A wonderful sunburst of glory: How Princess Margaret described VE Day
‘A wonderful sunburst of glory’: How Princess Margaret, then just 14, described the ecstasy of VE Day 75 years ago, as the skies blazed with hoarded fireworks and she danced in the streets with the future Queen
On Saturday, we revealed how the opening hours of VE Day were marked by uncertainty that yielded at last to delight, as Britain finally awakened from the nightmare of six long years of war.
Today, the concluding part of our gripping minute-by-minute account shows how the nation celebrated with joy — and rather a lot of beer — on that warm spring night 75 years ago . . .
4pm, May 8, 1945
Parties are taking place all over Britain in streets and even on bomb sites. Trestle tables are decorated with vases filled with flowers from gardens and allotments; radiograms and gramophones are being pulled onto pavements to provide music to dance to.
People dancing in the streets of London during the celebrations for VE Day on May 8 1945
Many children are in fancy dress: one girl in Tunbridge Wells has come as ‘Freedom’, another as ‘Rationing’ covered head to toe in coupons.
Neighbours have pooled sweet rations and tinned fruit they have been saving for years just for today; grocers have donated fruit and jellies.
Some children are eating oranges for the first time and learning not to eat the peel. ‘Happy V-Day to You!’ to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ has become a popular refrain.
At German industrialist Oscar Schindler’s factory in the Sudetenland, 1,200 of his workers have assembled on the shop floor. Most of them are Jews who he has protected during the war years.
They know the conflict is almost over, but are terrified their SS guards will take them on a death march to escape the Allied armies.
Some of the workers are discussing the possibility of using a secret arms cache to attack the guards but Schindler makes a speech telling them to act with restraint and not vengeance.
He promises to wait with them until five minutes after midnight, by which time the SS will have left the camp and the ceasefire come into effect.
Schindler also gives instructions for everyone to be given from his stores three metres of fabric, one litre of vodka and some cigarettes.
He keeps his word and leaves the factory with his wife just after midnight.
Accountant Charles Kohler, 34, goes through the swing doors of the Piccadilly Hotel where he has been auditing their books and walks out into the street.
He is immediately surrounded by the jubilant crowds around Piccadilly Circus and is deafened by the sound of cheering, church bells ringing and horns blaring.
But Charles feels that he can’t join in. Although he was a volunteer fire watcher in the Blitz, as a Quaker and a pacifist he registered as a conscientious objector.
‘I felt I had no right to link hands with comrades-in-arms. I rejoiced in the peace, the end of the war, but I was not among those who risked life for their country.’ Charles hurries through the crowds, heading for home.
The Commons has adjourned for the day. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is heading for the Smoking Room and is greeted with applause from a crowd in the Central Lobby.
A small boy rushes out saying: ‘Please, Sir? May I have your autograph?’ Churchill ruffles the boy’s hair and signs his album. ‘That will remind you of a glorious day,’ Churchill says.
The German city of Breslau is on fire. Two days ago, a three-month siege ended, in which 6,000 Germans and 60,000 Red Army troops died. The Soviets are now exacting revenge, burning houses, looting and throwing anything they can find onto the street.
One resident said: ‘Everything that fell into their hands went flying through the air. And when they threw a harpsichord down from a balcony — what a final note it gave out when it hit the street!’
The Bergen-Belsen death camp had been liberated on April 15. British troops discovered more than 10,000 bodies and thousands of inmates suffering from scabies, dysentery, sepsis, typhus, tuberculosis and severe malnourishment.
John Dixey is a young medical student working with the sick. He walks into a hut and says: ‘You’ll be glad to hear that the war is over, Germany is defeated, the war is over!’ There is little response. John recalled: ‘They just looked at us; the war’s over, but not for them. I think they knew there was little hope for them.’
David Bradford another medical student said: ‘What did they have to look forward to? The prospect of returning to their ruined home towns in Poland and Czechoslovakia to find their families and friends all dead.’
A crowd of 20,000 has gathered in front of Buckingham Palace. The King in full Naval uniform, accompanied by the Queen and Princesses Elizabeth, 19, and Margaret, 14, steps onto the red and gold-draped balcony and the crowd cheers in delight.
The family are especially loved because unlike many of the aristocracy they did not flee to the safety of Canada.
In September 1940 they had come close to being killed when a bomb hit the Palace.
The Queen even learned how to use a revolver in case she had to fight off German paratroopers.
It has been an exhausting war for the King and Queen — in all they have made 4,766 public engagements.
Churchill joins them on the balcony and there is, in the words of journalist Molly Panter-Downes: ‘A deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar.’
Watching is Churchill’s five-year-old grandson, also named Winston, accompanied by his nanny.
He recalled: ‘I don’t remember being in the least bit surprised to see my grandfather in such company. Every small boy believes his grandfather to be the most important person in the world.’
