VJ Day: the stories of those who were there when the Second World War finally ended

Harold Robinson, 95, at home in Otley with his wife, Laura, 94.

Harold Robinson, 95, at home in Otley with his wife, Laura, 94.

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Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. Chris Bond speaks to some of those who lived through it about their memories as the Second World War finally ended.

HAROLD Robinson was in Cochin when he heard the tumultuous news on the radio about the first atomic bomb being dropped on Japan.

He was one of 750 Royal Marines sent to the Indian sub-continent where they spent several months undergoing intensive jungle training in readiness for a covert attack on the enemy.

“We were to land in Malaysia, fight the Japanese in the jungles and eventually recapture Singapore,” says Harold. “This was expected to take up to three or four years and we were just about to leave Cochin when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”

The plan was put on hold and then a couple of days later came the second, devastating, attack on Nagasaki. For Harold and his comrades it meant the fighting was almost over. “We cheered like mad when we heard the news because we knew that the Japanese would now be forced to surrender.”

This came a few a days later and VJ Day was greeted with relief and euphoria. “We went out to the canteen and got a bit merry, we were all very happy that it was finally over,” he says.

90-year-old Barbara Weatherill, from Barlby, near Selby, was serving in the Army in Scotland on VJ Day. 'Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

90-year-old Barbara Weatherill, from Barlby, near Selby, was serving in the Army in Scotland on VJ Day. 'Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

For British Armed Forces personnel involved in the fighting in the Far East, news that the war was finally at an end was greeted with jubilation.

Robert Clarke from Cleckheaton, in West Yorkshire, was serving with the Navy in the Far East on VJ Day. He recalls seeing the light on his ship flash rapidly and knew they were receiving a message.

He asked a signalman to decipher the message and was told that it read “the war is over”. Like many others he celebrated with an extra tot of rum that night.

Jim Sheader, from Scarborough, was working as a wireless operator with the RAF in Delhi when word came through of the Japanese surrender.

He had previously been based in Burma intercepting Japanese messages via Morse code. Jim, who is now 94, had been informed about the Americans plans to drop the atomic bomb but was still shocked that it all ended so quickly.

Normally the men were only allowed three beers a month, but on the day 
the Japanese surrendered it flowed freely.

The full scale of the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not yet emerged and after such a long, brutal war, those in the firing line were simply glad it was over and that now, finally, they could go home.

“It was a tremendous relief,” says Harold Robinson, now 95. “We had prepared ourselves to fight our way through the Malaysian jungle and we knew we were not expected to come home again unless we were very lucky. So when we heard that the Japanese had surrendered we celebrated.

“I know today there are a lot of people who are very much against the dropping of the atomic bombs, but they actually saved our lives and thousands of other Allied troops. So there’s two sides to the story.”

It meant that Harold was able to return home to his wife Laura. At the time she was living with her parents in Leeds – one of many places that saw great celebrations on VJ Day.

People flocked to the steps of the town hall and bouts of impromptu singing and dancing broke out all over the city as people hastily arranged street parties.

Laura, who was 24 when the war ended, worked in the Ministry of Health and also carried out voluntary work at the YMCA hostel at Leeds train station.

She recalls huge crowds gathering in the city centre on VJ Day. “I remember there were great celebrations it was absolutely incredible. People were so relieved when they heard the news that Japan had surrendered.”

It wasn’t just in Leeds where people came out to celebrate, it was all over Yorkshire.

In Bradford, friends and strangers danced in the street outside the town hall as a series of military processions, led by members of the Home Guard and the RAF, marched through the city centre.

Countless tea parties were held, too, and at one such party in Keighley local residents clubbed together to make sandwiches, jellies, cakes and buns – despite the shortage of some ingredients due to rationing.

Some of the biggest crowds, not surprisingly, were in London. Within minutes of the news reaching the capital that the Japanese had surrendered vast crowds had flocked on to the streets to celebrate.

At Piccadilly Circus traffic was brought to a standstill as a tide of humanity spilled out of buildings to share in this historic moment.

The end of the war was marked by two days holiday in Britain, the US and Australia, as weary nations allowed themselves a brief moment to rejoice before the long, sometimes painful, rebuilding process could begin.

But while big crowds gathered in places like Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, in some parts of Britain the celebrations were more subdued.

The nation had known for a long time that the war would soon be over, but the adrenaline that had kept people going for so long was now replaced with uncertainty about what lay ahead.

Barbara Weatherill, who now lives in Barlby, near Selby, was an Army driver and had recently been transferred to Perth, in Scotland, when she got word that the country was no longer at war

She says that unlike on VE Day, when there were huge celebrations, this time the feeling amongst most people was more one of relief.

“We knew the war was coming to a close in Japan. But it was so far away and I think for a lot of people it was as if it was another planet.”

She was asleep in her barracks when she and her colleagues were woken up by an officer. “It was about one in the morning and he came in and said that Japan had surrendered and that the war was over. We just said ‘oh’ and went back to sleep. There was no cheering or clapping.”

Later that day she headed into Perth where she joined some of her comrades for a celebration in the city centre. But there wasn’t the party atmosphere you might expect.

“There were lots of people but it was pouring down with rain so we all got drenched. There were a couple of pipers playing but it was all a bit of an anti-climax,” she says.

“It was the uncertainty of everything. We had been fighting for nearly six years and suddenly the war was over. People were relieved but we had all got used to be being at war and now we were civilians again and we weren’t prepared for it. I remember thinking, ‘what am I going to do now?’”

Looking back on the eve of the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, Barbara, who is now 90, has mixed feelings about the war and the huge cost it wrought in terms of lives lost.

“It seemed to go on and on and the situation was desperate at times, but we were fighting for a better world and in Churchill we had a wonderful leader, people would have followed him to the ends of the Earth.

“Sadly, millions of people never came back and I do sometimes wonder if it was worth all that sacrifice, but I think it was ... it was a war that had to be fought.”

• For more information about the anniversary and events taking place go to www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/vj-day.

Allied nations celebrate end of the war

After days of rumour and speculation, the United States President Harry S Truman announced that the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, ending almost six years of war.

He later told a crowd outside the White House: “This is the day when fascism finally dies, as we always knew it would.”

In Britain, Labour’s new Prime Minister Clement Atlee confirmed the news, saying that “the last of our enemies is laid low”. He praised Britain’s allies, particularly the US “without whose prodigious efforts the war in the East would still have many years to run”.

In an address to the nation, King George VI said: “Our hearts are full to overflowing, as are your own. Yet there is not one of us who has experienced this terrible war who does not realise that we shall feel its inevitable consequences long after we have all forgotten our rejoicings today.”

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