Living with war
It’s 70 years since the guns fell silent in Europe and, on 8 May 1945, Britons celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany.
After seven decades, the number of people left alive who have clear memories of VE Day, and the years of struggle that preceded it, is inevitably dwindling. All the more reason to record their memories for posterity.
That’s precisely what Steve Humphries of Testimony Films has done for a new four-part series. “I wanted to give the generation who lived through and fought in the Second World War the recognition and honour that they deserve, before it’s too late,” he tells WDYTYA? Magazine.
“We look at what shaped them, the challenges they faced, especially in wartime, and how they dealt with later life.”
It’s the second time that Humphries has undertaken such a project, having previously interviewed veterans of the Great War, including Harry Patch. “I intend this to be the beginning of a Second World War archive that will be there forever,” he says.
Even in their 90s and 100s, some recalled events they’d rarely spoken about. Having previously met so many veterans, this wasn’t a surprise to Humphries. “There is a moment when people are coming to the end of their lives when they reveal secrets and emotions they’ve kept hidden since their young days. They no longer have anything to lose, very old age is often a time of truth-telling.”
As for the idea that many who lived through the conflict felt most alive close to death, this turns out to have more than a grain of truth. “One Battle of Britain pilot, Geoff Wellum, told me that he knew at the age of 21 his life had peaked – ‘I could never experience the intensity of that moment ever again’ – and he found that very troubling,” recalls Humphries.
What do the interviewees make of contemporary Britain? Some it seems, bemoan a loss of idealism that went with the post-war efforts to build a ‘New Jerusalem’.
“Many looked back with a sense of loss, regret and even anger that the vision of a new and fairer world they had aspired to and tried to build after the war with the NHS and the welfare state had been in some ways lost,” Humphries says. “Some felt the moment of national unity, shared values and camaraderie that happened in the Second World War and afterwards would never be achieved again.” Jonathan Wright
Hughes Austin Byrne and Dorothy
in (right) remember VE Day
Britain’s Greatest Generation