1945: VE Day

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The of­fi­cial end of the war was long ex­pected. Hitler had com­mit­ted sui­cide on 30 April 1945 and Ger­many sur­ren­dered un­con­di­tion­ally on 7 May, but there was in­ter­na­tional dis­pute over the ex­act date which would be cho­sen to mark the fi­nal day. The Sovi­ets wanted the Ger­man sur­ren­der to them in Ber­lin on 8 May to be the of­fi­cial end of the war, not the ear­lier sur­ren­der to the Al­lies in Rheims. This de­layed an an­nounce­ment ev­ery­one knew was com­ing.

Your rel­a­tives in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion knew noth­ing of the diplo­matic ma­noeu­vres, they were left not know­ing whether they should be cel­e­brat­ing or not: “be­witched, bug­gered and be­wil­dered” as one Sh­effield house­wife wrote in her di­ary.

Fi­nally, af­ter wait­ing all day for the an­nounce­ment of vic­tory, the news came at night on 7 May: war would end of­fi­cially the fol­low­ing day which would be Vic­tory in Europe Day, and the start of a two-day hol­i­day. At 3pm on Tues­day, the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment came from Churchill that the war in Europe was over and it was a time for cel­e­bra­tion, though the war against Ja­pan con­tin­ued. The an­nounce­ment went out late in the day to per­mit a si­mul­ta­ne­ous mes­sage to be broad­cast in the United States.

Church bells rang, ships sounded their

horns and in the streets peo­ple were singing, blow­ing whis­tles and wav­ing flags. Ev­ery town was fes­tooned with bunting and flags, mainly the Union flag but with some Amer­i­can and Soviet ex­am­ples, too.

Shop win­dows had pic­tures of Churchill, Roo­sevelt, Stalin as well as the King and Queen. Roo­sevelt had re­cently died, but no one had pic­tures of Tru­man, his suc­ces­sor, so the de­ceased pres­i­dent rep­re­sented the US.

As the af­ter­noon went on, across the coun­try cars were toot­ing, peo­ple were rat­tling their dust­bins in cel­e­bra­tion and the streets and pubs were heav­ing with the smell of smoke and beer drift­ing out.

Crowds thronged the cen­tre of Lon­don. Ac­cor­dions and bar­rel or­gans played the mu­sic for Roll Out the Bar­rel and Land of Hope and

Glory while long lines of peo­ple danced the Hokey Cokey.

Fur­ther crowds gath­ered at Buckingham Palace to see the King and the two princesses, with the for­mer mak­ing eight ap­pear­ances on the bal­cony. Un­known to the pub­lic, Princess El­iz­a­beth and Princess Mar­garet, aged 19 and 14 re­spec­tively, went out into the crowds to en­joy the oc­ca­sion. El­iz­a­beth was in her uni­form as a mem­ber of the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice. As Queen El­iz­a­beth, she later re­lated, “my sis­ter and I re­alised that we couldn’t see what the crowds were en­joy­ing.” They asked if they could go out and were al­lowed to slip away with two Guards of­fi­cers. “Af­ter cross­ing Green Park we stood out­side and shouted, ‘We want the King’, and were suc­cess­ful in see­ing my par­ents on the bal­cony, hav­ing cheated slightly be­cause we sent a mes­sage into the house to say that we were wait­ing out­side. I think it was one of the most mem­o­rable nights of my life.”

Peo­ple were hug­ging and kiss­ing to­tal strangers; an on­looker re­marked on ‘singing, danc­ing and court­ing (es­pe­cially on the lawns along the Mall)’. Spivs, who dealt in black mar­ket goods and other hard-to-ob­tain pro­duce, did their bit for this eu­phemisti­callystyled ‘court­ing’ by sell­ing con­doms, then called French let­ters, for a florin (two shillings) for a sim­ple ver­sion or half a crown (two and six­pence) for higher qual­ity ones.

At night, search­lights shone not to de­tect en­emy air­craft but to dance in the sky; pub­lic mon­u­ments were flood­lit and, of rather greater sig­nif­i­cance for the householder, peo­ple tore the blackout pa­per from their win­dows and streets were il­lu­mi­nated again. Bon­fires lit up the night and in some towns cel­e­bra­tions were more elab­o­rate. In Wake­field, the Op­er­atic and Dra­matic So­ci­ety staged a mock fu­neral for Adolf Hitler with a cof­fin on a bon­fire cer­e­mony at­tended by ac­tors por­tray­ing Churchill, Stalin, Tru­man, De Gaulle and Chi­ang-Kai-shek. “Mr Stalin was the star hero of the ladies,” re­marked the Wake­field Ex­press. “Un­for­tu­nately, ow­ing to their bound­less en­thu­si­asm, he dis­ap­peared in the crush of fem­i­nine ad­mir­ers be­fore he could be res­cued.”

