First published in The Royal British Legion magazine on 08 September 2020.
The film footage taken on 14 May 1944 is remarkable. It shows Dame Vera Lynn sitting on the driver’s footstep of an Army truck with troops of the Fourteenth Army in what was then India, close to the Burmese border.
Smiling and looking relaxed, wearing a WAAF cap and an officer’s tunic and shorts, she is seen chatting to British and Burmese Karen soldiers. In another clip from the same day, she signs autographs for Servicemen on pieces of paper and the rims of their slouch hats, worn for protection from the hot sun.
With her passing, we have lost a much-loved singer, songwriter and entertainer, who was a colossal inspiration during the Second World War.
Her trip to Burma, India and Egypt at the height of the war typified her courageous approach to her wartime role, and it says a great deal about why she was so admired.
Dame Vera had asked where she would be most appreciated and where others from the Entertainments National Service Association had not dared venture. The answer was Japanese-occupied Burma and also India – the Fourteenth Army had become known as the ‘Forgotten Army’. Without hesitating, Dame Vera said that she was happy to go.
She later said: “I was just 27 years old when I went to Burma. It was an experience that changed my life for ever. Up until that time I had not really travelled anywhere at all, apart from one touring visit to Holland… and I had certainly never been in an aeroplane. But I wanted to make a difference, to do my bit.”
In March 1944, Dame Vera went to Shamshernagar airfield in Bengal to entertain British troops before the Battle of Kohima. Her host and lifelong friend, Captain Bernard Holden, paid tribute to “her courage and her contribution to morale”.
She went on to give a series of outdoor concerts to troops in India, Burma and Egypt. In her 2017 book, Keep Smiling Through: My Wartime Story, she recalled how, on one occasion, thousands of troops somehow emerged from the jungle to hear her sing in a clearing.
Dame Vera was a true national treasure, a working-class girl from the East End who became the voice of a nation. We remember her with pride and affection, for she is much missed.
Read this article in the Royal British Legion’s online magazine.