cover

Contents

About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
A Mother’s Prayer
Epigraph
Introduction by Dame Vera Lynn
Introduction by Virginia Lewis-Jones
‘That’s Easy: Burma’
Flying Boats and Pyramids
The Lost Voice of Calcutta
Reaching the Forgotten Army
Singing for the Burma Boys
Beetles, Mosquitoes, Leopard Skins and Elephants
Mud, Mortars, Malaria … and Whiskey by the River
D-Day Landing
We’ll Meet Again
Picture Section
Recommended Further Reading
Acknowledgements
Photographic Acknowledgements
Index
Copyright

About the Book

‘Sometimes I think that I never quite got over that period of my life. My memories of the wartime years are strongest when I think of Burma.’

At the age of just twenty-seven, Vera Lynn travelled to war-torn Burma determined to do her bit and to make a difference. It was an extraordinary experience. So much more than a tour to sing for the troops, it was a personal odyssey that changed who she was and how she thought about the world.

As Vera notes: ‘Just as I am reaching the grand age of a hundred and looking back on my long and eventful life, I want to record this important event. I have needed some help to do it, which is why my daughter Virginia (or Ginny as she is known by almost everyone) is writing this book with me. It is not just my story but the story of the thousands of servicemen – who I always think of as “the boys” – who saw me in Burma, who helped me get there and back, and who looked after me in trying conditions.’

This is the untold narrative of Vera’s wartime years and the soldiers’ own experiences told though personal letters and photographs that she has received over the years. This is the book that records their story.

About the Author

Dame Vera Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch on 20 March 1917 and adopted the stage name of Vera Lynn at the age of eleven. She was already an established singer by the time the war broke out in 1939, but during the Second World War had enormous success with songs like ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. She continued to have a successful career after the war, hosted her own variety TV series on BBC1 and ITV in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was a guest on a number of other shows including the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show in 1972. She also became involved in many different charities. She became a Dame in 1975 and was awarded the Burma Star in 1985. In 2016 she was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to entertainment and charity.

Virginia Lewis-Jones is Dame Vera Lynn’s daughter. She was born in 1946 and for a time accompanied her mother on tour. She has had many careers including working in a fashion house, working for Warner Bros Records in California and as a researcher at the BBC, where for many years she worked on various shows including Parkinson, Crackerjack and the royal concerts. She later trained as a therapist in reflexology and holistic massage with aromatherapy, and now has her own complementary therapy business alongside running her mother’s music company. She is also the vice-president of the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity. She lives in East Sussex with her husband Tom, who was a loadmaster navigator and was part of the team that brought the Chinook helicopters over from the US.

Keep Smiling Through: My Wartime Story

It is timely that a biography is written on Dame Vera Lynn. We of The Burma Star Association and all the men and women who served in Burma from the Royal Navy, British, Indian and other armies, and air forces, all hold Dame Vera in great esteem and affection as a young lady at the time. She put up with all the hardships and dangers of Burma to entertain as many as possible with her wonderful songs. This gave us all a feeling that we were not forgotten in the Second World War. We were all so pleased that Dame Vera was awarded the Burma Star Campaign Medal.

The Viscount Slim,

President, The Burma Star Association

Introduction by Dame Vera Lynn

AS I SIT and write this, I have reached the grand age of a hundred. Yet I was just twenty-seven years old when I went to Burma in 1944, and 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 with a band I was singing in before the war, and I had certainly never been in an aeroplane; but I wanted to make a difference. And when in early 1944 I said that I wanted to go overseas, I was determined to do it in a way that most benefited those troops who had not had much in the way of musical entertainment up until that time during the war.

It turned out that the obvious place for me to go was Burma – where the Fourteenth Army had also become known as the ‘Forgotten Army’. I think and hope I made a real difference to the thousands of men I sang for in the few months that I was there. And one of the reasons was this very fact: that many of them felt they had been forgotten, and that their effort was not being recognised at home. Of course they wanted to hear me sing, but there was a far deeper need that they wanted satisfied as well – they wanted to renew their emotional connection with home, a place that seemed so far away in every possible sense. For them, I was that connection.

