Third Reich Spielleute…

As one thought or action invariably leads onto another so, as the bugler and drummer/fifer are forever linked historically down the ages, did I find myself moving from former naval cadet bugler to rock-drummer with ‘Adam West and the Gotham City Rockers’, amongst other bands, early on in my pre-television professional life.

However, like many other tub-thumpers I have also endured much stick as a result, for we un-sung souls, (beavering away at the back of the stage to ensure the ‘rock gods’ in the spotlight at the front kept time & looked good), are always the much-mocked ones and never taken seriously by our fellow musicians… though have you ever tried playing a full 5-piece rock kit and seen just how difficult it is? So perhaps having mastered this complex instrument myself I wasn’t quite the knuckle-dragger as depicted by the ‘real’ musos!

However on the basis of ‘once a drummer, always a drummer’ my continued long–time interests in the infantry bugle also helped keep alive, (once I’d given up active rock drumming), my interest in the snare-drum in its military role with the company bugler and drummer & fifers… an integral part of any military column throughout history.

Markedly different from the ‘standard’ German military musician and forever at the head of the company on the march, the Spielleute…literally playing people… have, with their fife & drums, (together with my beloved signalhorn), seemingly forever been a part of military lore. In fact the fife is very much an historical instrument in its own right having been given to the world by the ancient Greeks, and then picked up by Swiss mercenaries who used them in conjunction with drums as far back as The Middle Ages.

Adopted by the British army in the 18th century, the Third Reich’s Hitlerjugend was to take to fife & drumming with a great enthusiasm and ready zeal in the 1930s and today fifes, (along with bugles), are always associated with drums, with the German military term Trommelflöte in fact meaning ‘drum flute’. Made of black ebony and normally tuned in C of normal tuning the fife (or Pfeife in German) measured approximately 15 inches in length and when not being played was kept in a brown or black leather fife case suspended from the bugler or drummer’s leather belt to the rear of his bayonet and frog.

However, the oldest of all the military instruments is the snare or side-drum dating right back to The Crusades and, used in conjunction with the fife, was an effective way of keeping an army in step and on the move; like bugles they were also used to signal & transmit orders. In the 17th century, German armies went into quarters during the winter until a spring offensive could be launched, with soldiers being billeted in a town or village and with only the locals inns and hostelries for entertainment.

To encourage the soldiers to return to their billets at the end of the evening, the inn-keepers would turn their ale-taps off promptly at 10pm. This ‘witching hour’ would then be communicated to inn-keepers and soldiers alike by the garrison drummers who, in the company of an officer and sergeant, would set off around the town beating out a rhythm, whilst checking and ensuring all soldiers were on the move. From this action the word Tattoo’ which we are all now very familiar with in today’s military phraseology is thought to have been coined, derived directly from the Dutch phrase: Doe-Den-Tap-Toe or ‘Turn The Taps Off’!

Wehrmacht snare drum barrels were made of a brass and their batter heads made from calf-skin whilst snares were made from four catgut cords which were strung tightly across the lower drum skin and were held in place by a brass knob on one side and a hook and cord-screw on the corresponding side opposite. The skins were held in place by a wooden inner ring and an outer ring, the latter having a thin covering of copper, and the complete drum was held together by 5 stretching screws  evenly spaced around the body. Additionally a piece of strong curved wire, either covered in field-grey cloth or bound in leather, was riveted to the drum’s bottom rings as protection for the drummer’s trousers or breeches…

By a German army order of August 1933, all military snare and side drums were to be painted white on the inside and on top of the wooden drum rings, whilst the outsides should have 39 red lacquered isosceles triangles along the outer edge, with 39 black triangles along the bottom edge, both pointing inwards, with the resulting squares pattern formed between the triangles in white.

Whilst Luftwaffe and Heer & Waffen-SS snare drums had a standard brass barrel, it was custom and practice for the Kriegsmarine to over-paint the brass in a dark or medium blue. Hitler Youth & Sturm Abteilung snare drums, produced in 3 differing sizes, were painted in red and white alternating triangles, whilst those of the Allgemeine-SS & Waffen-SS sported alternating black and white triangles… and if you actually get to see or handle one ‘in the flesh’ very attractive items they are too…

Incidentally, talking of the Spielleute and their musical armoury of fife, drum & signalhorn, (another subject I write about in some length in the Tomahawk Films-produced book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45), the bugle itself was originally developed, way back in the dim & distant past by the French as a hunting accessory. In fact ‘bugle’ is actually the French word for ‘young bull’ and it was to be the German & French armies that adopted the instrument for military use, and its primary role was in the passing of signals on the battlefield and in camp, including ‘To Arms’ or ‘Last Post’.

