Songs of the Second World War

by Howard Fosdick ©

Depending on your age, either your father, grandfather, or great-grandfather fought in the Second World War. It was a cataclysmic event that claimed some 75 million lives. And it permanently altered everyone who lived through it.

Somehow, out of this vast tragedy, classic tunes emerged. They're so memorable you probably recognize many of them today, even though you weren't born when they were written.

This article discusses these most popular World War II songs and those who performed them.

You can freely download the sheet music for all the tunes in this article -- plus many more -- in a single "zip" file here. These scores were selected so that you can play them on almost almost any folk flute.

While reading this article, you can click on any highlighted song title to see its sheet music.

Vera Lynn

Vera Lynn was born in a working class London in 1917. Before she even entered her teens, she had become a professional performer, singing with the Kracker Kabaret Kids and then Howard Baker. She hit her early 20s just as the War began, and her career took off.

In 1939, she came out tops in a Daily Express poll of favorite performers. Thereafter, the press and public often referred to her as the "Forces Sweetheart."

Vera Lynn
Vera Lynn (Courtesy

Lynn is probably best known for her song, We'll Meet Again (click for sheet music). It's a beautiful melody that describes a tearful departure with the promise that whatever happens, someday "we'll meet again."

The White Cliffs of Dover was another huge hit for Lynn. In its simple but lingering melody, the song predicts that someday soon, "There'll be birds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see."

Lynn's recording of Land of Hope and Glory promotes the same kind of optimism, this time bringing it right into the song title. In those first desperate years of the war, the British public direly needed to feel there was a light at the end of the tunnel. That's exactly what Lynn's songs proclaim. Interestingly, Land of Hope and Glory was penned back in 1901, but perfectly fit the tenor of the times early in the War.

Vera Lynn entertained the troops constantly during the conflict, sometimes under dangerous conditions. She famously took a risky trip to India and Burma to sing to soldiers in the field. She pressed records, performed on radio, and appeared in several films with wartime themes.

Lynn continued to score popular hits in the 1950s. She never slowed down. She became a true British cultural icon. At age 92, in 2009, she released a retrospective album that cracked the top ten best-sellers.

Dame Vera Lynn passed away in 2020 at age 103.


Like Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby crooned some of the most memorable songs of the Second World War. And, like her, he also had a very long-lived career that couldn't be confined to that five-year period.

Bing was born in 1903 in a house his father built in Tacoma, Washington. He was the fourth child in a family of seven. His dad was a bookkeeper.

Born Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr, Bing got his famous nickname because when he pretended to shoot enemies with his toy gun, he would always say "Bing, bing!" instead of "Bang, bang."

Bing started his career in high school bands. After graduation he traveled to Los Angeles and quickly took hold with a group called the Rhythm Boys. His musical popularity mushroomed in the 1920s with several hit songs. By the 1930s, Bing was a major star on records, radio, and film.

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby (Courtesy LA Times)

Bing's most popular song was White Christmas. He recorded the tune on a Christmas day radio broadcast in 1941. He memorably crooned it in his movie Holiday Inn in 1942, and a decade later in the film White Christmas.

Famous composer Irving Berlin penned the song. Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs over an illustrious 60-year career. Yet I'll wager that White Christmas is one of his best-loved. The tune won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1942.

While White Christmas might have been more financially rewarding, Bing's biggest War song was undoubtedly I'll Be Home for Christmas. Bing recorded it in 1943, but it really took off with the troops in 1944. By that time it was apparent to most that the Allies would beat Germany -- even though such bloody trials as the Battle of the Bulge still loomed ahead.

This classic tune evokes the emotion of an overseas soldier who longs to make it back stateside for Christmas with his family. It ends on a melancholy, if realistic note, with the soldier stating in the last line that "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams".

Like Vera Lynn, Crosby did everything a performer possibly could to support the troops and lift their morale. It's no surprise that in a poll of the troops at war's end, asking who contributed most to their morale, Bing was right at the top of the list, along with FDR, General Eisenhower, and Bob Hope.

Bing continued his remarkable career in radio, television, stage, and screen after the war. Today, he's fondly remembered by Americans born after the War as the wise young priest in the films Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. America television still broadcasts these 1940s classics every Christmas.

Bing Crosby passed away in 1977 from a spontaneous heart attack. He is buried at Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City, California.

The Andrews Sisters

The Andrews Sisters -- Maxene, LaVerne, and Patty -- were undoubtedly the most popular "girl group" of the Second World War.

Like Vera Lynn and Bing Crosby, the sisters starting singing together in their pre-teen years in their home of Minneapolis. They won the talent contest at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis when lead singer Patty was 12 years old. They quickly developed a "close harmony" singing style with a bit of swing to it, the perfect fit for the "big band" style popular in the 1930s and 1940s. While Vera and Bing tugged on the heartstrings of nostalgia, the Sisters smoothly crooned "swing" with the big bands.

The Andrews Sisters
The Andrews Sisters (Courtesy

The Sisters scored several big hits prior to the War. These included Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (Means That You're Grand) in 1937, Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel) in 1939, and Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar in 1940.

But the War saw their biggest hits. Who hasn't heard -- even today -- their great 1942 song Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else But Me)? The close harmony of the song perfectly expresses both the Sisters' unique style and their acoustic appeal.

When TV shows or documentaries want to encapsulate a bit of World War II history, they often present the Andrews Sisters' singing their hit, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. The swinging Sisters in their War uniforms dance before a group of GIs. You've undoubtedly seen the clip even if you didn't know who the singers were.

Like Vera Lynn and Bing Crosby, the Sisters gave their careers to the war for the duration. They performed before servicemen worldwide and visited hospitals wherever they traveled. With other entertainers, they served at the famous Hollywood Canteen in Los Angeles. They often dined with random soldiers for supper.