The travel was not like travel became after the war. I did not just go to Burma: on the way I stopped in Gibraltar, Egypt, Iraq and India and saw things that I had never even dreamed of seeing before. For me it was much more than a tour to sing to the troops; it was a personal odyssey that changed me for ever.

Looking back on my long and eventful life, I felt that I wanted to record this important part of it in much more detail than I have done before. I have needed some help to do it, which is why my daughter Virginia (or Ginny, as she is known by almost everyone else) is writing this book with me. It is not just my story, but the story of the thousands of servicemen – who I always think of as, and still call, ‘the boys’ – who saw me in Burma, who helped me get there and back, and who looked after me in trying conditions that I was unused to. Ginny, who once worked as a researcher at the BBC, made an appeal in the newspapers in 2012 to ask if any readers had stories about seeing me sing in Burma. The response was overwhelming, and we were flooded with hundreds of fantastic letters. She has carefully sorted through them all, and in this book has cleverly brought those stories to light, giving a wider background to what I did in Burma, describing what the boys who listened to me thought and felt when they heard me sing, and telling the bigger story of what was happening in the war at the time.

Introduction by Virginia Lewis-Jones

I’ve always known that my mother’s trip to Burma in 1944, two years before I was born, was a particularly significant episode in her life. But to my mind there has always been something slightly enigmatic about it too. She has written that ‘Sometimes I think that I never quite got over that period of my life. My memories of the wartime years are strongest when I think of Burma.’ The slightly odd phrasing (why did Ma never get over it?) was in some ways a bit of a mystery to me, and I’ve never been entirely certain why Burma stood out so uniquely for her, given that the wartime years were memorable for her in so many other ways – she became hugely successful, she sang for Princess Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, she got married, and she met many celebrities, for instance.

Maybe, I thought, it was the strangeness of being in Asia for the first time and the attention she would have received being literally the only woman in camps sometimes consisting of as many as 6,000 men. She told me recently that ‘It was so foreign – it was only something like a war that could have taken me there, to a place that was so different to what I expected at home.’ But it was only after I made the appeal in the newspapers in 2012 for stories of Ma’s tour that something else occurred to me. Perhaps at the heart of it was the sheer emotional power, bordering (yes, really) on delirium, that her songs – and even her presence – created amongst the men serving out there that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Here’s just a taste of that passionate response, from a letter written in 1944 by Lieutenant Corporal Ted Lindsay from Burma to his sister in London: ‘We went mad, never have I yelled, bellowed, hollered or clapped so much before. I’ve always yearned to see Vera, always had that ambition and, glory be to me, here she was. I literally went mad.’ Later on, he writes that ‘I saw, believe it or not, blokes crying with joy at seeing our own Vera.’

Leading Aircraftman H. S. Pewitt wrote to Ma soon after he saw her in Burma with a short piece of poetry he had penned:

VERA LYNN – AN APPRECIATION

Tonight I saw an English girl

And heard the maiden’s golden voice

She sang sweet songs of love to me

And made my homesick heart rejoice

Tonight I left the Indian heat

And breathed sweet English air again

The maiden’s voice transported me

’Twas home! And I was there again

Tonight of this dear English girl

This message from my heart I send

But yesterday you were a voice

Tonight you are indeed a friend

In our modern age, in which we can communicate instantly with anyone across the world, it is hard to imagine how removed from home it was possible to feel on the other side of the world just seventy years ago. My mother spanned this gap: as this part-time poet wrote, she mentally transported the men back home, if only for a little while, before most of them were sent back to the worst conditions imaginable to fight a brutal war in the jungle. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that the impact her presence had on the men was like an epiphany – an emotional lightning bolt that struck them as they listened to her songs. The reaction was recognisable from the emotional appeal that Ma’s songs had had on listeners since the beginning of the war. For instance, she always remembers a ‘middle-aged listener’ who wrote in an issue of the Radio Times in 1941: ‘I can only confess that if 25 years ago that young soldier of an earlier generation could have heard Vera Lynn singing to him – and as if to him alone – simply and sincerely, all the silly insincere songs about home and the little steeple pointing to a star and the brighter world over the hill, that old war would have been made so much the less unhappy for him.’