As such it soon became an instrument of major significance within the German military, with all units parading its own signalling bugler.

However, finally as a sign-off for this particular Blog, whilst having dwelt primarily on the subject of the snare drum, though not an instrument of the Spielleute but very much harking back to those aforementioned Swiss and indeed German mercenaries of the Middle Ages, is the Landsknecht drum that was peculiar to the Hitler Youth and Deutsche Jungvolk. Certainly a most formidable-looking and very attractive military instrument, its skins were made from calf-hide, and its wooden drum rings were secured top and bottom by rope cords tautened by leather thongs.

Often used en-masse as part of the formidable Nazi propaganda machinery, these impressive drums were worn suspended on a black leather strap over the right shoulder and hanging down at an angle on the drummer’s left and in place of the standard drum-sticks, it was played by two cane-stick beaters with thick white felt pads on the end…

The usual or standard colour-scheme for these beautiful drums was a most dramatic, almost vivid red & white burning flame design for drums paraded by the Hitler Youth, and a similar black & white flame design for the Landsknecht drums of the  Deutsche Jungvolk. The DJ drums also appeared as a very dramatic design of black with a white runic device to the front. In terms of drum size, as with military snare drums, smaller sizes for the shorter boys were produced and issued.

In addition, though a musical instrument forever linked with the propaganda film newsreels of Hitler’s Germany, they were also used later on in great numbers in post-war East Germany, where they were repainted in blue & yellow of the FDJ and re-issued for use by the myriad Communist Youth bands, so as the saying goes: ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Best of Enemies..!

Staying at the home of the enemy that tried to kill you in the war-time skies over Europe would seem to many people to be a fanciful story that could never happen; but that is exactly what did happen to a former Lancaster flight engineer from Hampshire, who survived his encounter with  Luftwaffe night-fighter ace, Knight’s Cross holder Heinz Rokker, over the French town of Neufchateau in July 1944.

One of only two air-crew to escape from their blazing bomber that fateful night, Thomas Harvell from Southampton parachuted to safety and was rescued by a local Frenchman, to later join forces with Resistance fighters, the Maquis, whom he fought alongside  in the Autumn of 1944 as they harassed German supply lines.

Known today by former members of the Maquis as ‘notre Anglais’, Mr Harvell, was on his way from a 5-day stay at Mr Rokker’s home in Oldenburg in Germany to France’s national monument to their war-time Resistance fighters at Sicon in the Franche-Comte region, when I caught up with him in Neufchateau whist I was travelling with Combat Veterans of America’s 79th Infantry Division on their pilrimage back to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy and thence onto Alsace-Lorraine.

Mr Harvell was to be presented with a medal of appreciation by the Federation Nationale Andre Maginot, and a certificate bearing the name of his war-time alias ‘Charles Hautier’ in recognition of his daring war-time exploits alongside his French comrades; however such acts of derring-do would not have happened, but for Heinz Rokkers’ dramatic & deadly intervention that July night.

An officer in the CID branch of British Transport Police at Southampton Docks, back in 1944 Mr Harvell was flying to Stuttgart on the night of July 28/29th with 514 Squadron’s Lancasters from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, when he first came face-to-face with Hauptmann Rokker…literally!

Born on October 20th 1920 in Oldenburg, Heinz Rokker volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, having just sat his German ‘A’ Levels, (Kriegsabitur), early because of the outbreak of war. Upon acceptance in to the Third Reich’s air arm, he immediately undertook officer and initial pilot training at the Luftkriegschule (Air Warfare School) at Berlin-Gatow before being posted to Magdeburg to complete his training. Following night-fighter conversion at the Nachtjagdschule (Night-fighter School), at Neubiberg-Ingolstadt, he was posted to 1/NJG 2  in Sicily, scoring his first 4 night kills over North Africa.

