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

Collecting Third Reich Signalhorns…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The Third Reich’s Record Industry…

As I explain in greater depth in my book, The Military Music & Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945, German military music and its production really came of age in the mid 1920s, with the introduction of electric recording and the advent of the microphone; as a result, subsequent record production took off in 1930 and continued into the years of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1941.

However, with the ready availability of military marching music in public life, be it an open-air concert in the town square or a military parade through the town headed by the garrison’s Musikkorps, the actual demand for 78rpm schellack records was initially limited. This combined with the fact that the ‘new’ records were still considered as a bit of a luxury, meant that the majority of military recordings were initially transferred onto schellack for radio play, although all this would soon change.

The actual quality of these recordings took a gigantic leap in 1938 when German industrial giant AEG first developed a plastic tape with a ferrous coating which was then followed in 1941 by a pre-magnetised, high-frequency tape.

When used in conjunction with the newly developed Magnetophone recorder, this allowed for both the recording and play-back of music and, (particularly fortuitous for the Third Reich’s propagandists), the speeches of Adolf Hitler & Joseph Goebbels which were to become virtually indistinguishable from their live concerts!

With these major technological steps forward it was now possible to record up to twenty minutes duration and, for the first time, also allowed the editing of pieces from different sources, another key feature in the propaganda war that was now being waged on the Nazi airwaves.

Whilst the number of record companies in Germany increased almost overnight, the financial crash of 1929 and subsequent depression saw a large number of these fledgling companies sink without trace. Those that survived did so because they had international connections; these included two companies owned by British interests, Electrola, the German off-shoot of the Gramophone Company, and Carl Lindstrom Gesellschaft, which belonged to Columbia and released its recordings on the Odeon label. Both companies had very extensive catalogues of music recorded in Berlin.

Deutsche Grammophon & Telefunken were the two most important wholly German-owned companies, (with recordings of military music primarily aimed at the domestic market), and their reaction to the incoming National Socialist regime in 1933 was cautious, to say the least! However from a purely business point of view they simply could not ignore the public’s clamour & demand for commercial recordings of the new Nazi-inspired political and military music.

So they went about fulfilling this insatiable demand and from May 1933 onwards, Electrola alone released seven records a month devoted purely to patriotic songs and marching music, with the other companies eagerly following suit. By war’s outbreak in September 1939, the annual German gramophone catalogue of music releases was offering over 580 different marches, including eight alternative versions of Die Fahne Hoch!(Horst Wessel Song) and a tantalising six different versions of the ‘The Badenweiler Marsch’.

Nazi regulation of the German recording industry was somewhat laxer than its hold over the radio industry, which is probably why Carl Lindstrom was able to continue recording and distributing American jazz music on its Odeon swing series throughout all the countries occupied by the forces of the Wehrmacht.

However, Goebbels soon included the German record industry in his implementation of the anti-Jewish policies and thus ordered all recording companies to purge their catalogues of all Jewish-penned & performed works, and an order issued on December 18th 1937 by the Reichsmusikkammer banned all records containing both Jewish & Negro musicians. As a direct result, other recordings deemed ‘acceptable’ to the Nazi regime were now very much elevated to an almost ‘religous level’ such as the aforementioned and very stirring tune that Adolf Hitler had adopted as his very own and highly distinctive entry march: Der Badenweiler….

The major labels initially resisted, but by 1939 they had all but given in, and the so the likes of Electrola and Carl Lindstrom (now both taken over by the Nazis), together with Deutsche Grammophon and Telefunken, had all completely cleared out their musical inventories of Jewish and Negro- influenced work.

However, keen jazz, swing & blues aficionados amongst members of Luftwaffe aircrew, flying on bombing raids against the British Isles during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and onwards, were still able to indulge their passion for this ‘sinful’ music by simply re-tuning their aircraft’s on-board short-wave radio sets to pick up BBC broadcasts emanating from London, for the duration of their mission!

By August 1941 Jospeh Goebbels had banned all music arranged by British, Poles, Russians & French citizens, the only works that survived his purge were by Chopin & Bizet and domestic orchestras were forced to turn their attentions to many obscure German composers.

However despite Goebbels’ diktats’ the German recording industry managed to function unfettered by Nazi interference, though as the Second World War progressed, fewer 78 rpm schellack records were produced between 1941 & 1942 and from 1943 onwards production virtually ceased altogether as raw materials began to reach critical levels across the Reich.

This, together with the call-up into the Third Reich’s armed forces of  workers from the hitherto ‘Reserved Occupations’ meant that, by the end of 1944, just 35,000 men & women remained in Nazi Germany’s recording industry!

But war’s end in May 1945, it had died altogether in the ashes of a defeated Germany, though several famous names, like Polydor, have risen again ‘phoenix-like’ to successfully rebuild and recover their previous international position since the end of World War Two…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

 

Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013