Music behind Barbed Wire

By Cecil V Hammett
Who spent more than Five Years in German Prison Camps


Cecil V Hammett
It is not for me to write the real story of the five years and eight months which a handful of British civilians spent behind German barbed wire.
It is for me apparently, to record the musical activities of that time, and the enormous debt I owe to my colleagues in internment for their untiring efforts to keep the rest of the boys entertained.
We started off in Wulzburg-a village in Bavaria-where we had no piano. There was, however, a Steinmeyer (Nuremberg) organ in the castle chapel, where I played for the Sunday services, and was allowed to practise three days per week. It was a two manual electro-pneumatic job, comprising flute, oboe, viole, principal and diapason. The fl. + trem. gave the most beautiful tibia-like sound I have ever heard.
At this time, I was the only musician in the camp, and it was not until the S.S. "Orama" was torpedoed that any more of the musical persuasion arrived.
By the time the "Orama" band arrived, we had scraped 184 marks together and bought a piano-of a sort! The camp carpenter got a gang together, took the piano to pieces, cleaned it, and put it together again, without having anything left over! We borrowed a tuning key from a friendly villager, and I tuned the piano-and retained the key for future use.
Almost at the same time as the survivors of the "Orama" arrived, the British civilian group from Norway came in, and with them a musician who was to be my friend and collaborator throughout the war.
We soon had a band going, among whose members the following were outstanding: Drummer Raymond Mays (late Princes Rest); Sax. and Clar., Harry Hills (late Casa Loma); Trumpet, Charlie Knuckey (late Bram Martin); and my co-pianist, arranger and leader Frank Still (late accomp. Diana Miller in Norwegian tour). These four, together with a string section, led alternately by Niel Block and Charles Harberreiter, provided music of all kinds, week in and out, until the "Orama" group were shifted to a Merchant Navy Camp.
Their departure was a severe blow, and left Frank Still, Tom Reilly (Canadian harmonica ace) and myself to provide all the musical entertainment.
We were soon shifted ourselves, however, and eventually landed in Tost in Silesia. Here, we found a camp already established and music well to the fore, under the direction of Nicholas Roth-the brilliant violinist of the Budapest Trio (Roth, Borowsky, Boemkemp). There were brass and string players in abundance in this camp, and plenty of singers-two full choirs in fact.
This was the great period of music behind barbed wire, and many recitals, concerts, jam-sessions, revues and variety shows were successfully staged.
At this point it would be well to mention two non-musical collaborators who did so much for us in staging and lighting our efforts. First was Jim Stanford, who came out to Germany with me as Hammond organ engineer and stage director of the Doorlay Revue. What he did with cocoa-tins, strings and wires to light our shows was nothing short of miraculous. (I'll pass over the time when he nearly burnt a barrack down with his first effort a dinner!)
Credit likewise one Frank Griffith, who was stage manager in the Doorlay Revue. His creations from Red Cross cartons, and the painting of same with a powdered pencil lead mixed with water, provided the sets we worked in.
Here are a few more names who kept the musical flag flying in Tost: William Hildesheimer, pianist, composer and arranger, now with the Ballet Jiaos; George Baxendale, 'cellist, now in the pit band at Palace Blackpool; and "Buster", the dark gentleman with the lightning feet, now touring with Nat Allen's band.
There was also an organ in the chapel at Tost-a single manual, tracker action with a device like a treadmill at the back to provide the wind. We used it though, and made it work harder than it ever did before. Incidentally, this camp was a lunatic asylum before we moved in-and after!
After two years in Tost the camp was split once more, and our group went to Kreuzburg - about 70 miles away. By this time we had the entertainment department sufficiently organised to get started with the first show as soon as we arrived.
In Kreuzburg, we were joined by one more musician of outstanding ability-a clarinetist-Douglas Tangvy, late of Hughie Green's gang. With him and Charles Harberreiter, I formed the Kreuzburg Trio, and we provided most of the music from that time until the end of the war. I'd almost forgotten the producers-Jack Atkin, Frank Griffith, Barry Pitt and Jim Stanford, but theirs was undoubtedly the hardest job.
Our last move was to Austria--a little village in the Alps called Spittal. The only music in this camp was provided by the Kreuzburg Trio, and as you can imagine, we were kept busy. On the day of our release we went down to Villach at the invitation of Capt. Needham of the Grenadier Guards, and gave a concert for the troops.
Having celebrated freedom in this way-including steak and chips, the first white bread we had seen for five years-we returned home, to take up our lives and careers where we left off in 1939.
I think we've been successful. Jim Stanford and I are both with G.B.; Frank Still and Tom Reilly work the halls together, and Frank also accompanies Doris Hare; "Buster" is with Nat Allen, and Doug. Tangvy with Edmundo Ros.

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Extract:- Theatre Organ World