This Friday marks 75 years since Winston Churchill announced the end of the war in Europe and people took to the streets to rejoice with victory parades, parties and music. There’s never been a better time to reflect on what this generation endured and the lessons we can learn from it. Some of those who were there share their moving memories with Eimear O’Hagan.
‘We were so poor but we made it a special day’
Vernice Parkinson, 81, lives in north Manchester
I was just six and a half on VE Day and remember thinking how silly all the adults were behaving – I realise now they were tipsy! I had no memory of life before the war, so seeing people singing, dancing and being so happy was a new experience.
I spent the early years of the war living in the local workhouse. My mother had serious mental health problems and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. My father was a factory worker, so my elder sisters were sent to live with an aunt and I went to the workhouse as a baby. Ironically, because there was so much poverty in the area I was from, I was better fed and cared for in the workhouse than many other children.
In 1942, I came home to live with my father and siblings in a small cottage in Radcliffe, near Manchester. It was in a long row of cottages, all with outside brick toilets, and although people had very little on VE Day, everyone went to so much effort to make it special. There were long trestle tables, neighbours shared their food, tea and sugar and there was a huge bonfire in the communal area at the back of the row.
A lot of my friends’ fathers had been away fighting, and I remember one mother spent the day crying because her husband was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. For many it was such a happy day, but for others the war wasn’t over yet.
‘I missed VE Day!’
Mervyn Kersh, 95, lives in Barnet, north London
The day the war ended I was on a sealed train with lots of other soldiers, travelling from Germany to the UK, where I was to prepare to be part of the invasion of Japan, just as I had been on the beaches of Normandy.
We had no idea what had happened until the train stopped in Bruges on 9 May 1945. We’d had no contact with the outside world for 30 hours – even the windows on the train had been boarded up to protect us from German fire.
To hear about the VE Day celebrations the day before, I felt so glad the war had ended – and a bit cross I’d missed the party, although a fuss was made of us by the local people who were still rejoicing.
I travelled on to London and heard all about the street parties, which sounded absolutely wonderful. Later on in my life, my wife Betty, who passed away last year, would tell me about how she had been at Piccadilly Circus on VE Day and of the happy Londoners and American soldiers all celebrating together.
I was evacuated from London when I was 14 and sent to Exeter, before joining the Army in 1943. I fought in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and Germany, but the Japanese must have heard I was coming and surrendered before I was sent out there! I left the Army in 1946 but have never forgotten that time in my life, and the friends I lost.
‘I was part of the war effort at Bletchley Park… and went straight to London to celebrate’
Betty Webb MBE, 97, lives near Birmingham
I was working at Bletchley Park, in the Japanese department, on the day I found out that the war in Europe had ended. I immediately went and caught a train from Milton Keynes to London, where I met a good friend who was part Jewish and had escaped from Germany during the war. We joined the crowds by the Thames and I remember that it was so packed that my feet barely touched the ground as I was swept forward by the throngs of revellers. There was so much laughter, singing, drinking and high jinks – it really was the most incredible atmosphere of joy and celebration.
I had arrived at Bletchley Park in 1941, having joined the Army when I was 18. Everything was so secretive; we had no idea what was going on in the next room. And it was absolutely forbidden to talk about our work outside our room. Women outnumbered men by around three to one, which made romance difficult!
I registered, decoded and translated enemy signals – in three different languages – before they were sent on to the Prime Minister or directly to the commanders in the field.
No one at my level had any idea of the contribution we were making to the war effort. We really didn’t know the full story of the work going on there. It was only afterwards that I realised what I’d been part of.
After VE Day, I was posted to Washington, to the Pentagon, to carry on my work there until the war ended in August 1945.
‘I sang for all my neighbours at our street party’
Norma Powell, 85, lives in Holland-On-Sea, Essex
I was a very shy little girl but my mother insisted I do a ‘turn’ during my road’s VE Day street party. I stood on the makeshift stage that one of our neighbours had built and sang a song called ‘Alice Blue Gown’. Seventy-five years on, I can still remember every word.
Our street party in Chingford, Essex, was just as you would imagine – long tables covered in cloth, lots of tea, sandwiches and jelly for the children, and someone had wheeled out their piano from the house so there was music and dancing. I vividly remember there was a feeling that an enormous weight had been lifted from everyone.
