People all over the world suffered unimaginable hardship and loss during World War II. While millions faced death every day in conflict zones, their families back home were struggling to come to terms with the fact they may never see their loved ones again.
By the end of the war, 2.9 million British men had served in the Army – with some 300,000 never coming home and a further 376,239 suffering injuries. When the war with Germany broke out on 1st September 1939, few people could have envisaged the conflict would last a horrific six years, finally ending on 2nd September 1945.
© Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
While the British government was tasked with managing the war effort, including deploying the Armed Forces, overseeing the munitions factories and introducing food rationing, another important role was to keep people’s morale buoyant.
As well as propaganda films being shown in cinemas, epitomising the indomitable British spirit, the entertainment industry also kept people’s spirits up with a succession of films and songs to show how the nation would never surrender.
Music played a very important role in helping people to get through the difficult times. Newly composed songs covered every aspect of the war, from poking fun at Hitler and the German air force to missing your sweetheart and the promise of eventual victory.
Run Rabbit Run
Written for a comedy revue show in 1939, one of the most famous songs of World War II was Run Rabbit Run, sung by Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen – the comedy double act known as Flanagan and Allen. The duo changed the lyrics to take the mickey out of Hitler.
Their version of the song became a massive hit, defiantly poking fun at the German armed forces, with sources close to Prime Minister Winston Churchill saying it was his favourite song. It was even referenced in a propaganda photo shoot, after Germany launched its first air raid on Britain, over the Shetlands Isles in Scotland, in November 1939.
A photograph was taken of a man, holding up two dead rabbits, next to a huge crater caused by a bomb. The story was a skit on Run Rabbit Run and made headline news in Allied countries. It claimed the only damage caused by the Luftwaffe (the German air force) was a hole in the ground and the demise of two rabbits.
Despite the fact the rabbits reportedly came from a butcher’s shop in Lerwick, the sentiment behind the story, that belittled the German efforts and implied they were ineffective, captured the public’s imagination and boosted morale during a dark period in history.
Run Rabbit Run had been written by the famous song writing duo, Noel Gay and Ralph Butler, for the 1939 musical revue show, The Little Dog Laughed. Gay, born in Wakefield in 1898, was a prolific composer for the theatre and movies. Described as the British version of Irving Berlin, he wrote the music for Run Rabbit Run, while his regular song writing partner Butler penned the lyrics.
Produced by George Black, the revue show was staged at the London Palladium. After opening on 11th October 1939, at a time when many theatres were closing due to the war, the show ran until December 1939. It gave theatre goers a chance to forget their troubles for a while.
Flanagan and Allen
Featuring a cast of 80 artists, the show was a feast of comedy, performed by mainly music hall stars of the era. Among the artists were seasoned music hall comedians, Flanagan and Allen, who had worked together since the late 1920s.
Whitechapel-born Flanagan first met fellow Londoner Allen, a native of Battersea, in a revue show headlined by the famous Australian singer, Florrie Forde. Their first outing as a double act was a resounding success and led to their long career as both recording artists and popular film stars.
While the original lyrics of Run Rabbit Run were fairly simple, relating to a farmer going out to shoot rabbits to make a pie every Friday, Flanagan and Allen changed them to mock Hitler. Instead of singing, “Run rabbit run,” they sang, “Run, Adolf, run!” and turned the song into a massive dig at the Nazi forces.
The parody of the song, featuring the Flanagan and Allen lyrics, was even made into an animated propaganda film by Pathé News. Instead of showing rabbits being chased by a farmer, it showed Hitler being chased by the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, while hitting him over the head with a folded umbrella.
It changed from being a comedy music hall song into a morale-boosting ditty that was widely sung by the Brits to let Hitler know he would never crush them. Flanagan and Allen’s other wartime songs featured the same gentle humour, reflecting the experiences of other ordinary people during times of conflict.
Popular wartime songs
They also sang, We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line, which mocked Germany’s defences – the Siegfried Line. Other songs had a softer touch, such as Miss You, which was about missing your sweetheart during the enforced absence of the war.
Three decades after the outbreak of the second world war, Flanagan sang the familiar theme song, ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?’, for the BBC TV show, Dad’s Army – a comedy series about the wartime Home Guard. It was his last recording, made shortly before his death, at the age of 72, on 20th October 1968. It was a pastiche of the kind of songs Flanagan and Allen had sung during the war and was the theme tune for Dad’s Army until 1977.
Run Rabbit Run has lived on in popular culture and has received a surprise revival in recent years, featuring in the 2014 television series Outlander, the 2016 movie Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the 2017 horror film Get Out.
People worldwide are preparing to commemorate Remembrance Sunday 2019 on 10th November. MA Grigg’s country store will be paying tribute to those people who made the ultimate sacrifice for future generations. Lest we forget.