March 20, 1917-(unknown)
"The Forces Sweetheart"– singer during WWIIby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Keeping morale high in wartime has always been seen as crucial for victory. There have been many entertainers, like Bob Hope, who devoted their lives to do just that. One such person was the famous and lovely “Forces Sweetheart”, Vera Lynn.
Vera Margaret Welch, born March 20, 1917, was one of the most famous vocalists during World War II. Vera Welch took her grandmother’s maiden name for her stage name and began her singing and dancing career at age seven, performing in nightclubs. At age eighteen, she made her first radio broadcast with the Joe Loss orchestra. She performed for several years for the Joe Loss and Charlie Kunz dance bands before being picked up by the aristocrat of British dance bands, Bert Ambrose. In 1939, she married Ambrose’s clarinet and tenor sax player, Harry Lewis.
In 1940, a year after WWII began, Vera ventured out on her own and started a half hour programme on Sunday evenings named, “Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn.” The show not only featured her songs, but also gave messages from loved ones. She was viewed as a vital link between the men fighting abroad and their wives, girl friends etc. at home. While some authorities disapproved of her show as being too disheartening for the forces, it nevertheless became an instant success, not only in Britain but on every worldwide battleground the BBC reached via shortwave radio. In 1942, Vera Lynn recorded “We’ll Meet Again”, which became one of the most famous songs of WWII. In 1944, she traveled to Burma, India and Egypt with the Entertainments National Service Association, or E.N.S.A., to perform for troop’s stationed there.
Vera Lynn toured Burma at a very crucial time in the war. In 1942, “The Japanese moved their attentions on Burma through which, via the Burma road, lay China’s only access to her allies. As holding on to china was thought to be crucial to wining the war, the reconquest of Burma was clearly necessary. As a result of disagreements, there was a 3 year stalemate in the CBI. The “Marauders” and the “Chindits” were finally called in 1944 to recover Burma. They allies eventually took control of the country at Myitkyina on August 4, 1944.”1 Lynn sang for the 7th battalion Worcestershire regiment and the 4th brigade in Burma. She continued touring with the E.N.S.A to Egypt and India in 1944.
Lynn's popularity easily survived the wartime years. After peace came,
she and Lewis had a daughter, Virginia. Her most successful single recording
came, not during the war, but in 1951 with "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart”
which topped the US charts for 9 weeks.
She retired in 1995 after singing outside Buckingham palace at the 50th Veterans Day celebrations. She often appears at war shows and made a surprise appearance at the 60th Veterans Day show in London (2006) Lynn's numerous honors in later life included elevation to the Order of the British Empire in 1959 and to the rank of Dame of the British Empire in 1975. She also received the Spirit of the 20th Century Award in 2000.
Vera Lynn was a very well known E.N.S.A. performer. The ENSA was an organization set up in 1939 by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson to provide entertainment for British armed forces personnel during World War II. ENSA operated as part of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. They performed under dangerous conditions, many risking their lives to entertain the troops. Entertainers would visit servicemen at the front lines and perform in the open air, or in tents, sometimes even whilst the bombs dropped around them.
The ENSA was similar to the American United Service Organizations (USO). ENSA musicians, actors, comedians, and singers performed in hotels, factories, theaters, and at war-effort work sites. ENSA performers also toured war fronts around the world. The organization presented more than 2.5 million shows to some 300 million British and Allied troops and civilian war workers. Although some British citizens liked to poke fun at the performances, ENSA entertainments were popular with their audiences. They broadcast on BBC radio on 'The Forces Programme' and 'The Home Service'. Performances took place in factories and halls all over Britain and abroad.
“Women were an important part of ENSA. For servicemen, far from home, the songs they sang reminded them of home and the loved ones they had left behind. Some songs were of hope for the future, of homecomings and reunions and others were rousing, morale boosting anti-Hitler songs. Everyone was encouraged to join in and sing along and it is very difficult to feel low whilst singing a rousing chorus.”2
Vera Lynn was an icon of hope. “Her songs may have been sad in tone, reflecting as they did the pain of loves parting and the self sacrifice imposed by war, but they also contained an element of hope for a better future.”3 Her songs gave the soldiers that boost of morale that was essential to win the war. “Other British wartime singers may have had better voices and been more glamorous, but Vera Lynn had a special appeal: her husband, Harry Lewis, was in the royal air force and she was soon seen as the epitome of the brave wartime wife keeping up her spirits despite enforced separation.4 Through her songs came the encouragement that was so important during the hard times of WWII.
1 “Life goes to War”, Time Life Films Inc, New York, 1977
2 Stanway Primary School in Essex. Women at War. http.www.caber.open.uk/schools/stanway/index.html
3 Lewis, Brenda Ralph. Women at War: The women of World War 2- At home., Readers Digest , Amber Books, London 2002. pg 223
4 Lewis, Brenda Ralph. Women at War: The women of World War 2- At home., Readers Digest , Amber Books, London 2002. pg 223
Also, just for fun, here’s a link of Vera Lynn performing “I’m yours sincerely” and “We’ll Meet Again” for British troops.