“Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” Original melody by Nino Casiroli (1939), English lyrics by Phil Park (1940). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur in London on December 31, 1940. Rex 9904 mx. R5203-1.
On October 28, 1940, Italian ambassador to Greece Emmanuele Grazzi presented Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum: allow Axis forces to occupy strategic locations in Greece or be invaded. Metaxas responded in diplomatic French, “Alors, c’est la guerre!” (“Then it’s war!”), but rumor had it that he responded laconically «Όχι» (“Ohi,” “No!”), which is why October 28 is celebrated to this day as Ohi Day (Επέτειος του «Όχι»), in memory of Greece’s defiance of Axis bullying.
War ensued, but it was not the easy conquest that Italy had expected. An Italian attempt at invading Greece was met with a counterattack in which Greece occupied a large part of Albania, by then an Italian protectorate. The Italians were held at bay for five months, and it was only in April 1941, when the Germans invaded Greece, that the Greco-Italian War came to an end. In the meantime Greece had diverted Axis resources and delayed their progress, thus contributing to future victory by Allied forces.
Greece’s inspiring example was not lost on the world. English lyricist Phil Park was quick to adapt a popular Italian song, Evviva la Torre di Pisa, inventing lyrics that mocked Mussolini’s pretensions. “Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” uses clever wordplay to highlight the irony of Greece’s successfully blunting Fascist aspirations in the Balkans:
His troubadors advance with roars of “Viva! Oh, viva!”In armoured cars they strum guitarsTill frilly white skirtsPlay the deuce with Blackshirts.Oh! What a surprise for the Du-ce, the Du-ce,He can’t put it over the Greeks!
The “frilly white skirts” were the Evzones, an elite Greek infantry group known for their white, kilt-like traditional garb. The expression “play the deuce” reminds us of the ever-present “Du-ce,” and the Blackshirts are, of course, the Fascists, with contrasting clothing.
Elsie Carlisle, already a confirmed wartime singer, delivers the lyrics in a mock-operatic fashion with occasional asides in the comical, chatty tone for which she was famous. “Oh! What a Surprise for the Du-ce!” was definitely catchy, and it was adapted into Greek by Paul Menestrel as Πω πω τι έπαθε ο Μουσολίνι and recorded by popular singer and actress Sophia Vembo (who even sings some of the English lyrics near the end of the song). In Britain, in addition to Elsie Carlisle’s rendition, there were recordings in 1940 by Florence Desmond, Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Sam Browne), and Jack White and His Band (Anton Mosley and Ronnie Priest, vocalists), with a further recording in mid-January 1941 by Billy Cotton and His Band (with vocals by Alan Breeze).