In Glasgow, flags are symbolically at half-mast as the war is only half won. Over 100,000 people are crammed into George Square.
A Dutch soldier climbs onto a statue and does an impression of Adolf Hitler to great applause.
Then in broken English the soldier thanks the British for all they have done for the Dutch, and especially the Scottish people who had received them so kindly. The crowd cheer even louder.
A crowd of 20,000 has gathered in front of Buckingham Palace. The King in full Naval uniform, accompanied by the Queen and Princesses Elizabeth, 19, and Margaret, 14, steps onto the red and gold-draped balcony and the crowd cheers in delight
Churchill has arrived at the Ministry of Health to address a crowd in Whitehall. They have been chanting ‘We want Winnie!’ for over an hour. Cigar in hand, Churchill appears on the balcony high above them and flashes a V-sign. He says: ‘This is your hour! This is your victory! One deadly foe has been cast to the ground, and awaits our judgment and mercy, but there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire — the Japanese.’
The crowd boo loudly. When he finishes, Churchill spontaneously bursts into Land Of Hope And Glory and everyone joins in.
Down the road, Piccadilly Circus is getting even more boisterous: soldiers waving flags are clambering over the boarded-up statue of Eros. Tickertape, streamers and toilet rolls are being thrown from the buildings all around.
The national rubber shortage means that balloons are scarce, so spivs on the London streets are selling inflated condoms tied to the top of sticks.
The King’s speech therapist Lionel Logue and his wife Myrtle are driving slowly through the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. As a policeman waves them through the gates the crowd erupts when the King and Queen reappear on the balcony.
Lionel makes his way up to the first-floor broadcasting room and when the King returns from the balcony they rehearse his victory speech, taking out words that might cause him to stumble.
The King, who is getting hungry, wants to stop: ‘If I don’t get dinner before nine I won’t get any after, as everyone will be away, watching the sights.’
Logue bursts out laughing at the idea the ruler of so many millions won’t have anyone to feed him. George says: ‘It’s funny, but it’s quite true!’ Outside the Palace, Guards officer Humphrey Lyttelton is among the crowds. He left his Caterham Army base this morning and took a train to London armed with his trumpet.
Fuelled by a picnic champagne supper in nearby St James’s Park, Lyttelton starts to play some New Orleans jazz and he’s soon joined by a soldier with a trombone, a sailor blowing the horn of a large old-fashioned gramophone and a delighted dancing crowd.
In the Channel Islands the VE Day celebrations have turned darker. Windows of known collaborators are being smashed and women nicknamed ‘Jerrybags’ who had German boyfriends are having their heads shaved by groups of young men.
In St Helier, Jersey, Joe Miere, 19, who was released from prison yesterday having served time for ‘insulting the German forces’ sees a young girl running down a street naked and shaking with fear.
Joe rushes over and the girl flinches expecting to be hit, but he gives her his coat saying: ‘It’s all right, my love.’ Joe helps her home.
He thinks the men who attacked her are cowards who for five years would have ‘run a mile’ rather than stand up to the Germans.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret slip out of the Palace accompanied by some Guards officers.
The King has said they can go anywhere except Piccadilly Circus as it will be too crowded.
Margaret is wearing a light-coloured jacket and skirt. Elizabeth is in her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform.
Elizabeth has no romantic feelings for the Guards’ officers; her thoughts are with First Lieutenant Prince Philip of Greece, whose picture she has in her bedroom.
Philip is currently on board the destroyer HMS Whelp sailing for Japan and in his cabin he has a picture of Elizabeth.
To make sure she can’t be recognised, Elizabeth pulls her cap down over her eyes, but a senior Guards officer says curtly that he won’t be seen in public with an officer improperly dressed. She obediently lifts up her cap.
In Lübeck on the Baltic, John Frost, a private in the 11th Armoured Division, is writing to his mother: ‘It’s VE Day, fighting has ceased. We all have much to be thankful for.
‘Our celebration will come when we walk up the garden path. We still carry our rifles loaded everywhere.
‘You can’t trust every German to surrender quietly.’ John’s unit are crowded into a former German soldiers’ billet and about to listen to the King’s speech on a German radio. ‘The reception is excellent,’ John tells his mother.
On the Channel Island of Sark, the German garrison are so afraid of reprisals by the locals they have locked themselves in their barracks. When British troops arrive the following day they have to be dragged out.
In the West End, the Princesses are enjoying their freedom, dancing the Lambeth Walk and the Hokey Cokey. Elizabeth remembered: ‘Lines of people linking arms and walking down Whitehall and all of us were swept along by a tide of happiness and relief.’
One soldier links arms and dances with the royal party, then he recognises the Princesses. He says: ‘It was a great honour. I’ll never forget this evening.’
The sisters’ French Literature tutor the Vicomtesse de Bellaigue is with them: ‘I shall never forget running down St James’s Street, with a Major of the Grenadiers, to keep up with the Princesses.’
