There'll be bluebirds over Hyde Park

This weekend, Dame Vera Lynn will be singing for 'her boys' at the VE Day celebrations. After all, lifting people's spirits has been her life's work, as she told Glenda Cooper
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The Independent Online
Harry Secombe once said: "Churchill didn't beat the Nazis. Vera sang them to death." It is over 50 years since Dame Vera Lynn was first known as the Forces' Sweetheart, but she has never lost the title. This weekend, as she sings in Hyde Park, her voice remains Britain's symbol of the war years.

Meeting Dame Vera is about as difficult as meeting the Queen, and an infinitely more intimidating experience. Fiercely protected by her husband of 54 years, Harry Lewis, it requires endless phone calls, negotiations and three cancellations (once because Dame Vera had a sore throat). By the time we meet at the Imperial War Museum, it is difficult to resist the temptation to curtsey.

She is supremely regal, the Queen Mother of popular music. Less glamorous than other wartime pin-ups, she embodied a wholesome Britishness combined with a shrewd knack for choosing popular songs. She is a quintessentially English grande dame, whose imperious charm makes you realise why "her boys" still worship the ground she walks on, and why she commands considerable political clout.

No politician would dare to offend Dame Vera. When veterans were outraged at the Government's ham-fisted plans for a D-Day jamboree in Hyde Park last year, she took up their cause and the Government beat a swift retreat. The Duke of Edinburgh, though, dared to defy her when he attended Emperor Hirohito's funeral in the face of her protests that it would "hurt the Burma boys so much".

Dame Vera Lynn, DBE, OBE, 1994 European Woman of Achievement, Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau, began life in 1917 as Vera Margaret Welch, the daughter of an East End plumber. At seven she started singing in working men's clubs, and progressed to broadcasting with big bands in the Thirties.

But it was the Second World War that made her. In 1939 she was voted the most popular singer in a Daily Express competition which earned her the title Forces' Sweetheart. In 1941 she began to front a radio programme, Sincerely Yours. Its huge success caused consternation at the litist BBC, where an internal minute noted: "Sincerely Yours deplored but popularity noted." She sold more records than Bing Crosby, and by 1944 her earnings were estimated at £50,000 a year.

Dame Vera cannot remember VE Day itself: "The week before I had been invited to a party at Windsor Castle. Tommy Trinder was there and Princess Margaret and Elizabeth and the King and Queen. There was this big reception and I thought: 'What on earth is this all about?' Then I was told it was a pre-victory celebration. That for me made it seem that it was coming to an end. So VE Day was no surprise for me really."

Presenting Sincerely Yours meant spending much of the war in London, exposed to the Blitz: "My most terrifying moment was when I was driving in fog in London all on my own. I was going over the iron bridge at Poplar when suddenly a raid started. I was scared stiff bombs would start falling on the bridge. Fog or no fog I couldn't see a thing. I just said to myself: 'Keep on going, girl, you've got to.' And I kept on driving.

"One of my greatest joys was driving through the country after VE Day and taking the masks off my headlamps and seeing the beams of light shine out and on to the road for the first time in five years."

She is most proud of her months in Burma in 1944. "Although I was very busy in England I wanted to have contact with the fighting services ... So I asked where there was the least entertainment, where not many people went, and they said that no one wanted to go to Burma so I said: 'Right, that's where I'll go.' "

The trip was dogged by difficulties: "First, I lost my voice because of the flying and difference in climate - can you imagine that? I arrived in Cairo and had to be grounded for a couple of days before I started."

Working her way through Egypt and India, Dame Vera eventually arrived in Burma. "It was hot, wet and a totally unBritish climate. Living conditions were rough, and you could only go so far in relative comfort." It was the beginning of a long association with the Forgotten Army. In 47 years she has missed only one of the Burma Star Association's reunions.

Dame Vera "retired" after the war. Her only child, Virginia, was born and Dame Vera preferred to be at home. But in 1951 she became the first British singer to top the US charts, singing a German song, "Auf Wiederseh'n". She dabbled with newer music - and had a hit in Canada with Abba's "Thank You For The Music", but her broadcasts mostly kept her firmly in her inescapable Forces' Sweetheart role.

Her latest venture is a video, Our War To Remember, which she describes as an opportunity to commemorate the bravery of the unsung heroines of the Home Front. "I was proud of the way the British people coped on the home front - the courage, the Britishness of those people there. Their houses were bombed all around them and yet that little old lady in Aldgate would still scrub her front doorstep clean.

"I don't think we ever despaired. We just said it'll be over next year and each year we said: 'It can't last much longer.' This kept us going. I don't think we ever lost hope."

She wants the younger generation to understand the importance of the war. "I want them to realise what it was all about, why people fought and died so that they could be alive in England, not a German-occupied country. If they can see the struggles these people made, young people would appreciate the older generation a little more."

She feels entertainers had an important job lifting the people's spirits. "There was no television and people were confined to their houses a lot of the time so the BBC was very important and the radio kept people going.

"But you need a little something uplifting - and people would go to the Palladium or the Finsbury Park Empire even if a raid was on. People just learnt to take that chance.

"Having lived through the war years I associated with all people ... Whatever happened, they could cope with it. The British are at their best when they have their backs against the wall."