In August 1941 the Squadron was sent to Brussels-Melsbroek for a rest, during which he undertook two long night flights over England, before transferring back to Sicily in January 1943 where he added a further kill to his mounting tally. July 1943 saw Rokker’s night-fighter squadron posted back to Germany as part of the Reich’s air defence umbrella around Kassel-Rothwesten and after the June 6th Allied Invasion of Normandy was posted to Chateaudun. In early 1944 Rokker was promoted to Hauptmann and made a Staffelkapitan, (Squadron Leader), and was now flying from the Rotenburg/Twente/Kassel-Rothwesten sector once again when scrambled against Thomas Harvell’s second incoming Lancaster raid on Stuttgart of the week.

Flying his radar-equipped Junkers Ju88 with its twin cannons mounted on top of the fuselage, known as Schrage-musik (slanting music) Rokker, who was to amass 64 kills before war’s end, lay in wait for the RAF ‘blind bomber’ formations and having already shot down one Lancaster that night, finally pounced as Mr Harvell’s aircraft flew wide of the bomber stream, his navigator having locked onto the British aircraft’s H2S radar waves.

Rokker flew under Harvell’s lone aircraft and using a ‘pull-down’ visor which magnified the target, let loose his Schrage-musik cannons, firing up at the underside of the Lancaster into the bomber’s port inner engine. For reasons that Thomas Harvell still cannot not fathom, pilot Flt Lt Jones continued to fly straight & level, taking no evasive action whatsoever.

One 39 Allied aircraft shot down in that single, the German ace could not believe his luck and having circled around to watch the bomber continuing in its level flight, swung back in on the starboard side and raked the Lancaster with heavy nose-canon fire… this time the doomed heavy four-engined aircraft blew up in the night-sky over Neufchateau.

Thrown clear of the exploding Lancaster as cannon fire hit its fuel tanks and rescued by a local Frenchman after a hair-raising parachute landing, Mr Harvell found his way into the hands of the Resistance. After several aborted attempts to reach Allied lines, he opted to stay and help the French underground in their clandestine war against the Germans. During a 6 week period he fought alongside the Maquis, helping to liberate the town of Pierrefontaine in 1944, before being ‘liberated’ himself by advancing American Forces.

Eventually making his way back to Britain, via Italy, in November 1944, Mr Harvell rejoined his squadron, but was told that downed air-crew fighting with the Resistance was deemed to be against the terms of the Geneva Convention. He would therefore no longer be able to fly on ‘Ops’ and was assigned to aircrew  training until the end of the war, returning to ‘civvy street’ in 1947.

Back in Germany, Hauptmann Rokker as a night-fighter pilot, amassing a further 59 kills with the ’Wilde Sau-Zahme Sau’ Geschwader, (Savage Hog-Tame Hog Squadron), from his final air-base in Schleswig. His war-time medals included a Black Wound badge on July 14th 1942, the Iron Cross 1st Class on August 14th 1942, the Knight’s Cross from the hands of Adolf Hitler on July 27th 1944 and the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross on March 12th 1945 from Head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering.

At war’s end Heinz Rokker was briefly interned by the Allies and on his release in late 1945 qualified as a teacher, retiring from his post as a deputy head-teacher of a primary school in his native Germany in 1982.

Meanwhile the ‘Aviateur Anglais’ Thomas Harvell is a regular guest of his war-time Resistance comrades in the beautiful French town of Neufchateau…

But how did they feel coming face-to-face after their deadly duel in the night skies of Europe so many years before? Mr Harvell explained: “Heinz was very proud to be an ace and before meeting me, he’d been a guest at the RAF’s Air Gunners Association where he met a Halifax rear gunner and a Mosquito pilot he’d shot down and both were very surprised to meet the German pilot who’d been their Nemesis.

But when I met him, it was as if we’d known each other all of our lives, though it had been so personal back then as he was actually trying to kill me..!  As an ace he had obviously been a ruthless man and though he later became a quiet primary school teacher, whenever he talks about his wartime exploits you can see that old streak of ruthlessness emerge once again..! 

As for meeting Heinz in person, it was very emotional and as we are both tall men his first words to me were that we were ‘both a matching pair’’… furthermore he could certainly well remember that night, telling me that he had to give us two bursts to despatch us as we continued to fly straight and level”

Today the two adversaries are friends, their deadly duel but a distant memory and whilst Heinz Rokker lives in peaceful retirement in Germany, still with his Knights Cross with Oakleaves on display at his home, Thomas Harvell is home in Hampshire, a hero of the French Resistance… with both medal and citation to prove it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013