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The Soundtrack to War

by Nick Ross Orchestra

Contributed by 
Nick Ross Orchestra
People in story: 
Glenn Miller, Nick Ross
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 January 2005

Bandleader Nick Ross talks about the music of World War 2.

Music mirrors the measures of history, like some giant soundtrack to accompany the story of man, and in the sweep of those events there have been times when composers and musicians have seemed to be born to the occasion - none more so, of course, than the inimitable Glenn Miller who not only felt instinctively for the mood of wartime Europe but almost single-handed created the spirit with which we faced it.

The memories brought to life of this era span almost all the emotions of those times: comradeship, doubt, fear, loss and, most significantly, the hope in love. As we move into a new century, we might well be left with a silent gap, a void into which the younger people of today will have nothing of their memories to invest; that will leave the Big Band sound and the classic melodies and lyrics of another age little more than the trivia of nostalgia.

It is for this reason that the Nick Ross Orchestra continue to recreate the music of an era which might otherwise be so easily set to one side. Nick talks about the exciting new sound that was as much part of the 'American Invasion' as chewing gum, nylon stockings and liberal supplies of cigarettes and chocolate. He tells me that while even the most basic of items were rationed at home, that GI's had access to luxury goods including V-discs, phonographic recordings for military personnel, featuring the most popular Big Bands of the day. Familiar names like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and the voices of popular singers including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

The GI's and V-discs were soon followed when the most famous bandleader of all time, Alton Glenn Miller, stepped on British soil shortly after the D-Day deployment. War was still raging - it would be some time yet before victory in Europe would be declared - and Miller's Allied Expeditionary Forces Orchestra would form part of a key Allied propaganda initiative aimed at occupied Europe. 'The role that music played in the war is often overlooked' Nick says, 'The BBC would broadcast Miller's AEF Orchestra straight into the heart of enemy territory in an effort to shore up morale for the troops and to seduce the enemy with American culture in a game of mental warfare.' To listen to broadcasts in occupied Europe was a punishable offence, and he believes that as such, it probably made them even more attractive. 'A possible explanation why Big Bands are still enormously popular in Germany, Holland and Belgium' he concludes.

Here at home, we soon fell to the onslaught of Miller's unique sound, Nick smiles when I ask him the formula. 'A very disciplined and tight sound which notched Glenn Miller up over 70 top ten hits in a three and a half year period was a very clever union between melody on lead clarinet doubled an octave below by a tenor saxophone, surrounded by a tightly voices sax section, and supported by the signature 'do-wah' sound of muted trumpets and trombones.' It is that classic sound of 5 saxes, 4 trombones, 4 trumpets and a rhythm section which took wartime Britain by storm, and that sound which the Nick Ross Orchestra still so faithfully recreate today.

And the impact this sound had at home? Nick answers: 'You have to realise that morale was very low. The enemy was ruthlessly discarding the young lives of our soldiers while moving perilously closer, so the arrival of the American troops on British soil was welcomed. Towards the end of the war, just before D-Day, there were approximately two million Americans based in Britain. The infectious finger tapping and foot stomping sound of 'In the Mood' perfectly captured a re-invigorated moment in time when anything seemed possible, and that included beating the Nazi's.' He continues, 'to virgin English ears the sound was fresh and new, easy to dance to, and full of energy, and the BBC broadcasts no doubt contributed to its rise in popularity.'

'That popularity has endured through to today, the audience remain faithful' he says, 'and attending a performance evokes powerful memories of both good and bad times'. Hearing 'A String of Pearls' or 'Moonlight Serenade' often brings a tear to two, and he gets regularly told by audience members that a particular tune that he had played was 'their song' - one they first danced to, or shared that first lingering kiss to. 'It is witnessing that joy that makes it worth it' he says - after all it was the soundtrack to their youth.

Today we view that era with fond nostalgia but we can forget that this was also the time when some of the most memorable and uniquely distinctive music of the 20th century was produced. As we celebrate the courageousness of men and women fighting for the freedom and democracy we hold so dear today, we should be dancing to "Our Kind of Music" - the soundtrack to that war!

