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

War on the Line..!

Your papers please..!”  barks the Military Policeman from the US 101st Airborne at the hapless passenger cringing in his 3rd class seat: the carriage goes quiet as the soldier then casts his eyes over the proffered Identity Card… “That’s OK!”.. then, in a cloud of Blanco dust and bristling military efficiency, he’s gone and the passengers breath a collective sigh of relief!

War on the Line the annual recreation of the momentous Summer of 1944 had once again returned to Hampshire’s famous Watercress steam railway line…

Battle re-enactment once something of a ramshackled hobby practiced by a few well-meaning but somewhat disorganised enthusiasts has, in recent years, very much become a recognised branch of the entertainment world, particularly in today’s TV documentary-making business, where original film footage is either non-existent or, if it actually still exists, then almost certainly prohibitively expensive. Therefore commissioning one of the many semi-professional specialist groups across the country to re-enact a particular scenario from an important point in history for the cameras is, if undertaken professionally, with the correct look, feel & sound effects, is more often than not a quite satisfying substitute..!

So completely taking over a renovated steam railway-line for the week-end to act out a specific war-time theme is no longer a total surprise, but simply further evidence of the growing range of scenarios that these amateur, highly knowledgeable enthusiasts like to re-create and so arriving at Alresford’s old station one lovely sun-drenched Hampshire Saturday morning in summer as I did, with a genuine a steam engine, idling contentedly at the platform in a cloud of happy steam, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered onto the set of a major war movie..!

American military policemen sitting in their jeeps cradling their carbines expectantly, ramrod-straight Grenadier Guardsmen in sentry-boxes with their Lee Enfield Mk IV rifles gripped tightly, station windows taped-up as protection against bomb blasts and barbed wire strewn across the station entrance: then suddenly the station forecourt comes alive as a small, bedraggled field-grey group of helmet-less ‘German soldiers’ are marched from the station door under escort towards the waiting jeeps..!

This was a scene that must have been re-enacted countless times for real across the whole of Southern England in those summer days immediately following the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day June 6th 1944.

Back then and less than 50 miles away, paratroopers from the U.S.101st & 82nd Airborne Divisions had jumped into Normandy as British & Canadian Infantrymen were fighting their way off the UK-designated invasion beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword and the Americans similarly from their allocated beacheheads of Utah & Omaha… and in the ensuing and very bloody melee that followed, many thousands of German soldiers were swiftly captured by the rapidly advancing Allied forces.

Rounded up and brought back across the Channel in the returning landing craft, these stunned & defeated soldiers of Hitler’s army would arrive at Southampton Docks under the stern gaze of British & US military policemen, many of whom had just taken part in the first wave of assaults on the Normandy coastline but who were now being sent back on ‘R&R’ only to find themselves pressed back into service as P.o.W. escorts. Now from the quay-side at Southampton the mixed bags of German prisoners would be marched onto waiting trains and escorted to the stockades on the Kempton Race course, their war well and truly over!

Today, at several stations all along Hampshire’s famous Watercress Line such scenarios from that Summer of ’44 are now faithfully acted ever year: ‘downed’ Luftwaffe fighter & bomber pilots and captured SS infantrymen from the SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment ‘Theodor Eicke’ are paraded on the platforms, under the watchful gaze of amazingly authentic-looking regular Grenadier Guardsmen and older Home Guard soldiers.

At Medstead & Four Marks station, local re-enactor Bryan Webb had spent over 6 months on the war-time transformation of this country railway station and now found himself dressed as a private in the Home Guard unit of the 21st Battalion, (4th Southern Railway), Hampshire, who would have actually been responsible for guarding the railway lines across Southern England at that stage of the Second World War.

Bryan explained how his friends like to recreate the less glamorous side of the British Home Front: “My Dad served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, so I thought I’d like to show that side of the war”. His friend, Italian P.o.W. ‘Benito’, better known as Mick Burkenshaw from Britain’s Blacked Out Museum, agrees: “All re-enactors want to portray the glamour, but our group prefers showing what our parents went through on the Home Front”.

His parents should be justly proud of their work, for there on the platform everybody was accurately represented: young Land Army girls with their long auburn hair sitting on a bale of hay eating their sandwiches, an ARP warden busy dealing with unexploded incendiaries whilst the station master in waistcoat & steel helmet stands patiently awaiting the next train..

Everywhere the standard of re-creation is quite extraordinary and the efforts of these young actors is well-received by the older audience, but was this emotional week-end just a trip down memory lane? Mid-Hants Watercress Line company secretary Mrs Jo Boait explained: “ As a company we are here to keep the image of the old steam railway alive for everybody, but an important event like ‘War on the Line’ not only helps to capture the atmosphere but also shows a younger generation just what those days were like”.

Then, as if right on cue, another sullen group of captured German infantrymen are escorted from this beautiful old Victorian-style railway station by stern-faced US Military Policemen, past a small group of small wide-eyed children, who can only stand & stare, open-mouthed… no doubt very much the same reaction that would have been exhibited by their young counterparts nearly 70 years ago, I’ll wager..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013