The Entertainers of World War Two

Very little, writes Hilary Green, has been written about the people who helped to raise morale, both among the troops and the civilians, by providing entertainment during the war. A few names come immediately to mind – Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’, Ann Shelton, who was the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, and Gracie Fields – but few over the age of seventy remember what ENSA stood for. The Entertainment National Service Association was the brainchild of impresario Basil Dean and brought together both professional and amateur entertainers to perform in munitions factories, garrison theatres, village halls and, after D-Day, in tents and bomb damaged buildings across Europe, to bring a little relief from the ever-present danger and the gloom of rationing and the blackout. In spite of this it was still known, to some of those forced to attend its less successful performances, as Every Night Something Awful.

I have a personal reason for my interest in the subject. Both my parents were in the entertainment industry before the outbreak of war, my father as a singer and my mother as a dancer. Neither of them served with ENSA because my father joined the RAF as soon as war was declared and my mother had by then a family to care for. I grew up, however, listening to their reminiscences of life ‘on the stage’ and from time to time we would hear a singer or a comedian on the ‘wireless’ and one of them would say ‘Oh, I remember him/her. I worked with him/her in such and such a show before the war.’ When I questioned how these people had become household names the answer was simple. They went into ENSA. (Pictured: Gracie Fields, accompanied by an RAF orchestra, entertains airmen at their Christmas party, 1939. Taken from the collections of the Imperial War Museum. Click to enlarge).

Stars in Battledress

ENSA was not the only organisation putting on shows for the troops. Soon after conscription began another far-sighted man took an important initiative. Colonel Basil Brown was an Army Welfare officer who realised that all round the country, in the period known as the ‘phoney war’ when hostilities proper had not commenced, there were talented performers, many of them professionals, who were languishing in army barracks square bashing and peeling potatoes. He sent out scouts to search for such people and had them seconded to the Central Pool of Artistes, which later became known as Stars in Battledress. They were formed into companies according to their particular fields of expertise. Some gave variety performances, including singers, dancers, acrobats, conjurers and musicians. Others performed straight plays. They all had one handicap in common. Until 1944 no women were allowed to join.

The advantage that Stars in Battledress had over ENSA was that, being soldiers in uniform, they could be sent to areas where civilians could not be allowed to go – into secret facilities, or right up to the front line, where they might be expected to scrub off the greasepaint and grab their rifles if the occasion demanded it. Many future stars made their first forays into the world of entertainment through Stars in Battledress, among them Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.

Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts

Classical music, opera and ballet were not neglected. CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, was set up in 1940 under Mary Glasgow and Ivor Brown and under its auspices performances of all three were put on in village halls and works canteens all over the country. For a great many people this was the first chance they had had to encounter styles of performance that had previously been restricted to those who lived within reach of major opera houses and concert halls and had money to pay for tickets.

After being briefly closed down at the outbreak of war the London theatre flourished. Musicals like Ivor Novello’s ‘The Dancing Years’, ‘The Maid of the Mountains’, ‘Rose Marie’ and ‘Lilac Time’ were all revived. The Windmill Theatre, famous for its nudes, had the proud boast ‘we never closed’. To escape the air raids the girls in the show used to sleep in the theatre lounge. At the New Theatre, Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpman danced ballet. Meanwhile, the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells companies moved to Burnley to escape the bombing and local people were able to see Sybil Thorndike playing Shakespeare.

Well done, ENSA

Towards the end of the campaign in North Africa soldiers who had fought without leave for many months and endured terrible conditions were at the end of their tethers and mutiny threatened. Light relief was desperately needed and ENSA provided it. Harry Secombe was in a concert party in Tunis; there was a huge variety show at the Royal Opera House in Cairo in the presence of King Farouk. Stars like Marlene Dietrich, Gracie Fields, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart gave their services. Noel Coward performed in Malta, Gibraltar and Naples. In September 1943 King George Vl signalled Basil Dean  ‘Well done, ENSA.’

These events were the inspiration behind my four books in the ‘Follies’ series. Although the war takes the leading characters on many paths they would never have considered treading before, they are all at the outset entertainers, all members of the same ‘Concert party’ – and in one way or another they continue to use their varied talents in the service of their country.

Hilary Green

Hilary is the author of several books based during the two world wars.
See also Hilary’s articles on women medics during World War One and women of the SOE during World War Two.