I have seen many news items and posts about VE Day, which is today – the 8th of May. I doubt we shall see very much about Europe Day which falls on the 9th of May, and is arguably far more important for this country and Europe generally than VE Day – of which Europe Day is the child. Hyping up VE Day seems to be very much the thing to do in this curiously jingoistic and backward looking time. I wonder how many of those pushing out the hype were actually alive at the time, or are even old enough to remember the years which followed it ? And has oft been pointed out, but little noted, the war didn’t end on VE Day – only the fighting in Europe – and even that dragged on a bit longer in places where the news was slow to arrive. The colossal struggle in the Pacific went on until August, and the survivors of the British 14th Army who did their bit in Burma – now Myanmar – have expressed their feelings about this in the name they have espoused, “the Forgotten Army”.
I remember VE Day quite well, not in graphic detail – it was quite a long while ago remember – but the feelings of the time remain with me quite vividly. We read in the papers, and listened to the BBC on the wireless, about the junketing s in London and elsewhere, the street parties and so forth, but where we lived, when the announcement was made, and on the day itself, things were very quiet. We appreciated what Mr. Churchill had to say, and also King George’s message. We had listened patiently to so many of the King’s broadcasts and willed him to keep going despite his impediment that I don’t think we noticed it much on this occasion. He couldn’t make great announcements like Churchill, not being a politician, but one could tell that he was trying to get something decent, honourable and worthwhile across and we listened, and appreciated his efforts.
I think one thing that is seldom acknowledged about the VE time is just who the people were who were living through it. Any one of age (say) 45 or older had already lived through, and maybe fought through one World War to end all wars. From 11 November 1918 to 3 September 1939 was only just short of 21 years. Memories of the Retreat from Mons, the Somme and Passchendaele and of bombing by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers were still fresh in many minds – such as those of my parents. Indeed, in 1939, many said, “Here we go again” in resignation, despair and bafflement – “Where did we go wrong ?” When people today laugh at “Dad’s Army” they forget that many of the men who volunteered, although not young, had more war experience than those younger people all round them joining up, or being called up. What went through their minds at this time. Had it all been worth it ? Might it happen yet again ?
The main thing I recollect in my own memory, and in the attitudes of my parents, even probably in our neighbourhood generally was – relief. The last months of 1944, and the early part of 1945 were the time of – first, the V1s, then the V2s, which latter were far worse morale wise. It was the relief of somebody who has been holding up a heavy weight for a long time, doesn’t think he can manage it for much longer, but somehow grits his teeth, draws up some strength from somewhere, and lasts out until he can put it down. It was like a collective sigh. And it lasted for some time, by which I mean, several days. It was like a period of quiet and mourning for something or someone. A slightly stunned sort of quietness. No doubt we got rid of the black out, and stopped worrying about the sir raid siren going off, but other than that life went on very much unchanged, and in some respects got worse. In Europe of course things were much worse – unimaginably worse – and somehow the “victors” had to pull up their socks and redirect their wartime energies into relief, and bringing home prisoners of war, refugees by the million needed to be got home – if they had any home left, and it all took its toll. Shipping cannot be replaced overnight so food shortages continued, and I am quite sure that my mother commented that “its worse now than it was before”. And what we are now pleased to call “the infrastructure” was worn out. Buses, the whole railway system, the London Underground, gas, water, electricity generation had all been heavily used but only patched up where and when they went wrong. Everything had gone into the “War Effort”. Now, all at once, it all needed major repairs or replacement, or whole new construction. And the sunny uplands, which never quite arrived, became very gloomy as it rapidly became evident that jovial old Uncle Joe of the cartoons, with his big walrus moustache, to whom we had made such great efforts to send aid, was turning to to be Stalin, the Man of Steel, and a new sort of fear and tension was borne – for how long ?
I didn’t set out to write a post war history, but the Russian threat did not go away and dictated much of my lifetime for many years to follow. My own feelings therefore about VE Day, and VJ Day, are not of the street party variety. They are more sombre. More those of the person who looks at the burnt out remains of their house, sees a lot of work to be done, and wonders what he or she should be thinking about to prevent such a thing happening again. That is why I welcomed the gradual growth of European Union as the expression of a new and better Europe with the abilities not to repeat two terrible wars, one after another. And it is why I think a anyone in the present Government who tries to “big up” VE Day, having rubbished the EU so often, is a straight up and down hypocrite of the first water.