Welcome to the Dunmow & District Branch of The Royal British Legion
On 8 May 1945, the news the nation had been waiting for arrived.
WAR IS OVER!
For days people had been anticipating the news of the German surrender - a team of bell ringers were on hand to ring in victory at St Paul's Cathedral, people bought Union Jack flags and houses were garlanded with bunting, ready for the celebrations that would surely come.
Finally, in a school house in Rheims, Germany's unconditional surrender was signed at 2.41pm on 7 May 1945. Active operations by the German Forces would cease by 11.01pm the next day. Six years of bloodshed in Europe that had killed approximately 382,700 members of the British Armed Forces and 67,100 civilians were finally over.
"This is the Day of Days"
Bells across the country pealed, tugs on the Thames sounded their horns and planes roared overhead, some doing the victory roll. A sea of red, white and blue erupted – even dogs wore tricolour bows – spontaneous celebrations broke out as men, women and children rejoiced.
... it was like no other day that anyone can remember Mollie Panter-Downes, New Yorker Magazine
London was the place to be; it had taken the brunt of the war's bombing and it was only right that it should be the place to celebrate. Anyone who could reach the city did so. The centre of London was full of people waving flags – at midnight the police estimated that a crowd of 50,000 was packed into Piccadilly Circus. There was dancing to impromptu street orchestras of accordions and barrel organs, singing songs like Roll Out The Barrel and fireworks flashing into the sky.
Everyone, both in London and at home sitting by their wireless sets, wanted to hear just one man: Winston Churchill. At 3.00pm on 8 May, the Prime Minister broadcast to the nation: the war was over. He was speaking from the War Cabinet Office, the same room that in 1939 Neville Chamberlain had made a speech announcing that the country was at war.
Shortly after Churchill's speech King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses came out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the ecstatic, cheering throng. It was to be the first of eight appearances by the King and Queen on VE Day. When the doors onto the balcony were opened again at 5.30pm, the Royal Family stepped out accompanied by the man of the hour, Churchill.
Later that evening, when the King and Queen appeared once more, amongst the joyful crowd below were their two daughters. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret had slipped out of the Palace to join in and experience the jubilation.
"... my sister and I realised we couldn't see what the crowds were enjoying ... so we asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves ... After crossing Green Park we stood outside and shouted, 'We want the King', and were successful in seeing my parents on the balcony, having cheated slightly because we sent a message into the house to say we were waiting outside. I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life."
HM Queen Elizabeth II recalled in 1985
It wasn't all over
With VE Day came the first glimmer of life returning to pre-1939 days. For the first time since the beginning of the war, public buildings in London including Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament were floodlit. The weather forecast was no longer top secret and once again it featured in newspapers and on the BBC Home Service.
But not everything changed; times were still austere. Many of the restrictions faced by the nation during the war remained. Rationing in fact became stricter after hostilities had ceased – for example, bread became rationed between 1946 and 1948, and potatoes were rationed in 1947.
It wasn't until July 1954 that rationing officially ended with bacon and meat being the last to go.
No celebrations in the Far East
While Britain was awash with street parties and bonfires to celebrate VE Day, thousands of miles away, British and Commonwealth Armed Forces were still fighting in Burma, Singapore and Thailand. It was there that they heard the news that the war was over in Europe.
The British and Commonwealth campaign in the Far East was the longest campaign of the war. Continuous fighting raged for three full years. The British Forces over there, unlike their comrades fighting in Europe, had no leave during which they could go home, even if it was for just a few days. They were there for the duration; their only hope of seeing England was in victory.
For the Allied Far East POW life was extremely hard. The prison camps became infamous for the harsh treatment administered to their in-mates. Torture and even executions were commonplace. Food was strictly rationed – all that many men had was a little rice and boiled river water. All the prisoners suffered with diseases such as malaria, beri beri and dysentery.
Despite their weakened state the men were put to work as forced labour. The construction of the 258 mile Thailand-Burma railway, also known as the Death Railway, was the most notorious. Around 16,000 Allied POWs died from overwork and malnutrition.
Around 300,000 soldiers in the Far East became POWs; only 200,000 would survive to see victory over Japan. The enemy finally surrendered on 15 August 1945 - VJ Day.
The war that had stopped the world in its tracks was finally over. Our troops would, at last, be taking the long journey home to their loved ones.
“The surrender of Japan has brought to an end six years of warfare which has caused untold loss and misery to the world”. King George VI