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Literature / Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall

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At Victoria station the R.T.O. gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Hitler marked 'This is your enemy'. I searched every compartment, but he wasn't on the train.

Spike Milligan's war diaries, generally known by the title of their first volume, although via Trilogy Creep they would go on to span seven:

  • Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1971)
  • "Rommel?" "Gunner Who?": A Confrontation in the Desert (1974)
  • Monty: His Part in My Victory (1976)
  • Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall (1978)
  • Where Have All the Bullets Gone? (1985)
  • Goodbye Soldier (1986)
  • Peace Work (1992)

The first three books were also released in an abridged single volume, cutting out most of the tangents and "Hitlergrams", called "The War Memoirs", and parts 5-7 as "The Peace Memoirs".

In these books Milligan records his experiences as part of the Royal Artillery during and after World War II, accompanied by much hilarity and occasional bouts of sorrow and depression. He reveals the sources of much of the humour in The Goon Show and how the key players behind it came together. Although written in a very surreal style and with many bizarre interludes, the narrative depicts real people and events and Milligan was rather offended when one reviewer didn't realise this. He also had to make his peace with former comrades who were offended at the way they were depicted and reduced to comic stereotypes - albeit recognisable and even with their real names being used.

The first book was adapted as a movie starring Jim Dale as Milligan. The real Milligan has a cameo as his own father.

Contains examples of:

  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: Milligan has a tendency to mine this and other hoary stereotypes for laughs: for example, Gunner Shapiro and Lt. Mostyn in Rommel and Sgt. Lewis in Bullets are all presented as being very money-conscious, although in other respects they're sympathetic characters, especially Lewis, who Spike forms a friendship with.
  • Americans Are Cowboys: The Americans rarely appear either in the real or spoof segments, but when they do they are basically cowboy stereotypes, such as wanting to put the tanks in a circle with the women and children on the inside.
  • America Won World War II: At one point the regiment parades through an Italian village in triumph only to realise the cheering crowds are yelling 'Hail the Americans!'
    • One of Spikes comrades suggests "Quick, lets slip it up her and blame them!"
    • On the other hand, there is a telling scene where Milligan's heavy guns are directed into a firing position in a boggy field where they sink into the mud under their own weight - the only powerful vehicles nearby that can tow them out belong to the American Army, who generously give their time and help, leading to angst in Jumbo Jenkins that "we've sunk so low as to ask the Americans for assistance". "We have sunk so low, sir. That's why we need them" replied Milligan.
    • Major 'Jumbo' Jenkins inverts this (in truth, a lot of Brits had their own version of this at the time) by challenging a downed American airman: "Who goes there? English, or German?" The airman's reaction is predictable.
  • Anachronism Stew: In Mussolini, when Spike is aboard a ship and they're preparing to invade Sicily—so, in 1943—he's given a tour of the engine room, where he's told "These are the Whackers who do the engines." "Ah," Spike replies, "the famous Do-Whacker-dos." This makes the others groan, but it's a reference to "Do-Wacka-Do", a song by Roger Miller that wouldn't be written and released until 1965, 22 years later.
  • Badass Army: The 56th Heavy Regiment itself. Milligan reproduces with evident pride (but with no comment) a communication to the regimental commander, praising the regiment for its performance at the Battle of Longstop Hill, in which a captured German officer is quoted as having mistook the regiment for having been much bigger than it actually was, such was the rate of fire the gunners achieved.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Subverted with "Jumbo" Jenkins. At first coming across as a stiff General Ripper, he later softens up a little and even plays jazz with Spike and his friends, but still busts Milligan down to the ranks after he suffers combat trauma in Italy.
    • The basic issue seems to be Chaotic Vacuum of People Skills. Jenkins isn't vicious, he just doesn't know how to manage people.
  • Bigger Is Better: Milligan's little brother keeps making drawings of Giant Troop-Carrying Submarines and Zeppelins and sending them to the Ministry of Defence, which seems uninterested.
