Ernest ‘Geoff’ Huxley was a typical ‘D-Day Dodger’ who served with the British Army first in North Africa and then Italy in World War II. He was away from his wife Betty and young child ‘Geoffy’ for many years.
Just getting to Africa was an ordeal – his troopship SS Strathallan was torpedoed off the coast of Algeria at 2am on 21st December 1942. The vessel was carrying 4,000 troops and 250 nurses as reinforcements for the British and American armies who had a month earlier taken part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled North West Africa.
Because the ship took nearly 24 hours to sink, all but a dozen of the personnel on board survived.
Geoff went on to serve in Sicily and take part in the Italian Campaign. On 5th June 1944, the Allies entered Rome, making it the first enemy-occupied European capital to be liberated. The headlines in the press were short-lived, however, as the very next day saw D-Day and the eagerly awaited invasion of France.
The British soldiers in Italy soon felt marginalised and, like the forces out in Burma, felt they were fighting a war on a “forgotten” front. The feeling of disappointment was compounded when Lady Astor coined the expression “D-Day Dodgers” in what was perceived to be a less than kindly reference to the British forces in Italy.
The men responded with a “D-Day Dodgers”, a song consisting of eight sarcastic and pithy verses that were sung to the tune of Lili Marlene, a favourite melody of the German Afrika Korps that became equally popular with the men of the Eighth Army.
Geoff wrote down all the words and sent them home with a letter to Betty late in 1944. There was a very sad and poignant irony in this act: Betty’s brother George ‘Geordie’ Kane also served in Italy with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Sadly he had been killed in the Anzio beach-head earlier that same year on 18th April.
The first verse goes:
We are the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy
Always drinking vino, always on the spree
Eighth Army shirkers and the rest
We live in Rome and eat the best
We are the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy.
Like many former soldiers, post-war, Geoff never spoke very much about his experiences although he did freely volunteer the information that his driving duties with the Royal Army Service Corps had at one time involved him ferrying the band leader Mantovani on a concert tour for the troops.
Even after the end of hostilities, lots of the “Dodgers” were kept overseas. It was January 1946 before Geoff finally got home to Betty and the by then four-year-old Geoffy. Geoff resumed his pre-war trade of house builder.
He and Betty also set about building a family. The pair made up for lost time and eventually were parents to no less than nine children in their High Hurstwood, East Sussex, home.
One of their brood, Barbara, became my wife. The two of us have been to Anzio twice and have paid our respects at her uncle’s grave in the Beach-head Cemetery there.
We celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this coming Sunday June 15.