Updated: Mar 24
Dame Vera Margaret Lynn (1917 – 2020) was an English singer, songwriter and entertainer whose musical recordings and performances were very popular during the Second World War.
Vera Margaret Welch was born in East Ham, Essex, to plumber Bertram Samuel Welch and dressmaker Annie Martin, who had married in 1913. She began performing publicly at the age of seven and adopted her maternal grandmother Margaret's maiden name "Lynn" as her stage name when she was eleven. In 1935 she made her first radio broadcast, with the Joe Loss Orchestra, after which she appeared on records released by dance bands including those of Loss and of Charlie Kunz. A year later, her first solo record was released on the Crown label, ‘Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire’ and then in 1937 she landed her first two hits with ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’.
Lynn's wartime contribution began when she would sing to people who were using London's tube station platforms as air raid shelters. During the Phoney War, the Daily Express asked British servicemen to name their favourite musical performers: Vera Lynn came out on top and as a result became known as “the Forces' Sweetheart”. Between 1937 and 1940, she also toured with the aristocrat of British dance bands, Bert Ambrose as part of the Ambrose Octet; the group appeared in broadcasts for the BBC and for Radio Luxembourg, and in 1941 she married Harry Lewis, a clarinetist, saxophonist and fellow member of Ambrose's orchestra.
Her continuing popularity was ensured by the success of her radio programme ‘Sincerely Yours’, which began airing in 1941, with messages to British troops serving abroad. The show was taken off air for 18 months in the aftermath of the fall of Singapore in February 1942 however, out of fear that the sentimental nature of her songs would undermine the “virile” nature of British soldiers. Instead, “more traditionally martial classical music” was promoted.
Lynn and her quartet continued to perform songs most requested by the soldiers. Lynn also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas. Between 1942 and 1944, she appeared in three movies with wartime themes.
She gave outdoor concerts for the troops in Egypt, India and Burma during the war as part of Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). The songs most associated with her are ‘We'll Meet Again’, ‘(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover’, ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ and ‘There'll Always Be an England’.
In March 1944, she went to Shamshernagar airfield in Bengal to entertain the troops before the Battle of Kohima. Her host and lifelong friend Captain Bernard Holden recalled “her courage and her contribution to morale”. In 1985 she received the Burma Star for entertaining British guerrilla units in Japanese-occupied Burma.
She remained popular after the war, appearing on radio and television in the United Kingdom and the United States, and recording such hits as ‘Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart’ in 1952 and her UK number-one single ‘My Son, My Son’. ‘Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart’ became the first record by a British performer to top the charts in the United States, remaining there for nine weeks. She also appeared regularly for a time on Tallulah Bankhead's US radio programme The Big Show. ‘Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart’, along with ‘The Homing Waltz’ and ‘Forget-Me-Not’, gave Lynn three entries on the first UK Singles Chart.
In 1955, Lynn began her first television series and in 1955, she signed an exclusive contract with the BBC for two years of radio and television work. She hosted her own variety series on BBC1 in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was a frequent guest on other variety shows such as the 1972 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show. In 1972, she was a key performer in the BBC anniversary programme Fifty Years of Music. In 1976, she hosted the BBC's A Jubilee of Music, celebrating the pop music hits of the period 1952–1976 to commemorate the start of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee year. For ITV she presented a 1977 TV special to launch her album 'Vera Lynn in Nashville', which included pop songs of the 1960s and country songs. Her last single, ‘I Love This Land’, was released to mark the end of the Falklands War.
Lynn sang outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 in a ceremony that marked the golden jubilee of VE Day. The United Kingdom's VE Day ceremonies in 2005 included a concert in Trafalgar Square, London, in which Lynn made a surprise appearance. She made a speech praising the veterans and calling upon the younger generation always to remember their sacrifice, and joined in with a few bars of ‘We'll Meet Again’. This would be Lynn's final vocal performance at a VE Day anniversary event.
In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Chart with the compilation album 'We'll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn'. The album entered the chart at number 20 on 30 August, and then climbed to No. 2 the following week before reaching the top position, outselling both the Arctic Monkeys and the Beatles. With this achievement, she surpassed Bob Dylan as the oldest artist to have a number one album in the UK.
Lynn devoted much time and energy to charity work connected with ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. She was held in great affection by Second World War veterans and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century. In January 2020, a new painted portrait of Lynn was given as a gift from London Mint Office to at the Royal Albert Hall in connection with the 75th anniversary of the peace in 1945. The portrait is by Norwegian artist Ross Kolby and was unveiled by Lynn's daughter Virginia Lewis-Jones and Korean War veteran and Britain's Got Talent winner Colin Thackery.
Queen Elizabeth II echoed the song 'We’ll Meet Again' in a television address on 5th April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. The same year marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day, but due to the pandemic the celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall could not go ahead as planned. Lynn and Katherine Jenkins did perform a duet, however it was done virtually with Jenkins singing next to a hologram.
Lynn died on 18th June 2020 at the age of 103. She was given a military funeral, which was held in July 2020 in East Sussex and her coffin was draped in a Union Flag with a wreath. The procession, widely attended by the public, made its way from her home in Ditchling which was decorated with poppies, the symbol of military remembrance, to the Woodvale Crematorium in Brighton where she was serenaded by a Royal Marine bugler. Her cortege was accompanied by members of the Royal Air Force, the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal British Legion, as well as the Battle of Britain Spitfire flypast, which followed the cortege and passed over Ditchling three times (10th July 2020 was the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain). Ahead of the funeral, the White Cliffs of Dover had images of Lynn projected onto them, as 'We'll Meet Again' was being played across the English Channel.
Vera Lynn, pencil portrait on paper November 2020
- an art print (A6 - A3)