    • Amusingly, one of his drawings depicts a "land cruiser" suspiciously similar to the German P.1000 Ratte that was actually seriously considered for mass production before Albert Speer stepped in and told the designers to cut that shit out. It really says something about Nazi Germany that so many high level people in its defense industry apparently had the same mentality as a prepubescent boy drawing on the back of old dinner menus.
  • Brits Love Tea: Vital to the British war effort. At one point Hitler and Rommel discuss building a tank that shoots tea as bait to make the British troops charge across a minefield.
    • At one point, a group of signallers, including Edgington, is caught in an air strike while brewing up. Most of them run for the cover of their three-tonner, but Edgington collects the kettle and mugs first. He also takes his tin hat off and uses it to cover the tea urn.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever: Edgington, who insists on keeping himself pure for his fiancée despite every opportunity.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: In the beginning of Bullets, it's March 1944 and Spike finds himself stationed as a clerk in a rehabilitation camp in Torre del Greco, on the outskirts of Naples and in the foothills of Vesuvius. Guess what's about to happen.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: How Milligan portrays his future comedy partner Harry Secombe when they meet through the Armed Forces Central Pool of Artists:-
    "Secombe was a mass of nervous energy, he went in all directions at once – you needed a man-size flyswat to catch him. Whichever part of the room you went, he was there first; if you looked in a mirror, he was looking back at you. He gave off long bursts of garbled conversation, interspersed with raspberries and bits of songs. His record for staying in one place was three seconds."
    • Also, Bill Hall, the violin-playing leader of Milligan's first show business troupe, the Bill Hall Trio. Dressed like a tramp, looked like a corpse, frequently vanished for days on end and would only show up at showtime, but a phenomenal musician.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Many of the soldiers, but also Milligan himself. For all that he relentlessly mocks military discipline, talks back to officers and is always up for a laugh, there's evident pride in his account of the 56th Heavy Regiment's performance, and when stuff goes down, he throws himself into it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone except a few officers: 'Leather Suitcase' and Major Jenkins are incapable of snark.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: While the book contains many things that would be considered politically incorrect today, Milligan takes many opportunities to exaggerate and lampoon some of the uglier attitudes of the day, such as the way housewives were treated as little more than slaves or the blatant racism of the white jazz scene.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Bombardier Syd Price smokes one, which Milligan says has a bowl so large "he hid in it during air raids." Milligan himself takes up pipe-smoking in Rommel? Gunner Who?, so as to not have to smoke the disliked V cigarettes.
  • Draft Dodging: Milligan averted this trope. He really did put his back out a day or two before his call-up date, necessitating medical treatment and bedrest. This delayed his arrival with his regiment. As Milligan said, claiming you're unfit for military service because you have a bad back rings as true as the lodger, naked in bed with the landlady, claiming the laundry's late.
    Only in my case... the laundry was late.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Several are depicted, including BSM "Jumbo" Day, and a bombardier "who will remain a nameless bastard". Sgt Jeordy Dawson has shades of this but proves much more personable and reasonable in the long run.
  • Exact Words: Stover, batman to Lt Budden, takes "saluting the King's uniform" quite literally, saluting Budden's uniform when it is hanging up on the wall in the morning and at night, since he comes from a military family and feels he would be living a lie otherwise; when Budden points out that it is pointless to do so when no-one is looking, Stover counters that even if no-one sees, he knows on his honour that he is alone with tradition.
  • A Father to His Men: Major Chater Jack, who's relaxed, brave and competent, and well-liked by the gunners.
  • Fighting Irish: Sgt Mick Ryan, who while stationed in Bexhill got to a fish and chip shop just as the owner was closing the door for the night. The owner told Ryan the shop was closed and Ryan replied "No, you're bloody not" and punched the man through the glass door, knocking him out. Later in the war, without an Observation Post to direct his fire, Ryan succeeds in hitting his target by looking up the barrel and then aiming slightly higher than that.
  • Gag Penis: "Plunger" Bailey.
  • General Failure: Major Jenkins, who is loathed by his troops for his devotion to military bullshit and who demotes Milligan from Lance-Bombardier to Gunner for no better reason than that Milligan is more popular than he is. Of course, Milligan admits to being an Unreliable Narrator so there may have been better reasons than that.
