In her last article, written for the Oldie in May, the late Dame Vera Lynn, 103, wrote about coronavirus, the Queen and the 75th anniversary of VE Day
By Vera Lynn
I’ll never forget the 50th anniversary VE Day celebration at Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace in May 1995 – the last time I sang in public, aged just 78. I was a mere septuagenarian back then – still in my prime!
It gave me so much pleasure that the Queen Mother who, like me, had lived through World War II and the dark days of the Blitz, could be present at one of the highlights of my career.
Fifty years earlier, we had both been in London on VE Day, 8 May 1945 – although she had been with her family and I with mine – when thousands of people, civilians and servicemen, mingled happily on the streets of London. Sadly, it’s impossible to imagine such a ‘party’ happening in today’s coronavirus-gripped world.
Despite the passing of the years, my memories of Victory in Europe Day, 75 years ago, are still vivid. None of us who were there on that momentous day could ever forget the sense of national rejoicing. It was a day when we could finally laugh, let our hair down and be ourselves again in the knowledge that the Nazi threat to our homeland had forever been extinguished.
I only have to close my eyes for it all to come flooding back…
I can picture the houses in the bomb-damaged streets around my parents’ home in East Ham, London – where I saw in VE Day with my family – with the Union Jacks draped from their windows on that cloudy VE Day morning. If I recall correctly, a few drops of rain even fell.
But, in the afternoon, the sun shone on the crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square and along the Mall, and other cities across the land. Everyone in my neighbourhood, as elsewhere, had a smile on their face; they were just happy to be alive after the long years of conflict which had seen the British people endure so much. Some people were wearing red, white and blue rosettes, others silly hats and of course the crowds were thick with our brave soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who had made victory possible.
Yes, all of us – mothers, fathers, wives and children – knew someone who had been killed or injured in battle or in one of the terrible bombing raids. But we knew that, on this oh-so special day, those we had lost would have wanted us to celebrate the long-awaited moment of victory when life could finally start to return to normal. We knew too that they were celebrating with us in spirit…
At 3pm on VE Day, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation, and my family and I gathered around the Bakelite wireless set in my parents’ sitting room. Once again, we listened to that wonderfully stirring voice which had helped sustain us as a nation through the Battle of Britain and beyond, when none of us could glimpse any light at the end of the tunnel. If only Winston could be with us today to help us see off today’s terrible coronavirus threat!
The VE Day celebrations continued the rest of that long May 1945 day – and King George and Queen Elizabeth famously allowed Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to mingle unseen with the crowds in the streets around Buckingham Palace. After the sun went down, fireworks were let off in celebration, searchlights danced a merry jig in the night sky and children in the East End celebrated victory round bonfires made with timber from bomb-blasted buildings.
It was a special day for British children everywhere, with thousands of boys and girls tucking into sandwiches, trifle and jelly, washed down with glasses of pop, at street parties throughout the land. And, believe me, none of those youngsters would ever forget that day, which marked the coming of peace.
I had a comparatively quiet VE Day. I’d had a busy war and no great desire to join the revellers in the fountains at Trafalgar Square. I was happy just being with my family in my parents’ back garden after spending so much time apart from them during the war years.
I’d been ‘singing for my supper’, so to speak, ever since I was a girl and had first gone on stage. By the late 1930s, I was singing on records cut by Joe Loss’s band … but then, in September 1939, the month the war began, I recorded We’ll Meet Again, which topped the hit parade. My life would never be quite the same again.
As soon I heard the song, I sensed there was something special about it. It was perfect for the times – and it’s still my favourite of all the songs I’ve sung. Everybody hoped they would see their sweetheart again when the war was over and the boys were back home. And, while it might sound tame to some today, I think has a timeless quality.
I was so touched that the Queen echoed the words of my wartime hit in her address to the nation, when she declared, 'We will meet again.'
I carried on working through the Blitz, presenting the popular wartime BBC radio show Sincerely Yours, reading out messages to troops overseas and singing their most-requested songs. I would often drive to work through the darkened streets of London during the blackout in my little green, soft-top Austin 10, with dimmed headlights and my tin helmet at my side. I’ll never forget the ‘pop-pop’ of the anti-aircraft guns either.
But I was lucky in a way. Being an entertainer, I was allowed extra petrol coupons so I could get around. I suppose I was a ‘key worker’ of the day, just like all those brave doctors, nurses and other vital support staff helping Britain get through today’s coronavirus pandemic which has already claimed so many lives. On one occasion, I had to take cover in a public air raid shelter. It was so claustrophobic. After a while I thought, ‘Anything’s better than this,’ and walked out. I knew I was taking my chances but I couldn’t stand it any longer. Food was in short supply from 1939 to 1945, too: a tiny piece of butter had to last a week!
Later in the war, I travelled to the Far East to entertain the troops of the 14th Army in the mosquito-infested jungles of Burma – then a British colony – which the Japanese had invaded in December 1941. It was rare for an entertainer, and a woman at that, to go to a war zone to perform for the troops, but I felt the call of duty - just like those entertainers who are continuing to do their bit for Britain today. I performed concerts on makeshift stages in forward camps a stone’s throw from the fighting. The boys – our British troops – would come out of the jungle and then quietly slip back in afterwards. Even after all these years, I think about the suffering they endured, and the soldiers who never made it back to see their beloved Blighty: they touched my heart.
The country deserved its big VE Day party in 1945 after we had all pulled together to see off a ruthless, deadly enemy. And I sense that we are again pulling together as a nation now, and drawing on that wartime spirit of solidarity, in the face of a very different but deadly modern enemy, coronavirus: the biggest threat to our way of life in decades. When we’ve finally emerged triumphant from the current crisis – as we surely will, although it might be hard to glimpse much light at the end of the tunnel right now – perhaps we can throw a similar victory party?
This piece first appeared in the Oldie magazine