Keep Calm and Remember VE Day

British children celebrate in May 1945.

British children celebrate in May 1945.

May 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. On 7th May 1945, the defeated Nazi Government signed an unconditional surrender in Reims, France. The following day, 8th May 1945, was declared a public holiday in the United Kingdom.

People celebrated all around the world. The devastating war was over at last – in Europe at least. War was still raging in the Far East, which would have terrible consequences, as the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people before the Japanese government surrendered in August 1945.

This week, the commemoration of this historic event has been rather overshadowed by the general election – I remember that in May 1995, the May bank holiday was moved to commemorate the 50th anniversary of VE Day and there were big celebrations everywhere. And the 70th anniversary is significant. Even if you were a small child during World War Two, you are now over seventy. This is the last big anniversary of World War Two that is still within living memory for most families and communities.

This week, I discovered that those memories are very much alive. I heard lots of moving recollections of wartime. Two of the patients I talked to were children in Germany at the time.

It’s easy for the British to be patriotic and proud when thinking about the Second World War, but it’s important to remember the suffering on all sides of the conflict. German civilians suffered dreadfully, fleeing their homes to avoid the bombing and the atrocities committed by the invading Russian army. Thousands of civilians died of disease and starvation. Germany was divided up into four sections, each controlled by different Allied Forces. Life must have been very difficult for ordinary people.

Life was hard for everyone in Britain in May 1945, but at least most people could breathe a sigh of relief, and hope that their loved ones came home safely.

There were street parties – and many pubs had run out of beer by 8pm! Food was strictly rationed and rationing would continue for another nine years. But clever cooks like Marguerite Patten, who worked for the Ministry of Food, showed people how to make the most of their rations. We made one of her recipes this week, and it went down very well.

We made carrot scones – vegetables weren’t rationed and were often home grown – under the Dig for Victory campaign, gardeners dug up their flowerbeds and grew vegetables instead, as submarine attacks made food imports very difficult. The carrots add sweetness and also moisture to the recipe. The recipe is very easy to make, and everyone found the scones delicious! I’ll definitely be making them again.

Over tea and scones, we talked, looking at photographs in books and handling objects such as ration books, wooden toys and a newspaper dating back to the war years. I noted down the things that people experienced and remembered.

Wartime Memories

I remember queues and soup kitchens
Being a refugee – hiding in the cellar
Packing our belongings,
Not knowing where we were going,
Ending up in a camp run by the Americans.
Darkness, blackout curtains
Sheltering in candlelight.
No money.
Working on a farm, for food.
Milking a cow, in exchange for some milk.
Living off blueberries picked in the mountains.
Badly bombed – carrying on somehow,
Going from door to door, begging for food.

I remember my bicycle –
Endless stew and ration books.
Two ounces of butter or margarine,
Raisins instead of sweets,
No oranges or bananas.
Cod liver oil to keep us well.
Wooden toys made by a relative –
Or no toys at all. We just played out.

I remember sheltering in the Underground,
Catching lice – it was difficult to keep clean.
It was a filthy place, but we hoped we were safe.
There were Anderson Shelters in back gardens.
They removed all the iron railings from the park
Melted them down to make planes.
All the boys on the look-out for shrapnel –
They didn’t link it with death somehow.
We were fascinated by the barrage balloons that hung above the town.
The eerie sound of whistling bombs.
We made a shelter out of concrete in the back garden.

I remember VE night.
Outside Chesterfield Town Hall at midnight, singing.
We had a midnight pass,
But stayed out much later,
Savouring the freedom,
Roll out the barrel.
In the ATS, we were paid two shillings a day.
We had to salute the top brass.
We used to sing:
We work and slave for little pay
Saluting for two bob a day
It’s foolish but it’s fun.
I wish I had a little kite
To fly all day and fly all night.
And though I know it isn’t right,
It’s foolish but it’s fun.