War-time Orchestra of RAMC

recalled by Woolf Phillips

Having been invited to contribute to Fanfare with a subject of interest to Military musicians, my first thought was that surely any subject musical is of interest to any musician. So on that basis, musicians, I shall continue.

In 1939, 1 was a member of the brass section of Jack Hylton’s band, one of the big dance orchestras of that era. With me in the band were musicians like Stan Roderick, now one of England’s most sought after session trumpeters, Les Gilbert, for long the lead alto saxophonist with Ted Heath’s band, Jack Bentley, now a well-known newspaper correspondent, Sid Millward, leader of the very funny Nitwits act, Billy Ternent, who is now musical director at the London Palladium, and many others.

After completing a film version of “Band Waggon” with the Jack Hylton band, I reported on 1st November, to Boyce Barracks at Crookham, near Aldershot, the Depot of the R.A.M.C., and joined the band. The Bandmaster at that time was Harry Johnson, a former Kneller Hall pupil and student and, like me, a trombonist.

Frankly, the standard of the R.A.M.C. Band at that time was none too high, but as time passed and more people were called up the change became quite noticeable. Musicians like the late Arthur Wilkinson, later to become well-known as an arranger for TV and whose recordings of the Beatles’ songs in an orchestral vein became good sellers, Les Gilbert, Oscar Grasso, the unique-sounding violinist from Victor Silvester’s Orchestra, Emanuel Hurwitz, the present leader of the Goldsborough Orchestra, Dennis Nesbitt, an outstanding cello player, Michael Lindon, a talented artist from the now defunct Windmill Theatre, and many others joined the fold.

The field in which the R.A.M.C. Band excelled was the Concert Orchestra. Arthur and I as the two arrangers, built an excellent show which eventually was to tour the Middle East, Paiforce (Persia and Iraq Commands), Holland, Belgium and Ger­many, as well as the British Isles.

Around this time there sprang into being a Forces Recording Unit and we, that is the R.A.M.C. Band en-bloc, or sometimes individual musicians, were very much in demand for sessions undertaken at E.M.I’s St. John’s Wood studios. As a matter of interest we subsequently heard many of these recordings throughout the Middle East and at many of the more remote Army and R.A.F. camps in the wilds of Iraq and Persia.

The Concert Orchestra of the R.A.M.C. was also the forerunner of the British Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and we were sometimes conducted for recording sessions by the late George Melachrino, who was eventually appointed conductor of the British Band of the A.E.F. Incidentally, here in Hollywood, California, along Vine Street, there are hundreds of stars embedded into the sidewalks with the names of many famous artists, and George’s name is among them.

Apart from concerts at Military, Naval, and Air Force establishments, we performed many times on the radio and at one time recorded the background music for Pathé News. In this instant, the Musicians’ Union intervened, because, it was argued, we were performing a civilian job. The Union was instrumental in gaining for us civilian rates.

The Dance Orchestra section also broadcast a few times, but the standard was not up to the great Service bands of that era, such as the Squadronaires and the Skyrockets. I was doing a lot of arrangements for both these bands, and on various leave periods recorded with them. After the war, incidentally, I took over the leadership of the somewhat revamped Skyrockets Orchestra and became resident conductor at the London Palladium for many years.


Kostelanetz directs

In Egypt, the R.A.M.C. Band formed the nucleous of a large concert orchestra which broadcast and performed under the baton of Andre Kostelanetz.

 We played before King Farouk of Egypt, as well as for all the Military Commanders in the Middle East.

These were most exciting concerts. In fact, as principal trombonist, I was so overawed by the spectacle of glittering uniforms, beautifully gowned ladies, and an atmosphere we hadn’t seen in poor old blacked-out England for so long, I completely missed an entry in Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, and only came to when I realised that Kostelanetz was waving frantically in my direction. I reminded him of this when we met in New York last year.

Returning to England in 1944, I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn Miller and hearing the wonderful American Band of the A.E.F., as well as hearing the United States Navy Dance Orchestra, for which I scored some arrangements.

The war-time dance band of the Royal Army Medical Corps, under the direction of Bandmaster Harry Johnson, entertaining repatriated prisoners of war at a garden party given in the grounds of the British Embassy in Cairo. The vocalist is Lee Sheridan, now better known as Dick James, managing director of Northern Songs, publishers of the Beatles' music. The musicians are (front row, left to right) : George Tofield; Oscar Grasso, now featured violinist with Victor Silvester's Orchestra but a leading saxophone player before the war); Les Gilbert, lead alto player with Ted Heath for many years; Ding Hughes; Glanmore Spiller, then violinist with the BBC Welsh Orchestra, Alex Frankel, one-time conductor of Worthing Municipal Orchestra; and (hidden) Doug Townsend, cellist. On the extreme left, the clarinetist is " Taffy" Cullen, and the viola player is Gordon Humfress.


Picture by courtesy of Imperial War Museum


At about this time Bandmaster Johnson became ill, and left the Ramc Band soon afterwards. As we were due to entertain both Military and Civil

audiences in Holland, Belgium and Germany, and because Johnson's replacement, Bandmaster Lew Brown, would not be arriving for some time,

our Adjutant, Capt. Marable ( a most charming man who was later to loose his life at Arnhem) asked me to take over as Conductor of the Concert

Orchestra. The experience I gained in conducting an orchestra served me in good stead for the future and gave me an insight into a musician's thinking

from, shall we say, the other side?

My Army experiences, though not without their trials and tribulations, were most enlightening. Where else would a trombonist have to transpose french horn

parts at sight and play the horn solo in Dvorak's New World Symphony going up to a top E natural? and this with four french horn players sitting and listening!!

Yes, Bandmaster Johnson had his little idiosyncrasies not the least of which was having the Trombone (me) play all the difficult French horn passages!!

In the three or four minutes preceding these solo's I believe I aged many years!

Trombone "Laid Up"

As Musical Director of the London Palladium I have since conducted the Royal Marines Band, as well as the Kneller Hall Trumpeters during the particular

Royal Command Performances at which they appeared. I must say that on these Occasions the giving of orders rather than recieving them was a much more

pleasant experience.

For the past two years or so, I have been resident in Southern California, composing and conducting, and have never ceased to be amazed at the incredibly

high standard of instrumental ability here and , above all, by the virtuosity of trombonists. For this reason, my trombone lies in a cupboard gathering Mildew,

only rarely to be brought out. However, should the need arise, I would have no hesitation in presenting my trombone and myself at Kneller Hall, hoping

once again to make my mark in Military Music circles.


Woolf Phillips


Article taken from Summer 1969 Fanfare magazine Journal of Kneller Hall.