A family account of the VE Day celebrations in 1945 by Jane Cooke
My mother is sitting on one of the lions in Trafalgar Square, centre-stage for the frenzied jubilations spilling out on to the streets of central London. The news that World War II has ended in Europe was broadcast by radio late the previous day so Dulcie has acted early to secure this prime spot, assisted by some obliging young men. Victory in Europe Day, 8th May 1945, is a national holiday and the party has only just begun.
Her sister, Rosemary Bennett – nine years her junior – is at home in South Woodford and preparations are being made for a garden party. Aged 11, she has just learned that she passed her 11+ exam and can continue her education at the local grammar school. The thrill of returning home from Wales to her school friends is heightened by the prospect of a bonfire after years of black outs and the arrival of several young New Zealand Allied Servicemen as party guests.
VE Day marked an end to nearly six years of a war that has cost the lives of millions, destroyed homes, families and cities and brought terrible suffering and privations to many countries. Millions of people rejoiced in the news that Germany had finally surrendered and across the world people marked the victory with street parties, dancing and singing. Colourful bunting and flags lined the streets of villages, towns and cities across Britain. Bonfires were lit and the pubs were full of revellers. Churchill had gained assurances from the Ministry of Food that there were enough beer supplies in London and the Board of Trade announced that people could purchase red, white and blue bunting without using ration coupons.
There are no photos of my mother in Trafalgar Square on VE Day (imagine it now, awash with selfie sticks), but this iconic photograph captures the mood. The identities of these two women remained a mystery for years but, delightfully, the Imperial War Museum archivists (via Twitter) were able to identify Cynthia Covello and Joyce Digney – two life-long friends.
Due to the time difference, VE Day in New Zealand was officially held on 9th May, but the Kiwi Allies back in South Woodford, who knew my grandfather from his former work in NZ, were keen to get the celebrations underway. Rosemary recalls a towering bonfire being lit in the garden of 6 Chelmsford Road, a beautiful Edwardian house that had narrowly avoided being bombed during the Blitz. My grandfather Cyril and the New Zealanders – fuelled by relief and special VE beer supplies – proceeded to dance the Haka into the small hours. At the time of writing, Rosemary intends to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day by performing this ceremonial Maori dance at the age of 86 in Kensington!
Churchill made a national radio broadcast at 3pm on VE Day in which he included a note of caution saying, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”. World War II was not over and Japan was yet to be defeated. Allied servicemen and women who had fought their way through Europe prepared for their transfer to the Far East and the Pacific where fighting would continue for three more months.
Redeployment was a stark reality for many, including my mother who had been serving as a Wren since 1943 as soon as she was allowed to at the age of 17 (read an account of this HERE). Her window of VE celebration was narrow but she left me in no doubt that her partying was of epic patriotic proportions. Rosemary, who was back at the family home, tells me that she and her parents had no idea where her sister was during the VE Day holiday period.
Following VE Day, Dulcie was redeployed from her station in Portsmouth where she worked as a Switchboard Operator as part of Operation Overlord which oversaw the D-Day landings. She was ordered to sail on the SS Otranto from Southampton, which had been commandeered from the Orient Line and was taking Australian Prisoners of War from Europe back to Australia. She was then due to disembark in Darwin where she would continue her service in the Pacific defence against the Japanese.
In the most extraordinary twist of fate, Japan’s leaders agreed to surrender on 14th August – just before Dulcie’s transit (the final act of surrender was signed on 2nd September). There was little time and too much uncertainty to change the plans, so on 23rd August 1945 Dulcie, along with 3,500 others (including POWs, 600 AIF men of the Second Australian Imperial Force and about 350 Wrens) set sail for Australia via the Suez Canal.
When the SS Otranto finally arrived in Sydney, my mother was given shore leave and accommodated at the luxurious Hotel Astra in Manley where, by all accounts, the partying continued. That, however, is another story for publication between 14th-16th August when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, hopefully with less social restrictions.
In loving memory and appreciation of Dulcie Densley Bennett (later Cooke) 1925–2013.