Reach Collection


Britain’s population takes to the streets for a well-earned celebration

Life had been in turmoil for six harrowing years. When Brits on the home front weren’t being bombarded with high explosives, they had been hit by official diktats ruling every aspect of their lives. Turn off the lights, keep calm, don’t be defeatist, avoid idle chat. They’d suffered deprivations, had their food and clothing rationed and shivered in damp Anderson shelters.

Moreover, they’d been separated from loved ones and had most likely known the grief of losing a family member or at least an acquaintance in the Blitz or fighting overseas.

So, the outburst of rejoicing that poured onto the streets as soon as the BBC interrupted its programming late on 7 May 1945 to announce the end of the war was understandable.

Many didn’t wait for the official celebrations to start on the following day. Bonfires were lit, bunting and flags displayed, people danced and pubs filled with revellers.

VE Day itself – 8 May – was a national holiday. Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill wanted assurance from the Ministry of Food that one shortage there wouldn’t be, was in the capital’s beer supplies.

Souvenir mugs and other items were churned out, restaurants offered special victory menus, while street parties and parades were speedily organised. St Paul’s Cathedral held 10 consecutive services giving thanks for peace, each offering thousands of attendees a moment of reflection after years of hardship and loss.

While parties and get-togethers were held across the UK, London witnessed the most spectacular scenes as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets. Many caught trains into the capital to be part of this momentous shindig, and thousands packed landmarks such as Piccadilly Circus and The Mall. Fireworks were set off and people jumped in the Trafalgar Square fountains. Rattles, whistles and drums filled the air.

Soldiers from a multitude of allied countries jigged and sang with civilians – many dressed in red, white and blue – conga lines formed and kisses were stolen.

A band on Whitehall played ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and the crowd there sang along. Even Churchill, on a balcony overlooking the scene, joined in. Despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts, however, some pubs did run dry of beer by early evening. Nevertheless, it was certainly a celebration to remember.

Author Russell Miller was six years old at the time. He recalled that although the end of the war did little to impress him at that age, the fact that his dad returned home from the pub conveying his ‘tipsy’ Mum in a wheelbarrow, made him realise something really big had happened.

Reaction to the thrilling news was more mixed for service personnel in Germany and elsewhere. One officer with an armoured regiment in Germany said his first reaction was, ‘I’ve survived!’ But after celebrating with some ‘liberated’ Champagne, his thoughts turned to friends who had been killed. Soldiers abroad let off flares, staged parades and burned swastikas. A few went ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL) and there were incidents of alcoholfuelled fatalities.

In the southern Italian port of Taranto a party was underway on a British ship. Jean Argles, 19, a code officer in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, drove 60 miles in a Jeep across country to arrive as sirens were going off, guns were being fired and flags raised.

Jean and her friend joined the Navy sailors in the celebrations. She loved the party and was looking forward to going home, but, she said, ‘I am still thinking about my father, Cary, a PoW in the Far East who was on the Burma Railway. We don’t know whether he is alive or not.’

But for those in uniform one truth was paramount – the war was only half over. The fight against Japan in the Far East was still raging and many British soldiers, sailors and airmen in the European theatre expected to be sent there next.





Reach PLC (UK)