VE Day: How Norfolk celebrated on this day 75 years ago
- Credit: Archant
As a nation in ‘lockdown’ prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, Steve Snelling looks back to the original VE Day in Norfolk.
When it came to marking great moments of martial triumph in the nation’s history Ralph Hale Mottram was something of a veteran. As a callow youth he had celebrated the relief of Mafeking and as an improbable citizen soldier he had experienced the “bewildering sense of anti-climax” as the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War.
But the atmosphere on VE Day seemed different again, more subdued perhaps, more weary certainly. For the second time in 30 years, he was a member of “a victorious nation-in-arms” though, as he observed, “no people in such a position ever looked and sounded less like it”.
To Norwich’s most distinguished literary figure, the war which had laid waste to so much of the ancient city he held dear continued to cast its baleful shadow. The sirens might have ceased to wail, but he still found himself listening for explosions and swooping aircraft “with a kind of apprehension as if one had overslept from complete exhaustion”.
If the mood hardly seemed to fit the occasion, then it appeared to him that the reason could be found in the myriad sacrifices and ruinous toll inflicted on the city and its citizens during an ordeal he had so movingly chronicled.
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As he reflected: “It was not modesty that made us fail to acclaim an event so many times more important than Mafeking Night or the Armistice of 1918. It was a numbness so stunned that we hardly had the energy to say, as well we might, ‘Thank God!’”
For many, the overriding emotion on May 8, 1945, was one of immense relief that a six-year long conflict was nearly over - Japan, of course, had yet to be defeated - and lives could begin to return to something akin to normality.
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It was a feeling exemplified by a simple diary entry made by Norwich blitz survivor Agnes Pond. “Great VE Day,” she wrote, “war over in Europe, no more fighting for all the brave men and women who have saved us from untold horror. No more sirens, no more fear and dread, no more bombing.”
Though widely shared such sentiments were probably symptomatic also of a generational gap in people’s responses to the first stirrings of peace.
It is perhaps telling that both Ralph and Agnes were over 60 when the war ended and, given the strains of a six-year struggle and its disproportionate impact on the elderly, it is hardly surprising that they should have mustered little enthusiasm for outward displays of jubilation.
But it was a different story for younger generations for whom VE Day represented not just a temporary escape from the constrictions and restrictions of war but a wonderful excuse to party on a scale and in a manner that few would ever forget.
In military bases and communities across the region, service personnel and civilians alike indulged in the kind of high-spirited celebrations which, though by no means universal, has come to define the popular image of people’s reaction to the end of the war in Europe.
For some that raucous revelry began prematurely. At Station 146, the Seething-based ‘home’ to the United States’ 448th Bomb Group, an early unofficial announcement of Germany’s surrender sparked a display of flares augmented by a fusilade of gunfire that landed one man in hospital with a bullet wound to his hand and resulted in some officers being ordered out of their beds at 5am on VE Day to march round the airfield perimeter as punishment for their unruly behaviour.
The pyrotechnical show would prove a sign of spectacular things to come, though to begin with the celebrations in many places were restrained, even muted.
At Norwich’s Britannia Barracks, a thousand troops attended a drumhead service before being given the rest of the day off to join in a victory party that was as yet undefined and slow to gain momentum.
Covering events for the EDP, a journalist reckoned that “most people were content to relax, quietly and soberly, after the strain and stress of the last five and a half years”.
A large crowd gathered to watch dignitaries leave a flag and streamer festooned City Hall to attend a Civic Service in St Peter Mancroft Church from where a peel of bells served as a victory salute.
And later, amid scenes repeated throughout the county, a special service of thanksgiving drew a congregation of more than 300 people to the ruins of St Mary’s Baptist Chapel, one of a number of places of worship in the city left devastated by German air raids.
All across the region, impromptu street parties sprang up. On Lowestoft’s South Pier servicemen hosted one such event for local children. Others were staged in and around communities that had been reduced to rubble by enemy bombing.
Betty Acheson’s mother was among a group of mums who banded together to lay on a spread for children whose families in the Wingfield Road neighbourhood of Norwich had suffered great distress during the city’s heaviest raids. “I don’t know where they discovered all the food,” she later recalled, “but they certainly put on a great spread despite the fact we were still on rations.”
Elsewhere, the celebrations were a little thin on the ground. In Titchwell, John Taylor, a playwright and former member of the local Home Guard, enjoyed a “‘Victory’ breakfast of eggs and bacon” and, after “a quiet day”, headed with his wife to a local pub, “thinking to find the place crowded” but which was, in fact, empty.
In his diary, he noted: “We had a glass of sherry, and came home. As a great treat we toasted the Allies in a small dose of inferior brandy and soda.”
Throughout Norfolk, it seems, some semblance of normality was maintained, or at least attempted, during the morning.
Teacher Elizabeth Macfarlane remembered cycling as usual across the city to Hellesdon Secondary Modern School only to discover that all the pupils and a fair few members of staff had given themselves the day off. She and a few others stayed long enough to bake some cakes which they ate with a celebratory cup of tea!
