VE Day was joyous but also tempered by melancholy over those who died

MAX HASTINGS: VE Day saw wild rejoicing but it was tempered by melancholy over the millions who’d died, the battles still to be fought – and even a shortage of food to celebrate victory

  • Next week sees the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8 1945
  • Both Britain and the rest of the world celebrated the end of World War Two
  • In joyous scenes across the land, Britons took part in several street parties
  • But many remembered those who sadly died in the war both at home and abroad 

At 3pm on May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill broadcast to the British people. The man without whom Hitler might well have triumphed recalled his nation’s long and lonely struggle; then, the gradual accession of great allies.

‘Finally,’ he said, ‘the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us.’

Mindful of the toil and travail – and the dying – that still lay ahead to complete the defeat of Japan, he concluded: ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing… Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!’

VE Day saw wild celebration amongst Britons as they celebrated the end of World War Two

On May 8 1945, Winston Churchill addressed the country in a victory speech from number 10 

Churchill’s secretaries and staff lined the garden of Downing Street to clap him to his car as he left, to repeat his words in the House of Commons. From a balcony in Whitehall that evening, he addressed a vast, cheering crowd, saying: ‘My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation.’

There was massive rejoicing in the streets of London that day and night, driven partly by the knowledge that the great evil of Hitler was no longer; but even more so, by the jubilation among revellers that after almost six years of hardship, fear and sacrifice, they might now hope to live out a full life, rather than facing death by bomb or bullet.

Yet to understand VE Day, what it meant and did not mean to the world, it is essential to recognise how many millions continued to exist in terror, hunger and mortal peril. 

VE Day was known as London’s biggest street party as the nation celebrated freedom from war

George Macdonald Fraser, author of a wonderful memoir of the Burma campaign as well as being creator of the Flashman books, described how, on May 8, his battalion of the Border regiment was about to attack a Japanese-held village when a young officer ran out in front of the start line and shouted exultantly: ‘Men! The war in Europe is over!’

George, who was a good friend of mine, wrote: ‘There was a long silence, and then somebody laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of, “Git the boogers oot ’ere!” Then they attacked. And some Borderers died.’

In Australia likewise, there was little celebration of the end of the far, far-away European conflict. One man in Sydney spoke for thousands when he demanded: ‘How can the British be so cheerful? Don’t they know about the 8th Division?’

This was the Australian formation that had landed at Singapore days before its 1942 surrender. On May 8, its survivors remained at the mercy of their Japanese captors’ barbarism, and continued to die through until August 1945.

In Britain there was partying, surely enough, but it was tempered by melancholy about all those who could not be there to share it, because their graves lay beneath the seven seas or one of a hundred battlefields across the world.

Lancashire housewife Nella Last, one of the war’s great diarists, wrote of a sense of anti-climax: ‘I feel as if I’d sat through a long, tedious play, only living for the finale, longing for the time I could breathe sweet air, go home… and as if, instead, as each player had left the stage, they had disappeared and the lights gradually dimmed, till the last performer had said, “That’s all – you can go home now.” And all the audience had looked at each other, uncertain of the next move.’

While there was celebration across the nation there was also remembrance of those who died

There was weariness after six years of war, of interminable separations from loved ones, of cities suffused with dust and squalor and of the oppressive blackout that had depressed the spirit even when not torn open by flames lit by German bombs or V-weapons.

It seemed easier for Americans to celebrate without inhibition, as new rulers of the world and the only combatants to have made a handsome profit out of the struggle.

Britain, by contrast, was broke – in the words of economist John Maynard Keynes, the nation was facing ‘a financial Dunkirk’. The US Congress terminated Lend-Lease to Britain with brutal abruptness as soon as the war ended. Only a vast American loan, on harsh financial terms, saved Churchill’s nation from bankruptcy.

