• Merrick Wells

We'll meet again. Forces Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn

Dame Vera Margaret Lynn CH DBE OStJ 20 March 1917 - 18 June 2020

The working class girl who was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the twentieth century had an active career in the music industry of 96 years and tireless efforts for charitable causes, but her identity was always to be tied to her efforts in the second World War. The Forces Sweetheart was an unlikely national heroine.

She was born in East Ham, London, to her mother Annie, a dressmaker and her father Bertram Welch who had various sources of employment from plumber to docker. It was a humble upbringing which almost came to an immediate end when she almost died at two years old with diphtheritic croup. She was sent to an isolation unit for three months and her mother was very wary of her having friends to play, or playing in the street for a long time afterwards.

Her singing talents were clear from an early age and first performed at family parties before singing in working men's clubs at the age of seven. She adopted her grandmother's maiden name for her stage name. At the tender age of 15 she was signed by Howard Baker, a bandleader and agent in East London dance halls. Her brief stint with his band ended when he discharged her in what he would later describe as "the worst days' work I ever did" and she started to sing with Charlie Kunz's band on BBC broadcasts.

In what was an unusual move for the time, Kunz gave Lynn the freedom to choose the songs. Scouring music publishers in Denmark Street she met Walter Ridley who helped her to find songs and even transpose them to suitable keys for Vera's unusually deep voice, which had been described as a "rich contralto" or even a "freak mezzo-soprano with an irresistible sob." She supplemented her earnings working as an administrative assistant to the head of a shipping company.

Her fame and success continued to rise as she worked with Burt Ambrose and his Octet, touring the country and performing on the BBC. In 1939 she recorded We'll Meet Again for the first time. It had been said at this point she was outselling Bing Crosby. She was certainly earning more money, having been able to move her family to a new house in Barking, but a fur coat and her first car, an Austin 10.

Saxophonist Harry Lewis joined the Ambrose band in 1939 and in 1941 he and Lynn were married. Lewis was to become Lynne's manager in the late 1940s. At this point Lynn was able to set out as a star in her own right and started her solo performances on the variety theatre circuit.

Her wartime efforts began when she started to drive to tube stations in London being used as air raid shelters and sing to the people weathering the storm underground. Her popularity continued to grow, and was already being referred to as the Forces Sweetheart when BBC Producers were looking for a format to lift the morale of the British Expeditionary Force. Lynn was immensely popular but was also an honest and homely girl back home rather than a sex bomb. The lyrics of her songs were wistful and optimistic, songs of love and fidelity. The show, Sincerely Yours, had astonishing audience numbers as Lynn read out letters from domestic listeners and sang to the soldiers. We'll Meet Again (1939), Yours (1941) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1942) were the most popular hits from her repertoire.

Her popularity was undeniable despite the show being "deplored" by BBC management. The show was taken off air for 18 months after the fall of Singapore as more traditional military music was employed. Between 1942 and 1944 Lynn appeared in three wartime themed movies which traded on her popularity and image. She joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and toured Egypt, India and Burma performing to the troops. Her tour of Burma left a huge impact on her. This horrendous and often forgotten theatre of war and the veterans of that conflict became a significant part of her life, becoming one of the most ardent campaigners for remembrance and care for the 14th army veterans who fought in Burma.

Her post war career saw her become the first British recording artist to top the US charts in 1952 with Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart (which inspired the name of the Sitcom Auf Wiedersehn Pet in the 1980s) and a number one single in the UK with My Son, My Son in 1954. Lynn was able to continue to prosper as Rock and Roll arrived, during the 60s and 70s she continued to tour and record. Although her act was undeniably built on the wartime nostalgia and 1940s stylings, she was convinced to record a version of Lennon & McCartney's Fool on the Hill and a Nashville album. She appeared on stage with Hawkwind and several other rock bands for the finale benefit concert for Pete Townshend's Double O anti-heroin campaign charity.

Lynn effectively became the centre piece of many commemoration events of the war and it was the VE Day anniversary event in Hyde Park in 1995 that she made her last public performance but she continued to attend VE Day events and commemorations and made speeches on more than one occasion.

She became the first centenarian to enter the UK charts with her album Vera Lynn 100 the charted again in May 2020 for the 75th anniversary celebrations. A testament to how significant her songs and persona were to the wartime generation and the British identity was noted in the Queen's message to the nation in April 2020 as the Coronavirus lockdowns got underway. The Queen reassured the nation that "We will meet again".

Lynn was given a full military funeral in East Sussex on 10 July 2020. Her cortege was accompanied by members of the Royal Air Force, British Army, Royal Navy and the Royal British Legion. The Battle of Britain Spitfire flypast performed multiple fly pasts.

Her husband Harry had passed away in 1998, and Lynn had confessed she only had one child as she was committed to her work. She is survived by her daughter Virginia.

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