FEATURE: Did the Nazis try to recruit Tamworth's Boy Scouts?
THE opening shots of a calamity that became World War Two were less than two years away when Tamworth Scouts welcomed visiting disciples of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
The 21-strong group of uniformed Hitler Youth boys – invited as part of a 'peace and friendship' tour – were photographed proudly wearing Nazi badges and insignia in the shadow of Tamworth's 11th century Norman Castle.
But was this really an attempt to foster better understanding between nations, or was there a more sinister motive behind seemingly innocuous articles that made the pages of the Tamworth Herald in 1937, when Tamworth Scoutmaster George Otto Kemper sent local boys to Nazi Germany – and then invited the Hitler Youth to visit Tamworth.
After the Boy Scout movement was banned by German-controlled countries in 1933, the Hitler Youth appropriated many of its activities, though changed in content and intention.
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Many of their activities closely resembled military training – weapons instruction, assault course circuits and basic tactics – together with intense indoctrination as to the divine superiority of the Aryan race.
Declassified Home Office files released in 2000 show that security services were deeply concerned that British Scouts who visited Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War would be recruited as spies by the Hitler Youth movement.
MI5 was worried that Scouts involved in exchange programmes with their German counterparts could be infiltrated or unwittingly used as sources of intelligence.
Even Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, was warned of the potential dangers of infiltration, but he dismissed the concerns with the comment: "I can't see any danger in the Hitler Youth trying to convert our boys to fascism."
Instead, he believed the contact with wholesome, decent British Scouts would convert the fanatics from the Hitler Youth to a more tolerant international perspective.
We first learn of the impending exchange visits in the Herald of August 14, 1937, under the headline 'Peace and Friendship Tour – Local Scouts in Germany'.
They were under the leadership of Tamworth Scoutmaster George Otto Kemper, whose father's family had emigrated to England from Germany in the late 19th century.
The Kempers first made their home in Depford, London, where George was born to a Jewish mother. Early in the 1900s the family moved to Tamworth where George established the family business of casing manufacturers.
During the First World War he served in the British Army and saw active service in Salonika.
After the war he returned to Tamworth where he married and had five children.
He took a keen interest in Scouting and his Tamworth troop – the only one mentioned by name in the Home Office documents – visited the Hitler Youth camp at Cuxhaven.
They sailed from Grimsby on the SS Bury to Hamburg in July 1937.
When interviewed by the Herald in 2000, one of the local Scouts, Les Farndon, aged 13 at the time of the trip, recalled the "excitement" they felt at travelling abroad, and the awe of the encounter with the Hitler Youth.
Les remembered being taken to see Hamburg's Bismark statue and Town Hall.
"One night, they took us to a Hitler Youth memorial where they held torch-lit parades", he said. "It was like a Roman Legion. They had got all these long banners, and were all marching.
"In the dark, with all those torchlights, it was very stirring – and frightening really.
"No one thought it was wrong. It was a gimmick to us to do the 'Heil Hitler' salutes.
"They respected you if you did it. They liked you because you became one of them."
He added: "We were the right age to fall into the trap".
The Tamworth Scouts each stayed with a family in Hamburg and made sightseeing trips before being taken by train to a Hitler Youth training camp.
During their stay SS leader Jurgen Stroop – who was later involved in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising – visited the camp.
As they prepared to return home, the Herald of August 14, 1937, records: "Everyone is sorry at having to leave such a friendly country, but is looking forward to the visit of the Hamburg boys to Tamworth, which will take place during the first week in September."
This return visit, however, may have had an even more sinister agenda.
Cycling from Grimsby to Tamworth, MI5 documents reveal that the service was concerned that the German youths were spying for Hitler.
They were mostly older boys – aged up to 18, not 13 as the British children had been – and the documents intimate that they were possibly primed to collect information on the geography of the English countryside and the location of manufacturing sites.
They brought with them their own bicycles so they could travel independently.
While in England, the German boys were hosted by Tamworth families and along with tours of the parish church and Castle they visited Cadbury's chocolate factory at Bournville, Shakespeare's Stratford, as well as places of interest in Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield.
On the evening before their departure, the local Scouts gave a farewell supper and concert to their German "friends" at the Unitarian Hall in Victoria Road – now the home of Tamworth Naval Association.
The Herald of September 11 states: "The organisers of these exchange visits are working in the interests of peace and goodwill between the two great nations, and the present visit of the German boys is Hamburg's contribution towards co-operation in this great ideal."
The Herald adds: "A point of interest occurs in that the German boys' homes are in that part of Germany from which about 1,500 years ago the Saxons came to settle in this locality."
Less than two years after the visit, at 11.15am on September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the nation via radio, mournfully explaining that "a state of war" now existed between Britain and Germany.
Tamworth's Scoutmaster George Kemper was arrested as part of a general investigation of British citizens with German ancestry. But according to his only surviving daughter Sheila Smith, who emigrated to Canada, her father he was not a Nazi sympathiser.
In a letter to the Herald published in 2000, she maintained that he was dedicated to the Scouting movement, and had other leisure interests including membership of Tamworth Swimming Club and Tamworth Castle Bowling Club.
She told of how he was "deeply troubled" by the events leading up to World War Two.
"I remember vividly the day of my father's arrest", she wrote. "He came home from work early with two plain clothes policemen.
"He said to my mother and I, 'I have to go away for a while with these two gentlemen'.
"I subsequently learnt he was taken to Brixton Prison for interrogation."
Sheila added that after some months of internment her father returned home and resumed his work in the family business both for the balance of the war and for the rest of his working life, which was cut short by cancer.
Her letter concluded: "Following the end of World War Two my father enjoyed his early Volkeswagen car and Grundig radio – but I can assure you that he and his three sons, who all served in HM Forces, had absolutely no time for Hitler!"
On September 18, 1937, the Herald had reported: "It is obvious that the aim of the tours – peace and friendship – has been amply fulfilled.
"The local boys are long in their praise of German friendship and hospitality, and the German boys are equally gratified with the warm welcome they have received here."
All to soon such precious ideals would be crushed beneath the feet of marching armies in the brutal reality of world war.