Reunited: girl pipers who wowed Hitler

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The Independent Online
JOAN JAMES can still remember the evening she charmed Hitler, more than 60 years ago.

"The people kept saying, `Heil Hitler', to which we all kept replying, `God save the King'. Then they told us: `Our Fuhrer is coming to the show tonight'."

Joan was a member of the world's first female pipe band, the Dagenham Girl Pipers, and the Berlin theatre was packed to hear them. She could see Hitler high up in one of the balconies. Impressed, he was later heard to remark: "I wish I had a band like that."

On New Year's Day, 22 of the group will be re-united, recalling a pledge made 60 years ago. It was written on parchment and signed by 55 of the teenagers, promising to meet on the steps of the Dagenham Civic Centre at noon on 1 January 2000. The BBC will film the event.

When the band was first formed in 1930 by the Rev Joseph Waddington Graves, the girls were taught in secret by Scottish pipe major Douglas Scott-Taylor who, it is said, thought teaching women would damage his reputation.

But the girls caused a sensation when they performed 18 months later and toured constantly until the outbreak of the Second World War, completing over 400 engagements and travelling more than 19,000 miles. Their most memorable trips, however, were to pre-war Germany. During the first trip, Joan remembers performing at the Winter Gardens when Hitler and Mussolini drove by in an open-topped armoured car. "We did a show for 60,000 and then I remember seeing Hitler and Mussolini. They were standing together and everyone was shouting `Sieg Heil'."

The girls, aged between 14 and 17 and strictly chaperoned, were constantly surrounded by Hitler Youth. "They were magnificent-looking, with their blond hair and blue eyes, I'll give them that," Joan says. She can also recall seeing "Jude" scrawled in red on doors in one Jewish area. "At that age you're fearless aren't you? I didn't really realise what was going on."

But Rev Graves did know. One day during their second visit in August 1939, he realised they were all in imminent danger. They were touring the Black Forest and were surrounded by increasing numbers of storm-troopers.

That evening they packed up and left. Soon after, Rev Graves received a letter from their German hosts with words to the effect: "Hopefully once this minor dispute has been settled the pipers will be able to fulfil their contract." Two weeks after they fled war broke out and the girls never went back.