Dame Vera Lynn: The passing of a British icon

If any one person, apart from Winston Churchill, could be said to symbolize the Second World War for Britain, it was Vera Lynn.

DAME VERA LYNN, 1973 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
No event could have been more aptly timed than the passing of Dame Vera Lynn. If any one person, apart from Winston Churchill, could be said to symbolize the Second World War for Britain, it was Vera Lynn. Churchill with his speeches rallied the nation’s fighting spirit; Vera with her songs touched its heart.
The effect of both on people’s morale was profound. It persists, refusing to be eradicated.
It was on June 18, 1940 that, with France on its knees and suing Hitler for peace, General Charles de Gaulle broadcast to the French people from London. He delivered a message of defiance. “The flame of French resistance must not, and will not, be extinguished.”
June 18, 2020 – the 80th anniversary of that historic broadcast − was therefore chosen as a fitting day to mark enduring Anglo-French friendship. French President Emmanuel Macron visited the UK to participate in a formal commemoration ceremony and to bestow the Légion d’honneur on the city of London. It was in the very midst of this formal remembrance of the Second World War that the news of Vera Lynn’s death at the age of 103 became public. Immensely saddened as the nation was at the announcement, it seemed in a fortuitous way to have occurred on the most appropriate of occasions.
BORN IN London as Vera Margaret Welch to a plumber father and a determined dressmaker stage-mother, Lynn was singing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven. At age 11 she took her grandmother’s maiden name as her stage name, and at 15, having already become her family’s biggest wage earner, she was signed by one of the UK’s big bands. She released her first solo recording when she was 19, and within three years had amassed combined sales of more than a million discs.
Jewish musicians and artists were prominent in 1930s England. Bert Ambrose (born Benjamin Baruch Ambrose in Warsaw) was a well-known bandleader and violinist. It was while singing with the Ambrose orchestra that Vera met her Jewish husband, Harry Lewis, a clarinetist and saxophonist. She married him in 1941, and they stayed married for 57 years. Their daughter, Virginia, was born in 1946.
As war loomed nearer, valiant efforts were made in the UK to try to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis. In the end more than 10,000 were brought across to England in the so-called Kindertransport operation. Kindertransport was a visa waiver scheme initiated by the UK government, but with financial support largely provided by charities and volunteers.
In a 2017 interview, magician and mentalist David Berglas, speaking of Vera Lynn, said, “She was one of the few artists to do a show for Jewish refugee children, to bring them over before war broke out. She was singing with the Ambrose orchestra and took part in a charity show to raise funds to get them out of Germany. I thank her from the bottom of my heart – because I was one of those children.”
When war was declared in September 1939, Lynn was already a star, well established on the variety circuit with a rising profile on radio. She volunteered for war work, but she was told the best thing she could do was to keep on being an entertainer. Before the end of the year, she had recorded the song that would always thereafter be associated with her: “We’ll Meet Again."
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day… So please say hello to the folks that I know, tell them I won’t be long. They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go, I was singing this song...”
It was a song she was to sing and record innumerable times in the five years of war that followed, but also in the many anniversaries she attended over the succeeding years. At the time she first recorded it, show business in Britain had almost been shut down, the big bands had broken up and the musicians scattered. During the first months of the war, music on BBC radio was reduced to old records and the Wurlitzer, or theater organ. So Vera is accompanied on the record not by an orchestra, but by a Novachord, an early version of the synthesizer. The recording is still available on YouTube.
Its underlying message of hope − that scattered families would eventually be reunited after the conflict – struck a chord with troops abroad and their relatives at home. In a poll run before the end of 1939 by a popular newspaper, Vera Lynn, voted by servicemen their favorite entertainer, gained her nickname of “Forces’ Sweetheart.” She never lost it.
Israel and Britain share an ordeal never experienced by the United States − a genuine threat to their very existence. In Israel’s case, of course, it has proved a recurring nightmare. For the United Kingdom, the experience of June 1940 is seared deep into the national psyche. Starting with the declaration of war in September 1939, the Nazis swept all before them. Their Blitzkrieg tactics saw Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France succumb with astonishing speed. By the end of June 1940 only two things stood between Hitler and the conquest of Britain: the English Channel and the Royal Air Force.
This dark period was when Lynn’s songs caught the public mood so well and boosted morale – songs like “The White Cliffs of Dover:”
“There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see… The shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again, and Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again.”
One of her songs that perfectly caught the mood of the time was said to have been inspired by the diary kept by a little Dutch boy who escaped from Europe as it was being overrun by the Nazis – “My Sister and I.”
“My sister and I remember still a tulip garden by an old Dutch mill, and the home that was all our own until ... But we don’t talk about that. We’re learning to forget the fear that came from a troubled sky. We’re almost happy over here. But sometimes we wake at night and cry. My sister and I recall the day we said goodbye, then we sailed away, and we think of our friends that had to stay. But we don’t talk about that…”
Her place in the public imagination was broadened by her hugely popular radio show in 1941-1942, Sincerely Yours, which she described as “a letter to the men of the forces in words and music.” Thanks to the BBC’s shortwave transmitters, they were heard across the world.
Throughout the war she traveled to battle fronts as far afield as Egypt, India and Burma to perform for troops. It was a bond that remained long into peacetime, with Lynn a constant champion of veterans’ rights.
IN 1976 Lynn was made a Dame, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995 she performed in front of thousands of people outside Buckingham Palace. In 2000, she was named as the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.
As the 75th anniversary of the war’s end approached, in May 2020, the UK was facing another crisis – the coronavirus pandemic. In a televised address in April, the Queen evoked Dame Vera’s wartime message, assuring families and friends who were separated during the COVID-19 lockdown: “We will meet again.”
Born in London, the writer is a graduate of Oxford University and made aliyah in 2011. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016, and he blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com