Week 212: Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers, by Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson

This poem is perhaps best known for having entered the folk tradition, where it is sung to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’, but it is well able to stand on its own as a masterpiece of ironic invective. The background is that the Conservative MP Lady Astor is alleged to have referred to soldiers of the 8th Army, who were fighting in Italy, as ‘D-Day Dodgers’, since they were not to be involved in the action in Normandy (to be fair, she denied having said any such thing, but let’s not give her the benefit of the doubt…). Unfortunately for her this came to the notice of a certain Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade, who was out in Italy with the 78th Infantry Division, and penned this response. The poem is also attributed to the Scots writer Hamish Henderson, but it may be that he merely collected various versions of it; I suspect, however, that Henderson, himself a notable poet of whom more one day, may well have honed the original somewhat. 

There are many variants on the words, and I have not been able to pin down the original text, so present what I think is the most trenchant version. In this we get four stanzas of withering sarcasm chronicling the bitter campaign fought by the Eighth Army as it made its way northward up Italy, followed by one stanza of good old-fashioned flyting, before the poem suddenly changes tone completely to finally demolish the lady’s assertion with a hauntingly elegiac last stanza. 

I am no social historian, but it is tempting to see in this poem much of the mood of that remarkable year, 1945, in which a public weary of patronage, deference and rhetoric unceremoniously dumped Churchill and his Tory government in favour of a new order. 

Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, way off 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 landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way.
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free
To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.

Naples and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there, we went just 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.

On our way to Florence we had a lovely time.
We ran a bus to Rimini right through the Gothic Line.
On to  Bologna we did go,
Then we all had a paddle in the Po.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, out here in Italy.

Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standing on a platform, talking tommyrot.
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride.
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide.
That’s from your D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.

Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
You’ll find the scattered crosses, there’s some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.

Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson/folk tradition

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