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What was the British Berlin Tattoo? By Anna Foden

Blog | Feb 12, 2024

German propaganda poster, Wikimedia Commons

In August 1947, the British Army went foxhunting at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

It was part of the British Berlin Tattoo put on to entertain Berliners and show off the capabilities of the British Army of the Rhine.

Thousands of Germans watched military bands marching on the Maifeld, where polo matches and the dressage competition had taken place at the 1936 Olympic Games and the Nazis had held May Day rallies.

The 16th/5th The Queen’s Royal Lancers re-enacted an 18th-century cavalry charge in full dress uniform and Scottish regiments performed Highland dances. A stagecoach was held up by highwaymen, and the foxhunting was performed by the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars and their foxhounds.

There had been criticism in Britain. MP Stephen Swingler asked how many British Army of the Rhine man-hours and coal the tattoo was going to waste. The Secretary of State for War, Frederick Bellenger, replied that the tattoo would be good for discipline and morale and that a British tattoo in Vienna had been ‘widely popular’ with the Austrians.

The Berlin Tattoo was widely popular with Berliners. Bones were broken when thousands stormed the gates for the final performance, and the event raised 500,000 Marks for German welfare organisations to send children on a seaside holiday.

Whether the tattoo won hearts and minds in the Soviet Zone was debatable. Of the opening fireworks, the East German Berliner Zeitung asked tartly, ‘Was it just me who was reminded of the “Christmas tree” target flares from the bombing nights?’ Spectators were quoted saying, ‘They’re playing our marches,’ and ‘They’ve copied our Wehrmacht Day.’

A letter to the newspaper claimed that an elderly lady recounted her trip to the tattoo in her local bakery with tears in her eyes and said the colourful uniforms and dashing riders had reminded her of Germany’s heyday under the Kaiser.

The next month, scenes from the tattoo were used in an East German propaganda film. Augenzeuge newsreel showed women and children watching the spectacle with eager faces and then moved on to a battlefield, with wounded soldiers and wooden crosses in the snow.

‘The moral seems to be,’ wrote the Times’s correspondent, ‘this leads to that.’

In 1967, the finale was ‘Moscow in Flames’, accompanying Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Soviets were not happy about a model of Moscow being set alight but, as organiser Major Sir Michael Parker told the Times, they were placated when they were told it was a French defeat. The West Germans were also sensitive but allowed the model to burn, as long as it was quick. With the help of kerosene, ‘Moscow’ was incinerated in three seconds.

To promote the tattoo in 1975, a hovercraft ‘hovered’ through West Berlin. Two years later, Britons dressed as Roman soldiers paraded along the Kurfürstendamm with shields and spears. How reassuring this was for West Berliners facing Warsaw Pact weaponry on the other side of the wall is unclear.

The Queen attended the last British Berlin Tattoo in 1992 and the British garrison withdrew from the city two years later, but the Berlin Military Tattoo has carried on with German military bands and guests.

Anna Foden