How East Anglia celebrated VE Day
PUBLISHED: 07:09 08 May 2020
Archant © 2004
How Norfolk and Suffolk celebrated VE Day: “The sky for miles around resembled the aurora borealis…an unforgettable fairyland of colour…”
In bold type, streaming across the front page, was the news that everyone had been waiting for: the Eastern Daily Press’s headline on Tuesday May 8 was: WAR IN EUROPE ENDS – VE DAY TODAY.
While the news was received with unbridled joy, the celebration of victory was somewhat piecemeal due to long drawn out surrender processes.
The Germans surrendered Berlin to the Russians on May 2, the formal surrender to the Allies was at Eisenhower’s headquarters in the early hours of May 7 but Churchill didn’t address the nation until 3pm on May 8.
A report in the South West Suffolk Echo about the reaction to rumours that the war was over stressed the confusion.
“The day was one of tense expectation, when everyone lived from hour to hour for the next bulletin. Radio sets worked overtime; constructive plans were impossible and there was a certain amount of diffidence as to who would make the first sign that the great moment had arrived, until temerarious tradesmen began to make a display of flags and national colours in their windows. Still the Prime Minister had not made the official announcement and the town was in a state of uncertainty as to whether the evening would be spent in thanksgiving or otherwise…”
Despite the surrender of the Germans, it still appeared as if the war in the Far East would continue and many men from East Anglia were still their prisoners-of-war.
The Japanese surrender was on August 10 but formal peace declarations were not made until August 15.
Many towns and villages in Norfolk and Suffolk established their own ‘Welcome Home!’ committees which set about raising money for thanksgiving celebrations and many for their returning heroes.
However, the rector of Garboldisham, the Reverend NRM Hawthorn, who had been serving abroad for three years wrote to the EDP to set out exactly what soldiers wanted to see when they returned home: “The soldier on his return chiefly wants to find his wife faithful, his children well cared for, and his home intact from bombing. Beyond this, he hopes for speedy demobilization and a secure job.
“He will not expect to be treated as a hero. Above all, he will actively resent anything savouring of charity.”
Plans for VE Day had been announced well in advance in Norwich, where it was made clear that the emphasis would be on thanksgiving rather than celebration.
Newmarket Urban District Council made it clear that wholesale celebrations would be wholly inappropriate while local men were still being held in Japanese prisoner camps.
When the news of peace first arrived on May 7, the celebrations were initially – and respectfully – muted: at first.
The EDP reported: “During the morning and early afternoon it seemed that most people were content to relax, quietly and soberly, after the strain and stress of the last five-and-a-half-years.”
But it wasn’t long before jubilation won the day. Soon Norwich City Hall was festooned with flags and streamers and people began to pour into the centre wearing red, white and blue headbands or rosettes.
Church bells rang and the crowds on Gentleman’s Walk and outside City Hall began to celebrate with dancing and drinking.
The Castle, the Guildhall, City Hall and other civic buildings were bathed in light and search lights moved from Duke Street to the Cathedral with the V for Victory sign flashed into the sky time and again into the small hours.
Over a matter of hours, houses were transformed with pictures of the King, Queen and Churchill, flags, bunting and banners.
Even the RAF and USAAF joined in, discharing Verery flares, rockets and fireworks – one newspaper reported “the sky for miles around resembled the aurora borealis…an unforgettable fairyland of colour.”
In Bury St Edmunds, the Abby Gardens were lit up with and there was dancing on Angel Hill, the Angel Hotel was illuminated with red, white and blue lamps.
The next day, the official VE Day, saw Ipswich crowds gather at the Cornhill to listen to the Prime Minister’s speech before a rousing speech from the Mayor and a rousing chorus of the National Anthem.
In Felixstowe, the Gloucester Regiment’s band marched through the town, in Colchester loud speakers played music all day and American and Canadian airmen and soldiers, French paratroopers and British sailors and soldiers drank together.
Ships in the town’s port – and at Great Yarmouth – sounded their sirens in harmony.
Religious ceremonies took place on Sunday May 13, Norwich Cathedral was so packed that the service had to be relayed on loud speakers in the Close and afterwards, there was a victory parade led by around 5,000 British and American troops, including five bands.
These services and parades marked the end of the official celebration of VE Day but communities across Norfolk and Suffolk continued to mark the momentous occasion in the weeks to follow with street tea parties.
In Chelmsford, as in many other towns and villages, an effigy of Hitler was burned on a bonfire at an open-air party.
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Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, toured Norwich, Sheringham, Cromer and King’s Lynn meeting people, including lifeboatman hero Henry Blogg, and joining them in thanksgiving that the war in Europe had come to an end.
But although relieved the war was over, VE Day was tinged with sadness for so many families who had lost loved ones, or whose husbands and sons were still far away.
One Norwich woman said: “I had made flags for the children and sewed them to curtain rods. We hung them out of the children’s bedroom window. We looked out all their red, white and blue clothes, Ann had a red, white and blue ribbon in her hair, Richard had a piece of ribbon on his cot. I had to have a ribbon in my hair and the dolls and Daddy’s photograph were also decked in ribbons…
“My main feeling on V-Day was an intense loneliness. A day like that seems so unreal without one’s husband.”
And the war claimed more victims, even after peace: among the crowds in St Benedict’s Street in Norwich, an American army truck ran over and killed a 10-year-old girl while a car carrying three sailors from Lowestoft ran into a 61-year-old woman in Gorleston, who later died.
For many, the biggest celebrations were saved until three months later.
While people were singing, dancing and celebrating in May, many men from East Anglia were still suffering terribly in slave camps in Japan so when victory in the Far East was announced, VJ-Day saw an even greater level of jubilation.
Families realised their men from Norfolk and Suffolk would finally be making the long journey home – a definite cause for celebration.
A war-torn region: the damage East Anglia sustained during World War Two
· Around 5,000 tonnes of bombs fell over East Anglia during five-and-a-half years of war
· More than 1,000 people were killed in the region as a result of bombing and 4,000 were seriously injured
· It is estimated that the East was pummelled with 30,000 high explosive bombs, 575 parachute mines, 680 V-1 rockets, 429 V-2 rockets and around 160,000 incendiaries and other weapons
· These figures do not include bombs that fell on military properties
· The War Damage Commission reported there were 202,328 war-damaged properties in the Eastern Region at the end of the war
· The most heavily-bombed town in the east was Great Yarmouth, which suffered 219 raids and say 237 buildings destroyed and a further 1,427 houses and 172 other buildings so badly damaged that they had to be demolished
· In Norfolk, 20 German planes had been brought down and 933 Allied aircraft had crashed, 677 RAF and 256 USAAF during the war
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