One of Vera Schaufield’s most vivid memories of VE Day was of getting into trouble with her schoolteacher. Six years earlier, Vera had bid her parents goodbye and become one of the 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia evacuated to England on the Kindertransport, organised by the British humanitarian Nicholas Winton. She was now a refugee suffering from homesickness. She had more reason than most to look forward to the end of the war.
“We were sitting in the classroom and the teacher was reading,” she recalled. “Someone came into the room and spoke to her and she said: ‘I have something to tell you: the war is ended!’ I said: ‘Hooray!’ She sent me out for causing a disturbance. I stood outside the classroom with all these mixed thoughts. My parents were going to be cross, because I couldn’t speak to them in Czech or German. Would I be able to take my school certificate? I just wanted to see my parents again. I just wanted to go home.”
Sadly, it was not to be. Schaufield’s parents had been transported to Auschwitz and were already dead.
One of the greatest days of David Elliot’s young life was almost the last. For David, it had been a long war. Despite some pacifist inclination, he had joined up as a stretcher-bearer and served in France until he was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940. He then served with the South Notts Hussars in north Africa, Sicily and north-west Europe. On VE Day, they had come to a halt near the town of Coesfeld in Germany.
David decided that the best way to celebrate would be to build a massive bonfire with an effigy of Hitler. “We were all mixed up, the officers and the ranks, all terrifically friendly and all very inebriated! I was very worried because it had been raining and everything was wet. It was 8 to 10-feet high and fairly large with this dummy of Hitler on the top. I’d kept a can of petrol to make sure the bonfire went well.” He then managed to put himself in great danger on that day of peace.
“I climbed up on top of this bonfire, the men were all surrounding it – and I noticed a lot of them had got lighted brands [flaming torches]. I started pouring this petrol down from the top, a good 10 or 12 feet up in the air.” It was at this point that Elliott realised how stupid he had been. “To get right through to the end of the war to go and incinerate myself on VE Day was the height of stupidity.” Luckily, the men heard his desperate shouts to “Wait!” while he climbed down. “Then with a great cheer they threw the lighted brands on the fire and it went up in a great whoosh! Everyone was madly cheering.”
VE Day at 75
Seventy-five years ago this month, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, bringing to a close the European war. Read articles from BBC History Magazine’s VE Day special supplement, in which we explore the moment of victory from several perspectives:
Major Alan Hay
When Major Alan Hay’s men found out that the war was over, most had only one thing on their minds: “It was, ‘Get your hands on any vino!’”
Alan, a company commander with the 16th Durham Light Infantry, had had a tough war, serving with the Durhams in Italy and Greece since December 1943. They had been called back to Italy, where they were in reserve. The Germans were on the retreat, but Alan feared they might be planning a bloody last stand in the Alps. Little wonder, then, that when the good news arrived on 8 May 1945, the battalion was jubilant.
“We had a party, first of all firing off all the Very Lights [a type of flare], flashes and signal flares. I suppose some live ammunition went off – but not officially! All the lights were up in the air and we had quite a party.”
They organised a best-dressed jeep competition. “First of all, camouflage netting, but anything that would give a bit of colour. They got balloons from somewhere, went round the Italians and got some dresses from them. Two of the officers dressed up as women wearing frocks, with wigs and make-up to match. One of the jeeps was disguised as a gondola. It was just a huge laugh, drinking and absolutely relaxing. Anything that was stupid we were very good at – and I was right in the thick of it.”
Major Alan Hay
Born in London in 1928, Stan Suffling had been evacuated to St Albans and then Harpenden in 1939. As a pupil at the London Regent Street School, he was evacuated again with the school on its relocation to Minehead.
Stan returned to London in 1944, just in time to experience the stresses of the German V1 and V2 raids. On VE Day, he and a small group of friends went into the centre of London to revel in the celebrations: “We made our way down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. We saw members of the royal family; it was the first time I’d ever seen them. At that time, they used to appear heavily made-up with powder and rouge – they looked like waxworks. That amazed me.”
They walked back to Piccadilly Circus and stood together on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. “It was an amazing scene. It was absolutely milling with people – it was an impossibility to move. We enjoyed the festivities; everybody was talking to everybody. There were members of the forces, a lot of Americans being feted. There were people climbing up the top of lampposts, right up and sitting on the top. Many were drunk. We were not among that crowd – we were just school kids. Those that weren’t drunk with alcohol were drunk with excitement. It was the most exciting day of my life up to then!”
“As you can imagine we were highly delighted. We’d survived!” That was Harold Fine’s overriding memory of VE Day. Fine was a wireless telegraphist who had served aboard HMS Calder since its commission in 1943. The ship had been busy on convoy escort duties in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, before carrying out anti-submarine patrols off Ireland and Scotland. That night Harold went ashore with a bunch of his shipmates. They got drunk and returned to the ship the worse for wear. But that wasn’t the end of their evening.
“Somebody said: ‘Why waste the night?’ About six of us decided to go ashore again. I don’t think there was any jetty sentry, things were very relaxed to say the least!” They forced a pub landlord to serve them – even though it was by then getting late – then moved further into town clutching various bottles. “Somebody dared us to climb up Queen Victoria’s statue outside the City Hall in Belfast. A dare in those days was like red rag to a bull. Up we went! We were knocking the heads of these bottles and drinking. It was decided – very stupidly – to drop these on the crowd gathered underneath. I’m glad to say we didn’t hit anybody.
“It didn’t take very long before two RUC men clambered up behind us and said: ‘Come on Jack, you’re causing trouble, you’d better come down.’ We went down very quietly and peacefully. As our feet hit the deck we were physically thrown into the back of a Black Maria and whipped off to Crumlin Road Jail!”
Come the dawn, they were woken up with a cup of tea and released without charge. “The state of my head!” Their VE Day was over.
Peter Hart was the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum. His new book, At Close Range: Life and Death in an Artillery Regiment, 1939–45, is due to be published by Profile in May
This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine