcasts were to become interrupted on an almost daily basis, with many listeners coming to dread the sound of the ominous Kuckucksruf!!

Finally Deutschlansender fell silent in April 1945 as Russian forces converged on Berlin and the most popular radio show in German history died alongside the fatally wounded capital but the Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmacht left behind a wonderful radio legacy that would never be repeated…

Heard by millions of listeners from East Africa to North America, across Europe to the Far East, the Request Show for the German Armed Forces was not only instrumental in holding a nation at war together… but eventually raised a staggering 17 million Reichsmarks for charities on the German Home Front during its wonderful, broadcasting lifetime…

Now the essence of this most famous and evocative of all Third Reich war-time radio programmes has been brilliantly captued by Tomahawk Films in our evocative and exciting 2-CD radio series simply entitled: Wunschkonzert für die Wehrmachtenjoy!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013