The weekend of 8 – 10, May 2015, saw several celebrations and ceremonies recalling the 70th anniversary of VE Day.

The BBC televised the main events. The media have also interviewed many veterans and others who were but children at the time.

Their recollections follow, emphases mine.

The Queen and the new film

A new film now showing in cinemas, A Royal Night Out, purports to tell the story of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret out on the town on VE Day.

Unfortunately, much has been fabricated. Many will see the film and think these things actually took place when they did not.

The Queen’s first cousin and best friend, the Hon. Margaret Rhodes, 89 — then Margaret Elphinstone — set the record straight for the Daily Mail. She was working as a secretary for MI6. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were both active in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The future Queen served as a lorry driver and mechanic.

Mrs Rhodes reveals what really happened on May 8, 1945, when she

was lodging at Buckingham Palace while working as a secretary for the military intelligence service MI6. She recalls how a small gang including 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, 15, and Mrs Rhodes’s brothers, left the Palace by the Privy Gate.

Princess Elizabeth was wearing her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform

As was Princess Margaret.

The princesses were protected on their VE Day jaunt by Captain Harold Campbell RN, equerry to Princess Elizabeth’s father, King George VI. ‘He was deeply disapproving of the whole manoeuvre,’ says Mrs Rhodes.

The Express‘s account of the evening adds:

Mindful of her war service and the need for his daughters to let their hair down the King and his wife gave their blessing, despite mutters of disapproval from advisers.

The royal adventure into the thronging streets of London was to be unofficial and a group of 16 chaperones was hastily convened to ensure the Princesses came to no harm ...

Among those accompanying the Princesses was Lord Porchester, a Royal Horseguards officer, who recalled: “We were mixed up in the crowd.

No one recognised Princess Elizabeth or Princess Margaret and we went round up Whitehall, up Piccadilly, into the Ritz Hotel and back through Hyde Park Corner, down the Mall.

“Everyone was very jolly, linking arms in the streets and singing Run Rabbit Run, Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line, Roll Out The Barrel, Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree – all those sorts of things.”

It might seem remarkable now that the Princesses were not recognised but Elizabeth wore her uniform with the cap pulled down over her eyes.

Mrs Rhodes said that one of the officers said that he would not continue to accompany them unless the Princess wore her cap properly. She quickly adjusted it correctly and the group pressed on into the streets of London.

Mrs Rhodes said that, contrary to what the new film portrays, there was no evening romance with a young man named Jack. There was also no gambling and no visit to a brothel in Soho. Furthermore, Princess Margaret never escaped on a bus. In reality, the group stayed together.

Mrs Rhodes also disputed another episode in the film in her interview with the Mail:

Princess Margaret is also shown quite drunk. ‘No! There was no possibility. We never encountered anyone offering one a drink,’ insists Mrs Rhodes, the daughter of the 16th Lord Elphinstone.

Mrs Rhodes described people kissing each other, although the Royal party did not engage in such activity.

I hope this film tanks at the box office. Why make such a disrespectful movie about the world’s longest serving monarch, a lady who has served her country and the Commonwealth faithfully every day for 63 years?

Film aside, it was a rare outing on an historic and happy day:

The party returned to the Palace after midnight. ‘It was emancipation,’ says Mrs Rhodes. ‘I don’t think anybody realises what she has had to give up. You give up your independence. Poor Princess Margaret is dead, but that night is something I know the Queen will never forget.’

She explained:

It was like we had all been living under a huge, heavy, dark cloud. And suddenly, it had gone.

In a recent interview with the Radio Times, Mrs Rhodes said that the future Queen was excited about the prospect of her handsome beau, Prince Philip of Greece, returning from war. King George VI and the Queen Mother were planning on extending an invitation to him to spend several days with the Royal Family.

More memories of VE Day

A veteran quoted by the BBC said on Sunday, May 10, said that no brawls broke out that day because

everyone was sick of fighting.

The Radio Times (2-8 May 2015, p. 176) interviewed 88-year old Joan Alexander who spent the war at the Air Ministry, working long shifts. She was part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She remembers Winston Churchill’s courtesy:

He used to come in at night, doff his hat and say ‘Good evening ladies!’ Very courteous.

