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  • Writer's pictureHattie Hearn

How Vera Lynn fought the 'Forgotten War'

As the "Forces' Sweetheart" turns 100, we delve into her own experiences of Britain's "forgotten war"

Vera Lynn with soldiers in Burma

Kohima, May 1944. The town, situated in the jungles of Northeast India, is at the centre of one of the greatest battles of the war. After heavy fighting throughout April, British and Indian forces – depleted, disease ridden and battle-weary – were finally forcing the Japanese into a retreat. For the British soldiers, many of whom had been away from their families since 1942, ‘Blighty’ must have felt like a million miles away.

It was this war-torn world that met 27 year-old Vera Lynn as she stepped off the transportation plane. Dressed in borrowed khaki trousers and a billowing service shirt, she must have cut a starkly different figure to the one that graced the covers of magazines back home. But that didn’t matter here. Neither did it matter that her perm imploded into a frizzy nest or that her makeup streamed down her face in the sticky heat. It was her voice rather than her appearance that had carried Vera to India and onwards to Burma. It was the promise of home - a slice of England – iced with images of country lanes and loved ones waiting by the fireside that brought the troops out of their jungle camps to congregate in their thousands to hear her.

During her five month long tour, Vera entertained audiences ranging from two to 6000 servicemen. Never straying far from the frontline, the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ visited military hospitals, where she sat at the bedside of injured servicemen and sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’ with the same decorum as if she were delivering it in the Albert Hall. It was by far her most requested song. The lyrics ‘But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day’ are laced with optimism, a glimpse into a life without war. When performing to larger audiences, Vera took to the stage with a battered piano (the only accompaniment), which was transported along the bumpy roads to each venue – usually a stage hastily erected in a paddy field.

What makes Vera’s tour even more remarkable is that she was in no way obliged to travel to India and Burma. So why did she do it? Because no one else had. Often labelled ‘the Forgotten War’, Vera Lynn was the only Ensa (the Entertainments National Service Association) performer to make the 11,000 mile journey to the remote and dangerous Far East theatre. And ‘her boys’ loved her for it.

Watching the BBC’s 100th birthday tribute to Dame Vera, I was moved by the affection still shown to her by the Burma veterans who had watched Vera’s performances over seventy years ago. It was the type of respect and attachment that helped her to retain her title as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ long after the war had ended. In 2005 Dame Vera passed the baton on to Welsh Soprano, Katherine Jenkins.

In 1985, Vera Lynn was awarded the Burma Star in recognition of her service in the Far East theatre.

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