Lifelong friend pays tribute to British icon Dame Vera Lynn

There is nothing like a Dame... especially this one. A legend, the original Forces’ Sweetheart, charity campaigner, British icon and so very much more.

Dame Vera Lynn with close friend and PA Susan Fleet
Dame Vera Lynn with close friend and PA Susan Fleet

It has been such a privilege to have Dame Vera Lynn as a close friend for several decades and also to act as her PA for the past few years. We’ve had so many wonderful times together and I shall treasure them all. I love her smile, those twinkly blue eyes and her delightful sense of fun.

Car journeys to speaking engagements and concerts were always enjoyable and invariably ended with a singsong and plenty of laughter.

She used to visit us very regularly at home, especially when fish pie was on the menu (a favourite meal) and many friends remarked at how down to earth she was. Yes, she was a star, but she certainly never behaved like one. DV was humble through and through.

Who will ever look at Dover’s iconic white cliffs or sing the uplifting “We’ll Meet Again” without picturing our wonderful British songbird, who is loved by millions the world over?

Many who lived through WW2 put our victory down to Winston Churchill and Vera Lynn. She kept the nations spirits lifted high and her nostalgic songs brought hope and comfort. She’ll forever be remembered for her outstanding contribution to British entertainment, rallying the troops, and her charity work.

God Bless you dear friend and Rest in Perfect Peace.

Dame Vera Lynn, CH, DBE, LLD, M.Mus, Hon FGMS forever known as the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’, was one of Britain’s best-loved and most enduring entertainers.

Born Vera Margaret Welch on 20 March 1917 in East Ham, London, she began performing publicly at the age of seven, adopting her grandmother’s maiden name (Lynn) as her stage name.

Her first radio broadcast was with the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935 and in the pre-war years of big dance bands, her winning looks, ready smile and pure voice – her natural East End vowels toned down with BBC radio pronunciation – put her much in demand.

Having recorded with Joe Loss and fellow band leader Charlie Kunz, among others, she released her first solo record on the Crown (later Decca) label in 1936 “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire”, and a year later moved to sing with the aristocrat of British dance bands, Bert Ambrose.

But it was her 1939 recording of We’ll Meet Again, written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, which immediately cemented her as the nation’s favourite, that she would become most famous. It was during the Phoney War, between 1939 and April 1940, that the Daily Express asked British servicemen to name their top musical performer and Vera Lynn emerged as “the Forces’ Sweetheart”, a name that would remain throughout her life.

Vera Lynn stepped up her own war effort in 1941 when boosting morale was most needed. She broadcast her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours, in which she sent messages to British troops serving abroad and performed songs most requested by them, accompanied by her own quartet. Broadcast after the news and Mr Churchill’s Sunday address, ”Sincerely Yours” became the sound of the resistance for those fighting abroad. She also began visiting hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas. In 1943 she recorded the second of the songs for which she is best remembered - The White Cliffs of Dover – and in the same year appeared in the film We’ll Meet Again.

As part of the forces’ entertainment service ENSA, Vera Lynn toured Egypt, India and, most notably, Burma at the height of the conflict, giving outdoor concerts for the troops within sound of the gunfire. In March 1944 she went to Shamsheernugger airfield to entertain the troops before the Battle of Kohima, prompting her host and lifelong friend Captain Bernard Holden to commend “her courage and her contribution to morale”. One of the few surviving major entertainers of the war years, in 1985 she received the Burma Star for entertaining British guerrilla units in Japanese-occupied Burma.

After Hitler and Churchill, Vera Lynn became, for generations, the name most readily associated with the Second World War and her songs, including “We’ll Meet Again”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “There’ll Always Be an England” never lost their appeal. In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to make it to No. 1 on the British album chart with “We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn”.

During the immediate post-war years, she appeared frequently on radio and television in the UK and the United States, featuring regularly on Tallulah Bankhead’s US radio programme, The Big Show, and recording on both sides of the Atlantic, including in 1952 “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart”, the first single by a British performer to top the US charts where she remained for nine weeks. The same year, she had three singles in the first UK music chart compiled by New Musical Express and in 1954 made it to Number 1 with “My Son, My Son”, which she co-wrote with Gordon Melville Rees.

In 1960 she left Decca Records after nearly 25 years, and joined EMI where she continued to cut Top 10 discs.

Vera Lynn was the subject of the British TV show, “This Is Your Life”, on two occasions and in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a frequent guest on other variety shows, notably the 1972 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show. In 1976 she hosted the BBC’s A Jubilee of Music, celebrating the pop 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.

A close friend and favourite of The Queen Mother, Vera Lynn featured in the Royal Variety Performance on four occasions in 1960, 1975, 1986 and 1990.

Made a Dame of the British Empire in 1975, she lived in Ditchling, East Sussex, from the 1960s where she was an integral part of village life and became actively involved with numerous charities in the area.

Notably, and the one of most importance to her, is the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, based at Cuckfield, West Sussex, which offers an early intervention service for babies and young children with cerebral palsy and other motor learning difficulties. Throughout her life Dame Vera also devoted much time and energy to charities connected to breast cancer and ex-servicemen. She was still held in great affection by veterans of the Second World War and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the Twentieth Century. This month Dame Vera has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Guild of Musicians and Singers.

Approaching her 100th birthday Dame Vera was honoured once again by being awarded the Order of the Companions of Honour in Her Majesty The Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2016, and further honoured on the 8th May this year, VE Day, with a reminder by Her Majesty of the importance of the words in Dame Vera’s song “We’ll Meet Again”.