Dame Vera Lynn’s closest friends and well-wishers share heartfelt memories of superstar
On what was a glorious, sunny day, I stood among hundreds, if not thousands of people who had turned out in Ditchling, East Sussex, to pay their respects to Dame Vera Lynn.
As the cortege, bearing Dame Vera, arrived and paused in the centre of the village, crowds erupted into applause to show their utmost love and respect for the superstar.
I watched as her closest friends fought back tears and joined others in clapping for the Forces’ Sweetheart who touched the lives of so many.
And then this magical moment happened - two spitfires took to the sky and flew over the centre of the village.
Crowds gazed with joy as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight went over the village three times. And it was this moment, I, too, felt emotional, but also privileged to be part of such a poignant and memorable day.
Dame Vera Lynn was adored by so many. She will be remembered for lifting the spirits of troops during the Second World War with her songs, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘White Cliffs of Dover’.
But, here in Ditchling she will be remembered as a kind and friendly neighbour who would always take the time to speak to anyone and would be a regular visitor to events in the village.
I was fortunate to speak to some of her closest friends who shared some wonderful and heartfelt memories with me.
Susan Fleet, personal assistant and close friend, said she felt ‘incredibly privileged and honoured’ to have had Dame Vera as a friend.
“She was just a lovely friend – you would forget sometimes that she was a global star because she never behaved like one, she was just a normal, humble, wonderful lady,” she said.
“You can tell the love and respect from everybody here in Ditchling for her. She was an intrinsic part of this village for 50 years and everybody here loves her, but not just them, the rest of the world.
“She was the most humble of people – she was very much a part of the life here and she attended all the village open days, the church services and she went to the schools – she was very much a part of what Ditchling stands for.”
Susan said the funeral procession was ‘incredibly emotional’, adding: “The flypast was very moving – it was palpable, the outpouring of love and respect for her at that particular time.”
She said Dame Vera’s legacy will be her exquisite voice, what she did during World War Two, her television shows – but, most of all, her visit to Burma in 1944, and her outstanding contribution to charity over decades.
Susan added: “She will never be forgotten and there will never be another Vera Lynn.”
Avril Gaynor was friends with Dame Vera for more than 60 years. At the age of ten, she met and became friends with Dame Vera’s daughter, Virginia Lewis-Jones, at Clayton Hill riding school.
“I was training to be a ballerina at the time and Virginia said her mum worked in showbiz and invited me round for tea,” said Avril, now 75.
“I then remember being at home with my family and Vera Lynn came on TV and I shouted ‘that’s Virginia’s mum’ and they couldn’t believe it.
“Vera used to go to horse shows at Hickstead and I would see her there.
“When my mother died in 1991, Vera was like a mum to me. I was also in a car accident in the 60s and had to have my face rebuilt - if it hadn’t been for Vera my life would have been totally different.”
Avril described Dame Vera as the kindest person she has ever met, adding: “She would make me feel important when I was with her. She always wanted to know about my family.”
She said Dame Vera had a wonderful life and got so much pleasure out of doing things for other people.
“She worked so hard for her children’s charity,” said Avril.
“When you have grown up with a superstar like Vera no one can blow you away. I respect her terribly - she was the greatest.”
Clare Hill-Hall met Dame Vera’s daughter, Virginia, while a member of the South Down pony club.
She commented: “I was invited to her house and from then I loved being with her family more than my own!
“Vera was so talented. She was an artist, seamstress, chef - she made everyone feel welcome.
“I just loved hearing her stories. One afternoon we got photos out of her trip to Borneo. She wanted to go somewhere no one else had been, she was among thousands of troops and just her as a woman - it was such a brave thing to do.
“She spent this valued time with the troops. It meant so much to them to see somebody from home.
“Vera means so much to me. This in Ditchling would mean a lot to her. I think Vera would have a little giggle to herself, she had a great sense of humour.”
Others who came to pay their respects to Dame Vera included Geraldine Diggins, 70, of Brighton.
“Vera Lynn meant a lot to me and my family,” she commented.
“We always had her CD on in the car when we were going on a long journey.
“She was so loyal to this country, there were never any scandals. I think she brought the country together at the times when it was needed most.”
Steve George, 59, a Second World War reenactor of Crawley, met Dame Vera a couple of times.
He said: “It was wonderful. We spoke about the war, about my dad, she was very friendly and down to earth. She didn’t see herself as a star – she was one of us.”
William and Linda Parker, both aged 66, travelled from Hayling Island, Portsmouth, to pay their respects.
“My dad was in World War Two and his greatest inspiration was Dame Vera’s music,” said William.
“When he came out of the war, every Sunday morning we would listen to Vera’s records.
“When my dad died he said he wanted me to represent him so that is why I am here today.
“My dad was a strong man but there were some soldiers that weren’t after what they saw in the war. Vera used to come along and boost them all up. Whenever they felt down in the dumps they would start singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’.”
William described Dame Vera as a ‘very special lady’, adding: “It is fantastic to be here. I am sure my dad is up there watching, he would have loved to have been here.”
Jonathan Hampton, who used to live in Ditchling, said: “I have total respect for her – she was an absolute legend.”
He added that what she did for troops during the Second World War ‘will not be repeated’.
Mark Haywood travelled all the way down from Yorkshire to pay his respects.
He told how he exchanged letters with Dame Vera when doing research on the war and his grandad, who was in the RAF.
“I wrote to Dame Vera on her 100th birthday,” said Mark.
“I said to her that my grandad must have been so grateful. She wrote back twice and said thank you for the card and that it was great to hear about my story and the research I was doing,
“After that I said if she passes away then I will be there.”
Glenys Creese represented the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity at the procession. The head of the centre said: “I met her just after her 100th birthday. She was just the most genuine, kind person.
“The charity was so close to her heart. Even at 100, she was incredibly sharp. She would love to have some tea and cake – I believe lemon drizzle was her favourite, and she loved her stories.
“We will continue to ensure there is a legacy for her. She always had a heart for helping people that were not getting what they should – soldiers and children with disabilities.
“People always spoke of her fondly. She would go out in the village and buy the newspaper. My understanding is when she lived in London she would go through Ditchling and then decided to settle here.”
Anthony Freeman, a local artist, created a portrait of Dame Vera which was placed on a wall in the centre of the village and people were allowed to write messages on it.
It came about after he left a small portrait of Dame Vera outside her house in Ditchling.
Dame Vera’s daughter, Virginia, then called Anthony telling him they loved the portrait and it was arranged for a larger one to be made.
Anthony said the idea was to get 103 messages on it and then it will be auctioned off to raise funds for Dame Vera’s children’s charity.
To make a donation to the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, visit https://dvlcc.org.uk.