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Vera Lynn, singer whose wartime ballads uplifted UK, dies at 103

At 7, Vera was singing in workingmen’s clubs in East Ham; at 11, she left school to join a traveling variety troupe. At 18, having adopted her grandmother’s maiden name as her surname, Vera Lynn was singing with popular big bands, and at 20 she became the resident singer with bandleader Bert Ambrose

By: New York Times |
July 20, 2021 10:30:58 am
vera lynnIt was Lynn and her simple, sentimental ballads that captured the affections of British troops. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Lawrence Van Gelder

Vera Lynn, who sang the songs that touched the hearts and lifted the spirits of Britons from the bomb-blitzed streets of London and Coventry to the sands of North Africa and the jungles of Burma during World War II, died Thursday at her home in Sussex, England. She was 103.

Her death was confirmed by her representative, Andrew Gordon.

Long after the war ended, the melodies lingered on: “We’ll Meet Again,” “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

In those wartime years, she became known as the “Forces’ Sweetheart,” and to the end of her life the veterans were her “boys,” still misty-eyed when she sang, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”

“Churchill didn’t beat the Nazis,” English comedian Harry Secombe once said. “Vera sang them to death.”

“People used to say that my singing gave them courage and hope,” Lynn said. “I think that is a great compliment.”

In an era when American fighting men plastered their barracks with pinups of Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, it was Lynn and her simple, sentimental ballads that captured the affections of British troops.

“I always believed what I was singing,” Lynn once said. “My songs reminded the boys what they were really fighting for — precious personal things rather than ideologies.”

Without losing the common touch, she came a long way from East Ham, the London neighborhood where she was born Vera Welch on March 20, 1917. Her father, Bertram, was a plumber. Her mother, Annie, fostered her daughter’s performing career.

Young Vera led a local dance troupe and was allowed to sing at the end-of-term school show because her mother made the costumes.

At 7, Vera was singing in workingmen’s clubs in East Ham; at 11, she left school to join a traveling variety troupe. At 18, having adopted her grandmother’s maiden name as her surname, Vera Lynn was singing with popular big bands, and at 20 she became the resident singer with bandleader Bert Ambrose. His weekly radio program, “Life From the Mayfair,” made Lynn a household name.

At 22, in 1939, she won The Daily Express newspaper’s “Forces’ Sweetheart” poll in a landslide. In 1940, she began her own BBC radio show, “Sincerely Yours,” which was beamed to troops around the world on Sunday nights right after the news.

Winston Churchill was my opening act,” Lynn once said.

She read letters from the girlfriends, wives and mothers the troops left behind. She sang her sentimental songs, “We’ll Meet Again” being the most popular. In the blitz that sent the Luftwaffe on nightly raids over London in 1940, she sometimes slept in the theater until the all-clear sounded, then drove home through the rubble left by the bombings.

“The shows didn’t stop if a raid started,” she said. “We just used to carry on.”

When the war ended, Lynn “retired.” Just before the war began, she had met a saxophonist and clarinet player named Harry Lewis, who performed with the Ambrose band. The couple married in 1941, and Lewis devoted his life to managing his wife’s career. Their only child, Virginia, was born in 1946, and the family settled down to life outside Ditchling, a village in East Sussex.

She is survived by her daughter, Virginia Lewis-Jones.

In truth, Lynn was far from retired. She earned success on television; she toured the world; she appeared onstage and in films and sang before British royalty in command performances. In 1951, she became the first British singer to top the U.S. charts with “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart.”

“We’ll Meet Again” enjoyed an ironic second life in 1964 when it was heard over scenes of nuclear devastation at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire “Dr. Strangelove.”

Lynn’s popularity endured well into the 21st century. In August 2009, she became the oldest living artist to reach the British Top 20 album chart when her collection “We’ll Meet Again” was reissued to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. A month later, the album reached No. 1.

Lynn was made a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975. The Netherlands made her a commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau.

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