Dame Vera Lynn is a superstar. She has been blessed with as much talent, success and beauty as any of the most respected celebrities in the world today, but she sees herself as ‘an ordinary girl’, and always has.
Now 97 years old and living in Ditchling in a cosy family home with her daughter Virginia, she could not be more friendly, comforting and welcoming.
Last Thursday, as Vera looked back through photos taken in Burma during the Second World War where she risked her life to entertain and boost the morale of soldiers, she didn’t focus on the death, devastation or desperate living conditions she was exposed to.
“It was wonderful, I felt like I was doing a little bit for the war effort,” she said.
The camps she lived in had barely any food, no electricity, and sometimes no beds.
“It was just primitive,” she explained.
“There was nothing glamorous about it. I took a party dress, but I was unable to wear it because of the mosquitos.
“I had to perform in khaki trousers and shirts, if I had my sleeves up the boys would walk past and say ‘roll your sleeves down Vera!’”
Vera ate mostly rice, and ‘a little bit of goat’.
“Someone would go and kill a goat, there wasn’t much at all,” she added.
“I loved the little grass shacks, we slept on anything we could take.
“I remember sleeping on a hammock in the monsoon, everything was flooded, you couldn’t sleep on a bed as there were no foundations to the huts.”
The Dame was known as ‘the girl next door’ by the soldiers, who she befriended in an attempt to raise morale and keep them connected with their country.
“They all knew who I was, but they never thought of me as being a glamorous film star, I was just an ordinary girl, a down to earth contact,” Vera explained.
Vera fondly scanned a photo of her standing in Burma, surrounded by soldiers, holding a bunch of wild flowers which they had gathered for her from the jungle.
“But I wasn’t allowed to take a camera in case I got captured,” she added.
“The soldiers were isolated, there wasn’t any civilisation, just servicemen and male doctors.
“It’s important that contact was kept with families.
“I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sing to them and meet them, I was so happy to be involved.
“It was a pleasure to be out there.
“It was good to know first hand what it was like.”
Dame Vera visited Burma, Egypt and India during WW2 to entertain soldiers and deliver messages from families.
She continued: “I chatted to them and told them what was going on at home, how we were coping with the raids, the rationing, the Blitz, just a little personal contact.”
Vera also sent messages to servicemen living abroad with her radio show Sincerely Yours during WW2, and it would have been natural to do her bit from a distance.
But she took it upon herself to see the war effort first hand, and there is no hint of regret or self pity when she describes the life she lived: “I used to go round the casualty and clearing stations to see the boys.
“I saw them when they were being treated and about to be sent out of the jungle to a proper hospital.
“People were being taken from the front, where they had been fighting, on stretchers.”
Vera was married to Harry Lewis a clarinetist and saxophonist, for 45 years until he died in 1999.
They moved to Sussex in the early 60s, and had one child, Virginia Lewis-Jones.
Vera’s music, such as ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and ‘There’ll always be an England’ have becoming iconic classics, epitomising patriotic spirit in the war.
“The music was very strong, it had a big impact,” Vera said.
It has been nearly 60 years since the end of WW2, but the music has not been forgotten.
In 2009, when she was 92, We’ll Meet Again – The Very Best of Vera Lynn was released and reached number one in the UK Album Chart, making her the oldest living artist to achieve a number one.
Vera continued: “I suppose really that music has carried the memories.
“It’s amazing what music can do for nostalgia and reminiscing.
“I’ve been handed down through the family!
“It starts from people’s grand parents.”
She set a new record when aged 97 in March.
She is the oldest living person to have a top 20 UK album after Vera Lynn: National Treasure - The Ultimate Collection reached number 13.
On the centenary of the First World War, Vera is keen to keep up what she has been doing for most of her life; helping others.
“It’s important we remember, people made so many sacrifices, it should not be forgotten,” she said.
Vera has committed to a long list of charity work, including help for ex-servicemen, who she has visited at reunions to reminisce about the war years.
She founded the Dame Vera Lynn Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy in 1953, which still operates today.
Vera continued: “They’re lovely little children, the parents need help as much as the children, in fact they need more help.
“We help to integrate them into normal family life, to mix with people other than their own family and not being restricted to their own home, stimulating people to be more active in life.”
In 2000 Vera was named the Briton who exemplified the spirit of the twentieth century, a much deserved title.
It is clear that Dame Vera Lynn is always on the lookout for others, whether it is to risk her life to encourage soldiers during years of turmoil, to establish and support charities or simply to make sure your cup of tea is filled to the brim.
And as she approaches her hundredth birthday, her smile still rolls back the clock 70 years.
To support Dame Vera’s charity visit www.dvltrust.org.uk