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Press release

  • 5 May 2005
  • University archive’s V-E Day memories revealed

    The end of war in Europe on 8 May 1945 came amid confusion, rumour, rationing and a blaze of early summer sunshine, according to the diaries, observations and personal opinion to be found in the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex.

    The Mass-Observation project was created by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings in the 1930s to build a picture of everyday life in Britain - "an anthropology of ourselves". Its papers were donated to the University in 1970 and its work continues to this day. Contributors to the Mass-Observation project are ordinary men and women who write down their personal thoughts and record observations in response to specific themes or "directives".

    Directive themes range from holidays and festivals to key historic events, including the Second World War. Responses feature diaries, personal observations and snippets of overheard conversation, recorded by the Mass-Observation volunteers, who are in the main anonymous (to encourage the expression of honest opinion).

    The resulting notebooks, reams of writing paper and scribbled-over bits of envelope are now housed in boxes according to date and subject in the University's library and offer fascinating insights to the way we were for historians, writers and researchers.

    A collection of randomly selected excerpts from the archive offer an evocative snapshot of how people viewed the end of the war, while the experience of V-E Day itself is seen here through the eyes of two Mass-Observation volunteers.


    The atrocity films:

    In the final days of the war the cinema-going British public were shown newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps, liberated by the Allies. The so-called atrocity films produced stunned reactions in the audiences who saw them, for very different reasons:.

    Female, 29th April "I saw the atrocity film at the New Gallery today. Of course, I expected it to be terrible but it's more terrible. Not because of the piles of corpses - after all, they're dead, but because of the survivors. They just aren't human any more. I think the worst moment of all was when one of these almost skeletons tried to smile at an American soldier. You know, his face couldn't express a smile any more. The audience were deathly quiet; not a whisper. Some of it's shown without a commentary, and I never heard such a hush as there was all over the cinema."

    Female, 2nd May "The atrocity film is followed by a Walt Disney - Donald Duck - people are laughing again within a minute. And it's all mixed up with a propaganda film about noble London and how wonderful Londoners were in the Blitz. It felt as if the whole show were propaganda. I can only say I felt thoroughly ashamed by the whole thing."


    Uncertainty and tension in the run-up to German surrender

    29th April, female, overheard: "Ooh, the rumours! Hitler's dead. Hitler's not dead but he's dying. Hitler's only having his face lifted." 

    5th May, male overheard: "The paper says there'll be nothing extra for V Day - no food and no drinks. It's all lousy. Even the Germans got drunk before Berlin got attacked. They get all the luck." 

    5th May, overheard in a shop queue: "There's no gaiety anywhere. I think everybody's quite apathetic if not extremely depressed. All I've seen is Himmler saying he's the only sane one left and that Goering's in a toga and Hitler's dead. There was something in the newspaper saying that they were all having their faces altered."

    Observed on the no 19 bus to Chelsea, 5th May: "Two boys get on and one starts idly peeling the [protective] netting off the windows. 'Shan't want that no more,' he mutters, but with an indifferent air."

    5th May, male shopkeeper, to observer: "You're interested in what people think about the war, aren't you? Well, I've done a bit of counting up for you. There have been 55 people in this shop today so far, and every single one of them has mentioned the weather, and not a single one of them has mentioned the news!" [The German military had formally surrendered to Field Marshall Montgomery the day before at Luneburg Heath, Germany].


    Victory in Europe announced:

    People had been preparing themselves for an announcement to the end of the war, but constant rumours, delays, the piecemeal nature of surrender and the final timing of the announcement, led to a sense of anticlimax. People expected an announcement on May 7, but delays to allow a final surrender document to be signed at American headquarters in Reims meant that Churchill finally delayed making a formal announcement of the end of the war in Europe until 3pm the following day, May 8, to be known as V-E Day.

    Paper shop conversation:

    Female 1: They played a dirty trick - a proper dirty trick.

    Male 1: "A muddle it was. Just a muddle."

    Female 2: "People waiting and waiting and nothing happening. No church bells or nothing."

    Male 1: "Do 'em no good in the General Election. People won't forget it. Insult's just what it was. "

    Male 2: "When you think of it, peace signed at 2.40 in the morning and then people wait and wait all day. No bells, no All Clear, nothing to start people off."


    The Eve of V-E Day

    The following is an extract from a week-long diary kept by 'LHCS' - a female office worker from London who lived on the Edgware Road. She had just returned to her flat from a friend's, where an end-of-war party had been abandoned following the news that V-E Day would now be the next day.

    "I came back and went up to our flat roof, just outside our flat on the ninth floor, from which my husband and I have so often watched fires flaring up in a ring round London, as far as we could see, and seen explosions, listened to bombs and planes and guns during the 'Little Blitz' of spring 1944. We also watched buzz bombs with their flaming tails careering along over the houses before the final 'bang'. It looked fine to see the floodlit flags and the lights in the windows. I felt 'it's too good to be true' and again wished my husband was here, as he was in the raids.

    "As I looked, fireworks began to crackle around the horizon and the red glow of distant bonfires lighted the sky - peaceful, joyous fires, now - in place of the terrifying ones of last year. Towards midnight the fireworks reached a climax and there were more fires on the horizon. It was a warm, starlight night, but just after 12 a streak of summer lightning joined the other illuminations and strangely enough, looked rather like a V sign flashing in the sky."


