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

Hitler’s Combat Newsreels on DVD…

From as far back as I can recall, I always seemed to have an abiding interest in military history…my first awareness in my youth being that of the British side of the story in both the First and Second World Wars, (my paternal grandfather having been a pre-war professional soldier who served with the Essex Regiment in the trenches of the Western Front between the years 1914-18).

However thanks to my coming across the eye-popping Third Reich collection of a great mate Phil, in my later teens, (who happened to live just around the corner from my parent’s house), my fascination for military history very much became focussed on the story of the Nazi era, yet it was to be another 10 years before I had a chance to actually turn my private studies into, effectively, a life-time of work in this fascinating historical and archival field of period film & music…

In fact I had been working for some while with small Winchester-based Film & TV company Lacewing Productions, (at that time primarily cutting my teeth as Production Manager on the famous and evergreen series: ’The Old Country with Jack Hargreaves’), when I mooted to the two directors that I thought, with this new-fangled thing called ‘video’ just coming into vogue, (I joined the telly world when 16mm film was still the shooting & programme transmission medium via tele-cine), there was now an opportunity to start re-releasing many of the WW-II documentaries being sold to the collector on super 8mm home-reels onto video… and perhaps even set up a dedicated mail-order company to market such military material straight to the enthusiast?

I was allowed to spend any down-time I had at the studio researching into the viability of my ideas but sadly, by the time that I had realised that I was indeed onto a winner, Lacewing had gone under, so I put all of my notes away safely and went off to work as a freelancer. However several years later, through a circuitous route, Tomahawk Films was created, with me at the helm, and so I went back into the old files and dusted off my notes…

By now several other companies had also realised that WW-II documentaries on video were the ‘latest thing’ and there was now a market for such titles…so Tomahawk very soon became an archival distribution & mail-order company seeking out & sourcing some fantastic WW-II documentary footage and releasing it to an avid video market that could not get enough!

Eventually our World War Two video catalogue, entitled Images of War, offered some 400 exciting documentary titles and we had mail-order customers all over the world…but slowly alongside the original, in-house work that I was putting into producing my documentary Channel Islands Occupied, I was also putting out the word out I was looking for anybody that might be sitting on any captured German film footage. Sounds silly saying it now, but I thought back then that there might just be a chance that amongst the veteran soldiers who brought all sorts of souvenirs back like helmets, flags & badges etc, somebody might have had the chance to ‘acquire’ some film cans…so I put an advert in the old Exchange and Mart, as was back then….and I actually got a reply!!!

A former British intelligence officer telephoned to say that he had pile of rusty German film cans ‘under his spare bed’ if I was interested in coming and having a look…? So not wanting to miss a possible opportunity I jumped in my car and headed north to Yorkshire to meet this lovely old chap..and sure enough there, under that spare bed, was indeed a pile of 16mm mute film.

Pulling out an old British army projector, he started spooling up the first can, and over the next few hours I sat transfixed as I saw some of the most exciting German Propaganda Kompanie combat film footage I had ever seen…(for even by the late 1980s as this was, I was already starting to see the same old film footage being put out in a range of documentaries and was aching to see something new!). By the end of the impromptu film show my head was reeling but I knew that I wanted very much to buy this film footage..so after a fabulous dinner in the nearby town, and probably having imbibed one too many glasses of excellent wine, I offered him £2,000, (a fortune then and not an insignificant amount now), for all 16 cans, to which he very readily and happily agreed..!

During dinner he was able to fill me in a little more and explained that, in 1945 he and his driver had arrived in Hanover only to stumble across Ukrainian troops ransacking the city’s main Gestapo Headquarters and looking for treasures whilst also throwing cine-projectors from an upstairs window!!  Brandishing his pistol he burst into the building and charged upstairs through the Ukrainian troops coming downstairs, loaded with their booty, and on seeing piles of film cans stacked in a blazing room, grabbed 16 of them and retreated back to his jeep to be driven back to his Allied base camp for security analysis… and there they stayed until after the war when, amazingly, he was handed them back, considered to be his own personal ‘booty’ which should be returned!

The cans were put into his spare room and remained, untouched, until my E & M advert in the mid 80s stirred his memory, when I was called and subsequently arrived to see all the cans resurface completely intact! Once I had the them safely in Tomahawk’s care we arranged to have the film taken up to the heart of the film industry in London’s Soho, where all of the reels were expertly cleaned & re-oiled to get rid of the years of dirt and so bring them sparkling back to life.

