English entertainer Noël Coward, a celebrated wit and raconteur, spent most of his life airily defying social conventions even as he delighted millions with his art. For all of his flippant mockery of British imperialism, however—notably the famous song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” from 1931, Coward wore his patriotism proudly during World War II. And he longed to employ much more than song and dance in vanquishing the Nazis he so heartily loathed.
Born to a lower-middle class family in London in 1899, Coward became entranced by the world of entertainment from an early age—not least because it offered an arena in which he could be relatively open about his homosexuality. A talented singer and dancer, he was soon writing songs and plays as well. During World War I he was assigned to the Artists’ Rifles, but the cause for which Britain fought was opaque. Coward could not convince himself “that it was a matter of pressing urgency . . . [instead], I should become rich and successful as soon as possible.”
That he did, between the wars. By the 1930s, Noël Coward was the acclaimed king of London’s West End (akin to New York City’s Broadway), dominating it and the radio airwaves with his comedies and lighthearted music. In the summer of 1939, with war imminent, Coward toured Continental Europe from France to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, losing no opportunity to frolic with fellow high-profile artists and literati. But these activities masked a serious purpose—to assess the dark tide of extremism and murderous intolerance sweeping across Europe.
When World War II began in September 1939, with the German and Soviet invasions of Poland, Coward immediately enlisted himself with the British government to support the war effort in any capacity. He particularly yearned to work on behalf of the Royal Navy, which he adored. After a brief assignment to work in intelligence at Bletchley Park, however, Coward was sent to Paris to undertake light duties at the British propaganda bureau. These posts did not work to Noël Coward’s real talents, however, and he subsequently embarked on a tour of the United States and Australia as a kind of goodwill ambassador (and, theoretically at least, as an intelligence agent.)
As this tour ended, Coward returned to London in the midst of the ongoing German bombing campaign known as the Blitz. Reports that the Nazis had Coward at the top of their death list in case of a successful invasion of England concerned him not at all: “My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with,” he quipped with his friend Rebecca West. Nor did the threat of death from German bombs faze him. Of one bombing attack in April 1941, Coward wrote:
“Had a few drinks. Pretty bad blitz, but not as bad as Wednesday. A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door blew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians. On the whole a strange and very amusing evening. People's behaviour absolutely magnificent. Much better than gallant. Wish the whole of America could really see and understand it. Thankful to God that I came back. Would not have missed this experience for anything."
Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought that Coward was wasting his time, and told him so during a private audience after ordering the entertainer to sing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” twice in a row. “Go and sing” to the troops “when the guns are firing—that’s your job!” the Prime Minister thundered. And so Coward was off to tour around the world, singing and dancing wherever British and American soldiers were fighting, in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
A restless artistic spirit, Noël Coward could not stop creating. And so, even with his grueling tour schedule, he wrote songs like “London Pride” about the spirit of those enduring the Blitz, or the delightful “Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans.” This latter included the immortal refrain:
“Don't let's be beastly to the Germans,
For you can't deprive a gangster of his gun,
Though they've been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch ,
But I don't suppose those countries really minded very much,
Let's be free with them and share the B.B.C. with them,
We mustn't prevent them basking in the sun.”
In film, too, Coward was active, most notably in the 1942 naval drama In Which We Serve. This Coward wrote and co-directed, and also sort of fulfilled his dream of serving the Royal Navy by portraying a ship captain. As World War II ended, Coward enjoyed the satisfaction of dining with Winston Churchill and raising a teary-eyed toast in his honor. It remained to be seen whether the victors would be “beastly to the Germans”; but Noël Coward had almost three more decades of artistic success ahead before he died in 1973.
"I've too damned much to say": Kurt Vonnegut, World War II, and Slaughterhouse-Five
Writer Kurt Vonnegut's experiences with the 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge and then later as a POW in Dresden imprinted his life and provided traumatic (and sometimes comedic) material for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five and other works.
Ed Lengel, PhD
Edward G. Lengel is the former Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.