Happy Birthday, Dame Vera Lynn! At age 100, Vera Lynn is keeping her “We’ll Meet Again” promise to wartime Britain. She’s also marking her 100 years with a new album titled Vera Lynn 100, in which most of her famous songs have been re-orchestrated, just as she did when she was 97-years-old in 2014. At that time, releasing a new collection of her songs made her the oldest living artist to achieve a top-20 album in the United Kingdom, and perhaps even the world.
— Hugh Devlin (@Hughie1953) March 22, 2017
The Washington Post reported that Dame Vera Lynn has outlived almost all the British troops she sang for during World War II.
British people have always been captivated by World War II, possibly because it was so close to home, and it certainly was “at home” during the bombing of Britain. Dame Vera Lynn is one of the last universal symbols of that time, and her memorable songs instantly bring to mind distant memories.
— ITV News (@itvnews) March 20, 2017
Vera Lynn and her songs became very important to British soldiers. One such soldier, William Pitcher, spoke of Vera Lynn in 1996.
“All the war, even the worst of times, we had a good short wave radio system. In fact, I can remember when Vera Lynn came on we’d get the radio off the truck and we’d cover ourselves up with tarp and turn it on. And we’d listen to Vera sing to the troops on a Friday night, on the radio.”
In her book Victory through Harmony, Christina L. Baade talks about the song “We’ll Meet Again.” It was unabashedly sentimental, she said, with its romantic longing and an insistent faith in the couple’s eventual reunion.
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.
Keep smiling through, just like you always do
‘Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away
So will you 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.
We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”
At the time, Vera Lynn said of the song, “It’s a good song. It goes with anyone anywhere saying goodbye to someone.”
In an interview with the BBC in 1999, Vera Lynn recalled the day Britain went to war, remembering that she and her mother and father were constantly listening to the radio “waiting for any news to come through.” When news of the war broke, Lynn said that it still “came as a bit of a shock” even though it was somewhat expected.
— Nina Nannar (@NinaNannarITV) March 20, 2017
But what came as an even greater shock was what the outbreak of war meant for the singer’s career as an entertainer.
“I’d been broadcasting for a few years and was beginning to become quite well-known here in England. The first thing I thought of was: Oh well, bang goes my career. I shall be either in the army or in a factory, doing something like that. The thought that entertainment was going to be such a vital means of keeping people’s morale up, well I never thought about that at all at the time. I went and signed on expecting to go into the army or do something in the services. But I was told, ‘No, you will be much more useful if you carry on entertaining.'”
As Baade wrote, Vera Lynn became a living symbol of Britain’s war effort. She was the force’s favorite, the ordinary East End girl with an extraordinary voice. Lynn’s broadcast over the BBC sustained Britain through the darkest days of the war.
However, the British brass were worried that her Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn show and, in particular, the song “We’ll Meet Again” were not suitable for an army at war — a war that wasn’t going well — and her show became a target for criticism. They argued that sentimental popular music had a drugging effect on the troops, undermining their masculinity and will to fight.
Dame Vera Lynn has given her heart and soul to those who risked their lives for our freedom. Happy 100th birthday & thank you for the music pic.twitter.com/NzjnBDXgwO
— Royal Air Force (@RoyalAirForce) March 20, 2017
And so, the BBC’s leadership decided to rest the program. Lynn continued broadcasting, and it was 18 months before she had another solo series. By the year 1944, Vera Lynn was entertaining the troops in person, singing her songs at a camp in Burma, very close to where a battle raged against the Japanese.
Veteran Roy Welland was recently interviewed for the Coconuts Yangon website.
“She was like an angel to us. I was quite lucky. I got a space at the show, almost at the front. I stood there and thought of home instantly.”
Veteran Frederick Weidman recalled her performance in Burma on a “hot steamy evening in 1944” when hundreds of troops watched a “tall, fair-haired girl” singing on a “makeshift stage” beside an old piano.
“She tried to leave the stage but the men were clapping and cheering. She sang three more songs but still they went on cheering. She started to sing again but whenever she tried to stop they yelled the name of another tune. She sang until her make-up was running in dark furrows down her cheeks, until her dress was wet with sweat, until her voice had become a croak.”
— LEAVE.EU (@LeaveEUOfficial) March 20, 2017
The day after peace in Europe was declared, Vera Lynn again went abroad.
“They phoned me up and sent me to Germany to sing for the troops who had liberated the concentration camps. They took me around the ovens. I saw the gas chambers. They were like a row of garages with steel doors. No birds were flying. They said the gas was still in the air.”
The Independent reported that Dame Vera Lynn has never revealed her political predilections: she sang for the whole country, regardless of ideology or party.
Vera Lynn was born Vera Welch in East Ham in 1917, and she began performing at 7-years-old and released her first hit, “We’ll Meet Again,” in 1939. Her radio show was broadcast throughout Britain and into Europe, and she toured military camps around the world, especially in Burma.
She was extremely brave, facing some of the worst fightings the British military saw during the war because she was determined to boost the morale of Britain’s troops.
“I reminded them of their sisters, their sweethearts, and their wives they had left behind, and what they were fighting for.”
Dame Vera’s music is loved universally, and the history of her music reminds the world that people really do have more in common than what divides them. Dame Vera Lynn represents the very best of Britain, and she can best be honored by living up to the example she set. From all the millions of people who listen to her beautiful vocals and sing along to her unifying optimistic songs, have a very Happy Birthday, Dame Vera Lynn!
[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]