Dame Vera Lynn, whose song We’ll Meet Again became an anthem of hope and resilience during the second world war, has died aged 103.
Her family said they were “deeply saddened to announce the passing of one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers”, and that they were with her when she died at her East Sussex home.
Boris Johnson paid tribute, saying: “Dame Vera Lynn’s charm and magical voice entranced and uplifted our country in some of our darkest hours. Her voice will live on to lift the hearts of generations to come.” Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote: “Her songs still speak to the nation in 2020 just as they did in 1940.”
Born in East Ham, on the outskirts of London, in 1917, Lynn survived a near-fatal case of diphtheria as a two-year old, and began performing aged seven. From the age of 18 she began working with orchestras in the UK, and released her debut solo recording, Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire, in 1936, while she worked in an East End shipping company.
During the second world war, she performed to people sheltering from bombing raids in the stations of London’s underground, and her popularity among soldiers grew her fame. She earned the nickname “the forces’ sweetheart”, touring for troops in Egypt, India and Myanmar, then known as Burma, during the war. “Singing in the jungle was very hot and very sticky, which was a bit hard going,” she told the Guardian in 2017. “I had a little piano, which they trudged around on the back of a lorry, hoping it would survive the journeys.”
Captain Tom Moore, the veteran who recently raised £33m for NHS charities, tweeted: “She had a huge impact on me in Burma and remained important to me throughout my life.”
Lynn’s wartime popularity was boosted by her signature song, We’ll Meet Again, released in 1939 and written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles. Its wistful melody and determinedly optimistic lyrics – “I know we’ll meet again some sunny day” – proved powerfully uplifting for departing soldiers, and it has endured as the defining song of the British campaign. It re-entered the UK charts this year at No 55 amid the 75th anniversary celebrations of VE Day. It was also used – with heavy irony – by director Stanley Kubrick at the climax of his cold war satire Dr Strangelove.
The White Cliffs of Dover, in which Lynn hymns the British coastline as she hopes for peace, is another of her enduring patriotic songs – written by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, it was originally released in 1942. The far right British National Party (BNP) featured it and used its title for a compilation album of British songs in 2009 – Lynn objected, and took legal action over the release.
We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover were released too early to enjoy chart success, but Lynn did top the UK charts for two weeks in 1954 with My Son, My Son, a heartfelt ballad from a mother to her son. She is also the oldest person to have reached the top of the UK album charts, which she achieved with a best-of compilation in 2009, beating the previous record holder Bob Dylan. A compilation marking her 100th birthday reached No 3 in 2017 – Paul McCartney was among those marking her milestone, saying at the time: “She became a symbol of optimism and a better life to come. We all grew up with a great admiration and respect for her.”
A 1952 single, Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, topped the US charts, and she had two other Top 10 singles there.
Her last public performance came in 2005, at the 60th anniversary celebrations for VE Day in Trafalgar Square. She performed a snatch of We’ll Meet Again, and told the crowd: “These boys gave their lives and some came home badly injured and for some families life would never be the same. We should always remember, we should never forget and we should teach the children to remember.”
She was awarded an OBE in 1969, and made a dame in 1975, for her charity work. She has given her name to her own breast cancer and child cerebral palsy charities, and has also worked with charities for military servicepeople, including Forces Literary Organisation Worldwide (Flow).
The British army, navy and air force all paid tribute via the Twitter accounts, as did the Royal British Legion, who described her as “an unforgettable British icon [and] symbol of hope to the Armed Forces Community past and present.”
Lynn also wrote three autobiographies – the most recent, Some Sunny Day, was published in 2009 – and hosted a variety show on BBC television during the 1960s.