Dame Vera Lynn, who was dubbed Britain’s “Forces’ Sweetheart” during World War II and went on to become one of the nation’s most beloved and enduring of entertainers, died in the early hours of this morning (18) at the age of 103.
The news was confirmed by the entertainer’s family, who said she died surrounded by her close relatives. In a statement, they said: “The family are deeply saddened to announce the passing of one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers at the age of 103.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined a national and international chorus of tributes, writing on social media: “Dame Vera Lynn’s charm and magical voice entranced and uplifted our country in some of our darkest hours. Her voice will live on to lift the hearts of generations to come.”
Lynn became inseparably associated with Ross Parker and Hughie Charles’ 1939 composition ‘We’ll Meet Again,’ which she recorded just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was a morale-boosting motif of British resilience and optimism, both throughout the war, during numerous anniversary commemorations and at other times of national strife, not least the coronavirus outbreak of 2020.
As the world went into lockdown, a new duet version of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ featuring Lynn’s original recording and a new vocal by classical vocalist Katherine Jenkins was released by Decca, with all proceeds going to NHS Charities Together. It reached No. 72 in the UK, after which the centenarian’s solo recording made its first-ever chart showing at No. 55. The weekly British singles chart was not first published until 1952.
In 2009, Lynn became the oldest artist ever to score a No. 1 album in the UK when, aged 93, she topped the listings with We’ll Meet Again — The Very Best of Vera Lynn. In March 2017, the singer became the first and only centenarian to reach the album top ten, when 100, released to mark her 100th birthday on 20 March that year, debuted at No. 3.
Although many of her most popular recordings pre-date the chart era, Lynn had substantial UK success in the first year of weekly popularity listings. Indeed, she had three titles in that inaugural countdown of 14 November 1952, ‘Forget Me Not’ at a joint No. 7 (two or more songs were sometimes listed by the same number in those days), ‘The Homing Waltz’ at No. 9 and ‘Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart’ at No. 10.
By then, the latter song had become the first-ever recording by a British artist to top the US charts, for nine weeks, and the only one during the 1950s. It reportedly had vocal accompaniment from 70 soldiers and airmen.
Vera Margaret Welch was born on 20 March 1917 in the east London district of East Ham in Essex, to a plumber father and dressmaker mother. Her brother Roger, three years her senior, also became a centenarian. She survived a near-fatal bout of diphtheritic croup at the age of two and was performing in public, at working men’s clubs, from seven. It was at the insistence of her mother, but she took to the stage willingly.
Vera’s first radio broadcast, with the Joe Loss Orchestra, came in 1935, and her first record in her own name, ‘Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire,’ the following year. It appeared on the Crown label, which soon became part of Decca Records.
The war years saw her popularity rising quickly, with her first solo appearances in 1940 and her own radio show in 1941. She had starring roles in the 1943 films Rhythm Serenade and the broadly biographical We’ll Meet Again. By now, Lynn was singing for British troops in such conflict zones as India, Egypt and Burma. She further cemented her relationship both with those in action and those waiting at home with another trademark hit, ‘(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover,’ written after the Battle of Britain.
“The war was a dark and difficult time,” she said in a 2017 interview with The Sun, “but it was quite easy to keep faith when I saw for myself the sacrifices being made by the boys on the front line and everyone on the Home Front. The community spirit and collective sense of patriotism saw us all through.”
A US chart debut
Lynn’s first appearance on Billboard‘s US charts came in 1948 with the top ten entry ‘You Can’t Be True, Dear,’ accompanied by the Bob Farndon Orchestra. Other transatlantic successes included a second top ten hit with the follow-up to ‘Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart,’ 1952’s ‘Yours (Quierme Mucho).’
Back at home, Lynn triumphed in 1954 with the song that proved to be her only domestic chart-topper, ‘My Son My Son,’ No. 1 for two weeks in November. Her chart prominence in this first phase of her career ended after 1957, when she made the top 20 with ‘Travellin’ Home.’ The same year, she became the subject, for the first of two occasions, of the TV biographical series This Is Your Life.
Meeting again and again
There was new profile for ‘We’ll Meet Again’ in 1964 with its ironic placement at the end of the black comedy movie hit Dr. Strangelove. Lynn won more US fans with an April 1967 No. 7 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart, ‘It Hurts To Say Goodbye,’ on United Artists.
She starred in numerous British television variety shows in the later 1960s and 1970s, including an appearance on the mass-rated 1972 Christmas show by the hugely popular comedians Morecambe and Wise.
Lynn was awarded an OBE in 1969 and was made a Dame in the Queen’s 1975 Birthday Honours. A Variety Club lunch to honour the latter event was broadcast by BBC1 in the UK. It featured such showbusiness friends as Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves, Alfred Marks and singer-comedian Harry Secombe, who was also among the guests when the Variety Club marked Lynn’s 50 years as an entertainer in December 1985.
“Time marches on”
Further tributes on BBC Radio 2 and elsewhere marked her 80th and 90th birthdays, before a series of extensive celebrations in 2017 to observe her century. “When I look on my mantelpiece and see these cards wishing me a happy 100th birthday, I can’t believe it,” she told Radio 2. “But there you are, time marches on and this is what I have on my mantelpiece to remind me how old I am.”
As her hallowed status continued to be amplified in her remaining years, a new painting of Lynn was unveiled at the Royal Albert Hall in January 2020, marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of peace in 1945. “There is always something we can be concerned about,” she said in 2017. “The secret is to rise above it and do whatever we can to make the world a better place.”