Dame Vera Lynn, singer

Born: March 20, 1917

Died: June 18, 2020.

Dame Vera Lynn, who has died at the age of 103, was a singer known as the Forces’ Sweetheart, and her wistful, sentimental songs made her a symbol of British resistance during the Second World War and a hugely popular figure among the troops.

Her songs such as We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover were a reminder of the importance of home, and for the soldiers they offered hope of a reunion, one day, with friends, family and the familiar.

Her image was always wholesome – soldiers sometimes said they would like to go to bed with Betty Grable but marry Vera Lynn – but she was also prepared to get stuck in when needed. For many months, she toured India and Burma, performing to the troops in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, and meeting many wounded soldiers in hospital. “They cried then and they still cry when they meet me now,” Dame Vera once said. “They always have tears in their eyes because they are thinking of their comrades they left behind.”

HeraldScotland:

When the Second World War first broke out, Dame Vera was initially worried that it would kill off her career – until then, she had found success performing with big bands – but in fact the opposite happened. In the first months of the conflict, the British people needed entertainment more than ever. It was part of the defiance, the feeling that everyone should carry on as normal – and within a short time, the 22-year-old performer had become the most popular singer in Britain. “The Second World War,” Harry Secombe once joked, “was started by Vera Lynn’s agent.”

The years after the Second World War were not so easy for her. Not only did she find that she was still strongly associated with wartime and the troops; she also discovered that it prevented producers from offering her work. That famous title, the Forces’ Sweetheart, was once a tribute but became a trap.

In response, Dame Vera tried to move on, and as her career began to revive in the 1970s, she learned to embrace her popularity with the forces, and feel proud of it. She never stopped hating the phrase “national treasure” but in time she felt privileged to be a symbol of the war, and a favourite among veterans. She attended many service events including the VE Day Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace.

She was born Vera Welch in East Ham in London. Her father was a plumber and her mother a dressmaker. It was her mother who encouraged her talent for singing and her first public performance was at the age of seven. She then began performing in cabaret and concerts in London and Essex.

It was while performing in cabaret that she was spotted by Howard Baker, the bandleader, who took her on as a vocalist. She then worked with the legendary Billy Cotton before moving on to radio. She also worked with Bert Ambrose’s band, which was widely considered to be the best in Britain. One of the saxophonists was her future husband, Harry Lewis.

By the time war was declared in September 1939, life was going very well for Dame Vera and she admitted that the first thought that came into her head when she heard the news was a selfish one: “oh dear, there goes my singing career”. She believed that the men in the band would all be called away to fight, and she would have to work in a munitions factory, but instead the band was called on to perform for the troops.

From then on, Dame Vera’s popularity began to grow. These were the days before the Top Ten, but at one point during the war it was reported that she was selling more records than Bing Crosby.

She stumbled on her most famous song, We’ll Meet Again, for herself in 1939 and first sang it with Ambrose’s band. Written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, it was unashamedly sentimental, with its lyrics about reunion and blue skies but as far as Dame Vera was concerned it contained a basic human message that people want to say to each other but found hard to put into words. She never grew tired of singing it.

HeraldScotland:

The other song which would become strongly associated with her name was The White Cliffs of Dover, although it had already been a hit in the US for the bandleader, Kay Kyser. She also recorded Goodnight Children, Everywhere, about the evacuation of children from the cities and Til the Lights of London Shine Again, although her biggest hit was Auf Wiederseh`n Sweetheart, in which she was accompanied by soldiers, airmen and sailors. It was the first British record to top the hit parade simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.

As her popularity grew, she also made films. The first of them, We’ll Meet Again (1943), was loosely based on her own life and did well at the box office. The second, Rhythm Serenade (1943) was set in a munitions factory, while the last of the three, One Exciting Night (1944), was a little more far-fetched and featured its star becoming involved in a kidnap plot.

With hit songs and popular films under her belt, Dame Vera was now a widely popular figure although she was not entirely uncontroversial. Some MPs and retired military officers, for instance, were worried that her sentimental songs would make the soldiers homesick and encourage them to desert.

But to her, the songs were much more positive: “As I saw it, I was reminding the boys of what they were really fighting for, the precious personal connections rather than the ideologies and theories.”

In 1944, she visited Burma and India. It was an exhausting and emotional experience for her. In all, she spent five months away from home, much of it spent with General Slim’s 14th Army, which was trying to push the Japanese army back. Some of his men had not been home for as much as six years so seeing Dame Vera was, in the words of one soldier, like having a bit of home. Often, when they were alone with her, they could no longer hide their emotions and they would break down. The visits formed a bond between the performer and the men that was never broken.

After the end of the war, Dame Vera initially decided to retire from singing, but her plan to move to the country and run a farm proved impractical and she went back to work. However, by this time, variety theatre was beginning to struggle against the advance of television; not only that, she was dropped by the BBC who believed her style of music was now old-hat.

To make matters worse, the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s further sidelined Dame Vera, although she continued to work and had a number one single in 1954 with My Son, My Son. She also regularly toured Scandinavia where, in some cases, people had literally risked their lives to listen to her on secret radios during the war.

By the 1970s, music had come full circle, melodies were back in fashion and there was room for Dame Vera again. She was a regular on television, appearing on her own series and with Morecambe and Wise, although by the end of the 1970s she began a slow process of retirement – one which she never quite completed.

In the years that followed, she often appeared at events for servicemen and her last official public performance was in 1995 at the VE Day Golden Jubilee. In 2009, she also became the oldest living artist to make it to No 1 on the British album chart, at the age of 92, when a collection of her greatest hits was released.

She also had many charitable interests. She set up the Dame Vera Lynn Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy and gave her name to the Dame Vera Lynn School for Parents, where children with the condition can learn daily living skills alongside their parents. She also worked with the Royal British Legion and was chairwoman of the Breast Cancer Research Trust.

She was appointed OBE in 1969 for services to the Royal Air Forces Association and other charities and promoted to Dame in 1975 for her charitable work.