So Ma’s singing had that effect on people in the forces all over the world during the war, but her actual appearance in Burma seemed to amplify it a hundred times. And something quite magical happened there. Her simple but heartfelt songs and her humble and unassuming manner gave reassurance and succour to thousands of young men who were not only terribly homesick but who feared they might never see their homes again. She was the single emotional conduit to home for them, and I think that her appearance in the jungle felt to many like that of an angel dispensing love and hope to those boys who had not in recent times received enough of either of those precious things.

She was known before she left for Burma as the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’; but some of the soldiers who wrote to her from Burma suggested different names, including ‘Sweetheart of the Jungle’, ‘Frontline Sweetheart’ and ‘Sweetheart of the Fighting Fourteenth’. One of these letters even suggested that she should rank alongside Joan of Arc! The letters that the men wrote form an important part of this book. Some were written at the time, in 1944, and my mother kept them in a file at home, along with some of the photographs in this book; others were written much more recently, after we put an appeal in the newspapers asking to hear from servicemen who had memories of Ma’s tour, along with more photos from men who had fought in Burma, their children and grandchildren. Both sets of letters have helped in recreating what happened and in getting an understanding of what the tour meant to the men of the Fourteenth Army.

They also help to underscore the fact that this book is far from being just about my mother’s experience; it is also about the men she was singing for. I am proud to help my mother tell her story, and the story of some of those men who fought in one of the most challenging conflicts of the twentieth century.

A Mother’s Prayer

Only a Mother’s Prayer

Whispered in the silence of the night

Only a Mother’s Prayer

For her boy who has joined in the fight

Dear God keep him safe from all harm

Wherever he may be

And if it be Thy will

Send him back to me

He answered his country’s call

Left home, his loved ones and all

To fight for all he held most dear

Our precious heritage of liberty

So dear God in Thy great mercy

Look down from the Heavens above

Guard him, and send back to me the boy I love

This is a Mother’s Prayer.

Rosaline Hopkins

1944

‘That’s Easy: Burma’

Vera

There I was, in the middle of the jungle, singing my heart out into a microphone, a generator helping to project my voice into the surrounding hills full of tangled unknowns, with my pianist Len pounding a small piano on the back of a truck and me perspiring in the heat and humidity and flapping at the insects that seemed to be buzzing all around me. At the same time, I saw the faces of the boys below me and felt that at that moment in time there was nowhere I would rather be than here – as close to the fight as it was possible for me to be, expressing my own gratitude for what those troops were doing out there, risking their lives every day and enduring for months and even years those same conditions that I had to put up with for only a short time. In that moment I did not worry about the heat, the bugs or the enemy soldiers who could not have been very far away; I simply concentrated on the songs and sang them with as much feeling as I could.

It is rather hard for me to remember, but I did have a life, and, indeed, a successful career, before the Second World War started. I realise that this has not always been the popular idea of me: ‘The Second World War was started by Vera Lynn’s agent,’ joked one comedian in the seventies, for instance. Although my career was well established by the time war broke out, it soon became clear that my songs especially appealed to the time and to the servicemen fighting in the war – something, I think, to do with the emotion that I’d always tried to get across in my singing; what other people have described as my sincerity. I think that was the foundation for my success, and in order to tell the story of how I arrived in Burma, it’s important to first of all tell you a little something about my life before the war.

