Friday, May 8, 2020

Victory in Europe Day

Today is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. The act of military surrender was signed by Germany on 7 May 1945, and the following day, 8 May, was declared a holiday. More than a million people spilled out onto the streets in the UK, crowds filling parts of central London. See the BBC, Wikipedia, The Royal British Legion, World War II Today for more about VE Day and past celebrations. The planned programme of events for the 75th anniversary has, of course, been decimated thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic - but see the official website, the BBC and inews for advice on relevant broadcasts and how to celebrate in lock down.

To remember VE Day first hand, as it were, here are several diary entries written on the day.

Tony Simmonds, teenager, Brighton
8 May 1945
‘VICTORY IN EUROPE DAY - I was at work - when I came back from lunch at 2 pm I found everyone in a hustle and bustle. The Manager said we were going to get out by 3.30. We did. Even then we had time to rush out to hear Churchill’s speech at 3 o’clock and a fine speech it was too.

We all knew something would happen in the evening and it did. It came right up to my fullest expectations. I just can’t describe the scene. I was alone most of the time and spent almost five hours around the Clock Tower. People just went mad - dancing, singing, chanting, shouting - the crowd just surged this way and that - The Academy, the Odeon and the Regent were all floodlit for the first time in almost six years - fire crackers, flares and even pre-war ‘jumpers’ were thrown about the streets - even into busses - all policemen ‘had their eyes shut’.

I left at just after 11 pm leaving behind me a riot going on outside the Regent - where a drunken sailor was protesting against a charge of 10/6d for a dance in the Regent Dance Hall. What a day - I shall never forget it for the rest of my life.

Our house is decorated up - four flags - a shield and red, white & blue streamers. Even Mrs Guild next door has her standard flying. As for the town itself - well I never knew there were so many flags manufactured. My bike has a big rosette and streamers on its handlebars.’

Source: Brighton in Diaries by Paul K Lyons (History Press, 2011); also the My Brighton and Hove website.


Joan Strange, young woman, Worthing
8 May 1945
‘It’s come at last. I woke up at 7 am to hear the sound of Mother wrestling with the flags (rather moth-eaten and patched, relics of Queen Victoria’s jubilee!). But we weren’t the first in the road after all as we were when Mussolini was captured in July 1943. The weather’s been good for the first of the two VE holidays. It’s been a queer sort of day, the highlights being the Prime Minister’s short broadcast at 3pm and the King’s at 9 pm. . . Hostilities cease officially at one minute past midnight tonight when it’s hoped that any fighting against the Russians will cease. Mother and I listened in to the thrilling broadcasts on the European victory. There were services in all churches and cinemas at 12 pm today.’

Source: Despatches from the Home Front, The War Diaries of Joan Strange 1939-1945 (Monarch Publications, 1989).


Vera Brittain, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Felt disinclined to hear a “Victory” service so went to the little meeting of the London Mission at Kingsway Hall to hear Donald Soper give a really inspiring address on thanksgiving, penitence and dedication. After lunch again went back to Whitehall determined to end this War near Westminster as I ended the last. Flags now everywhere; ‘planes flying over crowds; bells ringing; mounted policemen moving back a throng which grew immense between 2.0 & 3.0; yet sense of anti-climax persisted in contrast with spontaneity of Armistice Day 1918; it was all so formal & “arranged”.

Ar 3.0 Churchill’s voice duly announced the end of the War & after silence the crowds cheered. Typically he ended with the words “Advance Britannia!” & introduced no phrase of constructive hope for a better society which renounces war. Caught a glimpse of him standing in his car as he went from Downing St. to the H. of Commons surrounded by cheering crowds, waving his hat, with the usual cigar & self-satisfied expression.

Walked half the way home for tea with Mother, thinking how strange it was that, though this time I have kept (so far) all my private world which last time I had totally lost, not one of them is here, & again I experience the end of a European war half-exasperated & half-saddened by the triviality of her preoccupations in contrast to the immensity of world events.

Dined at Rembrandt with J. von R., talked to her till past 11 p.m., when we walked to Sloane Avenue & looked at partially flood-lit buildings & a display of searchlights half-obscured by a cloudy sky; saw it from the roof of the flat. Left her at S. Kensington station & walked home with the War officially (at 1 minute past midnight) as well as actually over in Europe. Bonfires in St Luke’s Churchyard & elsewhere; Chelsea Town Hall floodlit; people in streets, but everything orderly & controlled.’

Source: Wartime Chronicle - Vera Brittain’s Diary 1939-1945 (Victor Gollancz, 1989). See also The Diary Junction.


Naomi Mitchison, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Then we went off to Piccadilly Circus [. . .]. We had lunch at the CafĂ© [Royal) at 12.45. It wasn’t very full or decorated, nor did the people look special in any way. But when we got out there was quite a crowd. The children had wanted to go to the Zoo but Pic Circ seemed better, so we wandered along slowly, looking on. A number of other people were doing the same thing, in fact almost everyone was tired and wanting to look rather than do. They were sitting when possible, lots of them on the steps of St Martin’s. Most people were wearing bright coloured clothes, lots of them red white and blue in some form (I was wearing my kilt and blouse, much too hot, as I found). Most women had lipstick and a kind of put on smile but all but the very young looked very tired when they stopped actually smiling. [. . .]

Dick wanted to book a place at the Ivy but it was shut; we tried to get ballet tickets but there was none. We walked down to the Temple where a few people were happily resting on the benches in the gardens. It was amazing how the half blitzed trees had sprouted again. [. . .] After dinner we walked back down to Pic Circ again. There were a lot more drunks and broken bottles than earlier, and a few people crying or having hysterics or collapsing, and a lot of ambulances. But still most people were looking on; there was a man doing antics on one of the roofs but he didn’t fall off. People were sitting all along the pavements, no general dancing. We wandered round, looking for a pub, as Jack was longing for a beer. My feet were getting very sore indeed so that I could hardly think of anything else. I was also very tired after my journey. Americans (and perhaps others but one always blames the poor Yanks!) were throwing crackers which weren’t altogether popular. Jack and I always jumped. [. . .]

In The Doves there was nobody we knew. People were singing but (just like everywhere else) with the minimum of tune. I think mostly There’ll always be an England and Roll out the Barrel . . . Val came in just before midnight and we went on the roof and looked at the searchlights whirling round and reflected beautifully in the river. Then we listened to the midnight news and went to bed.’

Source: Among you taking notes . . . The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1986). See also The Diary Junction and The Diary Review - Ordinary people.


Frances Partridge, writer, Newbury
8 May 1945
‘At three o’clock Churchill delivered the promised announcement. Afterwards we drove to Newbury to get the other Inkpen [village west of Newbury] children from school. Every cottage had a few flags hung out, and in most of them a dummy-like figure of an old person could be seen at an upper window. Near Newbury we had a narrow escape from a drunken lorry-driver veering from side to side of the road - he made the V-sign as we passed. Bicyclists were hurrying in to Newbury dressed in their best; little girls wore satin blouses and red, white and blue bows in their hair.’

Source: A Pacifist’s War - Diaries 1939-1945 (Phoenix, 1999). See also The Diary Junction.

This article is a revised version of one first published 5 years ago on 8 May 2015.

No comments: