Vera Lynn: the 'Forces' Sweetheart' of WWII Britain


London (AFP)

As long as there are still Britons alive who fought in World War II, the name of Vera Lynn will open a bittersweet floodgate of nostalgia.

The singer, who died on Thursday aged 103, achieved superstar status as "the forces' sweetheart", boosting troop morale with a string of romantic and patriotic ballads.

From the battlefields of France, the Netherlands, Italy and North Africa to the Far East, whenever soldiers gathered around a radio set or gramophone, the smooth vocal tones of Vera Lynn were sure to be heard.

It is impossible to gauge whether the outcome of the war was swayed by songs like "There'll Always Be an England", "We'll Meet Again", "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square".

But for countless men in uniform, the lyrics and the slim, wholesome young blonde woman who sang them seemed to offer a vision of what they were fighting for.

To modern ears, the words might sound corny but at a time when Britain stood proudly against the Nazis, their patriotic appeal was irresistible.

- Symbol of Britishness -

Vera Lynn epitomised an archetypical, essentially decent Britishness, practical and fair-minded -- notions which shone through the songs she sang.

Even her version of the German soldiers' favourite song, "Lili Marlene," managed to sound like a patriotic lament, a far cry from the darker sexual undercurrents implicit in the versions by Marlene Dietrich and Lale Andersen -- ironically both of them anti-Nazis who became the German forces' sweethearts.

Vera Lynn's most famous song remains "We'll Meet Again", recorded in 1939.

Its appeal to love and stoicism -- "Keep smiling through/Just like you always do/ Till the blue skies/Drive the black clouds far away" -- made it the perfect war-time anthem.

It contributed enormously to her popularity, even though the song itself came to be much parodied and derided in the post-war years.

But it found favour again this year when Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare public address to the nation, urged Britons to remain strong during the coronavirus lockdown.

"We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again," the monarch said.

- Child star -

Vera Lynn was born in London's East End on March 20, 1917 as Vera Margaret Welch.

She began singing in local clubs at age seven and joined a child dance troupe, Madame Harris' Kracker Cabaret Kids, at 11.

By 15, she was a teenage sensation as a vocalist with the Howard Baker Orchestra.

She adopted her grandmother's maiden name Lynn as her stage name, making her first radio broadcast in 1935 with the Joe Loss Orchestra.

She worked with another of the great names of the pre-war period, Ambrose, whose clarinettist and tenor sax player, Harry Lewis, she was to marry.

The couple had one child, a daughter.

In war-time, Vera Lynn came into her own, hosting a BBC radio programme, "Sincerely Yours", appearing in a forces stage revue, and making three films.

She also toured Burma -- today's Myanmar and the site of major battles -- in 1944.

Lynn gave up singing after the war but was persuaded out of retirement in 1947 and began a whole new international career, with appearances in the United States in 1948.

She became the first British artiste to have a US number one with "Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart", her most successful record, in 1952.

- Retirement and nostalgia -

Vera Lynn's career foundered in the rock and roll era and she cut back on public appearances but she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1976.

For decades, she was a beloved figure at celebrations to mark the anniversaries of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings in France or VE Day, the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945.

She made her last known public performance in 1995, singing outside Buckingham Palace at the golden jubilee celebrations for VE Day, but remained a vocal champion of military veterans.

In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to make it to No 1 on the British album charts, with a greatest hits compilation outselling the Arctic Monkeys.

She published an autobiography the same year, "Some Sunny Day", and threw her support behind a website recording social history, "The Times of My Life".

Lynn was also a spokesman for children with cerebral palsy, founding a charity in 2001.