Churchill’s Britain faced post-war financial issues and needed help from Eisenhower’s USA

As Nella Last wrote, the overwhelming mood was doubt. Having lived with war for so long, what would peace be like? What would the future hold for young men and women who had spent their entire lives since adolescence in uniform, when they donned ‘civvies’?

What might happen to their country, impoverished by playing, for so long alone, its historic role of defying the forces of evil? 

Pilot Richard Hough was dozing on a heap of kitbags in a Dakota over the Channel, homeward bound after a tour flying Typhoon fighter-bombers, when a crewman suddenly pulled open the cockpit door and shouted: ‘It’s f***ing over!’ Most of the plane’s passengers went crazy, hurling kitbags wildly at each other. An airman noticed Hough lying motionless and said: ‘Come on, sir, the war’s over. Aren’t you glad?’

The pilot later explained: ‘I shut my eyes, swallowed painfully, and lay very still.’

Four million British houses had been damaged by enemy action, half a million destroyed outright – including that of my own grandparents. A huge operation began to clear beaches of the mines and barbed-wire entanglements that had defended them against invasion since 1940.

Millions of British homes were destroyed by the enemy during attacks such as the Blitz 

There was scant fare to be had for a victory feast: less meat in shops than a year before, and in May the bacon ration was reduced from four ounces a week to three; the lard ration cut from two ounces to one. In September 1945, the clothing ration was reduced again.

Shop windows now displayed Victory scarves, ribbons, rosettes and hairslides, yet there were shortages even of these.

In Barkers of Kensington, a patient shopper was heard to say: ‘I’ve been in so many queues since the war began, it’s a change to be in a flag queue.’

Among the reasons that Churchill the victor would soon be expelled from power at the General Election was a popular yearning for a social new deal as the ordinary person’s reward for victory.

Five million British servicemen and women were still serving, many in Germany.

Despite leading the victory celebrations, PM Churchill would not stay in power for long 

Alan Moorehead, the greatest British correspondent of the war, wrote from Hitler’s shattered Reich about the flatness that succeeded the brief orgy of celebration. He found a small consolation, however, in having witnessed, among so many horrors, the most ordinary of British people discovering remarkable qualities in themselves as they played their parts in the struggle against Hitler.

He wrote: ‘The clerk from Manchester and the shopkeeper from Balham seemed to grow tremendously in stature. He was suddenly projected out of a shallow and materialistic world into an atmosphere where there really were possibilities of touching the heights.’

Moorehead reflected on the courage, self-sacrifice and professional skill he had seen displayed by soldiers, sailors and airmen: ‘Here and there a man found greatness in himself. The thing they were doing was a clear and definite good. They were doing the very best they could.’ 

For many, now about to be thrust back into their humdrum civilian lives instead of flying Spitfires or driving tanks or shooting fellow human beings, there were victors’ perks to be found in Germany. Senior officers strove in vain to enforce the strict orders that men were not to fraternise with the defeated, unspeakably evil enemy.

A British soldier said happily: ‘Of course quite a lot of us go to bed with the frauleins. They are nice and they are so well-developed physically by sport.

‘These girls will take any treatment and they treat you like a king – don’t matter if you keep them waiting for half-an-hour – and they are thankful for little things, a bar of chocolate or a few fags! It’s like giving them the moon.’

Some British soliders were still based in Germany in the aftermath of World War Two

And Moorehead wrote: ‘The Germany in which we found ourselves presented a scene that was almost beyond human comprehension. Around us, great cities lay in ruins. Many had no electric light or power or gas or running water, and no coherent system of government.

‘Like ants in an ant-heap, the people scurried over the rubble, diving furtively into cellars and doorways in search of food. Life was sordid, aimless, leading nowhere.’

Stalin insisted upon holding the Russian VE Day 24 hours after the Western allied one because he refused to accept the legitimacy of the German surrender that was signed at Reims in France.