It seems remarkable to me now, but I was born over a century ago, in 1917, while the First World War was still taking place and in the same year as the Russian Revolution! I grew up in the twenties and thirties in a working-class family in East Ham, east London. My mother, Annie, was a dressmaker and my father, Bertram, did all sorts of jobs, including working on the docks, plumbing and glass-blowing. My father was an easy-going man who liked to laugh a lot – and he was also an excellent dancer. Family has always been very important to me – and remains so now – and I was lucky to have a happy childhood surrounded by lots of extended family members – like Uncle George and my grandma Margaret, who both loved to sing. Margaret was my mother’s mother, but on my father’s side there was also a lot of musicality, with regular sing-along parties at his mother’s house on Gillett Avenue and my aunt playing the piano. We often used to go to the East Ham Working Men’s Club, where my father was master of ceremonies at Saturday-night dances.

I also used to go to the East Ham Palace with an older girl who lived across the road from me on Ladysmith Avenue. We would pay threepence to sit on the hard seats in the upper balconies, or ‘up in the gods’, as we always called it. One singer I saw there especially sticks in my mind. She was called Florrie Forde, and I suppose I was about ten when I saw her. Some called her ‘the Queen of the Music Hall’. She was an Australian who came to London around the turn of the century and became a big star. During the First World War she sang some of the most famous songs of the time, which came to define the music of that period, including ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’ and ‘Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty’.

When you think about it, the sentiment at the heart of all these songs chimes with the type of songs that I would sing uite a few years later. Take, for instance, the chorus of ‘Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty’:

Take me back to dear old Blighty

Put me on a train to London Town

Take me over there, drop me anywhere

Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester, well, I don’t care

I should love to see my best girl

Cuddling up again we soon would be, Whoa

Tidley-idley-iti, hurry me back to Blighty

Blighty is the place for me.

This was not really a war song; it was about trying to hang on to the relationships and people that are important to you while war is all around. The songs I would sing were also about this, so it seems to me, and whether I knew it at the time or not, Florrie was a big influence on me. In fact, she kept singing for many years; she actually died shortly after singing for troops in Aberdeen in 1940.

Given this background, it’s hardly surprising that I started singing, although looking back on it now, I don’t think it would have happened without my mother pushing me forward. She was the one who wanted success for me and she had it in mind for me from when I was very little – my father, by contrast, was much more laid-back. I first started singing regularly for audiences as a solo performer when I was seven years old. My mother used to design my stage costumes for me – all silk, satin, sequins, net skirts and bodices. It surprises some people that I began singing in clubs at such a young age, but given my background, and the fact that people told me I already had a distinctive voice, I don’t think it’s so strange. Over the next few years I would sing in working men’s clubs all over the East End – from Newington Green to East Ham, Poplar to Stamford Hill. Sometimes I went further afield, to south London and places like Woolwich and Plumstead. I don’t remember what I sang that first time I performed, aged seven, but I do know that I was naturally attracted to sentimental ballads, even in those early years, and I had a knack of bringing tears to the eyes of my audience – in the right way, of course!

I was not particularly enthusiastic at school, in part because I had already decided – certainly by the age of eleven – that I was going to be a professional singer and that was that. I remember thinking to myself when I was meant to be learning French, ‘Why do I need to learn French when I am going to be a singer?’ But it is also true that I was not particularly good at the academic subjects – I struggled with spelling; I couldn’t add up; and I was not much good at remembering facts in history and geography. I did like some of the more practical subjects, like art, sewing and cookery. One thing that makes me laugh about school now is that they disliked my singing voice so much that they only let me sing on the front row of the choir because I opened my mouth so wide and it looked good! I have always had a relatively deep voice and everything at school was pitched too high for me, so I usually sang in a horrible falsetto voice. What it all meant was that by the time I was fourteen, I was eager to leave school and start on my singing career. I think I probably rather regretted that later, as I would have loved to have learned more, and for many years I had something of an inferiority complex around clever people (and I have met a great many).

