Dame Vera Lynn: Forces' sweetheart who stirred the hearts of millions

  • Video report by ITV News Arts Editor Nina Nannar

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 campaign in Burma, now Myanmar, after VE Day.

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.

In a televised address to the nation during the coronavirus pandemic, 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, telling the Radio Times: “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.

“I support her message of keeping strong together when we’re faced with such a terrible challenge.

Vera Lynn inspired a spirit of optimism Credit: Decca Records/PA

“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.

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.

Dame Vera Lynn’s life before the war

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.

Vera Lynn was presented with the Burma Star and the 1939-1944 War Medal Credit: PA

Dame Vera Lynn’s career during the war

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.

In 1941, 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.

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.

Vera Lynn was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire Credit: PA

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.

MPs also complained about the BBC’s musical output of “sentimental, sloppy muck”.

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.

Vera Lynn rehearsing with comedians Tony Hancock and Jimmy Edwards in 1952 Credit: PA

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.”

Until 1944, Vera Lynn remained mostly in London but then she made her famous tour of Burma, now known as Myanmar, to entertain the troops.

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. 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.

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.

Dame Vera Lynn’s life after the war

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.

Vera Lynn receiving the Freedom of the City at the Guildhall in London Credit: PA

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.

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.

She celebrated her 90th birthday at the Imperial War Museum in London Credit: Lewis Whyld/PA

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.

The VE Day 50th anniversary Royal British Legion celebration concert in Hyde Park Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA

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.

Singing at the National Radio Awards in 1949 Credit: PA