British Icon of the Week: Dame Vera Lynn, the Forces' Sweetheart Quoted by Queen Elizabeth II
Two weeks ago Queen Elizabeth II concluded her special coronavirus message by saying: "We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again." With perfectly pitched nostalgia, the monarch was quoting from "We'll Meet Again," a song embraced as an anthem of hope during World War Two after being recorded by Dame Vera Lynn, the U.K.'s own "Forces' Sweetheart."
In March, a new video for the enduringly popular song was uploaded to Lynn's YouTube channel to mark her 103rd birthday. In a message to fans, Lynn said stirringly: “In these uncertain times, I am taken back to my time during World War II, when we all pulled together and looked after each other. It is this spirit that we all need to find again to weather the storm of the coronavirus."
Born in east London on March 20, 1917, Vera Margaret Welch began performing publicly at the age of seven and adopted her maternal grandmother's surname, Lynn, as a stage name a few years later. She'd recorded several singles before "We'll Meet Again" in 1939, but that song and 1942's "The White Cliffs of Dover" became defining, morale-boosting anthems of the period. During the war, Lynn lived up to her "Forces' Sweetheart" status by hosting a radio program which sent messages to British troops serving overseas. She also bravely toured Egypt, India, and Burma to give outdoor concerts for servicemen.
Lynn continued her recording her career after the war, becoming the first British artist to top the US singles chart when her version of "Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart" reached number one in 1952. In addition to hosting her own British TV variety shows in the '60s and '70s, she became known for her charity work after founding a cerebral palsy charity in 1953 and a breast cancer nonprofit in 1976. A year, earlier Queen Elizabeth had made her a Dame for services to charity.
In 1995, at the age of 78, Lynn gave her final public performances when she sang outside Buckingham Palace and in Hyde Park at ceremonies to mark the golden jubilee of V.E. Day. A decade later, she gave a surprise speech at a ceremony in Trafalgar Square to mark the diamond jubilee of V.E. Day.
Though she recorded her final single in 1982, Lynn's chart career in the U.K. has never really ended. In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Charts when her compilation, We'll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn, reached number one. In 2017, a compilation album to mark her 100th birthday, Vera Lynn 100, peaked at number three and went gold.
Lynn now lives in the village of Ditchling, Sussex, in a house next-door to her daughter, Virginia. In 2016, Queen Elizabeth II rewarded her again by appointing her to the Order of the Companions of Honour, a super-prestigious title which can only be held by 65 people at any one time. Despite the incredibly high regard she's held in for her wartime efforts, Lynn said humbly in a 2014 interview: "People used me to achieve something. I was just doing my job."
Are you a fan of "We'll Meet Again" and Dame Vera Lynn?