As the seventieth anniversary of D-Day approaches tomorrow, our thoughts are naturally drawn to the diminishing band of brothers who made such an important contribution to winning World War Two and thus shaping the modern world, namely, the Normandy veterans, rightly dubbed by Tom Brokaw as “the greatest generation.”
There are members of another group of veterans, however, who will, I suspect, have mixed feelings about the way in which Normandy threatens to scoop the pool of national gratitude. These veterans are the so-called “D-Day Dodgers.”
Never heard of them? Well, here is their story.
Although it was one of the toughest campaigns of the Second World War, the Battle of Monte Cassino, which lasted five months and ended in mid-May 1944, was almost immediately overshadowed by the Allied landings in Normandy two weeks later.
The British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought at Monte Cassino were disparagingly referred to as “D-Day Dodgers,” despite believing that the four successive battles they took part in were easily as gruelling as the liberation of France. Many of them had been continuously in action for a year or more and had fought hard in North Africa.
The infamous remark was reportedly made by American-born Lady Nancy Astor, a society beauty and Great Britain’s first woman MP. Lady Astor’s remarks implied that the troops in Italy were avoiding the “real” war in France, accusing soldiers in Italy of “dodging D-Day.” It was an unwarranted slur.
In actuality, the story of the Allied attack on Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome, and held by the Germans, cost the Allied forces over 300,000 men. As for those who fought there, the British troops who had played such an important part resented the implications of the phrase “D-Day Dodgers.” The French North African troops who battled so well in the mountains around Cassino were never taken to France’s heart as were their comrades of the 2nd Armored Division that liberated Paris. Neither the New Zealanders, nor the equally brave Canadians received quite the praise that they deserved. And few of the gallant Poles who took the dominant monastery at Cassino, were able to go back to Poland after the war.
The Italian Campaign certainly cost the Germans more casualties (556,000) than it did the Allies (312,000), and it tied down German divisions that would otherwise have fought elsewhere, some of them no doubt in Normandy, perhaps even on D-Day. It should be remembered that two days before the first Allied soldier came ashore at the Normandy beaches, Allied troops entered Rome. They had already been fighting in Italy for nine long months.
Their story was captured in a song that celebrates the sacrifice of those very brave men who fought and suffered terrible losses in order to liberate Italy from the grip of fascism. In response to the term “D-Day Dodgers,” this song was written and set to the tune of the haunting German wartime song, Lili Marlène, which was well-known to the fighting men.
The song, written by British Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade, who was with the 79th Division just south of Bologna, Italy, expressed the feelings of those maligned Allied forces who carried out their mission in Italy. Pynn entitled his song, The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers. There are many variations on the verses and even the chorus, but the song generally and sarcastically refers to how easy their life in Italy was. There was no mention of Lady Astor in the original lyrics, but there are many variations of the lyrics and I include the pertinent verse here .
The Ballad Of The D-Day Dodgers
Written by Harry Pynn
We’re the D-Day Dodgers out in Italy,
Always on the vino – always on the spree,
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome, among the Yanks,
We are the D-Day Dodgers way out in Italy,
We are the D-Day Dodgers way out in Italy.
We landed at Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerrys got their bands out to greet us on the way,
Showed us the sights, they gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free,
To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.
Naples and Casino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight they just went for the ride,
Anzio and Sangro were just names,
We only went to look for dames,
The artful D-Day Dodgers way out in Italy.
Dear Lady Astor, think you know a lot,
Standing on your platform talking tommyrot,
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride,
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide,
That’s from the D-Day Dodgers way out in Italy.
Look around the mountains in the mud and rain,
See the scattered crosses,
Some which have no name,
Heartbreak and time, suffering gone,
The boys beneath them linger on,
They are the D-Day Dodgers who’ll stay in Italy.
I have been able to locate two versions of this all-but-forgotten World War Two song, one by Hamish Imlach and the second by the Ian Campbell Folk Group. Both are included here. (Note: There are more verses and the words differ in places in the Campbell version).
Ian Campbell Folk Group