Dame Vera Lynn shot to fame as a singer during the years of the Second World War. Her performances, overseas and on the Home Front, kept up morale. She became a firm favourite among British troops and this popularity earned her the title ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1975.
Vera Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch on 20th March 1917 in East Ham in London. She began performing in public at the age of seven taking on regular singing spots at working men’s clubs. She was also a dancer for a time, performing with a troupe until the age of 15. After leaving school at 14, Vera left a short-lived factory job to focus full-time on her singing career and adopted her grandmother’s unmarried name, Lynn, as her stage name. Vera Lynn made her first radio broadcast in 1935, singing with the Joe Loss Orchestra. She released her first solo record, ‘Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire’, the following year. In 1937 she began playing with the Bert Ambrose dance band where she met and married Harry Lewis, another Ambrose singer. Harry later became her manager.
The War Years
When war broke out in 1939, Vera joined ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association) and toured Egypt, India and Burma. She took part in outdoor concerts for British troops, along with other well-known entertainers of the day, including Max Miller, Gracie Fields and Tommy Trinder. Years later, she received the Burma Star for her tireless work entertaining forces in Japanese-occupied Burma. It was during the war years that Vera recorded her most popular songs, including ‘We’ll Meet Again’, written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ by Nat Burton and Walter Kent. From 1941, she also began to present her own radio show, ‘Sincerely Yours’. The programme featured songs and interviews with the wives of British servicemen. Vera also made appearances in three wartime films: ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (1942), ‘Rhythm Serenade’ (1943) and ‘One Exciting Night’ (1944).
- ENSA or the Entertainments National Service Association was set up in 1939 by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson to provided entertainment for British armed forces personnel during the Second World War
- The first overseas ENSA show was performed in November 1939 in France with Gracie Fields as the headline act
- ENSA went on to provide a platform for many well-known stars of stage and screen, including George Formby, Will Fyffe, Joyce Grenfell and Evelyn Laye and performed to troops from Iceland to Rangoon
- ENSA came to an end in July 1946 and was succeeded by Combined Services Entertainment (CSE). It continues to provide entertainment for British troops today as part of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC)
The Post-War Years
After the War, Vera returned to the variety circuit and continued her recording career. During the 1950s and 1960s she became a regular on both radio and television and achieved the accolade of becoming the first British artist to reach number one in the American charts with the song ‘Aufwiedersehen Sweetheart’. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she hosted her own BBC1 variety series and was a frequent guest on other variety shows, most notably the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1972. She made four Royal Variety Performance appearances between 1960 and 1990. In 2009 she became the oldest living artist to chart at number one in the British album chart.
Still Singing After All These Years
Dame Vera Lynn retired in 1995. Her final public performance took place outside Buckingham Palace as part of a ceremony to mark the fiftieth anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. As well as receiving her damehood, she was awarded an OBE in 1969. She continues to be actively involved in charity work, supporting charities which campaign on behalf of cerebral palsy and breast cancer research, Burmese refugees and animal welfare issues.
On 97th birthday in 2014 she released a new album ‘Vera Lynn: National Treasure – The Ultimate Collection’, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. For her 100th birthday in March 2017, she will release another album to mark her centenary which will include some of her best known songs.
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