Six years ago I went to the home of Dame Vera Lynn and listened to her sing along to recordings of her younger self. As far as I know, this was the last in-depth interview about her life that she ever gave.
Softly, with a voice that is still clear after all these years, Dame Vera Lynn begins to sing. “For a little bit of heaven fell, from out the sky one day …”
She is 97 now and rather frail, the light from the window making a halo of her finespun white hair. But some of the old strength returns as she duets with her younger self. Every word is right, even though this recording was never released and she is hearing it for the first time in 70 years. Back then, Vera Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart”: the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.
When the song was recorded in 1944, she was about to go on a dangerous mission: to sing to “the boys” on the front line in the jungles of Burma. “I reminded them of their sisters, their sweethearts and their wives they had left behind, and what they were fighting for,” she says when it is over.
At home in a house on the Sussex Downs, Dame Vera is surrounded by the photographs and memorabilia of a life that has been long and extraordinary. She was born during the First World War and became the voice of hope during the Second World War, but she remained popular for a long time after that. Even now, say her name and people will start singing, “We’ll meet again …”
It was the first-ever hit, back in 1940. And the song was on an album that unexpectedly went to the top of the charts as recently as 2009, when a surge of feeling for the troops in Afghanistan helped her outsell the Arctic Monkeys. Dame Vera makes no public appearances these days and generally refuses interviews. She is making an exception because her wartime songs are being re-released, with three lost tracks found in the archive by her daughter Virginia.
But there is much more on her mind than music. The album is timed to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. She is determined to honour “the boys” as long as she can draw breath. “The memories have nearly all gone now,” she says. “A lot of the boys never used to speak about the war.”
During wartime they used her songs to express things they could not say, about the longing to be home. “Don’t know where, don’t know when …” Then, as the decades slipped by, the songs became powerfully nostalgic. If they couldn’t tell their children what they had been through, at least they could sing along with Dame Vera together. Now, as the last of her peers begins to slip away, there is a fresh poignancy about We’ll Meet Again.
“Yes, there is that to it,” she says. “The youngsters wouldn’t know about any of this. It is only people of my age who remember the war. Unless you have experienced it, you have no idea what it was all about. There are not many of us left now. Very few.” The important thing to her is that their sacrifice should not be forgotten. “People should still remember the war. They shouldn’t forget. It’s up to the schools to teach the children what it is all about.”
They do, and she features heavily. Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Vera Lynn are the people who stick in the minds of boys and girls studying the war. They don’t think of her like she is today, of course, sharing tea and cake in a parlour full of paintings and old photos.
“She looks like someone’s granny,” says my son later when I show him a snapshot of her dressed in a blue-green plaid shirt, with a necklace of heavy green beads. He is taken aback because he knows her as a major historical figure. If Florence Nightingale is The Lady of the Lamp, Vera Lynn is “The Woman of the War”, dressed in khaki with a military cap, smiling as she leads the people of Britain in the anthem that will get them through. “We’ll meet again, some sunny day …”
Why does she think that song meant so much to people? “It was optimistic,” she says. “Everyone was separating, going to war. It spoke of hope, you know. Because you never knew what would happen, from one day to another. A bomb could hit any house, any night.” She sang it, time after time, for half a century, whenever people gathered to remember. “Wherever I was, it was always a must.”
The last time was a spontaneous singalong at a charity event in 2010 and she will never sing it in public again now, but her recording of We’ll Meet Again still conveys a powerful sense of longing. Sue Lawley once told Dame Vera on Desert Island Discs that she was the last veteran of the war still on active service. She gave a little laugh and said: “You could say that, yes.”
The new record means she has been in showbusiness for 90 years, having first sung for money in a working men’s club opposite East Ham town hall at the age of seven. She was the daughter of a docker and a dressmaker, and went to work in a factory at 14, but lasted only one day. Talking was banned and she was miserable sewing on buttons. Her father said she would earn more money singing in the clubs, and he was right.
Joe Loss recruited her to sing with his Orchestra on the radio, but her first solo recording was released in 1936. It was Up The Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire – a song my nan used to sing to me when I was a boy. Gladys had the same accent: East End posh, the nearly-lost sound of Cockneys who grew up listening to received pronunciation on the radio. She was a fire warden during the Blitz and her husband, Frank, was a Desert Rat; they saw a lot of suffering but never spoke of it. The songs did that for them. The last time I saw Gladys was during a singalong at her care home. We held hands; you can guess what the song was. “We’ll meet again …” Tears prick my eyes when Dame Vera sings.
Her wartime songs were all recorded live, directly on to wax. “If the trumpeter cracked on the last note, you had to do it all over again. You had to make sure your take was perfect.”
She was glad when “the new system” came in allowing them to correct mistakes, but is not impressed by modern singers who break a song down and record it line by line. “It disrupts the thought. I don’t know how they can do a song in bits. You lose the flow, don’t you?” Her performances were all about the feeling, she says. “I don’t think the singers take it as seriously as we used to. The words, the meaning, the phrasing, the feeling of the song. They see the words, they know the tune and they just sing it.”
She is astonished to hear of computer technology that keeps even the most terrible singers in tune. “What? Keeps them in tune?” Yes, it’s called Auto-Tune, and corrects each missed note automatically. “Really? Oh God. We had nothing like that. We never sang out of tune.” She prides herself on that: “They used to call me One Take Lynn.” So she wouldn’t mime if she had the chance, like Beyonce or Britney Spears? “I never mimed,” she says. “I would find it too difficult. I sang the song the way I felt it in that moment.”
What modern music does she listen to? “I don’t listen to music. I never have done.” That’s a startling thing for a legendary singer to say. “The only time I used to listen to it was when we recorded a song, to see if it was OK. I don’t listen to the radio. I’d rather watch the television.”
The first number-one single in Britain is often said to be Here In My Heart by Al Martino in 1952. But a book released last year detailed sales figures all the way back to the start of January 1940. She had three 78rpm singles in the Top 10 that week, and the first British number one was actually We’ll Meet Again.
The whole country seemed to listen to her radio show, Sincerely Yours, on Sunday nights after the news and Mr Churchill. Abroad, it was the sound of resistance. One Dutchman wrote to say he had hidden with his radio in a haystack, knowing the Germans would shoot him if they found out. She also gave concerts, and received a letter from a Londoner who had spontaneously attended one on the way home from work. “His house was destroyed by a direct hit while he was there. He said I saved his life.”
She usually drove across London on her own in a little Austin 10, hoping to reach the theatre before the next raid began. “It had a soft canvas roof. That’s why I always carried a tin helmet with me, in case the shrapnel came through the roof.” Once, she skidded and the car overturned. “People righted it and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to be on my way.’ But it went de-doyng-de-dong … I’d broken the axle.”
Once there, did they stay on air even if the bombs were falling? “Oh, yes. Nothing stopped if there was a raid on.”
Her most daring act of the war was to go to Burma, where the fighting was fierce. “I was getting letters from the boys and I thought I would like to go and see who I had been singing to on the radio.” After a gruelling 11,000-mile trip via the United States, she performed in a camp near the battle of Kohima. How close was the fighting? “The battle was up the hill. I was at the bottom.”
She smiles at my look of horror. “I knew I was well protected, although I did wake up one morning and find four Japanese prisoners leaning against the little grass hut that I was in.” The soldiers had been captured in the night. “They were horrible looking. I had to step over their legs to get by them. The look I got! I was this young girl walking by in khaki shorts. I shouldn’t think they had ever seen a white girl.”
Modern stars require a stylist, a hairdresser, an entourage and a battalion of bodyguards. “I went with a bag slung over my shoulders. That was it,” she says. “Make-up was no good, it would run. All I had was a lipstick. I washed my hair in a bucket and left it like that, because what else could I do? I had a perm before I went, so it was all frizzy.”
She performed using an old microphone plugged into searchlight batteries, while soldiers stood guard on the edge of the jungle. Her pianist had a pistol. “I had no lady companion or anything. I only had 6,000 men.” Presumably she had to fend them off? “No. They treated me with the greatest respect.”
By now she was married to Harry Lewis, a member of the RAF band the Squadronaires, but he was not on the trip. She dressed in a pair of borrowed khaki shorts. The photographs show the men looking dazed in the company of this 27-year-old, bare-legged beauty. “I was never the glamorous type like Betty Grable,” she says, but in the circumstances she was gorgeous. “Thank you. They behaved like gentlemen.”
By accident she found herself in an operating theatre with a wounded soldier. “The surgeon said, ‘Here’s a souvenir for you.’ He gave me a bullet on a little piece of lint, with all the blood still on it. I kept it for donkey’s years, then lent it to the Imperial War Museum, but I never got it back.” The boys in Burma loved White Cliffs of Dover, a syrupy piece of propaganda written by an American who had never been there. Bluebirds don’t even live in Britain, but Dame Vera is impatient with such talk. “Well, it’s a symbol. Bluebirds of happiness. That’s what it’s all about.”
In 2009, she sued the British National Party for using the song, not wanting to be associated with its far-right views. That is not surprising when you hear what she did when the war ended. “The day after peace was declared, they phoned up and sent me to Germany.” So she sang 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.”
After the war she was the first British performer to top the charts in the US, with Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart in 1952. Her last number one here was My Son, My Son, two years later. As it happens, she and Harry had a daughter, Virginia, who now manages her mother’s affairs. Presumably, she is worth millions? “We wish,” says Virginia. “When mummy was really working hard, the money was thruppence compared with now.”
She can’t have done badly, though. For 50 years after the war she made radio and television programmes, recorded albums and toured the world. She also worked for service charities, and was made a dame in 1975. The Queen said, “You’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Dame Vera’s last major engagement was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995, in a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The celebrations were huge but felt like the end of an era. Dame Vera gave a remarkably strong performance for a woman pushing 80. She kissed some of the boys in Chelsea Pensioner red, then headed off into retirement in her East Sussex village. Harry died four years later, after 58 years of marriage. Many of those who sang along with her have gone too.
I have to ask, when she looks around at the world today, is this the future they were fighting for? “We didn’t think about the future,” she says tersely. “We lived from day to day. When you’re young, you think the way things are is going to carry on forever.”
She is sometimes mystified by what she sees on the news. “If my grandparents were to come back now and see how people behave, they would be horrified. They would say, ‘How could you live in a world like that?’ All the violence and the problems.’ If anybody was murdered in my young days, it was unheard of. Now it’s the norm. If somebody doesn’t like somebody, they kill ’em.”
The irony is that she lived through the most murderous war in history. But Dame Vera is not one to dwell on the negative. “Every generation has a different way of behaving. The world changes.”
She is tired, understandably. I have one last question, which is delicate. She is 97. Long may she live, but nobody can go on forever. What does she think comes next? “I think there has to be something. What it is, I don’t know,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up to pray.” There is a long pause. “It’s a difficult subject.” I dare to ask because for a singer of sentimental songs, Dame Vera has always been remarkably unsentimental. She’ll face whatever comes next like she faced the Blitz and Burma, by just getting on with it.
“When they write about the war, will they include me in it?” The question comes out of the blue and is rather staggering, until a smile suggests that she knows the answer. “I am glad that people will remember. I’m proud to think that they will link me in some way with the epic things of the war.”
Lives and memories fade, but the songs remain. She is captured in time now, as the voice of a generation almost lost. Whatever happens, she will always be a young woman with a bright smile and a strong, clear voice, giving people hope. “Well, that is lovely. I didn’t set out to be anything like that,” she says. “People used me, in a way, to achieve something, and I was glad of it. I was just doing my job.”
Thank you to Caroline Temple Crick for making this possible. I will never forget the patience, generosity and care you showed that day.
This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 2014
Photographs courtesy of Decca Records.