The ‘forces’ sweetheart’ who became a beacon of hope for an embattled Britain
During the darkest days of the Second World War, Vera Lynn became a beacon of hope for an embattled Britain, perfectly and poignantly encapsulated in her signature song We’ll Meet Again. A potent reminder to far-off soldiers in combat of loved ones at home waiting for their return, it offered succour to those left behind that better days would come, that the terrible sacrifices of war would, in time, bring their own rewards.
So ingrained did Lynn’s morale-boosting contribution to the war effort become in the public imagination that she quickly acquired the sobriquet of ’the forces’ sweetheart’, although her popularity on the home front was just as significant and substantial, rivalling even that of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
After the war, in annual celebrations marking the decisive D-Day landings on Normandy beaches and on anniversaries of VE Day when war on the European continent was declared over, Lynn remained a defining part of commemorative ceremonies with public affection for her remaining undimmed.
On reaching her 100th birthday in 2017, her face was beamed on to the white cliffs of Dover, alluding to another of her wartime songs of promise that offered the prospect of bluebirds in peaceful skies above the English coastline again.
In April this year, We’ll Meet Again was evoked by the Queen in a televised speech in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the following month Lynn became the oldest person – for a second time – to have a top-30 album when a greatest hits collection entered the pop charts.
Lynn’s success in a career spanning nine decades seemed all the more remarkable for having never taken singing lessons as a child and only one as an adult when her teacher declared: “I cannot train that voice, it is not a natural voice.”
Born Vera Margaret Welch to a plumber father and dressmaker-mother in East Ham, London, she showed early ability and a confidence that saw her singing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, when she was billed as “a descriptive child vocalist”.
Aged 11, she took her grandmother’s maiden name for her stage name and at 15, having already become her family’s biggest wage earner, was signed up by band leader Howard Baker.
Spells with Billy Cotton and Charlie Kunz followed, although neither band leader appreciated Lynn’s distinctive, natural singing style in which interpretative warmth blended with emotional and vocal power. Even Baker, her early champion, described it as “a freak mezzo-soprano with an irresistible sob”.
Lynn released her first solo recording Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire when she was 19 and within three years had amassed combined sales of more than one million.
When war was declared, she was already a star, well established on the variety circuit with a rising profile on radio and a television debut under her belt. A newspaper poll of serviceman in 1939 – shortly after she released We’ll Meet Again – earned her the lasting epithet of the ’forces’ sweetheart’.
Her place in the public imagination was cemented by other successes on disc and broadened by her radio show in 1941-42, Sincerely Yours, “a letter to the men of the forces in words and music”. Despite internal dislike for the programme at the BBC and opposition by some members of parliament – both disliking what they considered to be the vulgar sentimentality of Lynn’s crooning singing style – it proved hugely popular with listeners.
Throughout the war she travelled with ENSA, the entertainment unit formed to perform to service men, to battlefronts as far afield as Egypt, India and Burma (now Myanmar) to perform for troops. It was a bond that remained long into peacetime, with Lynn a constant champion of veterans’ rights from that conflict and later ones.
She made three films in the 1940s, soft-centred wartime romances that failed to emulate the success of singing star Gracie Fields at home or American counterparts such as Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin. Lynn never considered herself to be an actor and her screen career went no further.
Although her profile would fall and rise in later decades, Lynn continued to appear in concert, notably headlining a cabaret stint in Las Vegas despite never achieving the prominence in the United States she continued to hold at home.
When the first official singles chart was launched in the UK in 1952, she could boast three entries in the top 10 places. The same year she began a near three-year-run in the Jimmy Edwards and Tony Hancock revue London Laughs at the Adelphi Theatre.
In the 1960s and 1970s she hosted her own variety show on BBC Television and appeared in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special in 1972. She made frequent commemorative specials marking wartime anniversaries and royal occasions and was seen in four Royal Variety Performances, the first in 1960, most recently in 1990.
She gave her final public performance at a VE Day celebration in London’s Hyde Park in 1995 although she continued to actively support and raise money for a wide range of military and medical charities.
She was married to the saxophonist Harry Lewis, who later became her manager, from 1941 until his death in 1998.
Vera Lynn was born on March 20, 1917 and was appointed an OBE in 1969, a dame in 1975 and a companion of honour in 2016. She died on June 18, aged 103, and is survived by her daughter, Virginia.