Long after the Second World War, a former naval officer wrote: “Whenever I hear Vera Lynn singing her wartime songs I am carried back to the heaving messdeck of a destroyer, and see again the tired men, the sea-sick, hushed and listening, some with trembling lips and moist eyes.”

Many people and events associated with the conflict are misrepresented or sentimentalised today, but there is no doubt of the vast, authentic popularity of the Forces’ Sweetheart, with her haunting mid-Atlantic tones.

Vera was never a sexpot like Lili Marlene, the hooker of Marlene Dietrich’s song — a character especially popular with the British Eighth Army, who stole it from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Vera from Essex was everybody’s sister, the nice girl next door, the one every parent would like their son to marry.

She had something in common with the poet John Pudney, to whom few modern critics would give the time of day. Yet Pudney’s verses, especially about the RAF — Do not despair/ For Johnny-head-in-air;/ He sleeps as sound/ As Johnny underground — expressed thoughts and sorrows that filled the hearts of millions of people.

Lynn at a British Army field hospital in Burma, 1942.

The sheet music — remember that they still sang around the piano at home as well as in the pub — of There’ll Always Be an England sold 200,000 copies in the first two months of the war. Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye would rouse the mockery of a battalion of modern comedians, but in the early 1940s they adored it.

Much is written about the terrors and horrors of the times, which were real enough. There is less understanding of the undramatic pains, miseries and sacrifices: separation from loved ones not merely for months, but for years; the obligation to spend years of one’s youth performing tasks that had nothing at all to do with one’s lifetime hopes and ambitions; accepting orders without question, often from people one knew to be stupider than oneself; eating dreary food and doing without commonplaces of peacetime life.

Above all, there was loneliness, even if one was fortunate enough to experience comradeship in uniform. It was to this emotion, this deprivation, that Vera Lynn beckoned.

She herself understood it better than most, because she had spent a friendless, pretty joyless childhood in the custody of an obsessively protective mother. The sensations of loneliness echoed through the words and melodies of many of the songs she sang, irrespective of their authorship.

Because there is lots of sex in modern movies about the war, people sometimes fail to recognise what an innocent age it was. As in every age, a minority of men and women had lots of sex, while most had none at all, though the yearning for it was obsessive, in the circumstances of war.

Above all, there was loneliness, even if one was fortunate enough to experience comradeship in uniform. It was to this emotion, this deprivation, that Vera Lynn beckoned.

I was moved, when writing about a book about the RAF’s 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, to realise how many of its star pilots, most of them doomed, were writing letters home not to wives or girlfriends, but instead to “Dear Mummy”, or perhaps a beloved sister. Here is another piece of the jigsaw in explaining the magic of Vera Lynn: nobody could imagine that she might corrupt their Bob or Jim or Eric; you could trust her with those you loved.

Lynn’s best-known recording was her rendition of “We’ll Meet Again,” which Stanley Kubrick re-purposed ironically in the closing sequence of Dr. Strangelove.

She sang songs for a time when it was, as Noël Coward causes Amanda to say in Private Lives, “extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.

Consider this passage from perhaps the greatest civilian record of the war, the diary of the Barrow-in-Furness housewife Nella Last. She wrote one day in the midst of the Blitz: “I’m in a queer, nervy way lately. Little memories seem to chirp at me, like tiny birds hidden in a big tree that fly among the branches and chirp from unexpected directions.

“It’s a feeling of having a skin less, of ‘seeing pictures’ as the BBC announces ‘The Admiralty regrets’, of thinking shudderingly of boys in tents with few blankets — and what is now worse, of little children and women that are not too strong hurrying out of warm beds and cowering in shelters.”

It was this mood that Vera Lynn understood so well when she sang, though oddly enough Mrs Last herself was unimpressed when first the star sprang to fame. On January 15, 1940, Nella described her son returning from camp: “Cliff had a new song when he came home last night, and somehow I felt a queer reaction to the words. I did not actually dislike them, but did not want to hear them sung. It was

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

“Silly of me, for there is nothing at all in the words, but I feel that I’m ‘listening’ when I hear them sung — straining to hear something behind the music.”

Lynn outside Buckingham Palace after receiving her damehood in 1975. In a TV address on the coronavirus earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth referenced “We’ll Meet Again” as an anthem of national unity.

Nella Last was an exceptionally sensitive woman, and the likeliest explanation for her reaction is that of the tune’s impact upon a host of others — a melancholy for what war had taken away from the world, and what millions desperately hoped to regain from its ending.

Moreover, Vera Lynn’s wartime life was a study of what the British wanted from their entertainers, and did not always get. Between shows, and touring as far afield as Burma to see the “Forgotten Army”, she visited hospitals and factories, taking with her a smile that lit up her audiences as much as her voice.

Her fellow radio star from that era, Wilfred Pickles, wrote: “When Vera visited hospitals, and then on the Forces Programme told the fighting men about their new babies, she was not merely reading a script; she really saw every child she talked about — and took flowers to their mothers.”

Vera Lynn and her songs may not have scaled the summits of high art, but they were fine and sweet things in an unprecedentedly ugly world. The people of 21st century Britain are right to celebrate her memory … so long as they can restrain their nostalgia for the era in which she played so remarkable a part.