Bermuda’s Tattoo Heritage
By Dr Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, FSA
One of the enduring memories of my childhood was the night we attended the 1956 Searchlight Tattoo at BAA field. The light shows, the marching bands, the police doing stunts on motorbikes are pictures in the mind that float into the present from time to time. As an advertising note from the Bermuda News Bureau stated for the 1957 tattoo: The annual Bermuda Tattoo leaves a melodic, under-the-skin impression on just about everyone who witness this colourful display of military pageantry under searchlights.
The word tattoo, when referring to military matters, rather than the scarification of the skin, derives from the Dutch expression taptoe, which meant the shutting of the tap of the beer cask at the last call in early pubs. It refers in English to a general drumming to signal to soldiers to repair to their barracks or tents at bedtime, or to sound an alarm. It is also used to name a particular type of military parade with music, drum beating and exercises, usually at night under torchlight, or in modern times, searchlights.
The most famous such parade is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which began in 1950, with the Bermuda Regiment performing in 2003. The then outstanding producer of the Edinburgh show was Brigadier AGL MacLean, CBE, of The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and Bermuda was fortunate to have him as the mastermind of the 1956 and 1957 tattoos, the “only full-dress tattoos staged in the Western Hemisphere” at that time.
Another great show that followed the 1957 Bermuda Tattoo was the Evening Parade in Washington, DC, the Rome of the modern world. Captain Sam Hummel, USMC (Ret), a frequent visitor to Bermuda, wrote in 2005 of the effect of the Bermuda show there.
“On May 16, 1957, the US Marine Corps Silent Drill Team from 8th and I Street, Washington DC, the oldest barracks of the Corps, spend an exciting week participating in the Bermuda Searchlight Tattoo. The Team performed with other special units from Bermuda, Canada and England. The Tattoo was an outstanding success from many points of view and was attended by almost everyone in Bermuda.”
“One success that was not obvious at the time was the impact the Tattoo had on the Corps. After the first performances in Bermuda, it was apparent to the US contingent that the Searchlight Tattoo was significantly more popular than any performances that it had previously participated in: it was time for some changes back home.”
“In 1957, the US Marine Corps presented its Sunset Parade each Friday afternoon at the 1801 Marine barracks just blocks from the US Capitol. The Sunset Parade was initiated in 1934 and had gone through few changes over the following two decades. Despite the outstanding weekly performances of the US Marine Corps Band, Drum and Bugle Corps and Silent Drill Team, the audience was sparse in the afternoon heat of Washington summers.”
“The Bermuda Tattoo changed all of that. The pageantry of this event was not lost on the officers leading the US contingent. Within days, senior officers arrived and the Tattoo was closely observed by those who could change its format after their return home.”
“I cannot speak of the exact sequence of events that followed, but I can vouch for the fact that when the Drill Team arrived back in Washington, temporary metal scaffolding was already being erected at the corner of the parade fields for searchlights. In just a few days, the Sunset Parade was rescheduled from 5.30 to 8.30 p.m. Since that time, the Evening Parade has grown from an audience of a few spectators to an event that requires bleacher seating and reservations from Congressional Representatives or the Headquarters of the US Marine Corps. It is now one of the major weekly attractions of the City of Washington, DC. I want the people of Bermuda to know of their contribution to the Evening Parade, now a major US Marine Corps tradition, of which we are all very proud.”
The 1957 Tattoo was staged at Prospect Camp and shortly thereafter the British Garrison in the form of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry left Bermuda after 250 years of contributing to the defence and life of the island. The two tattoos could not have been staged then without the logistical support of the Garrison and the great assistance from the personnel of the United States forces in Bermuda. More that 500 troops from England, Canada, the United States and Bermuda took part in the outstanding displays, which ran nightly for two weeks.
In 1957, these were troops from HMCS Cornwallis, the US Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps, the Royal Canadian Artillery Band, the Worcester Regiment, the 1st Battalion The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (32nd Regiment of Foot), the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Bugle Band and the Bermuda Local Forces, comprising the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Rifles.
A number of local legendary names appear in the 1957 programme. Sergeant E. Doers headed the BMA band and the Office in Charge was Lt FB Pereira, MBE. In charge for the Bermuda Rifles was the redoubtable CSM HW "Bubbles" Burnard, who had the assistance of Lts L Macfarlane, M Darling and C Curtis. The BMA and the Rifles were engaged in “A Visit From Above: a Mock Battle in 1957 between Spacemen and the Local Forces”, according to the programme. It is unclear who won.
Other local names of note that helped to make the tattoos such a success were Lt Col JC Astwood, OBE, ED, MCP, Major JA Marsh, DSO, WJ Williams, MVO and perhaps the most renowned, the formidable Commanding Officer of the BMA, Major JE Brownlow Tucker, TD, MCP.
The Local Forces were amalgamated into the Bermuda Regiment in 1965. For the Regiment's 40th Anniversary in 2005 and Bermuda's 400th Anniversary in 2009, the Bermuda Tattoo was staged to great acclaim, remaking the Tattoo a heritage tradition for Bermuda. Undoubtedly the Bermuda Tattoo 2015 will continue the same fine tradition as the Regiment turns fifty.