Street parties around the country come to a halt to listen to the King’s speech. In the broadcasting room at Buckingham Palace Lionel Logue is watching attentively as the King speaks, managing to keep his stammer mostly in check.
‘Today we give thanks to Almighty God for a great de . . . 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. Germany, the enemy who drove all Europe into war, has been finally . . . overcome.’
Around nearby Victoria Station where 100,000 people are listening, the crush is so extreme women are fainting and are being carried over the shoulders of the crowd.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives his famous victory sign from the balcony of the Ministry of Health building to a huge crowd below
Lionel Logue can see that the King is exhausted with the effort of speaking. George ends by saying: ‘In the hour of danger we humbly committed our cause into the Hand of God, and He has been our Strength and Shield.
‘Let us thank Him for His mercies, and in this hour of victory commit ourselves and our new task to the guidance of that same strong Hand.’
In Lübeck, John Frost resumes his letter to his mother: ‘The King has certainly improved in his manner of speaking. And so, Mum I come to a close. What the picture will be, not many people know, let’s pray this is the last war in Europe.’
Many prisoners of war have arrived back today and have chosen not to take part in the partying.
Soldier Vic West is sitting in his home in West London: ‘With a pile of ham sandwiches and three bottles of hooch.
‘I wasn’t the least impressed by the victory junketing going on in London or radio reports of Churchill on the balcony at the Palace. I’d made it.’
It’s only just getting dark as Britain is on Double British Summer Time, so only now are most of the bonfires, made up of wood from bomb sites and broken furniture, being lit.
In Oxford, antique furniture from the colleges, including a valuable piano, is being carried into the street to be burned.
Effigies of Hitler and Goering that aren’t on the top of the bonfires are hanging from lampposts.
In the past few months some blackout restrictions have been eased — since December churches with stained glass windows can have their pre-war lights on and car number plates can be illuminated once again.
But now all the blackout curtains and shutters are down and children who grew up in the war years are amazed at the lights blazing in houses and firework displays from rockets kept from before the war.
Elizabeth and Margaret and the young Guards officers are in the middle of the crowd outside Buckingham Palace. Princess Margaret recalled: ‘Suddenly the lights came on and lit up the poor battle-scarred palace.’
The crowd start chanting: ‘We want the King! We want the King!’ The Princesses join in. The sisters had arranged with their parents that they’d be outside at this time, and right on cue the King and Queen appear on the balcony.
One of the Guards officers, Henry Porchester, later Queen Elizabeth’s racing manager said: ‘At last they came out and we were mixed up with the crowd, no one recognised Elizabeth and Margaret.’
Pubs have an hour’s extension but most have already run out of beer, yet have no intention of closing until the early hours.
Sergeant Charles Pratt, 21, of the Middlesex Regiment is on leave in his home town of Portsmouth.
He’s discovering that soldiers are very popular on VE Day. He said: ‘If you were in uniform, you couldn’t move. The best thing you could do was to stay indoors or find some civilian clothes to wear.’
In London and many bombed cities, searchlights are making giant Vs across the sky. The King and Queen come onto the balcony for the final time and are now joined by their daughters.
Margaret remembered for the rest of her life the sight of her mother dressed all in white with a tiara sparkling in the lights.
‘VE Day was a wonderful sunburst of glory.’ Tomorrow it has been decided that the sisters will visit the bombed-out East End. Down below, Humphrey Lyttleton and his impromptu band are playing For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.
Despite the celebrations, in London the wartime experience for many people continues.
Thousands are homeless, bombed out of their homes. Tonight over 12,000 people will sleep in Underground stations and air raid shelters.
In Downing Street, Churchill is reading the VE Day newspapers and a pile of congratulatory telegrams six inches high.
The destroyers HMS Bulldog and HMS Beagle have returned to Guernsey. The German officer Lieutenant Commander Zimmerman is now accompanied by the commander of the German troops on Guernsey, Major General Siegfried Heine.
Heine is asked if he will accept unconditional surrender. He replies brusquely: ‘Ja!’
00.01am, May 9
At Thornton College boarding school in Buckinghamshire, Jill Livock, 14, is the only girl in her dormitory still awake. She goes to the window and watches the distant searchlights over London.
Jill wrote to her parents: ‘I leaned out of the window while Germany crashed. Just like that. Nations don’t totter and fall every day!!!’
Big Ben is finishing chiming midnight and tugs on the Thames sound their hooters. The war in Europe is now officially over.
Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, the Princesses’ nanny, wrote: ‘No one can realise the almost hysterical relief that came with the lessening of the awful tension we had come through.
‘No more lying awake at night, listening. No more waking up to the early-morning sound of the sweeping up of broken glass.’
- Jonathan Mayo and Emma Craigie’s Hitler’s Last Day: Minute By Minute is published by Short Books at £8.99.
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