For a beleaguered British population, 1940 ushered in the darkest days of World War II. France had quickly surrendered to the relentless German blitzkrieg and the defeated and shattered British army was hastily evacuated across the Channel. London shuddered under relentless day and night bombing by the Luftwaffe’s Junkers and Heinkel’s. Britain and her Commonwealth allies stood alone against the Nazi war machine. Hitler threatened invasion.
In retrospect, historians have noted that two voices rallied the British people and sustained their endurance until the Soviets and the Americans later joined the conflict and slowly reversed the course of the war.
Churchill’s voice thundered in powerful rhetoric; Vera Lynn’s voice soared and reassured in song.
Vera Margaret Welch was born on March 20, 1917, in East Ham near London. Her father was a plumber; her very protective mother was a dressmaker. The precocious little girl began her musical career at age 7, adopting “Vera Lynn” as a stage name for her first public performance. In 1935, the young woman made her initial radio broadcast while supporting herself by working as an administrative assistant for a shipping company. Then in September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and Britain was drawn into the War. (Biographical information from Wikipedia)
Vera Lynn’s first patriotic contribution to sustaining English morale was made by singing to Londoners huddled for long hours in makeshift, overcrowded, underground shelters within the city’s subway system. Shortly after, she began to offer hope and reassurance through a series of hit songs. To fully appreciate the emotional and therapeutic impact of these tunes, we need to transport ourselves through imagination, back to a discouraged and increasingly desperate war-time Britain. Let’s listen to three of her most memorable songs.
WE’LL MEET AGAIN: British Soldiers soon began to embark for foreign lands: to Norway, France and then Canadians to England and Hong Kong. Loved ones—mom and dad, little sons and daughters, siblings, lovers—were all left behind, proud of their soldier boys and girls, but deeply worried over their safety. When would they be reunited? Vera Lynn gave voice to those hopes and fears:
We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.
YOURS: One of the hardest separations would be felt in those sad farewell, lingering embraces at train stations between a young man and his wife or girlfriend. Hollywood and British films would perfectly and poignantly capture those dramatic scenes. The troop train is loading, filled with soldiers heading for English ports to board ships sailing toward the battlefields of Europe. The conductor blows his piercing final whistle, a last call to board. The tearful couple lingers a final moment, each promising to remain faithful in their love despite distance:
In the gray of December,
Here or on some far distant shore,
I never loved anyone the way I loved you,
How could I, when I was born to be just yours.
THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER: An estimated 200,000 British children were evacuated from London and other cities during the War. This movement began even before outbreak of hostilities as officials prepared for the inevitable pending conflict. The process intensified once London and other cities were bombed. While most were transported to rural England, over 1,300 bewildered and frightened boys and girls were sent to Canada. One group of 77 youngsters drowned en route, when their vessel, The City of Benares, was torpedoed and sunk in September, 1940. I retain a vague memory of one such evacuee in my kindergarten class, a very thin, shy child. Curious, we noticed that our new arrival spoke in what was to us a strange dialect. Whether in my imagination or not, I can still see my tiny classmate instantly cowering under her desk following any sudden loud noise. Lynn understood the anguish of these separated parents and children:
They’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free,
The valley will bloom again,
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
Dame Vera Lynn continued her musical career and charity work after the war ended. Her final public appearance was outside Buckingham Palace in June, 1995, as part of the Golden Jubilee VE Day celebrations. She married a fellow musician, Harry Lewis, in 1941; the couple had one child, Virginia born in 1946.
One might speculate without easy resolution as to whether any current singer or genre of contemporary music has a similar ability to articulate and uplift the mood of our own troubled world. This week, we mourn the loss of a gifted musician who once lifted the hearts and spirits of the British People at a time of their desperate need.
May she be joyfully welcomed into angelic choirs!