A young German girl in Poland recalled that Russian soldiers celebrated by running amok: ‘Next day, women did not ask each other “Were you raped?”, they just asked, ‘How many times?” ’

There were thousands of suicides among the vanquished – women and children as well as men ending their lives rather than face the abyss of the future.

Colonel-General Hesleni of the Hungarian army, who had fought the Russians to the end alongside the Germans, slashed his wrists with a fragment of glass from the window of his prison cell.

Even in the Western occupation zone, Inge Stolten, a housewife and lifelong Nazi, smashed the family radio in despair when she heard of her nation’s surrender – and the end of all her dreams.

Though an educated woman who spoke both English and French, she sincerely believed that the Americans would kill them all when they arrived.

At a farm in Saxony where 11-year-old Jutta Dietze was an evacuee, she burst into tears: ‘We were so indoctrinated that we had never considered any possible ending except victory. I thought, this is the end of Germany. We’ll never be allowed to sing our folk songs again. We shall never be allowed to be proud of being Germans.’ 

In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the first Communist expulsions of ethnic Germans were taking place, which eventually numbered 12 million and embraced the deaths of at least 500,000, perhaps far more. Nobody had pity to spare for Germans, save perhaps George Orwell, who wrote despairingly in Tribune about British acquiescence in ‘this enormous crime’.

The massacre of the Jewish people during the war maintained a sombre tone on VE Day

 David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist leader who would soon become the first premier of Israel, wrote briefly in his usually voluminous diary on May 8: ‘Victory day – sad, very sad.’ 

The end of the war, in his mind and indeed that of every Jew, was wholly overwhelmed as a cause for celebration by the vast, terrible knowledge – albeit as yet incomplete – of the millions of his own people who had been extinguished by genocide.

About 1.6 million Russian PoWs – survivors of the four million captured by the Germans since 1941 – began to be returned to the Soviet Union, where many were shot or sent to the gulag for having failed their country. The same fate awaited millions of slave labourers who had worked for Hitler. 

The British people had gone to war in 1939 for the freedom of Poland, yet, in May 1945, the Poles merely exchanged the tyranny of Hitler for the tyranny of Stalin. The rest of Europe was in little better condition than the defeated nations.

France was still in the midst of what was called l’epuration sauvage (‘the cleansing’), after the supreme trauma of Nazi Occupation. At least 10,000 French people were shot out of hand or tried by kangaroo courts for actual or alleged collaboration with the Nazis. This orgy of recrimination, driven at root by French shame about their defeat in 1940, continued for many months after peace officially came.

In Dublin, Irish President Eamon de Valera had already flaunted his loathing for the British by paying a formal call on the German Embassy to offer condolences on the death of Hitler.

Irish President Eamon de Valera offered his condolences to Germany over Adolf Hitler’s death

 Some 200 Lancaster sorties on VE Day brought home to England 13,000 former PoWs, for whom shuttle repatriation flights continued for months. Many found the emotional adjustment immensely difficult, especially their relationships with women.

Almost everywhere around the world there was a consciousness that VE Day signalled change – an end of some things, a beginning of others.

Among educated and thoughtful British people there was an understanding that their privilege and pride in being among the victors of the Second World War must be tempered with regret that their own country’s power and importance was drastically shrunken.

For Americans and Russians, there was awareness that their nations were now the dominant powers of the globe.

 The end of the most terrible struggle in human history did not bring universal peace and freedom – only a portion of those things came to some fragment of the nations that had been engaged.

With that knowledge, the peoples who had striven so hard and long against the forces of evil, the British foremost among them, were obliged to content themselves as they took down the flags and bunting at the close of VE Day.

Amid the painful and immensely difficult challenges that Britain faces today, we should never forget that the Second World War generation endured incomparably worse, and was obliged to sacrifice much more, than, mercifully, is being demanded of us today.

Their example, however, should help us to display some of the fortitude, humour and selflessness that made victory possible for the Allies’ cause in May 1945.

Sir Max Hastings is author of many books. His latest is Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943


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