‘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

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

Radio in The Third Reich…

It was in the mid-1920s that a national broadcasting network, Grossdeutscher Rundfunk (Greater German Radio), was established in Germany and Funkstunde Berlin, was the first regional station to begin broadcasting on the 29th October 1923…and Berlin’s ‘Radio Hour’ became the first well-known programme of this new medium, with some 500 Berliners registered to receive it.The following year saw a number of regional radio stations (Reichssender) set up on medium wave under the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk umbrella in the cities of Leipzig, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Königsberg & Münster.

Two years later Berlin found itself with a second radio station, Deutsche Welle, established in 1926 and this expansion in radio broadcasting captured the imagination of the German public and the number of registered & licensed radio listeners soon rose to an incredible 500,000. By the end of 1926 this figure had risen to well over one million Germans who were eagerly paying their 2 Reichsmarks (2 shillings or ten pence) a month to receive regular radio broadcasts in their own home!

Though the art of radio broadcasting & programme production was still fairly primitive, music was very much at the heart of this new fledgling form of entertainment, and there was a good variety & mix: from opera & operetta  to symphony orchestras & solo recitals which filled the regular evening broadcasting slots.

Then on January 30th 1933, Berlin radio carried a news-flash stating that Leipzig, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Königsberg & Münster. leader, Adolf Hitler, had been promoted to the position of Reich Chancellor. With this brief message, radio broadcasting in Germany moved into a whole new era, to become a vital tool in the hands of the new propagandists! The following day, January 31st, Reichskanzler Hitler made his inaugural national radio address to the Third Reich, the first of some 50 broadcasts that he would make in his first year of office!

On March 15th 1933, the German Government assigned all broadcasting rights to the newly-formed Ministry for Education & Propaganda under Minister-in-Charge, Joseph Goebbels, who viewed radio as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. He triumphantly declared: ‘We will create the first modern broadcasting system in the world has ever seen…and so take our National Socialist demands to the people…’ 

However the Nazi take-over did not, as one would have imagined, immediately change the tone of broadcasting from entertainment to blatant political propaganda; the reason for this can be attributed directly to Goebbels, who was not a stupid man and, along with Adolf Hitler, had quickly realised the power of radio & its influence over a population.

He was determined to ensure that radio retained its impact on the German people and not lose the appeal of National Socialism. He therefore issued an order at a conference of radio officials in March 1933 that radio output should….‘never become boring! Avoid dreariness and don’t put your convictions on the turntable, Do not think that you can serve the our government best by the sound of blaring marches evening after evening! Broadcasting should never suffer from the misused word!’

Nevertheless, Goebbels managed very successfully to balance entertainment with the political message, and in April 1933 he introduced a new programme called ‘Stunde der Nation’ (Hour of the Nation), which was relayed to all German regional radio stations each evening between 7 & 8 pm. Containing a professional mix of lectures, radio plays and politically inspired music and opera, it fulfilled Goebbel’s desire that radio should also:“saturate the people with the spiritual content of National Socialism!”

Two very astute observations from the Minister for Propaganda, but his approach seemed to work, for later that same year, at the tenth Broadcasting Exhibition in Berlin the People’s Receiver, the Volksempfänger 301 (derived from the date of the Nazis’ ascension to power on January 30th 1933), was launched, selling a staggering 100,000 sets on the first day at a cost of 76 marks (£5.8s.10d or £5.44p), almost half the cost of its nearest rival!

Radio broadcasting in Germany had certainly come of age, and by the following year an incredible 5 million German radio listeners were registered and though home ownership of the new radio receivers was growing rapidly, Goebbels was anxious that all Germans had access to radio broadcasts. He therefore ordered that radio loudspeakers be immediately installed in all factories and on street corners across the Reich to ensure that the political speeches of the nation’s leaders would reach the widest audience possible…

Under the slogan ‘a radio in every home’, he also decided that a low- cost radio set should now be made available to the German masses.

Technical & programme production development continued apace,and in 1936 a new and improved version of the VE301 was introduced at a lower cost of 65 marks (£5.5s.4d or £5.27p), followed in 1938 by the smaller Deutscher Kleinempfänger (German Compact People’s Receiver), which was introduced to great acclaim and (and no little excitement!), at an even lower and much more affordable price of just 35 marks (£2.17s.7d or £2.88p).

By 1938, light entertainment music, so-called ‘Unterhaltungsmusik’, was accounting for nearly two thirds of all music output, and in this pre-television era, German radio was winning the plaudits of its listeners for its variety of music from opera to musicals and for its willingness to experiment and play the latest in the new dance music, such as that of Barnabas von Geczy.

Broadcasting hours had risen from 14 hours a day in 1932 to 20 hours in the year before the outbreak of war, and with the expansion of the whole German broadcasting network, Berlin’s own ‘Radio Hour’ developed into a programme called ‘Germany’s Hour’ which was broadcast on the national network. In addition, each regional station in the German broadcasting network hired its own professional musicians, with the Berlin Funkstunde, for example, employing a 75-strong radio orchestra, a chamber orchestra of twenty-eight musicians and a twenty-five man choir.

By the outbreak of war in 1939, the number of domestic German listeners had risen to some 10 million, and with the extension of broadcasting hours, the demand for Unterhaltungs musik grew to such an extent that Goebbels actively ordered more of it be played on the radio. In September 1941, with a total audience of just over 50 million listeners now tuning in to some 15 million sets, he went a step further in establishing a Deutsches Tanz und Unterhaltungs Orchester.

Throughout the war years, Joseph Goebbels, as Reichspropagandaminister, continued to personally vet all musical content and weed out any records or performances that he thought inappropriate, but rather surprisingly, however, was how little Adolf Hitler actually interfered or meddled within the field of German civilian & military musical entertainment.