When I left school, I was ready to start as a professional singer, but while I got established, I thought it might be a good idea to earn some money during the day as well. The labour exchange sent me to a little factory in East Ham to sew buttons, but I was already miserable by lunchtime – you weren’t allowed to talk to the other girls and I had to eat my sandwiches in a poky little back room. I decided that evening that I wouldn’t go back the following day. When I told my dad, he asked me how much I had been paid for the day’s work. ‘Six and six,’ I told him – that is, six shillings and sixpence – ‘and not for the day, but for the entire week.’ ‘Why,’ he replied, ‘you can earn more than that in one concert.’ So I didn’t go back the next day, and I never regretted it.

It is difficult to understand now, but bands in those days were booked for all kinds of events, from weddings and birthday parties to company balls and private and public dances. This was long before jukeboxes or music that could be pumped through public address systems – up until the age of fifteen, I had never even used a microphone. A chance encounter led to me starting work with one of these ‘gigging’ bands – the Howard Baker Band in east London. I was booked to do a cabaret spot in Poplar Baths – a bath house used for concerts and events in the winter months. The Howard Baker Band was booked to provide the dance music that evening, and I realised that it was a big chance for me to prove myself, but unfortunately I had come down with a cold. Added to this, I was asked to use a microphone for the very first time. Well, despite the fact that I had never used one before, and the fact that my bronchial tubes felt as though they had a thick layer of rust on them, I didn’t do too badly that night, and Howard Baker took me on as a vocalist with his band. It felt as though the gate had opened; now I could quite legitimately claim to be a professional singer, and I could charge ten shillings a performance.

Howard Baker had started as a cornet and trumpet player, but he soon realised that there was a high demand for bands all across east London. It meant that he had not just one band, but many of them – sometimes up to a couple of dozen would be playing in different locations on a single night. Those bands gave me both an opening in the music business and an apprenticeship in the finer arts of being a performing artist. I learned how to use a microphone and how to hold myself on stage. Up until then, I had acted out my songs dramatically; now I had to stand still. I discovered that singing with a microphone meant that I lowered my volume and found it easier to sing in lower keys, and my relatively low pitch became an instantly recognisable part of my style.

Two years later, I received my first press notice, a headline in the East Ham Echo that shouted: ‘STAR IN THE EAST – East Ham’s latest contribution to crooning’ – a description of my singing that I may not have been entirely happy with, but at least I was getting noticed! When, in 1934, just before I was seventeen, I started singing with Billy Cotton’s band, I felt even more that I had made ‘the big time’, earning the then magical sum of five pounds a week. Stints with other popular bandleaders Charlie Kunz and Bert Ambrose followed over the next few years – and it was during these years that I really began to establish a name for myself; I lost count of the number of times I was told during the war that servicemen had first seen me while I was performing with one of those bands. I earned good money, bought myself a car and a house, and loved being a singer – for me, the music was a constant joy. But above all these things, being a member of the Ambrose Orchestra provided me with the most important meeting of my life – with Harry Lewis, the man who would become my husband.

Harry joined the Ambrose Orchestra in the late summer of 1939 as a clarinettist and tenor saxophonist. We were busy preparing to take our stage show on the road in those months before the war, and although I had noticed the small, dark, handsome man with an impressive head of hair who had been playing with us, it took some time – and much persistence on his part – before I realised what a big role this man would play in my life. It so happened that we had performed together in one of the Howard Baker bands a number of times, but we had never spoken before. It was only when Harry joined Bert Ambrose’s band that we really noticed each other for the first time.

After we left Bert’s office that afternoon, he suggested that we get a cab together. I told him, rather frostily: ‘No, we won’t, I’m going on the bus.’ That didn’t deter him; he climbed on the bus with me and offered to pay my fare. ‘I’ll pay my own, thank you,’ I replied. However, he clearly had his heart set on me. Very early on he announced, quite confidently, ‘I’m going to marry you!’ I expect that I laughed at that, but we soon developed a closeness that grew and grew. When you spend time in a touring band, you form an intimacy of sorts with everyone in the band – you will either be close friends or bitter enemies, but never strangers. It did not take long for Harry to be the person I would always sit next to on the coach.

