This article was originally published on 3 May 2020
Dame Vera Lynn, the Forces’ sweetheart, did not expect her wartime words to soothe a nation in crisis once again. But after the Queen echoed the lyrics of We’ll Meet Again in her address to the nation last month, the beloved 1939 tune has proved steadying in a time of uncertainty.
‘It was wonderful,’ the 103-year-old reflects. ‘I didn’t know that Her Majesty was going to finish up with the words “we will meet again”, but I think [they] speak to the hope we should all have during these troubling times.’
Indeed those lyrics – streams of which were up by over 200 per cent on Spotify after that royal mention, and which are heard anew in a recently released charity recording of the song, a duet by Dame Vera and Katherine Jenkins – have unexpectedly become ‘especially poignant’, Dame Vera tells me over email. ‘I am a firm believer in carrying on,’ she adds. ‘It is so important to keep going, keep smiling and keep hoping even when things are tough.’
And the last few months have been tough – with one by-product being that 75th-anniversary VE Day commemorations, so long in the works, have been roundly curtailed. Three quarters of a century ago, the streets were flooded with jubilant Brits rejoicing after six years of bitter conflict; now, Covid-19 has put paid to any replica of those celebrations.
‘This isn’t like anything that anyone has seen in a very long time,’ Dame Vera, who lives in Sussex with her daughter, Virginia, and son-in-law, says. ‘With all our progress in the last 100 years, I think we all felt that this [pandemic] could never happen and sadly, we are realising the entire planet is very vulnerable.’
The imperilled state in which we are now living has been much compared to wartime Britain. Dame Vera, who has released 28 albums over her 85-year career, understands this well, though she adds that back then ‘our country developed a strength that would be very useful at the moment. We didn’t know when things would return to normal, just as we don’t now, but we kept on going.’
Born in East Ham in 1917, Dame Vera played a key part in keeping spirits bolstered during difficult times. The younger of two siblings, she came from a musical family: her father was a fine singer, while she began performing in working men’s clubs at the age of seven, rehearsing new songs for hours on end before taking to the stage alongside her mother’s piano accompaniment. Fear of forgetting the words would make little Vera – who was born Welch but adopted her grandmother’s maiden name to perform – cry.
But her mother, convinced of her daughter’s potential, was resolute in putting her on stage, about which Dame Vera has said she ‘never complained’. Nor did she spend the money her routines accrued – though she sometimes earned in one weekend almost as much as her father, a plumber, did in a week – which was instead put towards household bills.
At 14, she picked up odd jobs – she lasted for a day sewing on buttons in a factory – before deciding pursue singing. Her first radio broadcast was alongside the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935, when she was 18; the following year, she would release Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire, the song that would launch her career as a recording artist.
Hits such as The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot, in 1937, followed. When the war broke out, We’ll Meet Again, an anthem of hope for loved ones separated by battle, would weave Dame Vera Lynn into the fabric of British life.
As her already impressive music career took off further, Dame Vera did too – to see ‘our boys’, as she still calls them, at their bases in Burma, India and Egypt. Among the servicemen to see her in Burma was Tom Moore – Captain Tom – to whom she recently wrote to offer congratulations on his fundraising for the NHS. Her radio show, Sincerely Yours, began in 1941; song requests would flood in from soldiers, to whom she would read out messages – often from the mothers of their newborn children. ‘So many of them lost their lives and sacrificed so much by leaving their families,’ she says. ‘I was very proud to be able to give them some joy during that time and to remind them of home and all the people who loved them and were waiting for them to return.’
Though the singer, who was awarded her damehood in 1975, balks at references to her wartime service, there is no denying the lengths she went to in order to show her appreciation for the troops, sending personalised messages on portrait photographs to those serving in Europe and the Far East. This was deemed such an unlikely kindness as to lead to accusations that she was having affairs with soldiers she had never met.
Her own love life was of greater interest. She met Harry Lewis, a musician, when both were performing with Bert Ambrose’s orchestra in 1939. She was 22 to his 24. Dame Vera remembers him as ‘incredibly good-looking… even if he was rather short’.
They married two years later – to give her mother time to adjust to the idea of her marrying an unkempt musician, she once said – and Lewis would go on to become her manager, accompanying her on international tours once the war ended. Their only child, Virginia, was born in 1946; now in her mid-70s, she still calls Dame Vera ‘Mamma’.
Their bond, strengthened after Lewis’s death in 1998, has been vital during this period of national lockdown, which she is coping with by ‘taking it by the day, keeping in touch with people via the phone and trying to enjoy the time as best we can by reading and watching television’.
Much has been made of the country’s apparent departure from the ‘Blitz spirit’ of Britain in past conflict, but Dame Vera, also awarded the War Medal 1939 to 1945 and the Burma Star, admits she is ‘not sure if people would have been more willing to accept isolation during the war. Perhaps the problem is that during the Blitz, we understood if we went outside that people would get hurt,’ she says of some people’s apparent reluctance to stay indoors.
She adds, though, that the war came with ‘a sense of duty. We knew that our boys were doing everything they could to help us by fighting and sacrificing for us, so we had to do the right thing by them by doing everything we could on the home front.’
Dame Vera’s own contribution – fictionalised in We’ll Meet Again, the 1943 film musical named after her song – has meant a great deal, too. But ‘I wouldn’t want people to think that I made a great difference compared with our boys’. As such, national-treasure status is something she denies entirely, saying only that she is ‘very glad that people still enjoy my music’.
In 1995, Dame Vera sang outside Buckingham Palace to mark VE Day’s golden jubilee (prior to her evocation in the Queen’s address, she spoke of her ‘great respect for Her Majesty’ and the Royal family, several members of which she has met).
At its diamond anniversary a decade later, then nearing 90, she made a surprise appearance at a commemorative concert in Trafalgar Square. No such public revelry will take place this year, with fanfare consigned to either virtual gatherings, or the memories of those who saw Britain through its darkest days. At home in Sussex, then, the Forces’ sweetheart will be holding her own quiet celebration.