Kruger du Toit

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Message 1 - The Soundtrack to War

Posted on: 22 January 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Kruger du Toit

You say that "Music mirrors the measures of history, like some giant soundtrack to accompany the story of man, and in the sweep of those events there have been times when composers and musicians have seemed to be born to the occasion", I have absolutely no doubt that you are sincere, but frankly I must admit that I do not understand what these words mean, unless one is to assume that history only began in the 20th century. Certainly Beethoven initially, in 1804, dedicated his great symphony 'Eroica' to Napoleon, a work which arguably changed European music forever, but subsequently he repudiated that dedication. Tchaikovsky wrote the powerful '1812 Overture', but he wasn't born until 1840.

As much as I appreciate Miller's music, I cannot see how it had any influence on WW2 prior to late 1944 when victory was in sight. Glenn Miller did not succeed in getting his services accepted by the United State Army Air Corps until late1942, I think his last concert as a civilian in America was at Passaic, New Jersey on September 27th, 1942, and he didn't arrive in England with his band until mid 1944. I myself didn't hear any Glen Miller music until 1945/46. Where he did have an undoubted impact was in the USA. He joined the Army Specialists Corps with the rank of captain and for the next year and a half, besides arranging music, he created and directed his own 50-member band. Glenn Miller was a talented fund raiser, and raised millions of dollars in war bond drives; he also attracted Air Corps recruits through his weekly radio broadcasts. However, he was totally unknown in China, Japan, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany, and above all in the USSR, having no influence on the participants of the gigantic clash in Russia.

Glenn Miller will be remembered for many things: his unique musical style, showmanship, hard work, perseverance, and much more. His name is synonymous with big bands, but his influence on WW2, I would argue. was not as great as you suggest. Well known in America since 1938, primarily due to his radio broadcasts sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, he had no impact on British morale in the dark uncertain days, the fall of France, the Blitz, the Africa campaign, the fall of Crete, and the invasion of Sicily, the Italian mainland, Salerno, Anzio, and Monte Cassino. The songs of Vera Lynne, 'We'll Meet Again', 'The White Cliffs of Dover', and above all 'Underneath the Lamplight' had much more impact on soldiers and the bands which had most influence on British audiences were led by Joe Loss, Lew Stone, Harry Roy, Geraldo, and Victor Sylvester. There is no doubt, however, that Glenn Miller did raise the morale of American forces in Britain, he gave over 800 performances to US Army and Air Force bases throughout the country.

Best regards,



Message 2 - The Soundtrack to War

Posted on: 24 January 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Peter -
Frankly I couldn't have said it better.... although you did leave out Henry Hall - Jack band and his Paynes - Stewart MacPherson and the Hedley Ward Trio !!!


Message 3 - The Soundtrack to War

Posted on: 25 January 2005 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Kruger,
Reading your personal page you did hit the nail on the head. Glen Miller was one among many of that big band era, I would have placed him around sixth against Tommy Dorsie, Artie Shaw, Harry James and Benny Goodman with a whole host of others.
You did say he had a good sense of promoting the band and one of the first things on coming here was to make a series of recordings for radio. The BBC played those records for Music while you work and other program's. We were shown news reels at cinema's of the Miller Band playing to massed troops so it is the full frontal assault on the public and forces that pushed Miller up ahead.
Dance Hall big bands of which there were many, four in our town alone and many more in the area, played the Miller music for the Jitterbugs and would play several Miller melodies though the evening.
What a lot of people forget is we could still get records for the old wind up grams and the dance halls played a series of those during the intervals that is when the jitter buggers took off (Err am I allowed to say that) any way he was not unknown before he came here.
I still like and play his music for my own amusment or the grandkids but he was not the top man in our lives at that time, we had so many good British bands and the dance halls were where we heard their music.
As a lover of all kinds of music I think too much emphasis is put on one particular band when we have fond memories of them all, I still think Gene kruper the drummer had six hands? how else did he play such wonderful breaks.

Message 1 - Glen Miller

Posted on: 26 January 2005 by Hugh Ferguson

When the tanker OHIO was being towed the last few miles into Malta by the destroyers LEDBURY and BRAMHAM
at the time of the famous PEDESTAL CONVOY, somebody put a Glen Miller record on the address system and the weary crews had their spirits raised by the constant repetition of ELMER's TUNE on the one side, and the other side the title of which I cannot just call to mind. Hugh Ferguson.


Message 2 - Glen Miller

Posted on: 30 January 2005 by Hugh Ferguson

To add to the above message the other side of the record played on the address system at full volume was CHATTANOOGGA Choo Choo. The other ship engaged in towing the tanker OHIO was H.M.S.PENN.
Hugh Ferguson.

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