Forby’s War Years
At the outbreak of war, Formby volunteered for the army, but was turned down by the military selectors because of his flat feet. Hurt by this seeming rejection of his services, he joined the Blackpool Home Guard as a dispatch rider and launched into an exhaustive series of troop concerts. It is impossible to over-emphasize how significant Formby’s contribution was in keeping up the morale of ‘the boys’ stationed overseas, and cheering up civilians back at home. He didn’t just go through the motions in relative safety – he wanted to do it for real, and he had a real affinity with the men whose lives he shared, and created an instant rapport with even the largest audience. He and Beryl (she accompanied him at every point during the war) put their own lives in constant danger, personally witnessing men killed and injured, and at one point performing less than 100 yards from the enemy lines.
He was the first big star to visit the British Expeditionary Force in Normandy in 1940, and had a tremendous welcome from the weary soldiers. Several newsreels of George and Beryl performing in France were recorded in March 1940, with the song which proved the biggest hit with the soldiers, ‘Imagine Me In The Maginot Line’ appearing in all of them. The opening line immediately drew them in, making reference to the very lives they were living themselves:
“You should see me out in France, wearing my tin hat”
But it’s not hard to see why these lines got the biggest laugh:
“Hitler can’t kid us a lot,
His secret weapon’s Tommy Rot,
You ought to see what the sergeant’s got!
Down in the Maginot Line.”
It was exactly what the soldiers needed. On his return to Britain, George toured the country raising money for blitzed families, encouraging and sponsoring salvage drives, and raised thousands of pounds for the Fleetwood Trawlermen’s Fund. He also gave concerts in underground shelters, one of which, in November 1940, deep in the bowels of Aldwych underground station, was recorded. He visited factories, and with Beryl wrote newspaper articles and made broadcasts of a serious and reflective nature in aid of the war effort.
On the 19th August, 1943 George and Beryl set off on their delayed ENSA trip to north Africa. He toured the battle fronts of North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Gibraltar and Italy, continuing to Libya, Egypt and Lebanon; in less than eight weeks, he and Beryl entertained a quarter of a million men.
He was in Normandy less than a week after D-Day, on this occasion making the front page of the ‘Daily Mail’. The headline was to the effect that now Formby had added his support to Montgomery, the war was as good as over. In all, he and Beryl are estimated to have personally entertained over 3 million troops. He received a modest (and surely inadequate) OBE for his heroic efforts. Beryl, shockingly, received nothing.
There is no doubt that the war brought out something truly special in George, and it is absolutely certain that old Formby Senior would have been immensely proud of how his shy, functionally illiterate, mediocre jockey of a son had become a giant of a man who, driven by his own sense of destiny, was now touching and transforming the lives of people who needed him, all over the world. The films, the shows, the cars, the glamour – they were all very well; but it’s his wartime work with Beryl, both with the troops abroad and civilians at home that should ensure his place as one of the greatest (and certainly the bravest) British entertainers of all time.
1. ‘Imagine Me In The Maginot Line’ (Gifford, Cliffe, 1939)