In the winter of 1939, while we were doing a week at the Brighton Hippodrome, he said to me again, as he had by that stage done many times, ‘I’m going to marry you,’ but this time I replied: ‘Yes, you are.’ However, it took another eighteen months before we actually did get married, on 11 August 1941. Much had changed in this time: the war had started in September 1939, Harry became part of the RAF’s ‘No. 1 Dance Band’ – the Squadronnaires – and I became a famous solo artist in my own right.

A big reason for my growing fame arrived soon after war had been declared. In the autumn of 1939, I came across a song written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles called ‘We’ll Meet Again’, a song that I have been associated with ever since, and which I never tired of singing. When I first saw it, the words seemed to me to be the perfect example of what I would call a greetings-card song – a basic human message that people want to say to each other but find too embarrassing to actually put into words. Ordinary English people don’t on the whole find it easy to express their feelings, even to those closest to them. Not only was the message in ‘We’ll Meet Again’ an important one, and one that I believed in sincerely, I also felt that I could articulate the emotion of the song in a meaningful way to the listener.

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smiling through

Just like you always do

Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

As more and more servicemen began to move away from their homes in the autumn of 1939, and the future became increasingly uncertain for all of us, the message of the song seemed to mean a great deal to people. And when I went to Burma in 1944, the sentiment at the heart of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ especially touched the men, who had been away from their wives, girlfriends, mothers and fathers in some cases for many years.

The song was a hit, and two further songs soon after were also successful – ‘Goodnight Children, Everywhere’ alluded to the evacuation of children from the cities, and ‘When the Lights of London Shine Again’ reflected the fact that our city was now shrouded in darkness at night-time thanks to the blackout. By January 1940, a piece in the Daily Express claimed that I was selling more records every month than both Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers, while in March the same year my name appeared at the top of a list of favourite female vocalists sent in to a daily newspaper by the men of the Tank Corps. It wasn’t that long until I was being called ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’, and it was a name that stuck.

The radio was a big thing in the war – all kinds of people would gather around the wireless set to find out the latest news – and it turned into a big thing for me too, especially when I started doing my request show in 1941. It was in the form of a letter addressed to the boys, and my sign-off at the end – ‘Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn’ – gave the show its name. After the first programme, there was such a flood of mail that we realised that we had struck exactly the right note. More important still, I began to understand just how strong the radio link was. Although we did the programme from a studio, I always tried to imagine myself singing and talking from my own home and addressing myself not to an audience in the conventional sense, but to scattered individuals – an intimate conversation, but to a couple of million people, or however many it was.

Since this seemed to have worked, it made sense to take it further and deliver more personal messages. I thought that rather than being a remote presence on the radio, I should actually step out of the wireless and take that idea of having a conversation with individuals literally. For me, the obvious next thing was to begin to visit hospitals where servicemen’s wives had just given birth. I would then broadcast the news and let the lucky man know on the airwaves that he now had a son or a daughter, and that I was there, with his wife, giving her a bunch of flowers and having a cup of tea and a chat. It always felt like such a fantastic thing for me to be the bearer of good news. I imagined the joy those boys must have felt in some far-flung place like Burma or India, mixed no doubt with a little sadness that they could not be there in person.

This I soon realised was more than just a way of communicating with my audiences – it got to the heart of who I was as a performer. I was at my best when I expressed an emotion that two people recognised as a message from one to another. In that way, I came to understand that during the war I helped people to have some sort of emotional conversation over long distances. A song is a dramatic expression of emotion – it often contains the kind of words that we wouldn’t say in everyday life, and I’d like to think that those songs helped people to speak to one another in a heightened way. Other people have told me that my songs were a kind of glue that helped people to stay together during those difficult times when a wife would not see her husband sometimes for years.

