This article appeared in the iPaper on the 75th anniversary of VE Day
By Kevin Telfer
Some politicians have suggested that we are at war with coronavirus. It is a ridiculous analogy in many ways, but there is a strange sense in which the build up to the end of lockdown does in some respects resemble the wait for VE Day in May 1945. There is the same constant focus on government announcements, for instance, and grumbling about regulations, and their enforcement, that are seen as bureaucratic, or mistaken, or mistimed, or all of these things. There is also the same sense that when the lockdown is lifted, just as when the war was over, there will be a price to pay that cannot yet be counted.
Churchill summed this up when he wrote about his feelings as he travelled through central London in an open-top car on 8 May, 1945. ‘Apprehension for the future and many perplexities filled my mind as I moved beyond the cheering Londoners in their hour of well-won rejoicing.’ It was only at 3pm that day that he formally announced to the public on the radio that the war in Europe was over.
A national obsession was publicly renewed on the morning of 8 May: the weather forecast could be printed in newspapers and broadcast to the nation for the first time since the war began – it had been classified as sensitive information since 1939. There had been thunderstorms overnight in many parts of the country and the day was warm and humid – hitting 78°F in London. The weather meant that the streets of many towns and cities across the country were filled with people celebrating in one form or another.
The churches were full of worshippers who came to give thanks, remember loved ones they’d lost, sing hymns and pray. Some churches ran hourly services from morning until late into the night.
And although the day was dominated across the country by flag-waving, drinking, bonfires, fireworks and singalongs, Churchill’s own apprehension was felt, even on VE Day itself, by many others.
The end of the war also brought all kinds of uncertainties with it. Conflict had been a constant companion in people’s lives for six years. Now people looked around and saw poverty and rationing, towns and cities ravaged by bombs, and an uncertain economic future. People waited for loved ones to return with a mixture of hope and trepidation. In victory, with its promise of freedom and peace, it was indeed the best of times, but for many fear and anxiety made it feel like the worst of times had not quite ended yet.
More rationing was introduced in May with less cooking fat and less bacon. There was less meat available in 1945 than there had been in 1944. Edmund Wilson, an American writer living in London was surprised to find a shop in Holborn with ‘rows and rows of dead crows’ in it. He assumed that they were for people to eat. He wrote that ‘Where our efforts have gone towards destruction, we have been able to build nothing at home to fall back on amidst our ruin.’
There was a widespread desire to build a better country out of these ruins – a country with universal healthcare, a national insurance scheme to protect vulnerable people, and adequate housing. There was some bitterness from servicemen about ‘the fruits of victory’ – or lack thereof. Britain was broke and broken, tatty and weary, and thousands of those who would be demobilised, or ‘demobbed’, in the coming months would have to find new careers and start from scratch.
But on VE Day itself, most of those servicemen across the world could not even fully rejoice that the war was over. In Europe, the fighting may have ended but conditions were still tough. Private Sid Verrier from Stoke Newington sent a letter home to his parents to describe VE Day in Germany. ‘Believe me, folks,’ he wrote, ‘I’ve never felt so fed up since I joined the army. No beer here, no decent grub worthy of such an occasion, no mail, no fraternisation with civvies, absolutely nothing.’ He spent his evening chatting with an ex-German soldier who was now the interpreter for his unit.
It was even worse for many servicemen in the far east. In Burma, Captain I A Wallace of the 115th Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, spent VE Day engaged in tough fighting with Japanese soldiers in the dense rainforest. Near the end of the day he described his platoon commander breaking down in tears after a corporal had been killed in action. ‘The tears poured down his cheeks and he sobbed bitterly. That was how we spent VE Day.’
Just over a month after VE Day George Orwell wrote the first pages of his new novel – Nineteen Eighty-Four. It captured a general mood of pessismism. People had seen and experienced terrible things that they could not easily forget, and the war had given them what might have felt like an enduring insight into human nature. Further events of that summer, such as the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only seemed to cement the central vision of Orwell’s novel: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
The Summer of ’45: Stories and Voices from VE Day to VJ Day by Kevin Telfer