On Saturday, May 9th, the Snowbirds, Canada’s military aerobatics team, roared overhead along the shores of Lake Ontario, in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of V.E. Day. On a cloudy day, they were only swooping shadows, here and gone in a moment. But it was a safe way to mark the day for a country still in Covid 19 lockdown and for many an inspiring one, tracked on social media and shared by friends all along their fly-by route.
By chance on Friday, I finished reading The Debs of Bletchley Park, by Michael Smith. The final chapter is filled with reminiscences of VE Day by the women who worked there and what the end of the war in Europe meant for them. Working at Bletchley, breaking enemy codes, contributing to the development of successful military and naval strategies to defeat the enemy, had been an extraordinarily exciting, as well as an exhausting experience for the more than 7,000 women who worked there. One woman, who’d been on night shift on May 8th, remembered walking home in the early morning with a deep sense of contentment that the war—at least in Europe— was over and that she had had a role to play in that victory, but also aware that she might never have another job as fulfilling as the one which would now come to an end. While she walked, bells began to peal after nearly six years of silence and people came out on to the streets not sure they could believe what seemed incredible news. Later, after sleeping, she travelled into central London with some friends to join the singing, dancing crowds celebrating around Buckingham Palace and in all the major streets, as the lights were turned on after years of blackout.
However, once the war was over it was easy for those who had given so much to winning it, whether in back rooms or even on the frontline to feel forgotten, especially women, who often returned to the mundane jobs they had before the war or were relegated to the kitchen and domesticity. Everyone also had to endure years of austerity as England struggled to recover from six years of conflict. Joanna Lumley’s interview on BBC 1 with ex-Wren Edna, who’d joined up at eighteen and spoke enthusiastically about her time in the Wrens and what it meant to her, prompted poignant recollections for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Edna had never collected her war medal, because she hadn’t realised that she had to apply for it, and the delightfully formal presentation of this by a naval Captain accompanied by a piper and watched by her cheering neighbours from their balconies, was a pleasure to watch.
Edna gleefully remembered the parties which seemed to go on for days. Street parties were held all over Britain even in the smallest towns and villages. For me, a nine year old, Churchill’s radio announcement of victory in Europe, quickly became a vague memory, but the parties with their bonfires, previously unknown sugary treats and ice-cream were difficult to forget. Many of the families on our street consisted of young women and their children who had fathers serving abroad. Celebrating that day, we weren’t too young to be unaware of the sorrow that kept some families from attending such events. A friend told me the other day that her best friend’s brother had been killed on May 3rd and that her family had spent the day at home, trying to come to terms with that loss. One family with two young boys, who had been our neighbours for several years, lost their father only a few months before VE day. As I and my younger sister watched the building and finally the burning of the towering bonfire on the green in the centre of our crescent, the two little boys and their mother emerged from their house to view the party from the sanctuary of their front garden.
I was recently asked, “What’s with the Brits and bonfires?” Putting aside memories of the special smell of burning leaves, which was a domestic, autumn ritual, bonfires have for millennia been the common method used to send messages of danger or victory across the country. And on this occasion they were, perhaps, symbolic of the light and warmth we craved after six cold, dark years.
Later I went to another celebration on my grandparents’ street; admired another huge bonfire and met a kindly neighbour whose greeting, “Well, now you can look forward to your Daddy coming home!” made me realise just how fortunate my family was.