Yet although there was a lot of popular appreciation of my songs, there was also a significant minority – mainly politicians and high-ranking retired military officers – who thought that my music was sentimental slush and that it should be taken off the BBC. They objected because they felt that fighting men should be listening to fighting music rather than songs that made them think of home and the loved ones they had left behind. I felt the opposite to be true, and I received plenty of support from the boys I sang for in this.

I remained in London for most of the war years. I drove my little green Austin 10 with a soft top through the Blitz and often got caught in the blackout. There were times when I was performing at the Palladium and I got stuck there all night waiting for a raid to finish. You would put a metal plate over your car headlights with a little pinhole in it so that you could see other drivers in the distance – and they could see you. I used to carry a tin helmet with me on the passenger seat, and if I got caught in a raid, I just put it on and drove on.

Harry and I finally married in August 1941. I had just recovered from acute appendicitis after collapsing and then being carried off stage at the Palladium in July of that year, while I was performing in the show Applesauce. I was operated on immediately. I made a good recovery in the Essex countryside, and just a few weeks later, on 11 August, Harry and I got married at Marylebone registry office, along with about two dozen guests – mainly just family. We took a five-day honeymoon in Paignton, Devon, and made sure to take our ration books with us – even in hotel restaurants, they would tear out the coupons for your food. After that, I returned to the Palladium, resuming the Applesauce show.

I sang in other places around the country, sometimes performing with Harry’s band. On one occasion, in 1942, I was doing a week’s variety at the Sunderland Empire when I was called away for a special performance for the royal family at Windsor Castle. The occasion was the then Princess Elizabeth’s sixteenth birthday. What a treat that was – to sing for the future Queen in her own home! But early the next morning I set off for Sunderland again to resume my tour of variety theatres, munitions factories, hospitals and recording studios.

I could have gone on like that for the entire war, alternating between London and performances around the country – Coventry, Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh – but there was one thing I hadn’t done, and as time went by, I became more and more acutely aware of where my next duty lay. It may seem strange to say, but I suppose it felt a little futile, reaching out only on the radio and in shows around the country, and not, or so it seemed to me, actually supporting the men overseas who were fighting the really hard fight and putting their lives on the line. Quite simply, I wanted to help do my bit, and, as far as I could see, that meant heading abroad.

To do my bit on the front line I needed to join ENSA – the Entertainment National Services Association – which had been set up by Basil Dean in 1939. Basil knew lots of people in the entertainment business and had himself been an actor, writer, film and theatre producer and director. Before the war he had set up Associated Talking Pictures, which later became Ealing Studios – the legendary production company probably most famous for those wonderful post-war comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Love Lottery and The Ladykillers, starring people like Alec Guinness and David Niven.

Basil had established ENSA with Leslie Henson – another actor turned theatre and film producer – to provide entertainment for the troops. It was part of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI), which ran the clubs and canteens on the military bases where the performances would often take place. With so many servicemen spread around the world on hundreds of bases, it was a tough job entertaining them all, and I’m sure it’s true that the talent got spread a little thin at times, which led to the rather unkind nickname for ENSA in the forces – ‘Every night something awful!’ But looking back now at the list of names who performed on behalf of ENSA, it’s amazing to see the quality of the stars – some at the start of their careers, others as established members of the entertainment scene. They included people like Jack Hawkins, John Gielgud, Gracie Fields, Vivien Leigh, Spike Milligan, Alistair Sim, Noël Coward, Joyce Grenfell, and my great friends Elsie and Doris Waters – the double-act known as Gert and Daisy. And I don’t think that you could call any of that list second-rate.

So there I was, walking down Drury Lane one morning in early 1944, and at that point I don’t think I could have had any idea that this very ordinary walk through London’s West End, of the kind I had done hundreds of times before, was actually the beginning of a much more momentous journey halfway across the world; a journey that would remain with me for the rest of my life. The truth is, I never meant particularly to go to Burma – like most people, I expect, I didn’t know much about what was going on in the Far East, and I had no idea that this was where I might be needed the most.