VE Day – or ‘Victory in Europe Day’ – marks the day towards the end of World War Two (WW2) when fighting against Nazi Germany and its allies in Europe, came to an end.
At 3 pm on 8 May 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a radio announcement telling his country that the war in Europe had come to an end, following Germany’s surrender the day before.
It was an emotional day that millions had been waiting for – there were celebrations, street parties and a huge crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace in London, to cheer the royal family and the prime minister as they waved from its’ famous balcony.
But even though VE Day marked victory for Europe over Germany, it did not mark the end of World War Two. In his VE Day announcement, Winston Churchill told the nation: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.”
Soldiers, sailors and pilots were still being sent East to fight against the Japanese, who had not yet surrendered. This final surrender came on 14 August 1945, after two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August).
So on 15 August 1945, the allies officially defeated Japan. This final date is known as Victory in Japan or ‘VJ’ Day. Now World War Two was finally over.
75 years later the UK is marking the end of the War in Europe with a bank holiday and the altered celebrations that the time of Corona brings with it.
Back in the present day, on my own, I didn’t celebrate, but rather contemplated. In the evening I went out for a walk to ‘get some fresh air’ and exercise. Walking along the streets of the village where I live, I passed by socially distancing neighbours cheerily out on their deck chairs, celebrating VE Day with beer, bunting and cake. Members of the local vintage car society had their vehicles out on show in front of their homes and Vera Lynn – the UK ‘forces sweetheart’ played from modern day gramophones, serenading me on my way.
I had to admit to liking this aspect of lockdown… I couldn’t imagine anyone would have been sitting out and socialising on the street otherwise. As I walked on, gradually the barking dogs and war time soundtrack faded away to be replaced by birdsong, as I reached one of my favourite places, a local wood, both surrounded by and secreted away from the village. Here, in this quiet space, it was time for me to think about and to tell my own story of World War Two.
So here I am now, in this computer connected Corona Time, contemplating what connection I could possibly have to VE Day…
In the cold light of day I feel so far removed from it, yet it’s a relatively recent chapter in history, one which, when I think about it, touches me in so many ways. I was born only a couple of decades after the end of the Second World War. In fact without the war, it’s unlikely that my parents would have met and I wouldn’t be here today…
This then is my war story:
At the age of 22, my father – Stanley Peachey, the youngest of four children, had passed his 7 year indentureship to become a plasterer. As war was announced, his building skills could have kept him at home in a ‘reserved occupation’, but he felt it his patriotic duty to enlist in service of his country – first as a territorial, then in regular service.
So it was that he left his village home in Cambridgeshire and became a soldier with the Essex Regiment, 1st Battalion Infantry Unit. He saw active duty in Burma, serving with the Chindits – special operations units of the British and Indian armies – which saw action in 1943–1944, during the Burma Campaign against the Japanese. And he nearly died in India – not of war wounds, but a near fatal combination of cholera, malaria and dysentery, the latter two which he contracted in hospital.
And the war did not end for this soldier or his family, or indeed anyone who cared for him, on VE Day, but instead on ‘VJ’ – Victory in Japan Day, months later, on the 15th of August.
My father’s two sisters – Victoria and Ruby, had left their Cambridgeshire home too, and become Land Army girls in Cornwall – working in agriculture to keep the nation fed, whilst the men were at the front line.
In December 1940 my aunt Ruby married Joseph Toms – a sailor. I remember my grandmother telling me how their relationship was “a real love match”. But almost exactly a year later, the HMS Galatea, the ship Joseph was serving on, was torpedoed by a German submarine and went down in Egyptian waters, on the 15th of December, 1941. The new bride had become a widow, and Joseph never got to meet his only child – my cousin Christine, born 7 months later…
In Scotland, my mother – Agnes Reynolds – a 13 year old only child, begged her parents John and Helen, to let her be evacuated. They reluctantly relented and so she left her Dundee city tenement, and took a train, with hundreds of other children, to rural Fife.
Billeted in a school near the town of Auchtermuchty, she loved life in the country, where her mother would come and visit her as often as she could, since the town was only 40 minutes by road from Dundee. Out there in the countryside though, children were thought to be safer from bombs, since as a manufacturing centre, Dundee was considered to be an enemy target.
