The Songs We Sang

Released in 1959 and based on his book The songs we sang,  musician Les Cleveland accompanied by his group the D Day Dodgers released this collection of often very irreverent songs that were sung by New Zealand Servicemen during the Second World War.

The songs we sang


In World War Two, New Zealand sent two infantry divisions overseas and supplied a great many sailors and airmen for the Allied Forces. Though the war has been over for fifteen years, the songs are still with us.  Many of us have half-forgotten them; others will have heard only a few of them and these in a variety of versions – but all will listen to them with new interest, conscious that the songs speak with unfading humour and sentiment of difficult days, conscious too that they occupy a unique place in New Zealand music and folk-lore. they are sings that deserve to live again.

One of the paradoxes of World War Two was that while at any given moment ferocious struggles would be raging at widely separated points on the combined fronts, there would be thousands and thousands of other men who were uncommitted, killing time in bivouacs, camps and garrisons anywhere from Siberia to the Campbell Islands. Singing was one of the ways to fight boredom and relieve nervous tension.

The New Zealand formation, always a clannish, high spirited lot, soon developed their own unit traditions. A great many ballads and choruses emerged. Some of the most popular have been used on this recording.


This song was heard in units of the 3rd Divison who were stationed on the assorted Pacific Islands. At one stage their 8th Brigade Concert Party – a devoted group which, when not doing defence platoon duties, rattled around with a piano in a truck giving shows in the jungle – used this course as a theme, it was a wry denouement, for the Pacific troops were much given to irony and satire to relive and express the frustration and monotony of their duties.

“We’re the heroes of the night
And we’d rather drink than fight!
We’re the heroes of Bob Semple’s Fusiliers.”

Semple was a labour politician with a pungent, forthright turn of speech. He distinguished himself on the outbreak of the war by causing the Public Works Department, of which he was head to fabricate a tank out of some old steel plate and a crawler tractor. It took part in one military parade, broke down, and was never seen again.


A spirited and celebrated song, popular amongst all the troops in the Middle East, Especially the Kiwis.


This is a satire base on one of the red-hot grievances of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East. The Eighth Army was formed in September 1941. To qualify for a small metal figure eight which was worn on the Africa Star ribbon, it was necessary to have served in the Eighth Army on or after October 23 1942. But the formation had been fighting for a year prior to that arbitrary date so that all these men who had been knocked out with wounds, invalided out with illness or transferred to non-operational units were denied this small nut significant award. Some of them were veterans of the first desert battles, and their remarks were often voluble and loud when they saw less-worthy soldiers – including girls serving ice-cream in army canteen and “those who were in Palestine” wearing “the eight”.


Another sentimental song widely known and sung by troops in Egypt.


A Maori Battalion song which mentions a few of the many places in which they campaigned. Ngarimu was the famous Maori Victora Cross awardee.


The adventures of the crew of this fabulous vessel constitute a saga with as many variations as there are singers and audiences.

MY A.25

A humorous piece about the hazard of deck landing on aircraft carriers. It was essentially a song of the Fleet Air Arm, the flying branch of the Royal Navy in which around 1000 New Zeland pilots and navigators served.  The A.25 was an Admiralty form on which a pilot had to attempt to explain away the circumstances of the crash he had walked- or swum – away from.

Other technical terms;

Batsman, the deck landing signals officer who directed planes in to land.
Goofers, a slang reference to a relatively safe vantage point from which it was possible to watch the sport of deck landing.
Cut, the final signal from the batsman to a pilot making a landing.
Barrier, a wire net to protect aircraft on the bow of the aircraft carrier from the over-enthusiastic efforts of pilots landing.
Booster, an accelerator catapult.
Supermarine, the firm of Vickers-Supermarine, makers of the Spitfire and Seafire aircraft.
Wings, an abbreviated term for the senior flying officer on the carrier.
Lee, Lee on Solent, wartime air station of the Fleet Air Arm.

