As the nation marks VE Day 75 years on, cultural historian and Professor Emerita, Maggie Andrews, reflects on the reality of British life behind the celebrations, what people had endured and the uncertain future, difficulties, and social and political change that lay ahead as the country emerged from the rubble.
VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day, commemorates what is seen as an iconic, defining point in British history when, after a monumental struggle, victory over Hitler and fascism was celebrated. The 8 May 1945 was a day of street parties, drunken revelry, moments of sexual indiscretion or raucous behaviour. Dorris Monk, a Worcestershire resident who was 19 at the time, later recalled ‘when VE day was announced I was elated and it was a time for us to go out and make up for a bit of lost time’. However, others had more mixed reactions. Jack Gillard stationed at RAF Defford recalled ‘no extraordinary scenes of jubilation on the aerodrome, we simply felt a drained sigh of relief that the nightmare in Europe was at last over and done with’.
Six years of war had taken their toll on those on the home front. Rationing, the conscription of men into the forces and the threat of invasion and then the London blitz had spread fear amongst the population in 1940. By the end of 1941 bombing was less intense, but the conscription of women caused further disruption as they juggled domestic responsibilities with work in factories, producing vehicles and munitions needed for war. By 1942 despondency had set in; although many of the population felt the war would be won, they were convinced the conflict would last a further ten years. Over 3 million children, some accompanied by their mothers had been evacuated to the safety of the countryside, but they began to drift home, despite the continued danger.
However, by the end of 1944, victory over Germany seemed at last in sight, the threat of invasion had evaporated, mines and barbed wire were removed from the beaches. The Home Guard, seen a symbol of British defiance in the face of Nazi aggression, stood down. Yet wartime pressures on many families continued; rationing, food shortages and separation from their loved ones, as 150,000 more men entered the armed forces in the first half of 1945. The bombing also continued, thanks to the unmanned V1 and V2 rockets, falling on the south of England from June 1944. On 27 March, 1945 Ivy Millichamp of Orpington, southeast London was the last civilian to be killed in a V2 attack.
The air-raid sirens, whose wail had become so familiar in big cities like London, finally fell silent in April. Families who gathered around their wireless sets to keep abreast of the news were informed at the end of the month that Mussolini had been shot and Hitler had committed suicide. It was not however until the 7 April that a much-anticipated announcement informed the population that the war had ended and the next day would be VE Day, the bunting could come out and celebrations begin. Many British people however looked to the future with mixed emotions: trepidation and joy, excitement and anxiety.
Planning for a new post-war world, had been intrinsic to fighting the war. In the army education corps, women’s organisations, Universities and Churches, broadcast and printed media there had been discussion about the new post-war world. People queued to buy copies of William Beveridge’s report in 1943, which provided a blueprint for the organisation of welfare and how the country could address the five giant evils of: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The 1944 Butler Education Act, guaranteeing secondary education for all children seemed to be a first step along this road. When the summer general election gave the Labour Party a parliamentary majority of 145 this was seen by some as another step. The election result seemed to indicate significant social and political change. Barrow-on-Furness housewife Nella Last’s diary entry indicates there were mixed responses. She noted “we got a real shock” and went on to add: “when we heard our Conservative member had been beaten by 12,000 – we simply could not believe it.” Furthermore, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out in an interview with Picture Post in April 1945: “Making good the enormous destruction and deterioration of goods and industrial capital will be a stupendous task.”
The transition from war to peace was inevitably fuzzier than a focus on VE day suggests. The conflict in the Far East did not end until the middle of August and many service personnel instead of coming home were redirected to take part. The consequences of war were all around on the home front. The Flying School at RAF Worcester, in Perdiswell, closed but a German Prisoners of war camp remained on the site until 1948; in other parts of the county camps of displaced people from war-torn Europe awaited their fate. Significantly, Britain was virtually bankrupt – massively in debt to the United States. The austerity and hardship associated with war increased after VE Day, the government reduced the bacon and lard rations three weeks later. Bread rationing was introduced in 1946 and food rationing only ended in 4 July, 1954 when rationing on meat and bacon was finally lifted.
Furthermore, families torn asunder by war could not necessarily be put back together again. Two and half million couples had been living apart for long periods of the war, a third of a million servicemen and women and merchant seamen had lost their lives. Only 55,000 evacuees remained in the countryside by April 1945; some never returned home, many were adopted by their foster parents. When Reginald Walsh lined up with 26 other evacuees at his Staffordshire school, his teacher told the children “You’re all going back apart from the Walshes”. Many parents could not be located, some had died and some felt their children would be better away from the urban slums and poor housing of the cities.
Families trying to create a home discovered the legacy of wartime bombing was a housing shortage. The Labour Party manifesto had stated that ‘Housing will be one of the greatest and earliest tests of Government’s determination to the put the nation first’. More than 156,000 prefabs, affectionately known as people’s palaces because of all their modern facilities, were put up in 1946 and 1947. The new Government sensibly allocated scarce skilled workers and materials to repairing damaged houses. Over 60,000 were habitable by 1947 but this did little to alleviate the problem. Squatters in desperation had already moved into disused army bases and housing came to be seen as one of failures of the post-war era. Despite the lasting success of the National Health Service formed in 1948, making peace and putting the country back together proved as, if not more, challenging than fighting a war.