Extraordinary people make an impression and during WW2 the enterprise, courage, patience and unbreakable humor of the British people was personified by the heart warming energy of Dame Vera Lynn, who sang to the troops abroad and reached the hearts of the war shattered people of the home front. Dame Vera Lynn is a true living saint. With a new autobiography on its way, you can be sure of an inspirational read.
Many will know of Dame Vera’s wartime hits such as ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. But fewer appreciate the post war career and the busy life of a forces sweetheart.
Now in her 92nd. year the iconic lady is to finally tell everyone about her true life story. Nicknamed ‘The Forces Sweetheart’ at the age of just 21 Dame Vera’s new autobiography will give a chilling account of the up bringing and hardships endured in London’s east end during the second world war. It is easy for us all today to think of it as history, but put it into another perspective and imagine Duffy or Girls Aloud driving themselves to gigs all the while bombs are falling and exploding around them. To me, and clearly the rest of the nation Dame Vera’s solid iron attitude to ‘we’ll not be beaten’ is a true credit and inspiration to us all today and future generations.
An English Rose in waiting was there to greet me when I arrived at Dame Vera’s Sussex home. I am at the age many young service men were when they secretly tuned in on hidden radios overseas and when Dame Vera visited them on moral boosting trips. I can truly see the magical look in her eyes that gave hope to so many. You can be assured that the lady has a story to tell and if I had the chance to write ten, twenty or fifty pages I still would not have enough.
The stories are true and they must be told now in order for the younger generation to understand and appreciate the sacrifices that went before to make a way of life possible for us today.
I was wondering with all these people and events what must have been the most impressive occasion of her life and the answer is one that I’m sure we’d all agree on if it happened to our selves. Being granted the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace in 1975.
‘To stand there in front of the Queen and have her honor you with a Damehood, your mind does wander back to your early childhood days, where you lived, you always think of your early life I think when you get an honor like that’
Before that in 1969 Her Majesty the Queen appointed her with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire)
I asked Dame Vera if she had meet Glenn Miller ‘yes we performed a show together I did a broadcast with him when he was over here, he wanted a girl singer and I was asked to do it. He wasn’t easy to talk to, you couldn’t have a proper conversation with him, I don’t know if it was because he was shy but he did seem distant and quiet. But then the next day he was gone…I mean one normally finds some debris… but nothing’
Chilling. It did make the hairs on the back of my neck stand. They don’t come much bigger or respected globally than Miller but to talk to somebody that has met him is quite an experience let alone one of the last to see him alive. He led the biggest big band of all time and his hits of ‘Little Brown Jug’, ‘Pennsylvania 65000’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree’ remain with us and our children for ever. Watch any wartime documentary and 9 times out of 10 a Glenn Miller record will be dubbed. It still remains one of life’s great unsolved mysteries, he left shortly after performing with Dame Vera in an RAF Lysander aircraft destined for Paris but he never arrived. No trace of him or the aircraft has ever been found.
With a music career to put any current day pop star to shame Dame Vera began singing at the age of just seven in working clubs. Then in 1935 she had her first radio broadcast with the Joss Loss Orchestra. Around this time Dame Vera was breaking into the infamous big dance bands including Charlie Kunz’s. The following year saw the recording of her first solo record, ‘Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire’ the growing might of the record label Decca then followed. In the late thirties Dame Vera moved to perform with the cream of the British aristocracy Bert Ambrose, a house hold name at that time.
In 1942 Dame Vera recorded the iconic song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ whilst starring in the film of the same title. The lyrics touched all those at a time when many were separated from loved ones and brought hope. After the war Dame Vera’s career flourished in the 50’s recording with EMI, MGM, and HMV.
Battle of Britain Ace, Douglas Bader made a great influence on Dame Vera. This is a man that at the age 21 lost both of his legs in the 1931 air display at Hendon when he flew too low for a stunt and crashed the biplane into a tangled mess. He left RAF service but frustrated at his desk job, wanted to get back to the skies. In September 1939 he pulled a few strings and managed to get back in the RAF and after a while he was given a command of 242 squadron flying Hurricanes. After the Battle of Britain Bader was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Distinguished Service Order (DSO) a true Great Briton.
‘Badar wasn’t that easy to get on with, I suppose that was his nature he wasn’t a very talkative person, he was pleasant but not over comunitive towards you’
In 1944 the forces sweetheart left the shores of Southampton in a Sunderland flying boat on the start of her European tour to boost moral for our boys. Burma became a home for some time as she lived in grass huts with mud floors and rats. Dame Vera was not afraid of getting her hands dirty driving Jeep’s, trucks and riding motorcycles. As we’re talking a small but well travelled old black book is pulled out and flicked through.
‘We weren’t allowed to keep a diary in case we were made prisoners, so I sneaked this with me to keep the odd note, it was the only way I could keep track of where I had been. It was 1944 I went.. I arrived on the first stretch in Gibraltar at 25 minutes past seven in the morning, castle benio then we left at 8 o’clock for Cairo. I was away for four months.
She went to Egypt where she visited the wounded in the hospitals from the battle at El Al Amain and then onto India and Burama. The boys in Burma hold a very special place in Dame Vera’s heart. Special because she felt they were forgotten back home as they were so far away. It must have been dreadful for them when the war in Europe ended and they were forgotten about with the celebrations back home. They would continue fighting for a further 4 months until a B-29 unloaded a bomb on Hiroshima and World War Two came to an end on the 15th. August 1945.
‘I remember looking out the window of the Dakota and seeing the outline of a sunken ship in the water below. This was El Alamein.’
London was a very dangerous place to be during the war with the air raids. Although there were air raid shelters built across the capital including Clapham Common home to huge lines of anti aircraft batteries the tube stations were also used for cover. Imagine spending the night sleeping with the rats on the northern line! However even the tube stations were not safe. In January 1941 Bank tube station received a direct hit killing 56 people sheltering below. Amazingly the British spirit bounced back raid after raid as the nine months of the Blitz rained down with exploding german metal.
‘I can’t say I ever felt scared I lived in London through The Blitz, I lived in Barking and I had to drive everyday to the West End theaters through the docks which were riddled. Once the raids started I had to stay there until the all clear. Driving home during a raid was hazardous one time my roof was pierced by shrapnel and you had to dodge the craters in the roads. It was wet and I was going fast, my car fell over onto its side and me and Ambrose got out and pushed it back up’
During the second world war, two figures symbolized the spirit of Britain: Winston Churchill and Vera Lynn. There are so many accounts on Winston Churchill what he was like and how he worked. I was surprised to hear that Dame Vera only met him once despite her involvements with the war office.
‘Well I only meet him once and that was at Olympia when we had a big concert for the boys and he came along and as I came down the steps he stopped, he was in his Jeep and we were introduced and he said how much he enjoyed the programe and what have you and then he went, in his Jeep! no time for deep conversation’
I had been broadcasting over the continent that’s why after the war I was invited over to Europe to do concerts because they had been listening secretly, don’t forget they were all occupied over there, Holland Norway, Denmark, Sweden they were all occupied countries and they were forbidden to listen to the BBC, but they used to hide their radios, make holes in hay stacks, and they always used to listen to the BBC news on a sunday night and my programe followed… They weren’t allowed to listen to the news and if they were caught they were shot! it was a no, no thing to listen to the BBC.
Dame Vera’s show Sincerely Yours started in 1940 and due to its popularity made Dame Vera a demanded figure in Europe after the war as she performed numerous concerts. It was for her efforts in Burma that she was Knighted, giving courage and hope all the while sending messages of support that England has not forgotten you.
British band leader Bert Ambrose, a household name in the 40’s became blessed with the rich voice of Dame Vera for three and a half years as they performed to the aristocrats of the Mayfair clubs along with Charlie Kunz. People used to stay in on a saturday night just to listen to the radio shows of the live big bands.
Today Dame Vera supports numerous charities including The Royal British Legion but closer to home she is President of a unique school in a quiet village in Sussex. The Dame Vera Lynn Trust for children with Cerebral Palsy. Founded in 2001 the school aims at helping parents with small children under the age of five suffering with illness. Cerebral Palsy is caused by damage to the brain before, during or after birth. Children can learn develop a greater independence given special support and guidance, that is what the school is for. It is a free service but costs £300,000 a year to run, it has to be kept up, clearly an amazing job is being done.
‘We’re always sending off letters appealing for money because we don’t get any help from the authorities at all because they’re under five. They don’t think that trying to teach a little one how to actually live, and how to feed themselves and how to sit is educational, unless they’re at a school learning history, or what ever that’s educational but being taught how to actually live, that’s not educational, some people have got funny ideas’
It’s a shame that no government funding is given for this essential little school. They are doing a brilliant job and Dame Vera’s life is dedicated to fund raising and making sure the survival of the school. www.dvltrust.org.uk
At last all these fascinating stories and memories can now be read and enjoyed by millions. No longer do many people and of course children have to wonder what things were like years ago. If your into inspirational people then this book is a must. The autobiography appropriately named ‘Some Sunny Day’ will hit our shelves in time for summer, marking the 70th. anniversary of the start of the second world war.
Dame Vera is part of the old school and a breed that is a world away from the life styles we crave today. This country has always excelled itself on producing Great Britons and here s a perfect living example even helping others and inspiring many more well into her retirement. Dame Vera can be seen supporting this year’s Royal British Legion events. www.britishlegion.org.uk