  • Happy Place: Jazz is this for Milligan, as one of the few things that he never mocks, parodies or otherwise ridicules. In one of the books' few totally serious lines:
    It's a great feeling playing jazz. Most certainly it never started a war.
    • He also experiences this when the Bill Hall Trio briefly have a gig in Dublin; he's never been to Ireland before (his father was Irish) and he loves the place.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: Inverted. When Major Chater Jack manages to catch a shark, the battery cook grills it, and it smells so delicious that Milligan becomes determined to get some, eventually bartering his next fruit cake for a piece of it. He describes the flavour as like "old newspapers boiled in Sloane's Liniment".note 
    • Played straight with Spaghetti Napolitana, a very simple dish of pasta in a tomato sauce with onions, garlic and herbs, which Milligan loves so much that he admits he would like to be covered in a mountain of it so that he can eat his way out.
  • Insane Troll Logic: "Silence when you speak to an officer!"
  • Insistent Terminology: Referring to "World War II" as though it's a place, especially when they get lost while looking for the front lines.
    • Also, Major Chater Jack is frequently referred to with his full rank and honours, i.e. Major Chater Jack, MC DSO.
    Milligan (to a Vichy French gendarme): Excusez-moi monsieur, ou est la guerre mondiale nombre deux?
  • I Was Told There Would Be Cake: Milligan's mother keeps sending him cake, which Major Chater Jack gets a taste for and soon Milligan's having to eat it as soon as he gets it before the Major can turn up.
  • Latin Lover: In later books, Spike's Italian girlfriend Toni, although she generally lacks the stereotypical spiciness associated with the trope and is more of a Girl Next Door translated into Italian.
  • Lighter and Softer: The last three books are these, given that the war ends near the beginning of Bullets. Goodbye Soldier drifts into Sugar Bowl territory, being mostly an account of Milligan travelling around Europe with the Central Pool of Artists troupe and being happily in love with his Italian girlfriend Toni.
  • Literal-Minded: Many of Milligan's jokes run on this:
    "I hear there's fighting in Cap Bon."
    "You must have good hearing, that's 20 miles away."
  • Lovable Coward: Lt Budden has a bit of this; when they're in actual combat he will step up, but most of the time he can't be bothered. When the Regiment gets involved in a "battle scheme" (simulated warfare), which divides them into opposing sides, Ack and Beernote , Budden suggests that they have lunch. While they're eating, they're ambushed by soldiers who announce "You're all prisoners of Ack Army." Budden replies "We are Ack Army," and the soldiers lower their rifle and retreat. Milligan says "I thought we were Beer Army sir," and Budden replies "We don't want everyone to know."
  • Mood Whiplash: The books are mostly light in tone, especially the pre-battle fatigue ones, but these are war diaries. In particular, the death of Lt. Goldsmith, a direct hit on the Command Post, and random macabre daydreams are sprinkled through the earlier books - the fact that these events often come right after the silliest moments makes them all the starker. It's particularly brutal listening to the audiobooks read by Milligan himself.
    • Averted in the last three books, written when Milligan was older, where the tone is more even throughout; Milligan himself is not in combat anymore, and he's more consistently nostalgic about times past and his earliest efforts in showbusiness.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted, one of the other Gunners is also nicknamed 'Spike', Deans, and is more commonly referred to by the name than Spike himself in the narrative.
    • There's also both a gunner and a BSM both named Griffin, the gunner being nicknamed "Jam Jar" to distinguish them; BSM Griffin, who is Welsh, is also narrated with a thick Welsh accent by Spike in the audiobooks.
  • Only in It for the Money: In Peace Work, when Milligan & Co. are hard up and hungry while in tour in Italy, Bill Hall leads them to the local office of the Italian Communist Party, where they join the party solely in order to obtain the free pasta meal given to all new members. Milligan is impressed by Hall's ingenuity.
