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Extracts of Alamein

From Chapter Eight:-

It was during the long siege of Tobruk, with men of the two sides deployed in relatively static positions around the defensive perimeter, that the song destined to become the veritable signature tune of the war in North Africa was first heard.

Broadcast to the German troops but heard across the desert silence at night by the British and Australians too, the smoky voice of a Bremerhaven-born nightclub singer named Lale Anderson evoked an immediate response. She sang a ballad of longing and separation entitled "Lili Marleen," about a young woman, waiting under street light outside a barracks for her soldier lover: "Wenn sich die spaten Nebel drehn/ Werd ich by der Laterne stehn/ Wie einst Lili Marleen/ Wie einst Lili Marleen." ("Your sweet face seems/ To haunt my dreams/ My Lilli of the lamplight/ My own Lilli Marlene," in the subsequent English version.)

In their foxholes, the grimy front-line defenders of Tobruk pricked up their ears and called out "Louder, please, louder!" And a 20th Century musical legend was born.

Not only the sweaty rank-and-file were enchanted by Lilli. She made an enduring impression, for instance, on the Oxford-educated SAS officer and author Fitzroy Maclean when, deep behind the lines and on his way to a commando raid on Axis-occupied Benghazi, he heard Lale Andersen's voice come drifting across the night from the radio at a nearby enemy command post. "Husky, sensuous, nostalgic, sugar-sweet," it "seemed to reach out across the desert," he would later recall.

Another British officer, Captain C.F. Milner of the Rifle Brigade, felt impelled to write to the BBC in September, 1941, only one month after the song was first broadcast, to declare "Lilli Marlene" (the subsequent English spelling) "the most bewitching, haunting, sentimental song of the war" and Lale Andersen's voice "at once seductive and soothing, husky, intimate but mysteriously unattainable." More pragmatically, Squadron Leader R.A. Foggin of the Desert Air Force urged the BBC to find a rival to Lilli, warning that the original might "possibly create a feeling that the Germans who can produce such good music etc. cannot be such bad chaps after all."

Perhaps it was Lilli Marlene's calculated ambiguity that created so powerful and universal an appeal. She was at once the girl that Tommy or Fritz might hope to marry and the tramp they would go to for illicit sex: For surely no "nice girl" would be found standing underneath a street light in front of a barrack gate. Lilli Marlene was, in short, that archetypal if clichéd male fantasy figure: Virgin and Whore.

Her road to universal stardom had not been an easy one. She started life as a poem in 1917 by an infantryman named Hans Leip. The poem languished unnoticed until it was set to music in 1938 by a composer of popular songs named Norbert Schultze. Later that year it was recorded by Lale Andersen, a then little-known night club chanteuse. On disc, the song sold only 700 copies and might have died unmourned but for the pure chance of its finding its way to Soldatensender Belgrad, the radio station set up in occupied Belgrade in 1941 to beam morale-building programmes to German troops in the Balkans and North Africa.

The station was short of recorded material and a corporal was sent to Vienna to bring back what he could find. From a pile of records gathering dust in the cellar of a studio he dug up Leip and Schultze’s unconsidered opus. Back in Belgrade, the officer in charge of the forces‚ station thought that Lili Marleen might just do as closedown music and a legend was born.

Hitler’s twisted little propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, was not pleased by the song's instantaneous popularity among the Nazi soldiery. He thought it "unheroic" and not at all in the martial spirit of the Third Reich, but even in the Third Reich the will of the common man could not be completely ignored ˆ especially when the common man happened to be also the front-line soldier. Meanwhile, in London, the BBC was getting soldiers’ letters demanding to know why its forces‚ programme wasn't able to put out anything half as good.

British propaganda chiefs and the BBC's programme directors took the message on board. In an internal memo, a BBC executive named Morris Gilbert posed the question: should they "crush" Lilli or "adopt" her? As Gilbert observed, "one school of policy makers held that the song should be resolutely barred, on the score that it could not help but attract and seduce and enervate the war effort. Anything so warm, so simple, so appealing could not but arouse sympathy and kindred softer feelings towards its German creators."

But banning the song would involve the necessity of "producing a song of greater lilt and seduction which would overwhelm it a tall order." On the other hand, "adopting it would involve producing a suitable lyric in English and plugging it with terrific emphasis and tenacity until it should simply be identified as a British product and its enemy origins forgotten."

After consultation with the War Office and the Home Office (which had set up a Dance Music Policy Committee to weed out "unhelpful" items of popular entertainment) the BBC plumped for "adoption." A popular songwriter named Tommy Connor ˆ progenitor of "I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus," "It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today" and similar Tin Pan Alley gems -- was commissioned to anglicise and sanitise Lili.

"I knew about the German version, but I couldn’t use that, " he would say in a postwar interview. "Wasn’t it all about a young prostitute who wanted to give as much for her country as the soldiers so she gave her body? Can you imagine that in English? I had to write a song imagining the girl as a daughter, a mother, a sister or a sweetheart ˆ a song that wouldn’t offend the hearts and morals of people."

The rest, as they say, is showbiz history, but surely a little more than that: an inscrutable fragment, perhaps, of universal social history. For "Lilli Marlene's" appeal was not restricted to the fighting men. It would become a wildfire favourite among civilian populations on both sides of the war ˆ even among the civilians of Nazi-occupied Europe ˆ and was to be translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.


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