I have no memory of VE Day, though I was four and bit years old at the time. (The ‘and a bit’ is of course important at that age.) I do remember some things about the War years themselves, including the silhouette of a German parachutist coming down in a garden near to ours; but that must be a false memory because – although it happened – I was actually being born (feet first) at the time. Then I remember the blackouts; sheltering under our iron-reinforced dining room table as the bombs exploded around us, with my mother telling me ‘not to worry, they’re only fireworks’; and later being evacuated with my mother to a farm in Staffordshire, where the farmer’s wife insisted we only eat our ‘rations’ – I remember powdered egg in particular – rather than any of the fresh food that came from the farm. We were evacuated because we lived close to one of the Battle of Britain airfields. My father stayed behind to look after his school. Recently I saw a contemporary map showing where the V1s and V2s landed around us. Some of them were very close, and later we got compensation (I presume from Germany) for minor bomb damage to the house.
But my main memories are of the immediate aftermath: returning servicemen; bomb sites to mess around in; bits of shells to collect; rationing still – no sweets for sale for years afterwards; Dennis Compton’s glorious, cavalier batting, reminding us of those brave British and Polish Spitfire pilots who had stopped Goering in his tracks in 1940; Attlee’s surprise election victory in 1945 – sorry, Winnie, we needed you in the War but it’s now time for the people to take over; and – mainly – the hope that sprang from all this. (I wrote about this in the TLS, 23 December 2016.)
The TV programmes about VE Day shown on BBC1 last night brought it all back to me, and, I have to admit, had tears welling up in my eyes at one point. That was when two Spitfires, lovingly preserved from the War years, were shown flying over the white cliffs of Dover (cue Vera Lynn) in tribute to those brave pilots who, 70-odd years before, had taken off from our local Airfield to push Hitler’s monstrous invasion back. That left us in Britain still alone and vulnerable, but free to fight another day, and to wait for the might of America and the USSR to finish the job. I still find Spitfires iconic.
That early experience has defined the War for me; together with the bravery of ‘ordinary folk’ during the monstrous Blitzes on London, Coventry, Hull and elsewhere, and the little boats that brought our soldiers back from Dunkirk. Yes, as a historian I realise that’s only part of a picture that by rights should also include the black market in Britain, famine in India, and the bombing of Dresden. But I like – could almost say ‘am proud of’ – the fact that it’s these aspects of World War II that appeal to most of us who are sometimes criticised for ‘going on’ about it; rather than our military victories, such as they were.
For people like me it was a democratic war – the pilots and the little boats; and with a democratic outcome: the Welfare State. Don’t let the Right take that from us.