Once lovingly restored we brought in a 16mm film editor to cut & splice the stunning sequences together to effectively produce four exciting video titles from the restoration of these superbly detailed German combat newsreels, which were then transferred to 1” tape thence latterly to Beta SP as new master formats came on-line…

As I alluded to earlier, most of this Nazi Propagandakompanie footage had never been in public before and though it had many sub-titles throughout, there were no soundtracks found with it and we assumed that, as Die Wochenschau (Weekly Newsreels), such footage was destined to be shown in local German cinemas in its silent form with perhaps just piano or other musical accompaniment maybe.

However rather than leave it silent Tomahawk acquired a stirring German soundtrack, (now released as a separate audio CD) and armed with a newly acquired collection of WW-II sound effects (also available as an SFX archive on our CD Sounds of War), we went into the studio, with Simon ‘Woody’ Wood, who was back then a freelancer before the days of his current studio, studio Dubmaster, who really brought this incredibly film to life. In fact it was this German music soundtrack that would eventually set Tomahawk films off into its direction of Third Reich Military & Civilian Music on CD…a direction that we had no inkling of at the time!!

Which also helps explain to our later Third Reich Musik collectors, unaware of our early genesis, why we are actually called Tomahawk Films:   simply because of that fact that we started out as a war-time documentary film company but as, slowly & steadily, our name became synonymous with German Military music we did think about a possible name change to reflect that fact…

However we soon realised that, from a marketing point of view, once you are well known for something in particular, you certainly don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and change your name… so even though 75% of our historical media work is now in the German archival music field, rather than the in ‘pure documentary production film’ arena, the name ‘Tomahawk Films’ stayed and our Third Reich music continues to be happily marketed on CD around the world under our well-known moniker..!

So after Woody, (the first time that Tomahawk Films had actually worked with him, the second being as sound recordist on our 50′ television documentary ‘Channel Islands Occupied’) had produced his sound-on-film dubbing magic, Tomahawk proudly released the outcome as a 4-part video series, each with its own separate title:

Russian Front Volume I: The all-out action begins as Wehrmacht cameramen cover the combat assault teams across the Dneiper River, taking Minsk, Stalingrad and Rostov whilst close-quarter action intercuts with spectacular footage in the cockpits of Me-110′s and He-111′s battling high above the Russian steppes…

Russian Front Volume II : The intense and bloody combat photography continues in the heat of battle as the German infantry storm Kharkov and Kersch with flame throwers & heavy M.G’ whilst a fascinating record of the siege of Sevastapol offers an incredible sequence on German heavy artillery, including the Wehrmacht’s truly awesome railway guns…

Air Land and Sea: A Kriegsmarine Honour Guard introduces the Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau’s ‘Channel Dash’ under R.A.F. attack whilst rare Dieppe newsreel and the Waffen-SS in Finland leads into ‘Murmansk to Africa’, a lightning overview of the war and ends with some really exciting Luftwaffe in-cockpit action in ‘Air War in the East’.

Finally the 4 title: Afrika Korps: which offers desert combat footage from the war in North Africa, including Ju-88′s in action, Italian assault troops, German troops under canvas with Rommel and the Fall of Tobruk; also Luftwaffe footage of the air attack on Malta and finally a great sequence offering ground crews ‘bombing-up’ and close ups of Kesselring and fighter ace Marseille…

At a later date we took the decision to then re-edit all four titles together to make an exciting and more cost-effective 90 minute video for our customers entitled: The Combat Newsreels of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich,which in turn became a world-play DVD of the same name, still with its incredible 16mm footage and stirring German music and combat effects soundtrack…

Over the years I have often thought about writing a  script and narrating it for the DVD, but do you know what?.. the film footage is so exciting and so gripping that any random voice-over, (however well or pertinently I had written a script), would have added little to the viewer’s enjoyment and possibly merely insulted their intelligence.

So in the end I opted to leave these incredible Combat Newsreels with just their rip-roaring music & combat sound effects sound-track where pertinent…and happily I made the right decision judging from the enthusiastic customer feed-back we get..and the fact it still keeps selling in its many thousands..!.

Even today, I have still seen very little of this footage used in the myriad TV documentaries that keep appearing on television, so I still bless the day that my old appeal for German footage via the pages of the Exchange & Mart came up trumps..!

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013