My mother and I had left London and moved to Newquay in Cornwall, although I can’t remember how far into the war it was when that happened. A doctor had told my parents that I was so traumatised from the bombing of the area around our home, and spending nights in the dark, damp air raid shelter at the top of the street, that I needed to be taken away.
My father stayed in London – he worked in insurance because his health wasn’t good enough for him to enrol in the Army – while my mother and I lived in a lovely hotel in Newquay and I went to school there. My father would visit us, and shortly before the war ended we returned to London just in time to celebrate.
‘I was a boy soldier about to join the war’
Fred Brunger, 92, is a Chelsea pensioner and lives in London
When I found out that the war in Europe was over, I was a bit disappointed. I was 17 and about to leave the Army Apprentices College near Reading to become a fully signed-up soldier. But then I realised that we’d finally be able to get nice things to eat again – a typical teenage-boy thought!
I heard the news while walking the seven miles from college to Reading with six of my friends, because we didn’t have enough money for the bus. As we passed through villages on our way, people were coming out of their homes, embracing and cheering with happiness.
The college, where I enrolled when I was 15, was residential and out in the countryside, so most of the time I was very sheltered from the war. However, travelling home to see my family in Kent, I had to pass through London and see the devastation there. Every time it shocked me, seeing parts of the city completely flattened.
After college, I spent another year in training then was sent to India in 1946. I served for 25 years in total.
‘Our town was lit up after years of darkness’
Jimmy and Anna Walker, 92 and 90, live in Gattonside, Melrose, in the Scottish Borders
Jimmy: My overwhelming memory of VE Day is of light. As evening fell that day, it was the first time since the war had begun that car headlights were on, the curtains of people’s homes were open, and all through the town of Airdrie, North Lanarkshire – where Anna and I grew up – bonfires blazed as people celebrated in the streets. Looking back, it was very symbolic to see our hometown lit up after the darkness of years of war.
I was 17 on VE Day, just about to turn 18, when it would have been compulsory for me to join the Army. I still enrolled in June 1945, expecting to be sent to Japan, but they surrendered, ending the Second World War. Instead, in 1946, I was sent to Cairo for two years, before I left the Army.
Airdrie was on the flight path to the Clydebank shipyards, which were bombed. We had lots of air-raid warnings, and would have to run to the local shelters. I also volunteered to do fire-watching overnight at local buildings, which my friends and I thought was very exciting – especially as we were paid for it.
Anna: Jimmy and I met at school and we were ‘courting’ on VE Day. I remember we took a walk through the town to a local park and sat chatting on a bench. Someone in the park had a gun, which they fired in celebration – but I wasn’t very impressed by that.
Throughout the war, our school was divided into two groups and we attended on alternate days – in case it was bombed. I was a member of the Girls Training Corps and we raised funds for the troops and went on marches. Like Jimmy, I would have been called up had the war carried on, but VE Day meant I was able to train to become a teacher instead.
‘The pub was packed – it took an hour to get a pint’
I joined the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] as a gunner in January 1941, when I was 17, and defended anti-aircraft bases until the end of the war. I was in Leeds on leave when the news came in that the Germans had surrendered. The announcement came over on the radio – we only had tiny radios in those days.
I went to the town hall – all the bands and drums were going and thousands of people weron the streets. It was very exciting – everyone was screaming, laughing and making merry. It was wonderful. I remember hearing people shouting, ‘The war’s over – no more killing’, ‘It’s over, it’s over’, ‘We can go back home’. We drank in a pub called the Three Legs of Man – it was so full it took an hour to get a pint.
I wish my husband had been with me on VE Day. He was posted in Hong Kong, so I had to wait until the war in Japan finished for him to come home.
At the same time as all the joy, I was nervous – I think most people were, wondering what was going to happen next. But we got over it. We had to push ourselves forward and look towards another day.
The Great British street party
The VE Day street parties were the biggest spontaneous national celebration Britain had ever seen. At sunrise on 8 May, many women were already creating feasts from almost-bare larders. Cakes were made with dried egg, milk, liquid paraffin from the medicine cabinet and homemade jam. Jellies were set in pots and sandwiches filled with dripping. Finally, the best china, which hadn’t been used for years, was brought out.
