I’ve resisted the temptation to do a ‘this day in World War 2’ series for this site. But today (May 8, 2015) I couldn’t resist, for this is the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Europe.
Two thousand and seventy six days. That’s how long World War 2 in Europe lasted. It began September 1st, 1939. On May 8th, 1945 London experienced the most amazing spontaneous celebrations anyone present had ever known. Novelist Mollie Panter-Downes wrote about it for the New Yorker Magazine. But watch (and listen) to the video before you read:
“When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember. It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a glimmering background of trees, grass, flowers, and water…Apparently the desire to assist in London’s celebration combusted spontaneously in the bosom of every member of every family, from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the streets arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats. Even the dogs wore immense tricolored bows…The bells had begun to peal and, after the night’s storm, London was having that perfect, English summer day which, one sometimes feels, is to be found only in the imaginations of the lyric poets.
The girls in their thin, bright dresses heightened the impression that the city had become an enormous family picnic. The number of extraordinarily pretty girls, presumably hidden inside on working days was astonishing. Strolling with their uniformed boys, arms candidly about each other, they provided a constant decoration to the big, solemn moments of the day. The crowds milled back and forth between the Palace, Westminster, and Piccadilly Circus.
All day long, the deadly past was for most people only just under the surface of the beautiful, safe present, so much so that the Government decided against sounding the sirens in a triumphant ‘all clear’ for fear the noise would revive too many painful memories. For the same reason, there were no salutes of guns; only the pealing of bells, the whistles of tugs on the Thames, and the roar of planes, which swooped back and forth dropping red and green signals.
It was without any doubt Churchill’s day. Thousands of King George’s subjects wedged themselves in front of the Palace, chanting ceaselessly ‘We want the King’ and cheering themselves hoarse when he and the Queen and their daughters appeared, but when the crowd saw Churchill there was a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar. Instantly, he was surrounded by people – people running, standing on tiptoe, holding up babies so that they could be told later they had seen him, and shouting affectionately ‘Winnie, Winnie!’
American sailors and laughing girls formed a conga line down the middle of Piccadilly. Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song, and went its own way as the spirit moved. The most tolerant, self-effacing people in London on V-E Day were the police, who simply stood by, smiling benignly, while soldiers swung by one arm from lamp standards and laughing groups built the evening’s bonfires. The young service men and women who swung arm in arm down the middle of every street, singing and swarming over the few cars, were simply happy with an immense holiday happiness. They were young enough to outlive the past and to look forward to an unspoilt future.”