I thought, as we remember and commemorate Victory in Europe Day on May 8th, to look at what was actually happening in the last days of the war in Europe, and what ordinary people, especially those at home, knew about what was going on.
During April more and more German troops began to surrender, as the Soviet armies marched through Vienna and 1.4 million soldiers launched an attack on Berlin on April 20th. Mussolini (the Italian ruler) had been killed by Italian partisans on April 25th, and Hitler committed suicide on 30th April. Admiral Donitz, whom Hitler nominated as his successor in his will, announced Hitler’s death on 2nd May and newspapers were quick to publish the news. With reports of fighting having stopped in Berlin that same day and that over 1.5 million German soldiers had surrendered to the allied forces in the west in April, it was obvious to most people that the war in Europe was almost over. But not quite . . .
The German army in The Netherlands, Denmark and North-East Germany surrendered to British Field Marshall Montgomery in the early hours of May 4th. The rest of the German armies surrendered to the American General Eisenhower only on May 7th. Late in the evening of May 7th a BBC newsflash announced that May 8th would be a public holiday, to be called Victory in Europe Day, and that Winston Churchill would make a broadcast at 3.00 that afternoon. It was transmitted live on the BBC.
The announcement was not unexpected and celebrations, which in many places had been prepared, started immediately. Bonfires were lit, pubs were crowded, there was dancing in the streets and bunting hung from lampposts, and church bells began ringing (although this was still strictly speaking illegal). I remember the late jazz musician and Grenadier Guards officer Humphrey Lyttelton telling of his early morning impromptu concert in a wheelbarrow in Trafalgar Square, which was later discovered on an archive BBC news recording!
I’m afraid that with the Corona lock-down I’ve not been able to scour the local newspapers for details of Sandwell and wider Black Country festivities. Perhaps anyone with memories could add them here. But we know there were street parties, bonfires, crowds in town centres . . .and a measurable peak in the birth-rate in February 1946! Churchill worried that there were not enough beer supplies in London to last the day, and red white and blue cloth was taken off ration for the day so people could make their own bunting and flags. Many churches were packed out, running end to end services, with St Paul’s in London doing 10 non-stop, to capacity congregations which I doubt would meet modern heath and safety standards!
Not everyone celebrated with such abandon. The war against Japan would continue, with ferocious fighting, until August (I’ll come back to that) and too many families had lost too many loved ones for the joy to be widespread. For many people there was just a profound sense of relief, while for others a deep sense of sadness. A brief walk around All Saints graveyard in West Bromwich brings this home – one gravestone commemorates 20 year old Pilot Officer Kenneth Usher, who died on 4th April 1945 after his Lancaster bomber crashed on a mission over Germany, and not far away is the grave of 18 year old Private G M Smith, of the North Staffordshire Regiment, like Ken Usher born in West Bromwich, who died of injuries in a Black Country hospital on June 6th that year. Across Sandwell’s graveyards and burial grounds you can find memorials tended today by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to men who lived to see the end of the war, but whose injuries prevented them from enjoying the peace. At All Saints there’s also the grace to a member of the Czech air force who died in West Bromwich, an exile who never made it home, and a reminder that it wasn’t just Britons who made the ultimate sacrifice and helped win the victory, but men (and women) from across the British Empire, and across the world.
So although today seems to many like an excuse for a party (a bit of a sombre one with lock-down restrictions not lifted) I’m not sure how much we should be celebrating. For many, it was the right thing to do in 1945, but 75 years on, perhaps we should, alongside a toast to those who sacrificed so much to help build today’s Europe, reflect on just what humanity is capable of – the history of World War II may show us the very best of us, but also the very very worse.
Frank – Museums, Arts and Heritage Business Manager.