There was nothing Vera Lynn loved more than cheering up an audience of soldiers, sailors or airmen during the Second World War and her fans responded in kind.
Unlike most entertainers who rose to success during those dark days, Vera Lynn employed no special gimmicks, costumes or catchphrases. Her character, while essentially clean-cut, was that of the nicely spoken girl-next-door.
For Dame Vera, who became known as the “Forces’ Sweetheart”, entertaining “the boys” – be it on military barrack stages, hospital wards or the airwaves of the BBC – became the source of her greatest satisfaction. During the worst period of the Luftwaffe blitz on London in 1940- 1941, she recounted how air raids became routine. “We were often stuck in the Palladium itself”, she wrote in her memoirs, “and you could more or less bet if a bomb was going to drop anywhere near, it would be during the quietest part of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. But it became second nature to ignore it, and you’d take no more notice of a bomb going off than a drummer falling off his stool.”
Ms. Lynn excelled at a typically British type of gentle, homely conversation, providing a dreamy emotional link to a bygone era of Churchill and a country fighting to preserve freedom from Nazi oppression. “Rationing”, she insisted, “was not as bad as it sounded. You got used to it.” She ate a lot of bread and potatoes because they weren’t rationed, but recalled bananas, grapes and oranges were impossible to find.
I vividly recall her surprise during an interview a decade ago, when I dared to ask if it ever crossed her mind that the Germans – given they were pounding London from the air – might win. “Well, no. I don’t think so”, she laughed. “I don’t think any of us did. We were all determined to keep going and do our best and of course, we won through alright and everybody was quite happy depending on the condition of their family life. We all worked together and helped each other and that is what pulled us all through.”
She had made several dozen records of varying popularity when, in 1942, she was presented with the opportunity to record We’ll Meet Again, the ballad that is particularly associated with the Second World War. “Although it wasn’t written for the War, it was written just before the war started, but it’s a song that means a lot to people, it’s an optimistic lyric and an easy to sing tune”, she told me, adding it was her all-time favourite recording. “It fitted absolutely the situation of the war, as people had been separated, although it really wasn’t written for that purpose.”
As the conflict raged on, she continued to tour the outposts in Burma, Cyprus and India, which she reached onboard a flying boat via Bahrain and Dubai.
In peacetime, when most performers had given up their military tours, she continued to delight in her performances but the national broadcasting service had other ideas. The BBC thought her programmes linking women and their husbands serving overseas were too sentimental and “would make the boys homesick” she explained. “So they decided not to do anymore and I got invited to do programmes for Radio Luxembourg, which suited me fine.” In the mid-1950s, as radio began to feel the effects of television competition, Lynn devoted more time to guest appearances. Her phenomenal resurgence continued in the early fifties when she became the first British singer to score a number one hit in the United States, with, ironically, the German titled song Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart.
Her devotion to military charities and other causes, endeared her to the nation. Until recently, she still traveled at a pace that would have exhausted others her age. In her later years, she established the Dame Vera Lynn School for Parents and Handicapped Children, which has helped hundreds of children with cerebral palsy and other motor learning impairments.
Even during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, she remained active. “It’s very sad, and I feel so much for the boys and their families that were left behind and it’s very sad to think that this sort of thing is happening all over again and there is very little one can do about it except face up to it and try and carry on”, she lamented.
It was that very same solid advice which Britons took this year, as the country grappled with the coronavirus. During a broadcast to the nation, Queen Elizabeth assured those separated during the pandemic: “We will meet again.”
Nathan Morley is a journalist, author, and radio and television presenter. He writes from Cyprus.
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