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War is declared in all directions

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Colonel (Jack Train): Now Seagoon, do you know we’re at war with naughty Germany? Seagoon: Well, I heard shouting.

(from ‘Who Is Pink Oboe?’, Series 9 Episode 11, broadcast 12 January 1959)


On this day in 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. As soon-to-be Gunner Milligan recounted in his first memoir:

Prime minister Neville Chamberlain
September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching Mother digging our air-raid shelter. “She’s a great little woman,” said Father. “And getting smaller all the time,” I added. Two minutes later, a man called Chamberlain who did prime minister impressions spoke on the wireless. He said: “As from eleven o’clock, we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE.) “War?” said Mother. “It must have been something we said,” said Father.

(from Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, by Spike Milligan, published Michael Joseph Ltd, 1971)


Harry Secombe and Max Geldray in their autobiographies both talk about how the prospect of war had been hanging over their respective countries (Wales and the Netherlands/Belgium) for months before it became a reality. The British government had pledged to come to Poland's aid if the Nazis invaded, and Hitler's forces had already taken over Austria and annexed the Sudetenland area of what was then Czechoslovakia.


It’s hard to fathom what that period was like – knowing a war was inevitable but not knowing when it would happen or what it would involve. The First World War was still fairly fresh in the collective memory, so there would have been many people imagining something similar.


I recently finished reading Goon With The Wind, Max Geldray’s autobiography. He talks a lot about his musical upbringing and early career, and recalls several anecdotes about his time playing the harmonica on the Goon Show.


He also tells in some detail of how he and four others escaped from the Nazi advance through the Netherlands and Belgium by driving through France to a port to sail on to England. At one point they were dive-bombed by a Nazi plane, and all the while they had no idea whether the friends and family they had left behind were even alive.


Even before the Goons launched their individual careers, humour was vital to their ability to cope with the horrific conditions on the front line. Spike Milligan's memoirs attest to that - his close friend Harry Edgington, a fellow gunner in the same regiment, clearly shared what later became Goon humour.


Some of the Goons’ best gags about war (in my view at least) are from the episode ‘World War One’ (Series 8 Episode 22). They are wonderfully succinct jokes that also play on the fact that people really didn’t know how to react to the news that we were at war.

Seagoon: England’s at war! Minnie: War? I’d better go and get the washing in!

(from ‘World War One’, Series 8 Episode 22, first broadcast 24 February 1958)


The Goons also made light of ‘cowardice’. I think this is a really significant and positive contribution to the way we talk about war. Soldiers were shot in the First World War for acts of cowardice, which could be anything from running away from the people shooting at you (quite a natural reaction really) or suffering from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.


Instead, the Goons made it okay – or at least tried to – to be terrified of war.

Seagoon: I can see it all now. I’ll fight till my ammunition’s gone. I'll say to the other men: ‘Lads, make your way back as best as you can.’ Me? I’ll stay on, I’ll fight ’em barehanded until I’m overpowered, and then I’ll swallow my secret code. They’ll torture me, I won’t speak. It’ll mean the firing squad, ha ha. So what? They’ll say: ‘Any last requests?’ I’ll say: ‘Yes, damn you, I want evening dress.’ I’ll take my time and put it on with my full miniatures. ‘Blindfold?’ they’ll say. Ha ha ha blindfold… ha ha. The rifles’ll come up, the click of the cartridges rammed home. They’re taking aim. Ha ha ha... I’ll be smiling, that carefree daredevil smile. The officer will raise his sword, the volley will ring out, and I’ll slump smiling to the floor – dead. Colonel: Well, Seagoon? Seagoon: I don’t want to gooooo!

(from ‘Who Is Pink Oboe?’, Series 9 Episode 11, broadcast 12 January 1959)


See yesterday’s blog for more on the war from Milligan’s memoirs, including his response to someone asking about the jokes about cowardice.


Image of Neville Chamberlain sourced from the National Portrait Gallery. Image credit Walter Stoneman, 1921.

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