From humble beginnings, Dame Vera Lynn rose to iconic status in Great Britain rivaled only by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and came to define the resiliency of an entire people—and indeed, of democracy itself—during World War II. The National WWII Museum mourns her passing on June 18, 2020, at the age of 103.
Born Vera Welch on March 20, 1917 into a working-class London family—her father was a plumber and her mother a dressmaker—she demonstrated a love and talent for music at an early age. Her singing career took off in the 1930s, during an era when London and other British cities hopped to the tune of great dance bands that performed live and were broadcast over the radio from grand hotels. In 1938 the singer—who had by now taken on her maternal grandmother’s last name and become Vera Lynn—joined bandleader Bert Ambrose’s orchestra, and in the following year she performed one of her trademark songs, We’ll Meet Again, For the First Time.
Vera Lynn might never have achieved lasting fame had it not been for World War II, which Great Britain entered on September 3, 1939. Her crooning, sentimental style was just what the British “Tommies” wanted, however, as it called their minds home. Before the year was out, Vera Lynn was already dubbed the “Forces’ Sweetheart”; and in 1940 her BBC radio show “Sincerely Yours” showcased her iconic songs to the British people and servicemen and women on duty overseas.
It was in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, however, that Vera Lynn rose to a towering stature that the passage of years could never dim. After the fall of France in June 1940, as the German Luftwaffe attempted to suppress the Royal Air Force and then turned to bombing London and other British cities, Great Britain fought for survival, alone, against the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. As British children evacuated to the countryside, and civilians took shelter in the Underground against bombing raids, Vera Lynn’s voice in songs like, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover, Yours, Dream, It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow, and When I Grow Too Old to Dream, offered both consolation and words of hope in time of duress.
Vera Lynn, whose husband Harry Lewis (a saxophonist in the Ambrose Orchestra) also served in the armed forces, famously performed live in London straight through many a German bombing raid. But she did more than sing. On live broadcasts she read out letters of wives and sweethearts to their men serving overseas, and also wrote and signed thousands of letters and photographs on her own account. In 1944, she traveled to Egypt, India, and Burma to perform for British troops abroad. Perhaps no one in Great Britain—and certainly not Winston Churchill, who ruefully admitted the fact—was more beloved.
After World War II concluded, Vera Lynn continued her musical career, releasing her final album when she was 100 years old; then also, in 2017, her image was projected onto Britain’s White Cliffs of Dover in celebration of her birthday. Her final live performance, appropriately, was in London’s Hyde Park on the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995. She also worked actively in charities, especially for children coping with cerebral palsy. In March 2020, with her nation again in the grips of crisis over the Coronavirus, Vera Lynn offered some final words of consolation and hope, saying:
“In these uncertain times, I am taken back to my time during World War II, when we all pulled together and looked after each other. It is this spirit that we all need to find again to weather the storm of the coronavirus.”
Ed Lengel, PhD
Edward G. Lengel is the former Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.