ALL eyes were on Dame Vera Lynn’s home village yesterday as thousands turned out to give the Forces’ Sweetheart a fitting send-off.

Respectful clapping broke out across Ditchling as her funeral cortege arrived at the central crossroads just before noon, her coffin draped in a Union Flag.

The hearse was flanked by soldiers in crimson Queen’s Guard uniform.

After minutes of silence in remembrance of the village’s most famous resident, three Spitfire flybys prompted thunderous applause from the throng.

Naturally some spectators delivered a rousing verse or two of Dame Vera’s most famous song We’ll Meet Again.

Despite police blockades cordoning off most of Ditchling to cars, people from across the county flocked to pay their final respects to Dame Vera, who died on June 18 aged 103.

Karen and Ian James visited the village from Littlehampton.

The Forces’ Sweetheart was close to their hearts, particularly Karen’s as she worked for 33 years in RAF Sussexdown care home where Dame Vera often visited.

“I never saw her though because I was always working the night shift,” she said.

“But she went there so often, she’s a legend isn’t she? We came down to pay our final respects.”

“It was amazing what she did for morale,” said Ian, whose father died during the Dunkirk evacuation.

“You could see it on the soldiers’ faces.”

Artist Anthony Freeman came from Brighton to plaster his portrait of Dame Vera to a wall.

Passersby adorned it with tributes to the much-loved singer.

“I tried to give my portrait to her on her 100th birthday but I couldn’t get in touch,” Anthony said.

“So on the day she died I laid it outside her house and soon her daughter got in contact to say how much she loved it.

“Dame Vera’s just an iconic figure. My father always used to talk about her, whenever we went through Ditchling he would point out her house.

“Her daughter has signed my portrait and now we’re going to auction it off for Dame Vera’s children’s charity.”

Wellwishers packed the village crossroads to watch the cortege pass through.

There was warm applause for Dame Vera’s daughter Virginia Lewis-Jones, who walked behind the hearse.

Those lucky enough to live around the square gazed in wonder from their windows.

Meanwhile The Bull Inn was converted into a makeshift newsroom for photographers and radio hosts.

For much of the service only the clicking of shutters from the press pack punctuated the silence.

After the Spitfire flyovers the funeral cortege made its way to Woodvale Crematorium in Brighton and Ditchling quickly went back to its quiet self.

“We always knew today was going to be busy because Dame Vera has done so much for this village,” said Marianne Bole, co-owner of The Green Welly cafe on the village crossroads.

“Dame Vera was an enormous presence in this village, especially when she first moved.

“The building we are in was actually opened by her 32 years ago.

“Today has been a very busy day but also very moving because everybody in this village loved her.”

The cortege arrived at Woodvale just after 1pm. A respectful silence descended around the chapel.

Members of the Army, Navy and RAF formed a socially distanced guard of honour outside the entrance to the chapel. They remained there motionless as a private service was held inside.

Mourner Bob Bailey said: “She was a lovely, lovely lady. And 103 years, what a marvellous life. I still have my picture with her on my mantlepiece.”

In a written tribute, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Dame Vera gave her all to Britain in its time of need.

“Dame Vera’s inspirational work in support of our Armed Forces will never be forgotten,” he said.

“As we approach the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, we remember her performances for troops in Burma during the Second World War, bringing a welcome reminder of home to those fighting in the Far East.

“Her support helped to sustain the fortitude of British personnel deployed around the world.”

As the service ended, the guard of honour filtered out of the grounds.

But Dame Vera’s influence will live on.

l See pages 16 and 17 for more photos of the day