VE Day: It’s no victory if we forget

The street party in Kemp Street, Stockbridge, in 1945
The street party in Kemp Street, Stockbridge, in 1945
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Prompted to recreate her street’s VE Day party for a TV show, Jane Bradley pauses to reflect on the sad fact that today’s young people don’t appreciate the sacrifices of the war generation

It was the year rock star Jimi Hendrix died; when the first Glastonbury Festival took place; and when the Methodist Church allowed women to become ministers for the first time.

The BBC's homage to Kemp Street

The BBC's homage to Kemp Street

1970 – 45 years ago.

It seems like only yesterday, historically speaking.

Yet for today’s 25-year-olds, born just 45 years after the end of the Second World War in 1990, this far into the past might as well be the prehistoric age.

It emerged this week that more than half of British 18 to 25-year-olds, who entered the world just a generation and a bit after the Allied victory in 1945, had no idea whatsoever what VE Day was.

38% of young people questioned could not identify Winston Churchill as the PM who declared victory

According to a survey commissioned by armed forces charity SSAFA, a further 38 per cent of those young people questioned could not identify Winston Churchill as the prime minister who declared victory in Europe on 8 May, 1945.

Even more worryingly, 7 per cent believed the leader in charge at the time was former US president John F Kennedy, another 7 per cent cited Margaret Thatcher, while 4 per cent thought it was Tony Blair.

This reminded me of the time we had a foreign exchange student in her late teens staying a few years ago, who, when we told her we were going to an Eighties themed party at the weekend, said “Eighties? Is that the Beatles and all that?”

On our street in Edinburgh the other week, we held a bizarre, impromptu street party to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day after the nice people from BBC1’s The One Show came knocking on our doors.

They had, they told us, unearthed a picture of street party celebrants in the same spot from 1945 and wanted us to recreate the photo for a segment on the show due to be broadcast last night. I thankfully managed to avoid being interviewed, although my husband’s prized gramophone was set to play a starring role.

It was nice. The local children played together at the end of the road, unhindered by traffic, which had been blocked off from entering the street. We pooled our biscuits and cakes and had a good old fashioned catch-up with friends. We talked to neighbours we’d never met previously and had a nice cuppa in the sunshine.

I didn’t feel particularly “VE-Day-y” though. It may have been that the whole thing was slightly surreal – having been staged for TV – but it still felt a bit distant, even for me.

It is possible that even those of us who are not aged 18 to 25 are starting to forget. My grandmother, my last relative who served in the war, died two years ago.

She used to talk about her time in the Womens’ Air Force, posted at a bomber command base in Yorkshire.

She often described marching up and down the pier at Bridlington; shining her shoes; making sure her bed and uniform was in proper order. It was good discipline, she always told me.

In fact, from the way she talked, it seemed like one of the happiest times of her life. She made great friends, she lived away from her home area for the first time ever. It was exciting and different.

And indeed, the war is a period which is easy to glamorise and idealise. There are plenty of books and films which do so. Sharp uniforms, pretty tea dresses and red lippy, handsome soldiers and airmen aplenty. What’s not to like?

Yet the part my grandmother – and many like her – never talked about was the war itself. Working at bomber command, nearly half of the young pilots she met on a daily basis would have been killed in action by 1945. She never mentioned that.

Even her younger sister, working in a munitions factory and financially independent from her parents for the first time, would have lived in daily fear for her life. The slightest slip in one of those factories could trigger a blast, killing her instantly. Some women found the chemicals turned their skin a strange colour and brought them out in hives. Yet nearly a million of them continued to turn up for work every day, crafting the weapons needed for the war effort.

Looking at the pictures of the VE Day street party in my neighbourhood, it is tempting to write it off as a universally happy occasion.

Our street hasn’t changed a lot, really. The iron railings on our staircases and garden walls look just the same. In 1945, people had hooked Union flags on their washing poles and there was a bit more bunting than we managed to cobble together at short notice in 2015. Otherwise, fairly similar.

In both pictures, everyone’s eating cake, sipping tea and having a jolly old time.

But on closer inspection of the 70-year-old photo, the tables aren’t exactly groaning with food. How could they be? Rationing was at its peak and continued until 1954. The idea of getting enough butter and sugar to make one cake, never mind a table laden with it, was insane.

While everyone was undoubtedly delighted that war would finally come to an end in Europe, for many this would have been bittersweet. Three-quarters of those interviewed in the SSAFA survey underestimated the death toll of the war: 60 million people in total, including nearly 400,000 Britons – that’s around one in ten people living before the war.

In the 70-year-old picture, there is a noticeably high proportion of women and children present – and very few men.

I wonder how many of them – real people, some of whom probably lived in my home seven decades ago – lost a family member in the war? Most, I would wager.

That’s something no amount of cake can make up for – and something that, no matter how long ago it was, should never be forgotten.