How Vera Lynn's The White Cliffs of Dover mended Britain's broken heart

Vera Lynn, who has died aged 103, sung about the majestic white cliffs of Dover and injected a war-torn Britain with hope

For war-weary Britons in 1942, it must have been hard to imagine a more soothing and hopeful song. Sung by the late, great Vera Lynn, (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover promised a peaceful and bucolic future in which “the shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again and Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again”.

Along with Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, the song became one of the anthems of the war and a hymn to better times ahead. The dream of bluebirds, rather than Messerschmitts or Spitfires, freely swooping over the North Downs’ famous cliffs was a notion that Brits gladly grasped. And it wasn’t far off, they were promised. “Tomorrow, just you wait and see,” Lynn sang. 

The fact that it took three more years for the conflict to end hardly mattered. The song, Lynn has said, conjured a defiant picture. The stretch of cliffs it refers to “is majestic and it’s big and it’s standing there and it has been there for years and it belongs to us and we’ll protect it,” she has said. The symbolism speaks for itself.

Although the lyrics seem saccharine today, they struck a chord in one of the darkest periods of the conflict. Alexander Armstrong, the singer and Pointless presenter, sang a duet of (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover with Lynn on 2017’s Vera Lynn 100 album to mark her centenary year (the recording spliced his vocals with hers from the 1940s). Armstrong says the images the song evokes – of valleys blooming and shepherds tending flocks – are not surprising: at times when people’s liberties have been severely curtailed, they instinctively turn back to first principles.

“Things we would find sickeningly sentimental in normal circumstances become strangely comforting. When people are not in control of events they turn to a kind of folksy version of what life might be,” he says. He fully understands what a “balm” the song was at the time.

But (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover has an extraordinary back story. Despite being instantly identified with Britain, the song was actually written by a pair of Americans who had never visited these shores. It was heavily influenced by one of Hollywood’s most famous songs of the period. And, according to ornithologists, bluebirds have almost certainly never been spotted anywhere near Dover’s white cliffs.

The song was written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, two writers on New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the hit-writing factory of the day. A BBC radio documentary in 2004 about the song noted the similarities between it and the Oscar-winning 1939 song Over The Rainbow, from the hugely popular film The Wizard of Oz. Musicologist Simon Townley pointed out that the two songs have numerous melodic tropes in common (the cadence of the word “over” being just one).

And it is perhaps no coincidence that the “happy little bluebirds” that flew over Dorothy’s rainbow are the same species that found themselves flying over the white cliffs of Dover just a year or so later. “It’s as close as a close thing,” Townley said of the songs in the documentary. It seems that Kent and Burton were heavily influenced by events in Kansas. 

In the same programme, presenter Ian Hislop asked an expert from the RSPB whether bluebirds, a North American bird, are likely to have ever flown over Britain’s south coast. “It’s very very unlikely,” came the answer. 

The song was initially a dancehall hit in the US in 1941, the year before Lynn recorded it. A bandleader called Kay Kyser topped the US charts with it before legendary big band leader Glenn Miller recorded an arguably more famous version. 

Passed away aged 103: the singer Vera Lynn

Lynn said she first became aware of the song in 1942 when she visited London’s Denmark Street — Britain’s answer to Tin Pan Alley — in search of material. “Not only did I like the melody but the words made sense to me,” she said. “I’d never heard the song before and I’d certainly never heard any American bands or singers do it. To me it was a virgin song.”

It made its debut on her BBC radio show called A Letter From Home to the Forces from Vera Lynn and Fred Hartley later that year. Troops both home and abroad loved it.

The RAF fly over the White Cliffs of Dover

But was there more to the song than its nostalgic and winsome contents let on? Could (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover actually have played a role in changing anti-war public sentiment in America and softening up the nation to enter the war?

There is certainly a case for such an argument. At the time of the song’s writing by Kent and Burton, Britain was struggling against the Germans. By 1941 France had fallen, British troops had retreated from Dunkirk and the Blitz had ravaged swathes of the UK. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted America to enter the war but this only came to pass at the very end of 1941 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. The White Cliffs of Dover – with its lyrics about beautiful, verdant Britain – was a chart hit just before Pearl Harbour: inadvertently, it would have helped make the case for getting involved in the war to the thousands of troops who listened to it in the dancehalls and on the radio. 

There’s more. As well as Over The Rainbow, it appears that Kent and Burton were also influenced in their writing by a 1940 poem by US poet Alice Duer Miller called The White Cliffs. The poem is a love letter to Britain. Miller was known to want American in the war. Her poem ends, “In a world where England is finished and dead, I do not want to live.”

The writers’ thoughts on the war are unclear. But whether by accident or design, Kent and Burton created a fine piece of pro-war propaganda in America. As Hislop concluded in the radio documentary, “The great British anthem was a second-hand American dance tune made up from bits and pieces of other American music and poetry designed to persuade the Americans that we deserved their support.”

The song has endured. After its success in Britain, a film was made called The White Cliffs of Dover in 1944. In 1995, British TV actors Robson Green and Jerome Flynn reached number one with the song (it was the B-side to their cover of Unchained Melody). But the song has been used in negative ways too. And in 2009, Lynn reportedly sued the British National Party for using her version on an anti-immigration album without her consent.

But, as we celebrate Lynn's extraordinary life and work, the song must be remembered in its most famous guise: a hymn of hope that, despite its provenance, is as British as the cliffs it celebrates.  

As well as its lyrics, Armstrong says the song’s appeal lies in Lynn’s voice, which manages to convey a just a hint of mischief amid the proud nostalgia. “It’s very homespun and domestic and there’s an element of church-going in the voice. But there’s a sexy little glissando in the little swoops between the notes. The way she sings “over”. She’s got a twinkle in her larynx,” he says.

Nostalgia with a wink. Patriotism with just the slightest glimpse of stocking. A bright future just around the corner. There is nothing more British than that.