BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1945: VE Day
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
RATIONS WERE STILL TIGHT SO CELEBRATORY
MEALS WERE LIMITED IN THEIR SCOPE
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