THE excellent Channel 4 programme The Queen’s Big Night Out about the adventures of the Royal princesses on the streets of London during the evening of VE-Day contained newsreel footage shot in London that night. Astonishing stuff it was too, prompting the thought that if the King and Queen had had an inkling of what was going on in Trafalgar Square and Green Park, Elizabeth and Margaret would not have been allowed to step outside the Palace.
Euphoria compounded of relief, rejoicing and national pride at the successful conclusion of the war led to such a going-on as never was. The crowds surged and swirled like a maelstrom. There was kissing, hugging, dancing, singing, laughing, crying, flag-waving and a flinging aside of all reserve.
Only under pressure of events did the British Government declare May 8 a public holiday. Winston Churchill, who had spent nearly five years as Prime Minister barking defiance of Hitler and the Nazis, found himself confounded by his own people. Late on May 7 he told an American admiral that the crowds already celebrating on the streets were “beyond control”. However, he wrote in his memoirs that it was “the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind”.
Princess Elizabeth, who was to become Queen in 1952, seems to have revelled in her rare experience of mingling with the masses, for she repeated it on VJ Day (August 15). Brigadier Alan Breitmayer, writing in the Guards Magazine in 2005, recalled that he and two other Grenadier Guards officers were detailed to escort the Royal princesses on that second venture. The girls went on the swings in St James’s Park, and then took part with many others in dancing the hokey cokey, palais glide and conga. They rounded off this escapade by joining the crowd calling for the King and Queen to appear on the Palace balcony. The Queen was shown the article and sent thanks for an accurate account of an unforgettable evening.
The epicentre of England’s earthquake of rejoicing was undoubtedly London. There were no set plans for celebrating the defeat of Hitler. People just made it up as they went along, rushing through arrangements for street parties and fancy dress parades, and rummaging through their attics for bunting and Union flags. Some expected church bells to ring and the Royal Artillery to fire salutes. They were disappointed.
When The Yorkshire Post invited me to reminisce about VE Day, I realised to my dismay I could remember no great excitement. I was 13, and a contemporary recalled the resumption of broadcasts of Air Ministry weather forecasts as the great event of the day. Alas, the climate did not enter into the spirit of the occasion, and there was mention of “a deep depression”.
We lived in Whitby, and on the previous Saturday the town’s magistrates had agreed that inns should continue serving for an extra half-hour when VE Day came, and close at 10.30pm. The local council suggested that licences for dancing should be extended by an hour to midnight. Here Supt Nelson of the North Riding Constabulary intervened, saying such a night came but once in a lifetime, and suggested that dancing should continue until lam, as then people would go home much more tired, to which the bench laughingly agreed.
What created the mirth is not clear. Perhaps it was the notion of uproarious townsfolk celebrating hard with only 30 minutes more in the pub before trudging meekly home, worn out by palais glides.
A personal memory is of those brief weeks of calm between the German surrender and the explosion of the two atomic bombs in Japan, bringing a new terror to mankind.
I was sitting on a bench overlooking Whitby harbour very late one sunny evening, experiencing true, unalloyed happiness as the bells of St Mary’s Parish Church sent the sound of change-ringing rippling over pantiled roofs. This spiritual moment lives warmly in the memory, even after seven decades.
At that time Whitby was being demobilised, a process not completed until 1946.
The fishing fleet had been away on war service, and it was left to cobles to continue working inshore, among them a smart vessel built at Clarkson’s Yard at the Dock End for Dora Walker, who became Whitby’s first woman skipper.
She called her boat Good Faith, thereby following a local tradition, for among the returning keel boats were Easter Morn, Galilee, Pilot Me and Faith Star.
The General Election yesterday, and VE Day anniversary today, form an interesting juxtaposition. If Hitler had triumphed, our country might never again have had a democratic election.
These thoughts give extra resonance to the wonderful address to the nation by King George VI on VE Day: “Today we give thanks to Almighty God for a great deliverance. Speaking from our Empire’s oldest capital city, war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed – speaking from London, I ask you to join with me in that act of thanksgiving.”
Thus a brave King gave a lead yet again to his people.
Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.