Of VE Day, she said:

You nearly got squashed. Everyone went mad!

She was with her friends, fellow WAAF comrades, that day, adding:

And then the crowd surged up to Buckingham Palace to see the King and Queen on the balcony. There were all these Americans and Canadians. Some of us girls walked back to Chelsea to see my mum and dad, and everybody was celebrating because the war had gone on so long.

But VE Day wasn’t a party for everyone. One veteran whom the BBC interviewed on Sunday, May 10, recalled that he was still stationed in Italy. Despite war being declared over, fighting continued in parts of Europe for the next few weeks. This man remembered his commanding officer telling the troops that it was business as usual. Indeed, they were fired upon that day before the enemy eventually surrendered.

This Army veteran also said that his parents were preparing for his brother’s funeral on VE Day. The young soldier had been gunned down in another European country only a few days before peace was declared. The veteran was unable to attend his brother’s funeral or share in his parents’ grief because he had to concentrate on war.

For some, peacetime was boring

The BBC interviewed a woman who worked in the Timber Corps. She explained that she chose that route rather than enlisting in one of the women’s military corps because she never liked taking orders.

She remembered the Timber Corps as being very hard, yet gratifying, work. Despite the heavy lifting and felling of huge trees — as well as the constant blistered hands and feet — she missed the experience when the war ended:

Peace was here and we had to put up with it.

However, she was able to reminisce with her husband in the decades that followed. He also served in the Timber Corps. They married soon after the war.

Women’s conscription

It is worth mentioning that women were conscripted during the Second World War.

Although many volunteered to join the military and the Land Army whilst others worked in munitions factories, in December 1941, the British government passed a second National Service Act:

It widened the scope of conscription still further by making all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 liable to call-up.  

Women served as pilots, lorry drivers and did what had been considered men’s work. The National Archives site has an excellent page describing the women’s effort:

Times had moved on and along with, still vital, clerical and domestic duties, women were driving and maintaining vehicles, manning anti-aircraft guns and RADAR stations, ferrying aircraft from factories to airfields, deciphering coded German messages in secret naval communications units and working as spies in the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

As part of the conscription requirement women had to chose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By December 1943 one in three factory workers was female and they were building planes, tanks, guns and making bullets needed for the war.

One civilian choice open to women was to join The Women’s Land Army, set up in June 1939. At its peak in 1943, there were over 80,000 ‘Land Girls’. The women undertook hard farm work including ploughing, turning hay, lifting potatoes, threshing, lambing and poultry management. Six thousand women worked in the Timber Corps, felling trees and running sawmills.

Women’s contributions were huge. It is no wonder that so many marvellously feisty females emerged from that generation!

Not such a happy time for all

Although the war was officially over in Europe, fighting was still going on in Asia. That did not end until August 1945.

Actress June Brown, 88, told the Radio Times (2-8 May 2015, p. 34) that she was in Scotland serving with the Wrens on VE Day:

… I was with a young naval chap at the time and he was being sent to the Far East. Things like that held it back from being a full celebration.

What children then remembered

The BBC commentators told us that, for security purposes, there were no weather forecasts during the war. Imagine six years of not knowing whether to carry a brolly or prepare for snow!

The Radio Times interviewed several actors and other media stars who were children when the war ended. Nearly all recalled the return of light, which after nightly blackouts, was as welcome as it was startling.

Joan Bakewell, now 82, remembered (p. 33):

I can remember the war ending, when I was 12, and this tram coming down the tracks from Stockport that night, illuminated so brightly, covered in light bulbs. We’d lived under a blackout for so long that we’d not seen any electric lights during the night. All of us children, we just ran out and started dancing around the tram, amazed to see so much electric light.

Raconteur and comedy writer Barry Cryer, 80, said that the smells from wartime England stuck in his mind, particularly wet earth and the rubber of his gas mask.

VE Day street parties were aplenty. Many octogenarians recall attending them or family-style parties in the pub. Euphoric dancing, singing, kissing and hugging marked VE Day.

Any readers who remember VE Day are most welcome to comment below!

In closing, I hope that, in future, these memories are passed down to younger generations. May we always remember our ancestors’ sacrifices for our freedom.

Advertisements