The city was bombed, though not as extensively as had been anticipated.
Agnes didn’t want to return to her city home, when the call came less than a year later. Yet in those times children left school and started work at 14, so she had to return home to start her life as adult, through long days where she worked in a factory making fire hoses in daylight hours and volunteering as a ‘fire watcher’ by night.
The voluntary role of Fire Watcher was to report and deal with small scale fires caused by air raids. In fact many thousands of fires caused by incendiary bombing were prevented or extinguished by thousands of volunteers just like my mother.
After the war finally ended, when VJ Day was announced in August 1945, my father returned home and bought a natty Ford car with his ‘demob’ (demobilisation) money and then joined his brother Albert in Coventry.
Albert had started up a building company with a partner, called ‘Peachey and Wainwright’. As a skilled plasterer, my father worked with his brother, helping to rebuild a city which had been literally decimated by German bombs.
My father’s sisters stayed on in Cornwall, where they lived together on a small holding with Ruby’s daughter Christine, farming goats and hens. They also became the lay preaching mainstays of their local Methodist church, and their home ‘Satya’ cottage, was a glorious place where I would spend many happy holidays as a child.
When she was 18, against her wishes, my mother’s family relocated from Scotland to Birmingham, (100s of miles away, in England). However, her father John, once a passionate labour councillor and trade union activist, had fallen out with his party comrades and into hard times. But one of his still loyal trade union contacts had found him a job far away from the shame and political in-fighting. So, in those times, an unmarried daughter of limited means would have little choice but to pack up her few belongings and go with her parents, whether she wanted to or not.
On at least one occasion my mother secretly saved up the train fare and ran back to Scotland, where she felt her life and heart still lay. But she always returned, and in the 1950s met my father, married and moved to Coventry, where she soon had her first baby – my brother Arthur.
I was born some years later, in the post war baby boom and raised in the War’s shadow – nonchalantly playing on bomb sites, and listening to my parent’s talk of wartime rationing and upheaval.
I grew up in Coventry – once a city flattened and shattered by our German foe, but in my childhood a 1960s creation of concrete, with a proud modern cathedral, and its older history, including Tudor buildings, tucked quietly out of the way.
The Second World War was an ever present spectre in the lives of all who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. On weekend afternoons I would sit on the sofa with my mother, and watch endless war movies on TV – seeing heroes and heroines in uniform – flying and shooting and dying for their country, or returning home to kiss their sweethearts, once again.
War documentaries and commentaries filled our heads with basic history, whilst children played at war – either being the good guys (English) or baddies (German).
Just about everyone I knew had war ‘memorabilia’ – there were trophy German helmets and bullets, and my father had his three military service medals. These were trophies he personally didn’t care for, but which his brother’s sons – Alan and David Peachey, persuaded him to claim, when he lived with his brother’s family in Coventry for a while.
I remember too that it was an all too common occurrence for whole streets to be cordoned off, as ‘UXBs’ – Un-Exploded Bombs were discovered, usually in the attic of a suburban house somewhere…
So far from being a distant fact of history, the Second World War created my life, and in many ways shaped who and what I became.
My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle – those characters I chronicled here, have all passed away now, and as the decades have rolled on I have fallen out of step with time and family. My mother had few relatives and lost touch with them over time. My small family unit was closer to my father’s family and would regularly visit his mother and sisters.
My cousins were all 20 plus years older than me, so I never became close to them, except ironically, Christine, who lived the furthest away from us, but who we visited whenever we made the long trek from Coventry to Cornwall. A retired teacher, she died 7 years ago, at the age of 71, after her third bout of cancer. She was my first cousin to pass – much loved by, and leaving behind her husband and two grown-up children.
So that is my story… And what about today? In my attempts to connect with further family I have recently taken DNA tests and grown a vast and ancient family tree. But still within me is a vast history, and so many ties to a past close by and, as it turns out, not actually forgotten.
Now, I remember all these tales with wonder, gratitude and an acknowledgement of where I came from. And I do this knowing that this is not completely who I am, but that I’m inextricably linked to family and history in so many ways.
And that as it turns out, was VE day for me.
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