What VE Day means for Somerset

Newspaper front pages show the day the Germans surrendered. (c) Shutterstock

Newspaper front pages show the day the Germans surrendered. (c) Shutterstock - Credit: sub

Charles Dickens was right – it was the best of times and the worst of times, except that Dickens wasn’t around in 1945 when the party began to celebrate VE Day, says BERNARD BALE

Confidence had been growing in the months leading to 8 May, 1945, as it seemed that Germany was about to fall and war would be over. There had been false dawns before though, so the tension remained and whatever was going to happen there were many families who knew that life would never be the same again as fathers and sons, as well as mothers and daughters, would never sit by the fireside again.

Like the rest of the country, Somerset knew very well what it was like to hear bad news, to emerge from bomb shelters to find that homes had been reduced to rubble, sometimes inhabited rubble. Somerset folk also knew what it was like to receive the dreaded telegram to say that someone was missing in action or, worse, had been killed.

Finally on 7 May at 2.41am, Germany surrendered. Hopes were fulfilled. The hostilities officially ceased at one minute after midnight – the first minute of 8 May and the first minute of peace. At last it was okay to cry and smile at the same time.

When the news finally broke through, the party began even though heavy rain was falling over much of Britain. In towns, cities and villages all over the country people gathered in groups and crowds. They just wanted to be with each other and the normal reserve gave way to hugs, kisses and back-slapping. This was VE Day and, even though there was still war raging in the Far East, the nightly worry about bombings was over.

Somerset celebrated along with everyone else. People listened to the King broadcasting the good news over the wireless to the Empire – as it was then. Everyone wanted to hear those words over and over again – ‘there is victory in Europe – the war is over’.

In Bath, Bristol, Taunton, Yeovil, Weston-super-Mare it was time to switch the street lights back on – well, almost. Permission still had to be received and one of the first to ask for and receive that permission in the entire country was indeed Weston-super-Mare where everyone was determined to celebrate not only the end of the war but also the return to being a seaside resort.

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The music and dancing licences were extended to the early hours, the well-stocked pubs ran out of beer and the streets were filled with people of all ages taking part in what had become almost a family party. There were bonfires too and special guests, as locally-based servicemen from Poland, Australia, Canada and America were invited and needed no second invitation. This was a celebration of the freedom to live in peace and it knew no national or any other boundaries.

The party did not end there, it went on for at least a week with constant renderings of There’ll Always Be An England, Land of Hope and Glory and, course, God Save The King.

After the impromptu came the organised – children’s street parties, official addresses by mayors, church services and the first of many military ceremonial marches through towns.

Many personal memories have been recorded for posterity on official websites, among them the words of Mary Mitchell (nee Derrick) of Bristol who gave her personal account which included: “It was just complete joy. There was no vandalism, everyone was so happy. It was amazing how much we did in one day. War is a dreadful thing and I hope it never happens again.”

Patricia Days, also of Bristol, recalled: “Grandfather had some fireworks on VE Day and invited the neighbours around, and this was the first time I had ever seen fireworks.”

David Britain of Staplehill remembered: “We all got together and made cakes - I’d never seen such an array of goodies - jam tarts and things. Of course during the war years we couldn’t really get such things and I still wonder to this day how we managed to get the ingredients together because in terms of rationing there wasn’t any relaxation until the 1950s.

But we did have a bumper party - we had jellies as well and I can’t remember having jellies before that. We had a great long table set up and it was a great occasion. I was only about nine when the war finished.”

In Yeovil the crowds danced and danced in the streets. Nobody wanted to go home. Every church held its own thanksgiving service and Mayor William Vosper addressed the crowd from a small stage that had been built over an emergency water tank in the Borough. Fortunately the platform did not give way. Spare a thought for the Boys and Girls Brigades who marched hither and thither as the only marching band available at the time.

The VE Day party ended at around 3.30am – just in time to start up again!

In London the crowds were almost beyond counting and it is legend that the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were allowed – under escort – to join the throngs partying outside Buckingham Palace. Somerset did not have the Royal Family to join in but it had the most important ingredient of all – happy people finally shrugging off the tension of more than half a decade.

Bath had also taken a beating during World War Two, but now it was time to celebrate before the mopping up began. The British Legion Club in Queen Square was a magnet for many and children, parents and grandparents danced until they dropped – and then danced again. There was also dancing around Bath Abbey and one group, in the early hours, caught a train to London to join in the celebrations there.

There were street parties in Taunton too and why not, the town had also experienced bombs raining down on it, some of which have been discovered, unexploded, in recent years. In Taunton, the bands played, the songs were sung and people laughed and cried – together.

That was how it was in Bath, Bristol, Taunton and all the other major towns of Somerset but let us not forget that the villages were also alive with the sound of celebrating. Farmers who were often early to bed, stayed up until the wee small hours. This was a celebration nobody wanted to miss.

Of course, some did miss it. There was a silver lining for some of even those as the telegram ‘missing in action’ proved to be not such bad nuisance. The worst was expected but the surprise of seeing a familiar cheerful face suddenly appearing at the door meant that the tears of joy and the beer flowed all over again.

For others, the bad news remained bad. There were many who did not return to the fireside, who did not see their children grow up or ever again join their mates for a pint.

Many hundreds of those were from Somerset. Their families wanted to celebrate and were happy for those who could but their tears were not of joy, their tears were the cold reality of death. They are remembered. The numerous war memorials throughout the county and the annual Remembrance Day makes sure that they are remembered.

VE Day was a joy, VJ Day came later and the parties began again. Somerset smiled then and will smile again as 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day – the best of times and the worst of times.