  • Only Sane Man: Milligan presents himself like this, which is hilarious in itself when you know the level of nuttiness in his works.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: After a shell has prematurely burst and killed several gunners, a shaken Milligan enters the OP and says bluntly to Lt Walker "I've never drunk whisky but if you've got some I'd bloody well like some." Walker is taken aback by Milligan's lack of due respect for an officer, but on seeing what state Milligan is in, he says nothing and silently hands over the bottle.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Major Jenkins, D Battery's new CO following the transfer of Major Chater Jack.
    • Also Chater Jack's predecessor, known only as "Leather Suitcase" due to his uniform being trimmed with bits of leather where it had frayed.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Major Chater Jack, MC DSO. Milligan describes him as a veteran of WWI, unflappable (a must, given the antics described), humane, with a sense of humour, and A Father to His Men who Milligan would have followed anywhere, "preferably away from the war". He is transferred away to a different regiment during the third volume, though it's clear he remained in touch with Milligan post-war, given their correspondence shown.
    • Lt Goldsmith, who besides being a good officer (if not the best at map reading) and highly educated was also (on Milligan's account) witty, literate and kind. His death late in the second volume, from an enemy shell on Longstop Hill, proves especially demoralising to the men of the regiment, including Spike who poignantly recalls their last conservation prior to his departure.
    • Although he never personally appears in the series, Field-Marshal Montgomery, who when the Regiment is still in Bexhill institutes The Spartan Way to make them more physically fit (which they all resent, but Milligan admits that it did get results), and then leads the fighting in North Africa.
  • Revenge Is a Dish Best Served: Battery cook Ronnie May collects dried goats' shit, mixes it with flour and mashed potatoes, and serves it to the hated Major Jenkins—who, not knowing what it's made of, eats it and asks for more.
    May: Now he really is full of shit.
  • Running Gag: From the second book onwards, Milligan uses pictures of British soldiers fighting in colonial wars from the Victorian period with captions suggesting they're supposed to be from the war - presumably a spoof on how the British Army tended to be underequipped and technologically inferior compared to the Germans.
    • The constant propaganda claim that "the Russians are advancing on all fronts".
    • Spike (and others) saying variations on "This could mean promotion for you" to people, usually after they perform trivial tasks or make obvious statements.
    • Cold Collation.note 
  • Serious Business: In the last couple of books, by which time Milligan has been demobbed and is no longer receiving a soldier's wage, money is this. Peace Work contains many detailed accounts of exactly how much he and the others are getting paid and how they manage to get more money when they don't have any.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Parodied. Milligan doing something is often followed by a 'Hitlergram' of senior Nazis concernedly discussing what Gunner Milligan is up to, as the entire fate of the war presumably rests on it.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: When Spike is walking down the road to Pompeii:
    But wait! This was the very road trod by Augustus, Nero, Tiberius, even the great Julius Caesar, and I thought 'Fuck 'em' and was well pleased.
    • Later, while he's driving the Colonel (who is gay) back to his billet, the Colonel puts his hand up Spike's shorts. Spike fends him off by saying 'Look here, sir, fuck off... sir.' It works.
  • Speech Impediment: Played for rather cruel laughs with the officer who pronounces the letter "d" is "g", telling Milligan "I'd like you to have your turn in the miggle of the show." On being asked the name of the band, Milligan tells him it's "D Battery Dance Duo with Doug on Drums".
  • Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure: Milligan described what it was to be a British Army recruit in the summer of 1940, when a German invasion was expected daily. His unit was based in Sussex, on the invasion coast; Milligan describes how one day on parade, a German aircraft arrived and found an entire battery on parade. The BF109 then overflew the assembled soldiers and strafed them. Milligan, like most of the recruits, didn't wait for the RSM to dismiss the parade, but ran for whatever cover they could find, all except for their commanding officer, Major Chater Jack, who refused to run for cover but remained standing out there. As the plane flew off, Chater Jack took out his cigarette case and unhurriedly lit a cigarette, and as his men sheepishly emerged from cover, he reformed the parade and addressed them all:
    Very good—you realise you did the right thing and I the wrong.