This wasn’t the first time the nation had hit the streets to celebrate, says social historian Chris Gittins, referring to the ‘peace teas’ of 1919. ‘The idea was to throw parties for children who had been orphaned by the First World War and the Spanish flu. It was encouraged by the government and often funded by the well-to-do.’
Street parties also marked the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935, the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and, on 2 June 1953, the coronation of our Queen. Back then, most foods were still rationed, but households were given an extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine for the occasion. Home cooks pushed the boat out with fish-paste sandwiches and blancmange. Cups, saucers and mugs were printed with the Queen’s face, while coronation bunting came in 16-foot strings of 20 cotton Union Flags, with letters spelling out ‘God Save The Queen’.
Posher parties had crackers to pull made of red, white and blue crepe paper. Ladies made jaunty Union Flag fascinators; men wore custard tins covered with paper and given a cardboard brim like a soldier’s helmet. Some streets held mock-coronations with well-rehearsed toddler maids of honour.
If the street parties of 1953 celebrated a new queen for a Britain beginning to shake off wartime privation, those held for her silver jubilee in 1977 were more about cheering up the nation. Strikes, IRA bombs and the Yorkshire Ripper dominated headlines, yet that summer ‘we had the largest number of street parties ever,’ says Gittins – 12,000 in all.
Since then, we’ve had street parties for the weddings of Charles and Diana in 1981, and William and Kate in 2011. One of the biggest turnouts – with almost 10,000 street parties across England and Wales – was for the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2012.
‘We always rise to the occasion,’ says Bruno Peek, who masterminded the lighting of 1,250 beacons across the country for the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016. ‘When it comes down to it, there’s nothing better than a street party.’
Bonfires, booze and hundreds of sarnies
Here’s how these celebrities marked Victory in Europe
I was four and my mother wanted to do something to mark the occasion. We lived on Banbury Road in Oxford so we made hundreds of tomato and cheese sandwiches and cake. We had a table on the street and I handed plates of food to the bus crews who went down our road. I knew it was VE Day and my mother wrote a song about it. She was crying with excitement. I wish we could do that this year but instead I shall make lots of Zoom calls until I can hand out sandwiches and party on the street again.
Captain Tom Moore
At 25, I was based in Bovington, Dorset, at the Armoured Fighting Vehicle School. I had been sent back from India to train tank drivers. I expected to return to India but then the Germans surrendered. Although the war was over, everything didn’t stop overnight. There was no money for big celebrations but there was excitement after five years of terrible wartime. However, this feeling of jubilation was relatively muted as we still felt in the middle of things. It was low key but a poignant end to wartime.
Captain Tom has famously raised over £28 million for the NHS: justgiving.com/tomswalkforthenhs
I was just two weeks short of my seventh birthday, but I remember my gang of friends had packed several communal air-raid shelters with wood for our huge street bonfire. Everyone was outside and service people wandered from bonfire to bonfire with booze. There was a searchlight reflecting its beam on the back of our house and gramophones or pianos had everybody dancing. My mates and I were still sitting by the fire embers at 4am. I’m sure when lockdown ends the euphoria will be very similar.
I can remember being about four and Granny pinning up blackout curtains and all of us practising hiding under the table wearing gas masks that looked like elephants’ trunks. I don’t remember being scared by any of this. My family made sure I was surrounded by love. But I do remember the emotion of VE Day because Granny walked around with our radio as a speaker announced at deafening volume that the war was over. I sensed my family’s relief. I knew it was a very important day. And I have remembered that day all my life, and felt hugely grateful to those brave British pilots ever since.
On VE Day I was 13 years old and away at Rydal boarding school in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. I remember how we were all called into the assembly hall and told that it was VE Day and that we would have a whole day’s holiday. We were then sent to our classrooms where the form master gave us some pocket money and told us we were free to go wherever we wanted. So I went to Llandudno with a friend. That was the best bit for me.
I was nine and staying at Howe Bank Farm cottage, Castleton, North Yorkshire. Each morning my Aunty Collins would walk up to the field to milk her cow. I carried the bucket. On that morning Dick, who kept goats, was leaning over his gate, and as we passed he called out, ‘T’WAR’S OWER!’ – the war’s over. That night the villagers lit a bonfire on the hill.
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