Vera Lynn: Forces sweetheart who stirred the hearts of millions
Forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn stirred the hearts of millions with songs and a personality that brought hope and inspiration during the darkest days of the Second World War.
Decades later her name is as enduring as that of Sir Winston Churchill as a figure who played a huge role in keeping up the spirits of a civilian population suffering under the Blitz and the troops training at home and fighting overseas.
It is often forgotten that during those momentous days she was still a young woman in her early 20s, yet she travelled thousands of miles, often at great personal risk, to entertain the troops and to comfort them with words of hope.
In particular she visited the “Forgotten Fourteenth Army”, which was still fighting the bitter Burma campaign after VE Day.
Dame Vera, who died aged 103, eschewed glamour and the pampered life. She was as much a humanitarian as an entertainer and everybody loved her.
Her work did not end when the war was over – throughout her life, she remained an indefatigable and outspoken supporter of military veterans, through to their old age.
Her songs inspired a spirit of optimism and she spent her career fostering nostalgia which, during the war, was just what people felt they needed.
More recently, her words became a source of comfort to many during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a televised address to the nation, the Queen channelled Dame Vera’s lyrics when she told people separated from their loved ones: “We’ll meet again.”
Dame Vera said she had been stirred by the Queen’s words.
“I watched with the rest of the country and thought it was a great encouragement during these difficult times, but I wasn’t aware that her majesty would use the lyrics at the end of her speech,” she told the Radio Times.
“I support her message of keeping strong together when we’re faced with such a terrible challenge.
“Our nation has faced some dark times over the years, but we always overcome.”
Last month Dame Vera also became the oldest artist to reach the top 40 in the UK album charts.
A collection of her greatest hits reached number 30 in the Official Charts Company rankings following the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Dame Vera supported many charities and was a stalwart of several ex-servicemen’s organisations.
In 1991 she played a key part in forcing the government to end the anomaly under which a war widow who lost her husband after 1973 received a far higher pension than a widow of a soldier who died before that date.
She was also a proud holder of the Burma Star and regularly attended the Burma veterans’ annual reunions.
She was outspoken in her opposition to the Duke of Edinburgh attending the funeral of the Japanese emperor Hirohito.
She felt it was wrong that Philip should go since he was president of the Burma Star Association and the nephew of Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
She urged that a younger member of the royal family represent the Queen to fulfil protocol.
Until 1944, Vera Lynn remained mostly in London but then she made her famous tour of Burma to entertain the troops.
Still only 24, she was stirred into action when she learned that few entertainers went to Burma, where the men of the Fourteenth had called themselves the Forgotten Army.
Her four-month tour started in a Sunderland flying boat. She transferred to smaller and smaller aircraft until she ended up on the road from Rangoon to Mandalay in a battered car.
Describing the experience later, she said it was “the trip of a lifetime” and the smell that haunted her most was the gangrene pervading the field hospitals where she spent hours talking with soldiers.
In all, she flew 25,000 miles during that time and through her songs and talking to the men about home she persuaded them they were not forgotten.
In honour of her contribution she was awarded the Burma Star in 1985.
Vera Lynn was born in London on March 20 1917, the daughter of Bertram and Annie Welch, in East Ham where her father was a plumber on the docks.
She was a schoolgirl of seven at Brampton Road School, East Ham, when she made her performing debut at an East End working men’s club.
Two years later she joined a juvenile troupe and by 1932, at just 15, she was running her own dancing school.
From 1935 she was singing on radio with the famous Joe Loss band and then in 1937 she started to sing with the Ambrose Orchestra, which played in West End nightclubs like the Cafe Royal and the Mayfair.
She remained with Ambrose until 1940.
She was 21 at the outbreak of war and her career was just starting to flower, having already appeared on early, experimental television with Ambrose. In addition, she was doing regular radio broadcasts.
She recounted many years later that on the outbreak of war “one of my first thoughts was, ‘There goes entertainment and my career with it'”.
“It seemed to me then that entertainment would be the last thing people were going to worry about once the bombs started falling, but it turned out not to be the case at all.”
Within days she was busier than ever and in 1940 she went solo.
The following year she married Harry Lewis, a clarinet and saxophone player with the Squadronaires. He became her manager and they remained devoted to each other.
She had already been awarded the title Forces Sweetheart in 1939 following a Daily Express poll among its readers when the Army went to France at the beginning of the war.
The competition included Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Deanna Durbin who were all from the United States, which at that time was neutral.
Vera Lynn was the overwhelming choice, helped by her new but catchy and sentimental song she had begun singing that year, We’ll Meet Again.
In November 1941 she was given her own regular radio programme, Sincerely Yours, which went out after the Sunday evening nine o’clock news, a peak time which had much of the world listening in case the prime minister made an announcement.
She took over one of the largest and most intent audiences, jesting in an interview in later years: “Churchill was my opening act.”
The popularity of this music and words programme and her own standing soared, with thousands of servicemen writing song requests to her. However, it came at a low point in the war.
MPs and BBC governors attacked her programme and others like it as having a bad effect on morale.
A month after Sincerely Yours was launched, a minute from the BBC board of governors read: “Sincerely Yours deplored. But popularity noted.”
At a BBC planning committee meeting the joint director general, Sir Cecil Graves, said that in making Vera Lynn popular the BBC bore some responsibility for “depreciating the morale of our fighting men”.
MPs also complained about the BBC’s musical output of “sentimental, sloppy muck”.
Without mentioning Dame Vera, the BBC introduced a new policy eliminating “crooning, sentimental numbers, drivelling words, slush and so on”.
Sincerely Yours was taken off the air and a new programme featuring a military band, male voice choir and an unknown tenor replaced it, only to sink into oblivion after a few weeks.
By early 1943 Dame Vera was back again. People came to know her songs like well-loved hymns, and they included We’ll Meet Again, I’ll Be Seeing You, Wishing and If Only I Had Wings.
She was quoted as saying: “My songs reminded the boys of what they were really fighting for, precious personal things, rather than ideologies and theories.”
She never aspired to the image of a glamour girl, representing more the girl next door, but tanks rolled into battle with the name “Vera” emblazoned on them or her photograph pasted over the guns.
When the war was over she retired from the stage and microphone to bring up her daughter Virginia at their home in Sussex.
But with a vast following across the world she was soon back at work with her own television show in the 1950s as well as radio work.
She also made her best-selling record Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart, which became the first British record to top the US hit parade, selling more than 12 million copies.
She toured throughout the world, to the US, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
She said: “I have never been terribly ambitious. I never wanted to be a Judy Garland or anything, and I wouldn’t change the way I used to sing.
“If work came along I liked, I would do it. If it interfered with home life for too long or took me away, I wouldn’t.”
Despite her modesty she continued to receive honours, including a DBE in 1975, having already received an OBE in 1969, Show Business Personality of 1975, the Freedom of the City of London in 1978 and the Variety Club International’s Humanitarian Award in 1985.
In 2016 she was “surprised” and “honoured” to be made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to entertainment and charity in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
As well as 14 gold discs she published her autobiography Vocal Refrain in 1975 and a picture book called We’ll Meet Again in 1991.
In later life she busied herself “pottering” about in the garden and insisted she had given up singing for good. “I never even sing in the bath,” she added.
In 2009 she took legal steps regarding the use of her songs on a CD helping to fund the British National Party and in August 2014 she was among more than 200 public figures who signed a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to the independence referendum.
At the age of 101 she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Classic Brit Awards, which her daughter Virginia collected on her behalf.
A statement from Dame Vera was read at the ceremony.
It said: “I never imagined when a small child growing up in East Ham that I would be able to travel around the world as I have done, and seen and experienced so many interesting places and to meet so many interesting people.”
In June 2019, she marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day by recording a voice message which was played to a Royal British Legion cruise organised to commemorate the occasion.
She told the 250 heroes on board: “Hello boys, Vera Lynn here. I wish you and your carers a memorable trip to Normandy. It will be nostalgic and sure to bring back lots of memories. Rest assured we will never forget all you did for us. I’m sending you all my best wishes for the trip.”
Later that year, she joined a chorus of famous faces opposing the end of the free, universal TV licence for the over-75s.
Following in the footsteps of Sir Lenny Henry and Dame Helen Mirren, she said she was “very upset” by the move.
“I can’t understand and am very upset as to why the Government and the BBC want to deprive older people of what is going on in the outside world, when they most need communication,” she said.
And in 2020, the London Mint Office commissioned a special portrait of Dame Vera as well as a documentary, titled Dame Vera Lynn: The Voice Of A Nation, to celebrate her legacy.
Britain’s Got Talent winner and Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery unveiled the portrait at the Royal Albert Hall at an event which also saw the film premiere.
The event was also marked be the release of coins dedicated to Dame Vera in tribute to her famous songs, including a free We’ll Meet Again coin.