On May 7th 1945, a few minutes after the announcement that the following day would be a public holiday to mark the end of the war in Europe, a reporter from the Coventry Evening Telegraph walked into his city’s central streets. He recalled having done so also on the day that war was declared in September 1939. Then, he wrote, people were grave but calm. In contrast, he now noted an air of restrained cheerfulness in streets ‘battered, smashed, rendered almost unrecognisable’ by the impact of war on the city. Its citizens had of course experienced much more than the bombing of their city. They were weary with war work of all descriptions, with coping with separation and loss, with anxieties for their families, with rationing and deprivation. It had been a very long five and a half years.
I have read differing views about this year’s VE Day commemoration. The implications of its post Brexit context include concerns about nationalism and over-emphasis on victory as opposed to international peace. The anticipated community celebrations of 2020 will of course not now be happening anyway, as we find ourselves in the middle of a global crisis of a rather different nature to 1939-45. Nonetheless, many people will be remembering where they were on 8th May 1945 and others will still wish to hear about it, to learn more about an earlier extraordinary time. It was a day in history during which emotions were mixed, when joy and relief were muddled with pain and sadness and anxiety for the future. My own commemoration on this Bank Holiday, moved from May Day to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day, bears no hint of the political. For me, it will be, as for so many others, a private and reflective one and so this blog is an attempt only to share information about some of the ways in which Coventry folk marked the end of war in Europe.
Even when we anticipate an event with a degree of certainty, when it finally comes, it often induces shock. Germany’s surrender didn’t take the British public by surprise but when the official announcement came, on May 7th, elation was no doubt mixed with incredulity that after so many years, the fighting in Europe was really over and that hopes of life returning to whatever normal was going to be, might just be on the brink of turning into reality, albeit very slowly. After the news of the surrender, came the announcement that the next two days – May 8th and 9th – would be public holidays, a chance for those who could to let their hair down and for others to contemplate the miseries and hardships for so long endured. In Coventry, as in other cities, towns and villages across the country, opportunities for fun were grabbed but these were not completely separated from times of quieter reflection or prayer. As the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported, amidst the joy of the holiday, no one forgot the victims of war and everyone was mindful that the war in the Pacific was not yet over. On VE Day, people went ‘in a never-ending stream’ to Coventry’s ruined Cathedral, many to give thanks and others perhaps just wanting to gather in a place that had already become such a symbol of the extent to which their city had suffered. Four services had been scheduled but there were so many people that many more were held, right up to and beyond midnight. As night fell, the Cathedral was in darkness, apart from the sanctuary which was lit to impressive effect. Many brought flowers to remember those who had died and the blooms, placed in vases so near to the cross of nails and the cross made from the charred fallen roof beams, seemed to a news reporter to bring ‘beauty to the tumbled masonry of the cathedral’.
Across the city, bands and public address systems provided dance music. Many Coventry folk gathered in Broadgate, as they have done so many times since. There, after a hesitant start, an on-duty policeman used ‘his persuasive powers and unofficial services as MC’ to get the dancing started amid the flags and streamers. More people danced outside the Hippodrome, at the bottom of Trinity street, with music supplied by the theatre’s orchestra which came out to play on the venue’s steps. In the evening, bands played across the city,in Edgwick Park, Naul’s Mill Park and the War Memorial Park. In the middle of the day, a tropical storm had reached the Midlands, bringing thundery rain that sent crowds diving for cover although its impact on Coventry’s entertainments seems to have been short-lived and dull skies did little to dampen spirits. Despite the fun, complete quiet fell at 3pm when the Prime Minister’s speech was broadcast to the nation. Through the loudspeakers, people listened to Churchill pay tribute to their sacrifices and their resolve. This was their hour, he told them. Rejoice and celebrate but be mindful of the hard work ahead to end the war with Japan. And then the fun began again, going on into the night. One of the most impressive evening illuminations in Coventry was a giant V of light thrown into the sky by searchlights, seen by those in the centre of the city.
Later, when the holiday was over, Coventry’s mayor, George Hodgkinson, would pay tribute to the crowds, impressed by their discipline and deportment that seemed to him to reflect the soberness and realization that there was still an enemy to overcome. Coventry’s Chief Constable agreed, saying that such behaviour was of the kind he had expected, ‘having regard to the fine spirit [people] have shown through the war and the good-neighbourliness that has prevailed’.
The mayor was certainly in a position to judge the mood of the people, after a determined effort to put in an appearance at as many events and street parties across the city as he and his wife, the mayoress, could manage. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reckoned that the residents of practically every other street in the city must have held a victory party during the holiday and the weekend that followed. A ‘staggering’ amount of food was produced for parties, much of it having been saved up in readiness, although it was reported that women had been out early on VE Day visiting food shops to get supplies for the holiday feasts. The paper reported that ‘parents and neighbours did not forget what a lean time the younger generation had had throughout the grim years of the war in Europe’. At the end of a party in Willenhall, each child was given a packet of sweets, a parcel of cakes, an orange and an ice-cream. Older residents were not forgotten and nor were returned prisoners of war or those who had been wounded. The telephone at the Coventry Evening Telegraph rang with invitations for journalists to come out to witness and record the parties and although it wasn’t possible to go to them all, the newspaper was sure ‘that Coventry people in their week-end celebrations were thinking first and foremost of the young, the old and the deserving’.
The mayor was also on hand to give added ceremony to the lighting of a bonfire in Widdrington Road, one of many fires across the city (some complete with effigies of Hitler). Historian Angus Calder wrote of how, across the nation, fireworks delighted children who had never known a Guy Fawkes Night and Coventry seems to have been no different, with the noise and the flares heard all through the evening of VE Day. Curious about this, however, I asked my mum, who lived in London throughout the war, about VE Day fireworks. She told me that she had attended a big party in the garden of a house in her street; it was, by all accounts, an impressive affair, with outside lights strung up, a good deal of alcohol and party food that she had never before seen the like of. But there were no fireworks; we’d seen quite enough of them during the war, she told me. Quite.
Across the country, church bells rang out after years of being silenced. At 3.40pm on VE Day, Coventry Cathedral’s bells were broadcast to the world, along with those of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster and other cathedrals. Thousands of miles away in south-east Asia, a serving soldier from Coventry wrote to the newspaper of the ecstasy he experienced whilst listening to a broadcast during which he heard the bells of Coventry Cathedral. Every chime he wrote, was perfect, every note ran up and down his spine, made his hair tingle and his throat lumpy, ‘and though it embarrasses me to put it on record, my eyes were unnaturally watery’. He prayed that it would not be long before he experienced this again ‘and when it comes along I want to be in a place where I can see the bell tower as well as hear those bells again’.
For those unable to attend events, the Joe Loss band on the radio Home Services at 7pm preceded a service of thanksgiving, a tribute to the King, songs and marches of the war, followed by the Benny Loban dance band (at the Plaza Ballroom) and music (interspersed with news) right up until 2am. Perhaps my dad, then aged 11, was allowed to stay up to listen to these bands, for he was certainly not allowed to attend the party in his London street, having just come out of hospital after being knocked unconscious by a lorry just days before VE Day (a reminder that in war and in peace, the stuff of life still has a habit of tripping us up when we least expect it). This may well account for why he remembers the drama and the fear induced by hearing the 1939 announcement of the outbreak of war rather than the broadcast announcing the end of the fighting in Europe.
As Coventry prepared to return to work, a formal thanksgiving service, attended by over 20,000 people was held in the War Memorial Park on Sunday 13th May. A huge parade entered the park, taking nearly half an hour just to pass through its gates en-route to the War Memorial. It included representatives of all who had been involved in the city’s war services and behind them came the mayor and the civic party, the Bishop of Coventry and other clergy and church choirs in full robes. From the steps of the cenotaph, came the National Anthem, prayers and scriptures, The Last Post and two minutes’ silence for the fallen and speeches, including this from the mayor, George Hodgkinson,
The leaders of State must not fall down upon their job after the heroic and successful endeavours of the men and women in the armed forces. We must be ready to adventure as a community on the home front so as to ensure that the fruits of victory may not slip away. The dangerous life of war-time, a willingness to put aside personal comfort and consideration in pursuit of a common ideal must be carried into the equally adventurous jobs of peace.
The fraternity and comradeship of war-time brought out the noble acts in every individual. The presence of danger created a loyalty and patriotism that leaped across the barrier of social distinction and personal prejudice. In this spirit we may confidently approach the problems of the future.
It was not just the mayor who was intent on delivering a message of encouragement. The Coventry Evening Telegraph noted that the words of King George Vl – ‘just triumph and proud sorrow’ – aptly described the mood of the holiday. After the thanksgiving and celebrations, it was time to get back to work, stated the newspaper, ‘with the consciousness that the war is not yet over, but with the confidence that, come what may in war or after, it will not be the goodwill and the energy of the people of these islands which will be unequal to the task’.
Coventry families undoubtedly needed and appreciated the relief that VE Day celebrations brought. Whilst some anxieties were over, much hardship and uncertainty remained. The post war challenges faced by the city were enormous with homelessness being one of the most serious problems. There had been housing shortages before the war began and these were exacerbated by the destruction caused by the air raids – bombing caused damage to over 50,000 houses, with over 4,300 homes destroyed. People lived in hostels, on disused army sites, as well as in caravans and railway carriages on bomb sites. Just after VE Day came the announcement that the city’s first temporary bungalows (prefabs) were soon to be erected on the Whoberley Hall estate at Brookside Avenue. These ‘Phoenix’ houses, using aluminium sheets no longer required for war production, were made in factories and put up on site. These alone, however, were not enough and in the years that followed, the Council’s housing list remained desperately long. There was a desperate shortage of school places, much of the city centre still lay in ruins and there was enormous uncertainty about the economic future of the city.
On VE Day, all this lay ahead and so the jolliness of a few days of partying was a chance to raise spirits and to relax a little. As life settled down again, chances to dance continued at ballrooms and clubs across the city (such as the Anglo-American Victory Ball at Neale’s Ballroom on Albany Road, with an entrance price of 3/6), there was a range of films to choose to see (including Dead Man’s Eyes at the Alexandra, Little Nelly Kelly at the Roxy, The Hairy Ape at the Regal, Jitterbugs at the Standard) and there was greyhound racing at the Coventry Stadium on Lythalls Lane. Life would go on and Coventry folk, like those all over the country, continued to endure and to hope for a better future.
*This was a headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph May 8th 1945
With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 7th to 14th May 1945
Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945, 1969, Jonathan Cape
Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason, Life and Labour in a 20th Century City: The Experience of Coventry, 1986, Cryfield Press
The City We Have Loved, wartime publication, Three Spires Publishing, Coventry
Sheila Gibbons and John Gibbons for their reflections