A clever device combing light and a large curved mirror has now replaced the batsman- automation no less! With the advent of the angled deck, barriers are not normally required except in the event of a hook failure. They are now made of nylon.


A song which reflects the bitter feelings of many members of the original Eight Brigade Group which was hastily sent to Fiji when it was thought that Japanese Forces might reach that far in their Pacific drive. This garrison force was none-too-well supplied, it saw no action, and most of the men in it were soon tired of existing miserably in the tropics. Some of the weapons that wnt to Fiji were very old and worn. In the early stages, there were shortages of ammunition and other necessities, the song describes a celebrated incident which many soldiers insist actually occurred- a box of ammunition was open and found to contain lead head nails.


A kiwi variation of a traditional theme which sailors and troops have applied to a long list of warships and troop carriers. This particular one – The Monawai- was a liner which was used a good deal during the war to move troops. Soldiers always hate being on troop-ships. The food is poor, quarters are crowded and stuffy and some starch old naval type is always apt to demand that mess decks be scrubbed, water rationed or kits stowed in a certain way. The troops invariably felt that the regulations were designed for their personal inconvenience rather than the safety of the ship of the general furtherance of the war effort. The fact that the troops were occasionally wrong in the warmth which they objected to this regimentation did not affect their vehemence.



18 thoughts on “The Songs We Sang

  1. It seems Dina and the Fab Four of Cley can not access your site through wordpress – a glitch of some sort. They commented on my blog to tell you, Hello and they greatly appreciate your work here.


  2. Reminds me of the songs they used to play in the piano bars of the officers’ clubs my parents used to attend. One was the Datum, a bar close to the piers in Newport, RI. I never got to visit the Datum, only the main officer’s club for dinner. My parents bought home a Datum songbook and I memorized many of the songs. Not sure how I learned the melodies. Some of the songs were PG, not quite R. I think most of the piano bars petered out in the 1970s or early 1980s as the piano players and their followers went on that final Recon. I would love to find a copy of that songbook. Thanks for sharing this entertaining and informative post. Go Kiwis!

    Liked by 4 people

    • rneilmckie

      According to my father, who was the original owner of my copy of this album, is that when he was doing his stint of Compulsory Military Service in the 1950s, many of these songs, remained popular in the barrack rooms and clubs of New Zealand’s training camps. His take on it is because some of the songs were subtly critical of the military leadership (Africa Star and the Army in Fiji) they were a form of rebellion against their imposed military service which had disrupted their civilian lives. In today’s context, where service members vent their frustrations on social media, these songs provided the same venting mechanism.

      Some songs, such as the “The Good Ship Venus” remained popular because many versions of it were explicit and definitely “R” rated by the standards of the day.


  3. What a wonderful post. I have friends in New Zealand now, so this is even more meaningful. I sent the post to a younger relative who’s a US Navy pilot, and who spent more time than his mother was happy with landing on carriers around the world. I suspect he’s going to get a special kick out of “My A.25.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Music always seems to be a comfort no matter the situation. Thanks for sharing these great songs from the past. Those folks in New Zealand played such an important role in the war in many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    • rneilmckie

      The beauty of these songs it that they are the Kiwi Serviceman’s Social Media feed of the era and provide a glimpse of the common soldier’s thoughts, pride, frustrations and grief and fill some of the gaps found in the history of the period.

      Liked by 1 person

    • rneilmckie

      These are the versions for public consumption, “The Good Ship Venus” is a well know naval dutty available in many versions, and “saida bint” was the common term used for Egyptian Prostuitues so no doubt there were probably more robust versions of this song.


  5. Argus

    The renditions may be technically word perfect but the delivery is somewhat (aaaah ) cringeworthy — next time try giving ’em a dozen beers (each) first. At least.
    I said technically, but within the constraints of cultural sensitivities at least you got ’em published. O tempora, o mores …


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