The singer in the sands

Lale Andersen, chanteuse and Langeoog superstar
Lale Andersen, chanteuse and Langeoog superstar

Carruthers and Davies do not spend any time on Langeoog, the third of the East Frisian islands (if you’re heading east to west). Geographically, Langeoog is familiar enough after our visits to Wangeroog and Spiekeroog – a sandbank that has become an island, under the influence of the tides and the Frisian genius for dykes and groynes. But hidden in a graveyard in the dunes are the ashes of the singer of a song which, in some ways, encapsulates a lot of what this whole adventure is about. Click on the link for a clue:

Song Version 1 – 1939

The song is, of course, Lili Marlene, arguably the most famous song of the Second World War. The singer is Lale Andersen, who was born in Bremerhaven as Elisabeth Carlotta Helena Berta Bunnenberg. Her early life is very Weimar – married at 17, three children in seven years, decamped to Berlin (leaving the kids with her brother and sister) to become an actress and a singer. And in Berlin, of course, she appeared in cabarets. Cue spurious film still.


While singing in the cabarets of Berlin, she met the composer Norbert Schultze. He had composed a little ditty based on a poem from the First World War (though they didn’t call it that in 1938). The poem was written by a German soldier called Hans Leip, and was addressed to not one but two girlfriends, Lili and Marlene. The original German reads like this:

Vor der Kaserne,
Vor dem großen Tor,
Stand eine Laterne,
Und steht sie noch davor,
So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n,
Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n,
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.

Unsere beiden Schatten,
Sah’n wie einer aus,
Daß wir so lieb uns hatten,
Das sah man gleich daraus.
Und alle Leute soll’n es seh’n,
Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n,
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.

Schon rief der Posten:
Sie blasen Zapfenstreich,
Es kann drei Tage kosten!
Kamerad, ich komm’ ja gleich.
Da sagten wir Aufwiederseh’n.
Wie gerne wollt’ ich mit dir geh’n,
Mit dir, Lili Marleen!

Deine Schritte kennt sie,
Deinen zieren Gang.
Alle Abend brennt sie,
Doch mich vergaß sie lang.
Und sollte mir ein Leid gescheh’n,
Wer wird bei der Laterne steh’n,
Mit dir, Lili Marleen!

Aus dem stillen Raume,
Aus der Erde Grund,
Hebt mich wie im Traume
Dein verliebter Mund.
Wenn sich die späten Nebel dreh’n,
Werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n
Wie einst, Lili Marleen!

Or, in English

Outside the barracks, by the corner light
I’ll always stand and wait for you at night
We will create a world for two
I’ll wait for you the whole night through
For you, Lili Marlene
For you, Lili Marlene

Bugler, tonight, don’t play the call to arms
I want another evening with her charms
Then we will say good-bye and part
I’ll always keep you in my heart
With me, Lili Marlene
With me, Lili Marlene

Give me a rose to show how much you care
Tied to the stem, a lock of golden hair
Surely, tomorrow, you’ll feel blue
But then will come a love that’s new
For you, Lili Marlene
For you, Lili Marlene

When we are marching in the mud and cold
And when my pack seems more than I can hold
My love for you renews my might
I’m warm again, my pack is light
It’s you, Lili Marlene
It’s you, Lili Marlene

My love for you renews my might
I’m warm again, my pack is light
It’s you, Lili Marlene
It’s you, Lili Marlene.

Lale Andersen recorded her first version on 2 August 1939, only a month before the outbreak of the Second World War. It sold a mere 700 copies, and then everyone forgot about it. Lale went back to working the cabarets, and Europe went to war.

But two years later, a soldier working for a German armed forces radio station in Belgrade which was broadcasting to Rommel’s troops in North Africa was sent to Vienna to pick up some records to play, preferably cheap ones. Among others, he came back with Lili Marlene, which was first played from Belgrade on 18 August 1941, and became an instant hit with the Afrika Corps. The Belgrade station took to playing it every night at 9.57 precisely, and soon other forces in other countries picked up the signal – including Britain’s Eighth Army. The song became so popular that Lale Andersen re-recorded it in 1942, with the connivance of Goebbels, who hated the original and wanted something a little more martial.

Lale Andersen 1942 version

Andersen also recorded an English-language version of the song – though I haven’t been able to establish the motivations behind this. What is interesting about this version is the lyricist – a fellow by the name of Norman Baillie-Stewart, who had been a spy for the Germans before the war. So, one might say the first English-language version of Lili Marlene was written by a real-world Dollman. Baillie-Stewart, I now discover, is thought by some to be the original Lord Haw-Haw – he began broadcasting from Berlin in England a week before war broke out, and was only later replaced by William Joyce because the latter was thought to have a better radio voice. Baillie-Stewart (not, inevitably, his real name, which was Wright, rather amusingly) survived the war, spent some time in jail for treason, and then moved to Ireland, in another echo of Riddle of the Sands. He died there in 1966.

Here’s the version of Lili Marlene that Baillie-Stewart wrote the lyrics for:

Lale Andersen English version

By now, Lili Marlene was the most famous song in Europe. The British Ministry of Information got in on the act, commissioning their own English-language version from Tommie Connor. Recorded by Anne Shelton, this lush, West End Variety version was also a massive hit:

Anne Shelton version of 1944

Even Vera Lynn got in on the act:

Vera Lynn version

And, of course, the singer who propelled Lili Marlene into the popular culture stratosphere sang her own version, creating arguably the best known torch song of all time, fuelled on tobacco, brandy and desire – Marlene (of course) Dietrich:

Marlene Dietrich German version

But the original song will always be Lale Andersen’s – and we can find her ashes buried on Langeoog, in the ‘dune graveyard’. We can also go and see this rather lovely little memorial to her on the island, where she lived out her post-war years.

Wasserturm Langeoog by Huebi - Huebi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
Wasserturm Langeoog by HuebiHuebi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Lale had one more fling with fame, though this time with less success. She sang the German Eurovision Song Contest entry in 1961 – but her song, Einmal Sehen Wir Uns Wieder, came second last. Lili Marlene, it ain’t.

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