Elsewhere, a number of businesses and shops stayed open till lunchtime before bowing to the inevitable. By early afternoon many of their staff had joined a growing number of British and American servicemen who were making a bee-line for the centre of Norwich.
Among them was Irene Playle, a Naafi worker at an army base near Arminghall where her husband was a trumpet player in his unit’s band. “It was a very easy-going camp,” she recalled, “and in the early afternoon of VE Day, the band loaded its piano onto a truck and two truckloads set off for Norwich to tour the streets and play.”
Most headed for the Market Place and a Gentleman’s Walk dampened by a rain shower but now basking in spring sunshine. Hour by hour the numbers of people grew into a crowd of Carrow Road proportions that brought traffic to a virtual standstill.
What buses and cars that still moved through the cheery throng were crammed with people who, like everyone else around them, seemed to drawn to something beyond their ken, something yet to take shape.
It was a similar story in Lowestoft where Roy Larkins, an RAF aircraftsman home on leave, recalled a sense of uncertainty as he wandered the streets in search of VE Day celebrations.
“We had been waiting long enough for it [peace] and now that it had arrived, we didn’t know what to do,” he observed. “Many people just got drunk. Others made lots of shouting noises and engaged in impromptu dances in the street.”
It wasn’t until 5.30pm, when the factories, shipyards, shops and offices closed, that the fun began in earnest. “All over town,” he said, “large bonfires had been built with wood from bomb-damaged buildings and blackout torn from windows.”
Not long after, they were all “burning furiously” as Roy and a girl friend strolled from bonfire to bonfire, “soaking in the joviality” all around.
A few miles to the north in Great Yarmouth, service personnel and townspeople were enjoying their own “spontaneous” celebrations. In the glare of bonfires and to the shriek of ships’ sirens, crowds partied long and hard into the night, dancing and singing, in an open-air festival of joy that stretched from the Market Place to Marine Parade.
Back in Norwich, the crowds had, at last, shaken off their natural inhibitions as the region’s biggest VE Day street party burst into wild singing.
A group of soldiers led the way, linking arms with some girls as they sang and danced their way along the Walk. They were quickly followed by “other little knots of merry-makers” until, by mid-afternoon, at least half-a-dozen different groups were performing their own version of the ‘Victory quick step’.
Throaty cheers greeted a line of British and American servicemen as they made a show of parading arm-in-arm through the teeming streets.
And so it went on. As darkness descended the city became a blaze of light for the first time in nearly six years as searchlights illuminated the City Hall, the Castle, the Cathedral and other ancient buildings.
It was all too much for some. Joan Banger, a trailblazing historian of wartime Norwich, has recorded how the spectacle prompted “exclamations of joy” and “tears”.
Fireworks fizzed into the night sky as American Liberators and British Mosquitoes, their lights blazing, swept low across the city, dropping scores of flares that once would have sparked fear but now only added to the euphoria.
Yet more exuberant pyrotechnical shows were a feature of many of the celebrations staged at the American bomber bases dotting the county. Graphic images of Liberators silhouetted against a surreal explosion of arcing light tell of grand displays that reminded at least one witness of “fourth of July” festivities “back home”.
Some of these VE night displays, such as one at Seething, were relatively organised affairs following on from short services of prayer and thanksgiving. Others were altogether more “wild”, as Dan Roure, an airman from the 93rd Bomb Group based at Hardwick recalled.
The celebrations started with the occupants of one hut setting fire to the contents of their ‘trash barrels’, the flames then being fed with any other “inflammables that could be found”.
“This was sane enough,” he wrote, “but apparently a little too tame for some of our more high-spirited lads who then began to dig out the souvenir calibre-fifty shells and forty-five ammunition that had been collected during their tours…
“It turned out to be a sizeable cache of mixed cartridges that were tossed by the handful into the blazing GI cans.
“In a few seconds… they had heated sufficiently to detonate, many of their slugs penetrating the sides of the cans and flying about on random trajectories… As if that were not enough, a couple of other bright chaps remembered a Very (signalling) pistol that someone had scrounged… along with a supply of star-shells.
“Before long there were coloured balls of light arching over and around the huts. And that reminded somebody in a nearby Nissen that they, too, knew where another Very gun, with its flares, was stashed.
“The predictable outcome was a colourful, if somewhat precarious, ‘battle’ between the huts… until all their shells were exhausted…”
More official celebrations would have to wait another five days, till the grand victory parade when more than 5,000 British Commonwealth and American servicemen and women marched, with bands playing, through the crowded streets of Norwich.
VE Day was no time for formality. For many, it was about improvisation and, out of relief, thanksgiving or sheer jubilation, an instinctive desire to find pleasure in the moment.
That was certainly the case in Norwich’s crowded Market Place. As searchlights flashed V-signs in the sky above the city, ecstatic revellers marked the first midnight of peace with an uproarious ‘Conga’ that snaked all the way from The Walk up Guildhall Hill and back again.
And with that VE Day - a day of humdrum and hullabaloo, of relief and reflection for some and unbridled joy for others - passed into gloriously memorable history.