During his leadership of the Reich, he appeared to have issued only two direct music-related dictums, both on February 6th 1939: firstly that the infamous Horst Wessel Lied, (the alternative Nazi anthem), be played at a faster tempo… and that his beloved German National Anthem (Deutschlandlied) be played at crochet = 80..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

 

Sometimes It’s More Than Luck..!

Every now and then I receive an e-mail relating to some incredible stories from the Second World War: tales of incredible bravery, some of amazing derring-do and some that just make me stop in my tracks and really think for a moment or two and wonder if they are merely apocryphal or are based in fact..!

For the latest to cross my desk, I am indebted to a good pal of mine who is currently working on the impressive German Maisy Batterie, the recently discovered and thence completely uncovered ‘must-see’ D-Day military attraction slap-bang on the Normandy Invasion Coast of France.The exciting discovery of this long-hidden Batterie and the realisation all these years on of its vitally important role on D-Day has attracted great media interest… and I hope to write about it and offer more photos here in future Blogs…

However, in the meantime his recent forwarded e-mail from across the Channel concerns the story of one Elmer Bendiner, who as a young man, was a navigator with the USAAF on a B-17 Flying Fortress flying from its base here in East Anglia during the heavy air campaign over Germany in the Second World War. Elmer has related a most incredible story of one of his war-time bombing  runs over the town of Kassel that had a most unexpected outcome as the result of a direct hit on the fuel tanks of this sturdy American bomber from Luftwaffe anti-aircraft guns defending the city. Elmer takes up the story:

“Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi anti-aircraft guns, which wasn’t unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimetre canon shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot told me it was not quite that simple as on the morning following the raid, he’d had gone off to ask our ground-crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of our unbelievable luck…

The crew-chief told him that not just one shell but 11 had been found in the gas tanks… 11 unexploded shells whereas just one would have been sufficient to blast us out of the sky..! It was just as if the sea had been parted for us… a near-miracle, I thought! Even after all those years, so awesome an event still leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from our former pilot who was later told that the shells had been sent to the armourers to be defused… and they had told him that USAAF  Intelligence had suddenly come in to pick them up and take them away for inspection, without a word as to why..!.

However it later transpired that when the armourers opened each of those shells, they had found no explosive charges… they were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless.. completely empty!  
All except one of them that had contained a carefully rolled piece of paper and on it was a scrawl in Czech. The Intelligence people had then scoured our base for a man who could read Czech and eventually they found one to decipher the note, which set us all marvelling for, when translated, the note read: ”This is all we can do for you now … using slave labour is never a good idea..!”

Indeed whether apocryphal or completely true, (and I’d like to think it was indeed one of those fabulous true stories that emerge from time to time), I’ll let you decide which for, as I wrote at the beginning of this particular Blog, sometimes these stories from the Second World War, whether indeed real or ‘enhanced’ just stop you in your tracks and this was certainly one of those…Talking of which: Part Two of Hitler’s Rise-The Colour Films was aired last night…but at least this time came the voice-over confession at the start of the documentary that the footage had indeed been ‘digitally enhanced’… i.e. colourised, so ‘The Colour Films’ as trumpeted were sadly no such thing, more’s the pity.  As I have often moaned before: ‘Why do they do this..?’

Without meaning to sound too po-faced about this, I personally feel that tampering with original b/w Third Reich film footage through adding colour not only ‘humanises’ some scenes that should remain thought-provoking in their original harsher hues as shot, but also buggering about 70 years after the event by adding such colour that wasn’t originally there is not only akin to inserting newly-written paragraphs in Shakespeare, (or other works of literature years after they were finished & lauded), but somehow seemingly also runs the risk of lessening the impact when the occasional haul of previously unseen Agfa-colour 16mm film (or even 35mm if we are really lucky), still surfaces from time-to-time.

So for these reasons, amongst others, I always find myself thinking they should have left well alone, as the original archival b/w film tampered with in this particular case was absolutely superb and good enough to stand on its own two feet, especially rare footage of Hitler’s Bodyguard divisional band, the Musikkorps Leibstandarte-SS. Indeed the thoughtful commentary running behind some of this superb footage also continued to offer odd snippets of additional background information that the myriad previous documentaries on Adolf Hitler had not thought (or knew enough), about to include and were certainly a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the subject.

But it is almost as if the producers or commissioning editors thought that they wouldn’t get a big enough audience for their black & white footage without somehow sensationalising their documentary for the viewing masses by introducing colour to footage what should have most assuredly remained in its 1930s & 1940s state… especially as in places the colourisers had made a real hash of things resulting in several rather uncomfortable ‘ouch’ moments!

This was a crying shame, and in places something of a diversion as sections of the footage were quite rare… including, (and excitingly for me with this Nazi anthem ever-present in our Tomahawk Films Archive), terrific footage of the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel and the ensuing funeral arrangements after his murder that I’d not previously encountered. In addition, some some of the Hitler Speeches, (and several from Reichs Propagandaminister Goebbels) were actually of the rarer variety and so the visual imagery accompanying them certainly didn’t need any tampering with whatsoever.

It may come as a complete surprise to the young shavers now in charge of the ‘Magic Lantern’ but those of us long fascinated by the history of the Third Reich, both professionally & personally, don’t actually need to be led by the nose in this crass fashion and made to feel that we are not intelligent or sufficiently interested in such historical programmes that we would only watch their documentary if they had jazzed it up a bit first….what a shame and in fact, what arrogance… but then that’s the modern world of television programme-making for you..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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