  • Stealth Insult: At one point, an officer tells Milligan "If you want to help, Milligan, act like Basenji." Milligan has no idea what he's talking about and, for the next several pages, constantly asks himself "What was Basenji?" and asks people he meets what it means. Finally he meets an otherwise unintelligible Scottish gunner whose sole understandable contribution is to tell Milligan that Basenji is a kind of African dog, which can "nae bark".note  Ultimately downplayed, in that Milligan doesn't appear to understand the officer's original point, which was that Milligan talks too much.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Major Chater Jack, in the previous trope.
  • Sudden Name Change: Milligan can't seem to decide from one book to another whether D Battery's commanding officer is Major Chaterjack or Major Chater Jack.note 
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Milligan presents himself as the only one with any knowledge of (or interest in) history and culture, e.g. dragging complaining fellow Gunners on a day trip to the ruins of Carthage and Pompeii.
    • Upon seeing the ruins of a Roman aqueduct:
      Gunner: Christ, Jerry didn't 'alf bomb that, didn't he!
    • They try climbing it one day, and upon reaching the top Spike mentions how old it is, whereupon his fellows suddenly become irrationally afraid that it'll fall over.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Milligan sometimes includes recollections by old friends and former comrades. His account of his first meeting with Harry Secombe is followed by Secombe's own account of the same incident.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: One of Milligan's friends mistakes Panzer IIIs for the much larger Mark VI Tiger tanks at one point.
  • Team Pet: Havelock the dog.
  • Tempting Fate: He seemingly causes a plane to crash by yelling 'I HOPE YOU BLOODY WELL CRASH!' at it.
  • Thrifty Scot: Johnny Mulgrew, the bass player in the Bill Hall Trio, who is constantly devising ways to get Spike to pay for his drink.
  • Too Awesome to Use: One of Spike's comrades feels this way about the atom bomb, getting angry that they 'wasted' it on the Japanese. "They should have used something cheaper, like gas stoves filled with shit!"
  • Trilogy Creep: Was originally intended to be three books covering World War II, ended up as seven and covering the years after the war as well.
  • The Unintelligible: Milligan describes several characters in this way, notably the Scots Bombardier Logan whom he meets whilst separated from his battery in Volume 4, and his future comedy partner Gunner Harry Secombe whom he describes thusly: "He spoke like a speeded up record, no one understood him, he didn’t even understand himself; in fact, forty years later he was knighted for not being understood"; also, whilst on leave in Amalfi, he and Gunner White encounter a drunken Scot whose entire dialogue is unintelligible Scottish sounding gibberish followed by "ah fuck".
  • Unreliable Narrator: Although a certain amount is to be expected in a comedy memoir by Milligan, there's an apocryphal story about the making of The Film of the Book, concerning a scene in which one of Spike's comrades is left behind to guard the wreckage of a crashed German plane, which suddenly and unexpectedly explodes, and kills him. Jim Dale apparently asked Spike whether watching them shoot the scene had been upsetting, to which Spike is alleged to have replied "Oh, it didn't actually happen..."
    • To be fair, Spike didn't actually witness that scene in the book either. In fact, his preface to the second volume professes that he carefully checked names and dates to try to get the books themselves as near as possible to what actually happened (except the bits that obviously didn't. Or the bits he couldn't possibly relate...)
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Milligan and Harry Edgington.
  • Wall Bang Her: Known here as "knee-trembling". Often referred to, occasionally actually seen- most of the young adults in the books, especially the first, have casual sex, but the mores of the time mean it's hard to find a comfortable place for it.
  • War Is Hell: Being in a Heavy Artillery Battery and hence miles behind the line, there's very little direct danger from the enemy - but of course this makes the individual deaths all the more shocking. The passage after his injury in Italy, where he describes a bloodied and battered infantryman comforting him in the ambulance with his relatively minor injury, but flinching and crying at every noise, is particularly poignant.
  • What Have I Done: Played for Black Comedy. The regiment is continually buzzed by an American P-38 Lightning, so after one pass, Milligan shouts at it "I hope you bloody well crash!" The plane then crashes into the sea and explodes. Milligan is momentarily stunned, but any lingering guilt or trauma he may had is not mentioned, and the other soldiers refer to it as "Milligan's aircraft curse" and urge him to use it whenever they see an enemy plane.