Ra­tions were still tight so cel­e­bra­tory meals were lim­ited in scope but many fam­i­lies had saved up bot­tles of sherry or port. Ge­orge Tay­lor, an ac­coun­tant in Sh­effield had bought a tin of chicken in 1941 and saved it for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion but “as with many things, it proved some­what of a dis­ap­point­ment, for al­though it is gen­uine chicken – bones, skin and meat – it is spoilt by aspic jelly.”

De­mo­bil­i­sa­tion would be­gin in six weeks so hus­bands, sons, fa­thers and brothers would be home as would those women who had been serv­ing in the WAAC, WRNS or WAAF, with the army, navy and air force re­spec­tively.

In some house­holds there was the sad­ness of re­gret for peo­ple who they knew would not come home as their death in ac­tion had al­ready been re­ported. For those who had Jewish rel­a­tives on the con­ti­nent of Europe, there would be no re­union for their worst fears had been re­alised: three weeks pre­vi­ously Belsen had been lib­er­ated and ter­ri­ble films of bod­ies be­ing bull­dozed into pits had been shown on news­reels.

In­dis­crim­i­nate weapons of ter­ror

The end of the war came too late for some. The last civil­ian died as a re­sult of en­emy ac­tion on Satur­day 27 March 1945. Ivy Mil­lichamp was in her kitchen in Ky­nas­ton Road, Or­p­ing­ton, when a rocket landed on her house. It was 14m in length and car­ried 1,000kg of ex­plo­sive and de­mol­ished most of the street. Ivy, who was 34, was killed in­stantly but her hus­band Eric was sit­ting in the liv­ing room and sur­vived the blast but was in­jured along­side 23 oth­ers in neigh­bour­ing houses.

The rocket was one of the in­dis­crim­i­nate ter­ror weapons used by the Nazis at the end of the war: 1,400 had been launched at Bri­tain in the last six months.

More than any pre­vi­ous war, this had been one of civil­ians; for much of the pre­vi­ous six years the ‘home front’ was a bat­tle­field. Some 60,000 civil­ians had been killed, of whom al­most 8,000 were chil­dren.

Af­ter the war it was time for re­build­ing



what was dam­aged and dis­man­tling wartime pre­cau­tions. Civil de­fence work­ers were joined by an army of vol­un­teers to pull down barbed wire that had been erected ev­ery­where that was be­lieved to be vul­ner­a­ble to Ger­man in­va­sion. Miles of barbed wire in coastal ar­eas and around vil­lages and towns near the sea had to be re­moved to make the places safe for work and for chil­dren to play.

Ro­man­tic tale of love and loss

Even amid wartime re­stric­tions, di­rec­tor David Lean made a film of en­dur­ing bril­liance this year. Brief En­counter was about a cou­ple meet­ing on a rail­way sta­tion and the un­con­sum­mated love af­fair be­tween them. It starred Trevor Howard and Celia John­son with a screen­play by Noel Coward. The qual­ity of the work was un­der­lined by the score which was ex­tracted from Sergei Rach­mani­noff ’s

Pi­ano Con­certo No 2. The film af­fected peo­ple far more than the sim­ple story might sug­gest, with its wartime res­o­nance of sad­ness and loss, chance meet­ings and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, sac­ri­fice and the dig­nity of do­ing the right thing.

Or­well’s con­tro­ver­sial satire

De­spite its ti­tle sug­gest­ing that it was for chil­dren, adults were this year read­ing a book called An­i­mal Farm: A Fairy Story which was a bit­ter satir­i­cal at­tack on Soviet com­mu­nism. Ge­orge Or­well had trou­ble get­ting it pub­lished – four pub­lish­ers re­jected it fear­ing a neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to an in­sult to Soviet al­lies.

The Sovi­ets had been at the fore­front of the fight against the Nazis, it would not be diplo­matic to in­sult them now.

Or­well wrote of ex­pos­ing ‘the Soviet myth’, not so­cial­ism, in which he him­self be­lieved, and which the Bri­tish elec­torate did not re­ject in giv­ing the Labour Party a land­slide in the Gen­eral Elec­tion in July of this year.

News­pa­pers ran car­toons for light re­lief from the re­lent­less bar­rage of war news. For VE Day in the Daily Mir­ror the car­toon pin-up Jane stripped off com­pletely, as she had promised she would for the end of the war. Her ad­ven­tures had been con­sid­ered a morale-booster for the troops.

The Daily Ex­press was to con­trib­ute a very dif­fer­ent kind of car­toon, in keep­ing with the new at­mos­phere. Car­toon­ist Carl Giles de­vised the Giles Fam­ily which de­scribed the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of a work­ing class fam­ily with bat­tleaxe grandma, long-suf­fer­ing dad and lim­it­lessly com­pe­tent mum. Their brood of five poked fun at dif­fer­ent aspects of life in peace­time Bri­tain.

Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill waves to crowds gath­ered in White­hall on VE Day

Ro­man­tic drama Brief En­counter was a huge hit

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