Dame Vera Lynn was Britain’s wartime Forces’ Sweetheart, famed for her morale boosting songs including ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ that supported and inspired both troops abroad and civilians at home during the Second World War.
After the war, she remained one of the country’s symbols of resilience and hope, releasing 22 original music albums, and right up until her 103rd birthday, Dame Vera Lynn was held as the embodiment of the British spirit, calling on the British public to find “moments of joy” during the “hard times” while the UK faced the coronavirus pandemic.
Here we look at Vera Lynn’s life and the impact she made.
Vera Lynn was born on 20 March 1917 (as Vera Margaret Welch) in the London suburb of East Ham. Her father was a plumber and her mother a dressmaker.
Her singing talent was evident from an early age, and by aged 7, Vera was performing in local clubs. By the time she was 11, she had abandoned school for a full-time career as a dancer and singer in a touring music hall revue, adopting a new stage name, ‘Vera Lynn’ (Lynn her grandmother’s maiden name). She became a soloist aged 16, fronting a number of bands. Unlike many singers of the time, Vera Lynn was modest and avoided drawing attention to herself. Her gentle persona quickly endeared her to audiences, ironically gaining her more prominence.
Vera Lynn made her broadcasting debut in 1935 when she sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. This led to regular radio appearances, further widening her fanbase. She released her first solo record in 1936, and by 1939 at the age of 22, she had sold more than a million records.
The ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’
After Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement in 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany, Vera Lynn says she remembered thinking “Oh well, bang goes my career”. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
When Lynn volunteered for war work, she was advised the best thing she could do was to keep on being an entertainer. In a 1939 poll by the Daily Express, she was voted by servicemen as their favourite entertainer, gaining her the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ nickname. The song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was first sang by Vera Lynn in 1939. It was this song that came to be associated with World War Two – its underlying message of hope that families would reunite after the conflict struck a chord both at home and with soldiers posted abroad.
During the war, Vera Lynn recorded popular radio shows for the BBC including ‘Starlight’ and ‘Sincerely Your’s – the latter attracting 2,000 requests a week and presented in the form of a letter to the boys on the fighting front.
The wistful songs Vera Lynn sang resonated emotionally with people who were separated from their loved ones, and the songs’ messages of yearning and optimism, along with Lynn’s down-to-earth style were heard in millions of British homes too, via the wireless. This, and her appearances at the London Palladium and the Holborn Empire, quickly led her to become the British public’s favourite antidote to scary new experiences of blackouts and the Blitz. As well as a comfort, her songs such as ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ and ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ were good for morale.
In 1941, Vera Lynn married musician Harry Lewis, who also became her manager. Despite admitting she didn’t think much of him at first, their marriage lasted six decades until he died.
Throughout the war, Vera Lynn entertained the troops as part of the Entertainments National Service Association, performing in hospitals and army camps in many countries including India, Egypt and Burma. She often had to stay in tents and grass huts with limited washing facilities, relatively close to combat zones, but didn’t mind, later remarking “It was so important to get entertainment to the boys”.
Vera Lynn also appeared in several films, including ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (1943), ‘Rhythm Serenade’ (1943), ‘One Exciting Night’ (1944).
At the war’s end, Vera Lynn was awarded the British War Medal 1939-45 and the Burma Star.
Vera Lynn’s success continued following the war’s end. In 1952, she became the first British artist to have a number one in America with ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart’. Despite her continued popularity, her only British number one single was ‘My Son, My Son’, in 1954.
Vera Lynn never actually retired and remained open to move in new directions, notably with a cover of Abba’s ‘Thank You For The Music’. Nevertheless, the public, including younger generations, clearly wanted to hear her perform the classic wartime songs she was so synonymous with, which Lynn was happy to do.
Lynn received an OBE in 1969, and was made a Dame in 1975. At the turn of the millennium, she was named as the Briton who ‘best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century’. Lynn was a tireless charity worker, helping ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer charities. She founded the Dame Vera Lynn School for Parents and Handicapped Children in 1992 and the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity in 2002. She also continued to make frequent appearances at veterans’ reunions throughout her life, notably performing outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995, and at the 60th anniversary concert.
In 2009, aged 92, Lynn became the oldest living artist to top the British album chart, outselling the Arctic Monkeys and the Beatles, with whom she shared the top 10. A Greatest Hits album, ‘Vera Lynn 100’, was also released to mark her 100th birthday. It featured contributions from younger singers and went to No 3, making her the first centenarian to enter the UK charts. She also appeared in the film, ‘Meet Again’ in 2014.
Guiding Britain through new challenges
Vera Lynn was a strong advocate for ensuring each generation remembered the sacrifices made in the war. As the 75th anniversary of VE Day approached, the UK faced coronavirus. The impression made by Vera Lynn’s songs and contribution was highlighted when, in a televised address in April 2020, the Queen echoed Dame Vera’s wartime message during a speech to Britons separated from families and friends during the coronavirus lockdown, telling the nation “We will meet again”.
A fortnight earlier, Vera had sent a message on her 103rd birthday, calling on the British public to find “moments of joy” during the hard lockdowns used to contain the virus.
The following month, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was used during the finale of the BBC’s coverage of the VE Day anniversary, with Vera Lynn appearing in a virtual duet with the modern-day Forces’ Sweetheart, Katherine Jenkins. Key workers during the pandemic joined in. This caused her Greatest Hits album released for her 100th birthday to re-enter the UK top 40 (at number 30), beating her own record for being the oldest artist to get a top 40 album in the UK.
On 18 June 2020, Dame Vera Lynn died aged 103. Tributes were led by the Royal Family (Queen Elizabeth II sent private condolences to Lynn’s family) and were given by the Prime Minister, parliament and musicians such as Sir Paul McCartney and Katherine Jenkins.
Lynn was given a military funeral on 10 July 2020. Ahead of this, images of Lynn were projected on to the White Cliffs of Dover as “We’ll Meet Again” was played. Her cortege was accompanied by members of the Armed Forces and the Royal British Legion, and – very appropriately – a Battle of Britain Spitfire flypast. On 21 March 2022, a thanksgiving service for Dame Vera Lynn was held at Westminster Abbey, highlighting the incredible impact she had made.