The Sisters closed out their war with their popular melody, Rum and Coca Cola. This song stirred a bit of controversy. First of all, it mentioned a specific product by name. More importantly, many felt the lyrics referred to prostitutes serving US troops stationed in Trinidad. Many radio stations refused to play the song, and the Sisters claimed they recorded it on short notice without time to consider the words. Nevertheless, it became a hit record.

Decide for yourself what you think about this controversy:

Lyrics to Rum and Coca-Cola

Going into the 1950s, the Sisters performed individually, as a duo, or as a full trio. Although they experienced internal conflicts, they toured extensively as a threesome in the 1960s.

Eldest sister LaVerne died of cancer in 1967. Maxine passed at age 79 in 1995, and Patty at age 94, in 2013.

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa, in 1904. He became intrigued by dance band music in high school. By the time he entered college, he was spending most of his time attending musical auditions and playing gigs.

Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller (Courtesy

Miller free-lanced as a trombonist for several years. He worked with many of the prominent band leaders of the time including the Dorsey brothers and Brit Ray Noble. He branched out into composing, arranging, and experimenting with new sounds.

By the late 1930s, Glenn Miller emerged with his own band. Glenn Miller and His Orchestra quickly moved up the charts and became one of the most popular bands in the country.

Hollywood shortly came calling, and Miller and his band starred in Orchestra Wives in 1941 and Sun Valley Serenade in 1942.

With the advent of the War, Miller joined the Army as a Captain in the Army Specialist Corps. This was at the height of his musical popularity -- the decision cost him an income of some $20,000 per week from his band. This is over $400,000 per week in today's dollars!

The new Major Glenn Miller Army Air Forces Orchestra broadcasted, recorded, and toured on behalf of the US armed services. General Eisenhower personally requested them to come to the UK to increase morale prior to D-Day. Miller's orchestra billeted in "Buzz Bomb Alley." Just after they moved to a second building, a German bomb hit their initial headquarters and killed more than 100 people. Though subject to sleepless nights and some tense days, the band continued their work as part of the war effort.

In December 1944, Miller started preparations to move his orchestra to Allied-occupied France. He arranged to fly ahead of his band on a single-engine aircraft called a UC-64 Norseman. He tagged along with Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell and Flight Officer John Stuart Morgan of the Eighth Air Force.

The trio took off for France on December 15th. By three days later, it had become apparent that they were missing. Miller's remains were never found. His Orchestra continued in service of the War effort through 1946.

As instrumentals, Glenn Miller's songs don't speak specifically to the emotions of the War as do the lyrics from Vera Lynn, for example. But his songs were wildly popular during the War and are often identified with it (even those that pre- or post- date the war itself).

One of his most popular melodies is Moonlight Serenade. Another sophisticated tune is Moonlight Cocktail. Many of Miller's best songs rely on big band instrumentation for their effect -- for example, In the Mood. These don't translate especially well to solo play on melody instruments.

Marlene Dietrich

Wait... wasn't Marlene Dietrich a German?

Yes, she was. She is also a true American hero.

Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born in Berlin in 1901. Her father was a police lieutenant who died when she was only eight years old.

As a youngster, Dietrich played the violin and explored poetry and the theater. She started her career on stage as a chorus girl and in small dramatic parts.

Marlene's big break was being case in the role of Lola-Lola, the sexy cabaret singer who causes the downfall of a respected professor in the classic blockbuster, Blue Angel. The film's success prompted Dietrich to move to Hollywood in 1930. Throughout the decade, she continued her successful film career at Paramount under the director Josef von Sternberg.

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich (Courtesy Pinterest)

When she visited London the mid-1930s, Nazi party officials approached her and guaranteed she would be the biggest star in Germany if she would only return. Dietrich proved she was more politically astute than many at the time. She turned them down flat.

Instead, she started speaking out about Hitler's cruelties. Along with filmmaker Billy Wilder, she created a refugee fund. She donated all the money she made from the film Knight Without Armor to the fund. This amounted to $450,000 -- a truly enormous sum in the late 1930s.

During her USO act for the soldiers, Dietrich liked to claim she could read minds. Then she would saunter up to some random GI, and in her deep voice proclaim, "Oh, think of something else. I can't possibly talk about that!"

With the outbreak of the War, Dietrich devoted herself whole-heartedly to selling war bonds and entertaining Allied troops all over the world. Her travel was more extensive than even many of the most dedicated. It's no surprise that at war's end, she received a cascade of service awards from the United States, France, Belgium, and Israel.

Dietrich's most famous war song was Lili Marlene. She recorded it both in English, and in German, as part of a propaganda effort by the US Office of Strategic Services. The song carries the unique distinction of having been a hit with both Allied and Axis soldiers during the War, in both their native languages.

After the War, Dietrich was able to reunite with her sister and her family, who had stayed behind in Germany after Marlene had moved to the US. Dietrich successfully protected her sister and family from the anti-German hysteria that attended war's end. But, sadly, in later life she felt pressured to omit them from her biography and pretend that she was an only child.

Dietrich continued her successful career until she fell of the stage in 1975 in Sydney, Australia. She broke her thigh bone in the fall. A year later, her husband Rudolf Sieber died.

While still active via letters and phone calls, Marlene spent the last decade of her life largely bedridden. She supported a documentary about her life made in 1984, entitled Marlene. She passed away in 1992 at the age of 90.


The World War II generation has passed on. Yet their music lives on.

You can download the sheet music for all the songs we've discussed -- and many more WW II tunes -- here. All are scored in easy keys for any folk flute.

I hope you enjoy these timeless melodies.


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