Dame Vera Lynn, wartime icon and “Forces’ Sweetheart”, has passed away at the age of 103. During World War II her voice became as recognizable as Winston Churchill’s.
A hit maker of the 20th century and the 21st, Lyn performed such uplifting tracks as ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’.
A statement released by her family today says they “are deeply saddened to announce the passing of one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers at the age of 103”. Dame Vera died with her relatives around her.
Born plain old Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham, London, she performed from childhood. Father Bertram was a plumber and mother Annie a dressmaker. Vera experienced her first battle at just 2 years old, surviving a brush with diphtheria.
The Guardian writes, “From the age of 18 she began performing with orchestras in the UK and released her debut solo recording, Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire, in 1936, while she worked in an East End shipping company.”
This combination of showbusiness and gritty reality came to encapsulate Lynn, who took her stage name from maternal grandmother Margaret.
Her ‘regular girl’ quality endeared her to the troops, though when war broke out in 1939 she thought her singing days were over: “As families gathered around the wireless to listen to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement that Britain was at war with Germany, Lynn remembered thinking: ‘Oh well, bang goes my career.’”
She couldn’t have been more wrong. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was released the same year. Lynn appeared on the radio and most notably travelled out to meet soldiers in far flung locations like Burma.
Accompanied by a piano, she found the environment tough-going but was determined to do her bit. The BBC notes, “in a 1939 poll by the Daily Express, she was voted by servicemen as their favourite entertainer, and gained her Forces’ Sweetheart nickname.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. A quarter of a century earlier, Lynn performed at Buckingham Palace to mark the 50th.
It was her last singalong in public, though she recently appeared via video link to duet with soprano Katherine Jenkins.
She went on to have a career after the war, though is forever associated with ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles).
The Guardian comments “Its wistful melody and determinedly optimistic lyrics – ‘I know we’ll meet again some sunny day’ – proved powerfully uplifting for departing soldiers, and it has endured as the defining song of the British campaign.”
She continued to perform for veterans throughout her life, and was a passionate campaigner for charities – founding the Dame Vera Lynn School for Parents and Handicapped Children in 1992.
She was given the damehood in 1976. Over her career she was awarded the War Medal, Burma Star and an OBE.
Away from conflict, Lynn had a number one hit with ‘My Son, My Son’ in 1954.
And just over a decade ago “at the age of 92, Lynn became the oldest living artist to top the British album chart, outselling both the Arctic Monkeys and the Beatles, with whom she shared the top 10.” (BBC) This was for a ‘Best Of’ compilation album.
It wasn’t all nostalgia and Union Jacks. Journalist Jim Waterston took to Twitter to highlight a photo of her posing with Hawkwind “after they joint headlined a 1980s anti-heroin gig.”
Jenkins described her on social media as “My mentor and my friend”. She writes, “It was she who chose the sentiments of her songs – she knew instinctively what people needed to hear, how to rally the morale and her spirit & strength created the soundtrack of a generation.”
The Royal British Legion calls her “an unforgettable British icon, symbol of hope to the Armed Forces Community past and present, and much loved longstanding Legion supporter.”
Captain Sir Tom Moore, who made headlines raising millions to fight Covid-19 is quoted as saying, “I really thought Vera Lynn would live longer she’s been speaking so well on TV recently.
She had a huge impact on me in Burma and remained important to me throughout my life.” Her last performances were to lift the nation’s spirits once again during lockdown.
Lynn married musician Harry Lewis in 1941. They were together until his death in 1998. She leaves behind daughter Virginia Penelope Anne Lewis-Jones.