With the daily news from the UK being about the antics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the stalemate in Parliament over Brexit, my thoughts are of more inspiring times. They travel back to World War II, the stalwart Brits who saved civilization, and the singer who inspired them. Her name is Vera Lynn, shown here. At age 102 she was still alive in England in October 2019.
The fortitude of the British people during World War II continues to be inspiring, as German bombing raids over their cities caused major devastation. The bombs caused enormous destruction and heavy civilian casualties—some 43,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were wounded. It did not dampen people’s resolve. An American witness wrote: "By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won't quit ... the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning". People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was "very blitzy”
Buoying morale was a 23-year-old native of East Ham, England, who had begun singing at the age of seven. In 1932 she had recorded a song written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles called “We’ll Meet Again.” The song seemed spontaneously to fit the wartime atmosphere and became an emblematic hit not only in Britain but worldwide. Among its lyrics:
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do,
'Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
So will you please say hello’
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won't be long’
They'll be happy to know,
That as you saw me go,
I was singing this song.
The words hit a number of responsive chords with those men called into the military service to defeat the “dark clouds” of Fascism. Perhaps saying goodbye to a girl friend or other loved one with the promise, “I won’t be long.” Lynn sang it over and over again, always with enthusiasm and feeling. She is shown here, singing to workers in a munitions factory in 1941. That same year, the darkest days of World War II, Lynn began her own radio program, performing songs most requested by the soldiers and sending messages to British troops serving abroad. She also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas.
Lynn’s other great wartime hit was “The White Cliffs of Dover,” by Nat Burton and Walter Kent. The lyrics were aimed straight at the war and the peace that was expected to follow the Allied victory. Among them:
There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.
In fact, most of Lynn’s songs had a wartime theme, emphasizing the faithfulness of a loved one at home, the joys of a reunion, dreams of a peaceful tomorrow. While some in Parliament sniffed that her offerings were sentimental “slush,” those doing the fighting did not agree. When British servicemen were asked to name their favorite musical performer, Vera Lynn was the popular choice and became known as “The Forces Sweetheart.” One favorite with the troops was the comic song, “The General’s Fast Asleep.”
She also joined with other British artists, touring Egypt, India and Burma, entertaining the troops and visiting those in hospitals, carrying messages back to family members. She said talking to the troops and giving them the chance to ask her questions and simply being there for them was just as important as the actual singing, if not more so.
Lynn had just turned 27 and was a major celebrity in 1944 when she traveled 5,000 miles to Burma in treacherous wartime conditions. The press termed it, “a death defying tour” since Japanese patrols were never far away. The intense Burmese heat was punishing and Vera also had to cope with insects, humidity, monsoons, lack of facilities and sheer exhaustion.
She was sick some of the time but kept on. One observer remembered of one Lynn performance: “She sang until her make-up was running in dark furrows down her cheeks, until her dress was wet with sweat, until her voice had become a croak.” Lynn also insisted on visiting every field hospital, said to have "sat next to every bed" and chatted with the sick and wounded.
After the war for several decades Vera Lynn continued to be a popular singer with a worldwide following. Because of her charitable work with veterans, the families of those killed in battle and other causes she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. In 2000 she was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th Century.
Given the chaos in the UK today around Brexit, some of Dame Vera Margaret Lynn’s stalwart grace might well be a model for the British people — indeed for all of us — in the increasingly problematic 21st Century.