Without any doubt the most popular song of the Second World War was 'Lili Marlene'. It was based on a poem written during the First World War by German soldier Hans Leip and was addressed to two of Leip’s girlfriends, Lili and Marlene.
It was published in 1937 as 'The Song of the Young Sentry' and set to music the following year by Norbert Schultze. Recorded by cabaret artiste Lale Andersen on 2 August 1939, the song sold a mere 700 copies on release and faded into obscurity.
There it might have remained had not a soldier, working for the German forces radio station in occupied Belgrade, been sent to Vienna to find some records to broadcast to General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. One of the records he found in Vienna was Lale Andersen’s recording of 'Song of the Young Soldier', and it was first played over the air on 18 August 1941.
It became an instant favourite with Rommel's men, and for the next three years Radio Belgrade played it almost every night at 9.57pm. It also became a huge hit throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and was soon picked up by the British Eighth Army in the desert.
Andersen recorded an English-language version, with lyrics written by Norman Baillie-Stewart, who had spied for the Germans in the early 1930s and was the last British citizen to be imprisoned in the Tower of London. This version of the song was beamed to British forces in North Africa.
Worried about the effect of a German song’s popularity on British morale, the Ministry of Information commissioned Tommie Connor to write another set of English lyrics for the song. Anne Shelton recorded Connor’s version and this too became a huge hit.