If you got to page 19 of The Times, you hit on two royal stories.
A cunning sub-editor subscripted these with No disguising the humdrum amid the showmanship, Richard Morrison’s tart review of Così fan tutte at the Coliseum. Don’t entirely get it? Mozart title translates roughly as: “That’s the way they all do it”. Which story is set in … Naples. All coincidental? Ummm … perhaps.
Let me be clearly understood: this is what minor royalty (if we must have them) are for, especially if they, personally, may have had a bit of desert grit in their gusset.
James Bone needs a fact-checker
Let’s start at the head of his piece:
They were at the time unfairly labelled D-Day Dodgers, accused of avoiding the Normandy landings by fighting for the Allies in Italy.
Nancy Astor has always been associated with that slur, which she denied, and which — to be fair — cannot properly be attributed to her. I’m heading that way, though.
There are enough other utterances, on appeasement, on which we can damn Viscountess Astor. Even so, on this particular issue, let us refer to Hansard for 8th June 1945:
Viscountess Nancy Astor (Con, Plymouth Sutton): Could I ask a question? No one has suffered more from rumours than I have. It is German propaganda. People who have not suffered have no idea of German propaganda. I wish something could be done about it.
Mr Henry Charleton (Lab, Leeds, South): Goebbels is missing now, anyway.
Mr Gerald Palmer (Con, Winchester): I was very glad to see the denial, which was given full publicity in the “Union Jack,” that the Noble Lady had ever been responsible for inventing the “D-Day Dodger” phrase. Anyway, the denial did get very good publicity.
Which is one convenient explanation. Alternatively the Dundee-based paper, The Sunday Post, 16 April 2006, had a Q&A on the origin of the expression:
Question: Is there any proof that Lady Astor referred to the British troops in Italy as ‘D-Day Dodgers’, or was this purely German propaganda?”
Answer: Yes, she did use the expression. She received a letter in 1944 from a disillusioned British soldier in Italy who was among those who felt the efforts of servicemen not involved in the Normandy campaign were being ignored. He signed it sarcastically, but she apparently failed to appreciate this. It became the subject of a song set to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’.
The Daily Telegraph rendering of what seems to be the same pooled account as James Bone’s has this:
Lord Astor … insisted that the story was entirely apocryphal and that it was unfair to attribute the remarks to Lady Astor, his great-aunt.
“She always denied she ever made that remark. In fact she swore to her dying day that she never said it.
“She had three sons and four nephews fighting in the war, including in Italy, so it seems very odd that she would say such a thing. The story just doesn’t make sense. My father, her nephew, was out here with the Household Cavalry. He was captured and spent nearly a year in a POW camp. My great aunt would hardly have accused him of being a D-Day Dodger.
“My father always told me that a constituent of hers wrote to her, jokingly saying he was a D-Day Dodger. She then mentioned it to someone. Perhaps that is where it came from.”
James Bone’s piece sums it up:
Matthew Mackinnon-Pattison, 89, from Appleby, Cumbria, who fought at Monte Cassino with the First Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders, said: “We believe that Lady Astor is the one who called us D-Day Dodgers, because her son had got himself into a spot of trouble in Italy…”
A reet Bobbie dazzler
If I am right, that could also bring us to Robert “Bobbie” Gould Shaw III, Nancy’s son by her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II. “Bobbie” was homosexual:
Nancy remained closer – on and off – to Bobbie, the child from her first marriage, who turned out to be bisexual, something which [Adrian] Fort [in his biography of Nancy] oddly describes as having a ‘flawed character’. In 1929 Bobbie was forced to retire from the armed forces after being ‘detected with a soldier in conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman’. Two years later, he was charged with ‘importuning a guardsman’, tried at Vine Street Magistrates’ Court and sent to prison. The Astors managed to keep the story out of the papers – Waldorf owned the Observer and Beaverbrook agreed to stop the news appearing in his publications. Nancy wrote to thank him adding that ‘for the first time in years I am really fond of my son.’ For all her intolerance, she accepted Bobbie’s sexuality, remarking that Frank – his long-term boyfriend – was ‘the prettiest of all my children’s girlfriends; the rest of them are just overpainted hussies’.
The 1931 imprisonment was for six months. Bobbie had been an officer in the Blues and Royals (Nancy gave a John Singer Sargent drawing of him in uniform to Bobbie’s partner, Alfred Goodey).
Put together the fragments:
- Nancy Astor, at this point, was less than coherent, even invariably embarrassing, as Harold Nicolson’s memoir records.
- The Cliveden Set’s flirtations with Ribbentrop, and their prevailing attitudes of appeasement, were well known, and profoundly unpopular.
- Whether Bobbie was the basis for Mr Mackinnon-Pattison’ recollection of “a spot of trouble” may not greatly matter. Even if – and even particularly because — the Astors used influence to keep the matter out of the papers, gossip is a fine thing. What would be well-known among the officer corps would filter down, corrupted no doubt, to the other ranks.
- Quite how Captain Gavin Astor, of the Life Guards, fell into German hands in Italy, in 1944, is unclear. Perhaps I should consult Garry O’Connor’s account of these public schoolboys playing at soldiering.
On those grounds, I’d suggest any case against, or defence of Nancy Astor as the originator of “D-Day Dodgers” is, at best, “Unproven”.
James Bone skims over another small matter:
The veterans who fought in Italy have mocked the D-Day Dodger insult in a song, set to the tune of Lili Marlene. A veterans’ group later issued a fake D-Day Dodger medal.
There are two claimants to the authorship of those lyrics.
It feels proper to acknowledge Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade, as one prime source. This feels very much a “squaddy song”. On the other hand, it was attributed and even claimed by Hamish Henderson.
I’m happy to have Henderson, who seems to have made the Lady Astor connexion, given full credit. Donald Smith, in that appreciation for the Scottish Poetry Library, traces how an artistic hand was at work:
The structure is again cumulative, with the repetition and staged progression essential to the unfolding a song in performance. Humorous irony is kept in play until the last two verses deliver their devastating charge:
Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standing on a platform and talking tommy-rot.
You, England’s sweetheart and its pride,
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide
That’s from your D-Day dodgers – in far off Italy.
Many song-makers might have stopped there in righteous anger, but Henderson adds depth, tragic irony:
Look around the mountains in the mud and rain –
You’ll find the scattered crosses – (there’s some which have no name),
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them slumber on.
Those are the D-Day dodgers who’ll stay in Italy.
I’ve heard it done many times, and as often as not murdered.
YouTube has several renditions:
- the Ian Campbell Group’s was probably the first recording I encountered (and I think it’s still in the attic on an Epic 45),
- the Clancys and Makem version is just too twee,
- so I’ll settle for Hamish Imlach having a go, if only for the Movietone images: