Dame Vera: we'll meet again and again and again and ..

Click to follow
DAME VERA LYNN, 77, was pottering in her Sussex garden and 'unable' to come to the the phone. It had been an eventful week for the nation's wartime Forces Sweetheart. She had forced the Government to retreat and brought new levels of ignominy to the Prime Minister, who had been happily (and, in retrospect, unwisely) singing along with her only a few days before. Harry Lewis, her husband of 53 years, was fielding calls.

Dame Vera did not seek the limelight, he explained, but no one messed with 'her boys' and 'she won't go where they won't go'.

Dame Vera's 'boys' are, of course, the men, all now over 65, who fought in the Second World War. When some of them criticised the Government's planned D-Day extravaganza in Hyde Park as a tasteless way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of a military offensive in which 37,000 Allied troops died, Dame Vera threatened to pull out.

The result was government panic - and a question: where has this formidable national heroine been in recent years?

According to Mr Lewis, her agent as well as husband, she has never been away. The war years and the fifties were her heyday, but she has been working steadily, at home and abroad, ever since. She made annual concert tours of Canada and Australia until 1992, when 'it became too much'.

The daughter of a plumber in the East End of London, born in 1917 and christened Vera Margaret Welch, Dame Vera started singing in working-men's clubs when she was seven, and was broadcasting with leading big bands in the thirties. The Second World War made her famous. In 1941 she began to front a radio programme, Sincerely Yours, and her voice and songs soothed an audience which was apprehensive and separated - boyfriends from girlfriends, husbands from wives, mothers from sons, sisters from brothers.

'We'll meet again' - composed in 1939 by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, who also wrote 'There'll Always Be an England' - became the show's most popular song.

Dame Vera considered the songs optimistic but the BBC hierarchy and some MPs were convinced her sentimentality threatened servicemen's morale. What the establishment could not argue with was her popularity. The programme earned her the 'Forces Sweetheart' title. It also made her a lot of money. In 1942 she sold more records than Bing Crosby and by 1944 her earnings were estimated at pounds 50,000.

That year she went to Burma for three months to sing for the troops engaged in brutal jungle combat with the Japanese. She has said that she is still haunted by the smell of gangrene in the field hospitals. It was the beginning of a continuing association with the 'Forgotten Army'.

Dame Vera 'retired' after the war and the birth of her only child, a daughter. She preferred to be at home, she insisted; the stage made her tense. She worked only when she needed the money. But she was also cold-shouldered by the BBC, which judged her songs too sentimental.

In 1951, however, she made a successful comeback with a German song, 'Auf Wiederseh'n', and became the first British singer to top the US charts, which she headed for 13 weeks. By 1957 she was back at the BBC on a pounds 30,000 contact. During the sixties she alternated between the BBC and ITV, slowly slipping out of the mainstream and into nostalgia. The war had become a professional straitjacket. A 1976 press 'discography' lists Hits of the Blitz and More Hits of the Blitz among her greatest albums. There were attempts at newer material - including a hit in Canada with Abba's 'Thank You for the Music' - but they were shortlived.

Remarkably, her part in the war was not officially recognised until 1969, when she was awarded the OBE. As Harry Secombe put it: 'Churchill didn't beat the Nazis. Vera sang them to death.' She was created a Dame in 1975.

A journalist who has witnessed Dame Vera's voice move ex-servicemen to tears says: 'Her life has revolved around the songs she made famous. Her voice brings everything back. Everyone wants to tell her which godforsaken spot they were in when they heard her sing.

'She is incredibly patient. She listens like a therapist to men who came home from the horrors of war and never spoke about it again. She meant everything to an entire generation.'

It was for that generation that she spoke out last week; and not the first time. In 1989 she appealed to Prince Philip - nephew of Earl Mountbatten of Burma - not to attend the funeral of Emperor Hirohito because it would 'hurt the Burma boys so much.'

Today she is deeply involved in many charities. She sings rarely, but when she does, she sings for the boys. Last night she was guest of honour at the Burma Star Association's annual reunion at the Albert Hall. In 47 years she has missed only one.

Remember this, page 21

(Photograph omitted)