Greatest love of all: How troops kept their sweetheart Vera Lynn safe

Then and now: Dame Vera Lynn at 100
Then and now: Dame Vera Lynn at 100
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IN AN age before television, when the only pictures were the pin-ups tucked into their vest pockets, Vera Lynn was the name on every soldier’s lips.

She had neither the legs of Betty Grable nor the eyes of Bette Davis, but it wasn’t film star looks they were after. She was the girl next door, the one whose unbearably poignant songs reminded them of being back home. That’s why, when a newspaper ran a poll, she was the one they crowned the forces’ sweetheart.

Yet, in a moving interview to be broadcast this weekend, on the eve of her 100th birthday, she reveals that she needed them as badly as they wanted her.

At a defining moment in the nation’s history, Dame Vera’s radio letters to the boys on the front line embodied the very values they were fighting for.

“You’ll hear from me again next week,” she intoned every Sunday night, from November 1941. “Goodnight, boys. Sincerely yours, Vera Lynn.”

In a world in which nothing was certain, they echoed her words, longing them to come true. “We’ll meet again”, they wrote to their loved ones, but they did not know if they ever would.

Vera Lynn painting at her home in Finchley, London, in 1956

Vera Lynn painting at her home in Finchley, London, in 1956

Dame Vera had first travelled to entertain her “boys” in France, at the outset of the hostilities, and she continued to do so after VE Day, visiting the “forgotten Fourteenth Army”, still fighting in Burma.

But it was an earlier posting to south east Asia that had brought her closest to danger, she reveals in Saturday’s BBC2 interview.

It was on a 1944 outing with ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, that she had woken up to find four Japanese fighters prowling outside her hut, and it was the boys who had kept her safe.

“I always knew I was being very well looked after,” she said. “The boys never left my side.”

Dame Vera Lynn

Dame Vera Lynn

She also recalls the night British soldiers had to hold her piano together when it fell apart in mid-performance, after a bumpy jeep ride through the jungle.

But her biggest problem in Burma, she says, was the heat. “Trying to put make-up on was my first mistake, and I shouldn’t have got a perm.”

The programme includes interviews with war veterans who met her in the field.

One recalls a dangerous two-hour trip through the Burmese jungle to find her, while another describes hearing her sing as “the best bottle of medicine”.

Dame Vera’s unique connection with the troops was forged through her choice of music.

She introduced her programmes on the BBC forces’ service, broadcasting to “the boys in khaki and two shades of blue”, with her signature tune, Wishing (Will Make It So), and sprinkled their personal messages to their families back home with indelible favourites like (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover, an American tune in which the title is thought to refer not to wild bluebirds, which are not indigenous to Britain, but to the blue uniformed RAF pilots.

But the material did not come easily to her, she reveals this weekend.

Having never had professional musical training, she had to spend “hours leafing through sheet music” in London’s Denmark Street to find the songs she wanted to perform.

“I always looked at the lyrics first because I thought they were more important, and if I liked them then I would look at the tune,” she says.

Two generations on, her voice still evokes images of wartime spirit in a Britain that no longer exists.

To celebrate her 100th birthday, she will release a new album today, three days before she reaches the milestone.

The disc features newly re-orchestrated versions of her most beloved tunes alongside her original vocals.

It is thought the collection will make Dame Vera the first singer to have released a new album as a centenarian.