    V-E Day

    V-E Day dawned 'brilliantly fine'. Our writer heads out and encounters a neighbour who informs her:  "It'll be nice to do some real housekeeping at last, I hope the Ministry of Labour doesn't bother me". People are queuing at a fish shop, as usual. There are girls in paper hats and a dog dressed in a red white and blue coat.

    People in Oxford Street are waiting for buses going to Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square. Selfridges is decorated with Allied flags. The writer buys a two-shilling Victory medal. The street vendor tries to pin it on quickly as it is actually an old Coronation medal decorated with red white and blue ribbon for the occasion. She smokes a cigarette in Park Lane and observes an air of "subdued cheerfulness" all around.

    In Hyde Park at 1.30pm, the writer sees the trench shelter signs. "It reminds me of 1938. How does it happen that I am still alive? I didn't think then that there would be anything left of London, or of us, in a short time. The AA guns are still pointing skywards. I remember the noise they used to make."

    At 3pm, "Churchill didn't speak about 'winning the peace'. He made a very simple and impressive announcement. "

    Our writer notices the church bells ringing out: "It really brought tears to my eyes. I thought Oh damn, I'll have to put that in the MO - I can't think why it should affect me so."

    She passes a Socialist at Marble Arch addressing a small crowd, warning that the seeds of another war are already being sown. Everywhere is a sense of anticlimax.

    On her way to a V-E Day dinner with friends, she notes the impact of Allied flags flying above London landmarks: "It still seems odd to see the Red Flag flying proudly over the Dorchester, as over the Reichstag in Berlin. I wonder if Stalin will stay there, if we ever have a peace conference?"


    The party crowd

    Another Mass-Observation volunteer takes up the story. In less reflective style, she records the mood of the crowd.

    Whitehall, 1.45pm May 8

    "Whitehall is jammed with people. Thousands and thousands line the pavements from Downing Street to the Ministry of Works. Policemen estimate the crowd to be 50,000. A continuous stream of people walk in the roadway and the policeman calls: 'Now move along please, keep moving!' Everyone's pushing each other but it's all done in good humour. A bus passing down Whitehall has chalked across it: HITLER MISSED THIS BUS. A lorry filled with barrels of beer raises a mighty cheer and cries of 'Now don't go further mate' and 'Now that's what I call priority delivery!'

    Overheard conversation in the crowd:

    Female 1: I bet Churchill's pleased with himself.

    Female 2 So he should be. He's done a grand job of work for a man of his age - never sparing himself.

    Female 3 Pity Roosevelt's dead.

    Male It was just like this after the last war and 12 months later we was standing in the dole queues.

    General cries from crowd: "SHUT UP!"

    Female 4 No one's going to make me miserable today. I've been waiting for it too long!



    "Big Ben strikes three and silences the vast crowd. Over the loudspeakers comes the voice of the announcer: 'The Prime Minister the Right Honourable Winston Churchill' and the crowd sends up a mighty cheer. Then follows Mr Churchill and for the time being the voice of the Prime Minister is the only voice to be heard in Whitehall. When he tells them that from midnight tonight hostilities will cease, there's loud cheers, and again when the people hear that the Channel Islands will be freed. But there are whoops of joy and waving of hats and flags when he comes to that point in his speech when he declares that 'The German war is, therefore, at an end'. And he ends his broadcast with 'Advance Britannia' and the buglars of the Scots Guard sound the ceremonial ceasefire. The band strikes up the National Anthem and old and young sing God Save the King with such fervour and reverence that the anthem sounds like a hymn."


    V is for victory

    After a long wait, the chanting crowds are rewarded in the late evening with a view of Churchill, who addresses them from the balcony of the Ministry of Health. Our writer records:

    "People had waited hours in the heat, chanting and singing. 'We want Winnie! We want Winnie!' A man at the side of the balcony suddenly puts up two fingers and instantly there is a burst of cheering. People wave handkerchiefs, flags, fans, hats, umbrellas, gloves. Then Churchill appears, wearing a hat. He gives the V sign and the crowd roars itself hoarse. Churchill begins: 'God bless you all. This is your victory.' After a short speech, the crowd roards hip hip hooray and sings 'For he's a jolly good fellow'."


    Beer and bonfires

    Away from the massed crowds of London, provincial England celebrated in its own way, though for many, V-E Day was no different from any other. But the party spirit prevailed in many towns and villages across the country, with street parties, bonfires, beer and sandwiches....

    "Plateloads disappear, but no matter, they are filled again. Paper hats are worn by the ladies, also aprons coloured red, white and blue. A gramophone is brought out and we sing with it. Chairs are placed near a wall; tables are cleared and dishes washed, so what next? Races for children, then grown-ups. The women and children start dancing and soon the street is alive with record after record: waltzes, lancers, barn dances and Scottish. Soon people are coming from other streets and joining in. When the pub closes at 10pm an avalanche descends and happy drunks join the throng. At 10.30pm a bonfire is lit opposite my house. Hitler again is on top and how the crowd roar when he comes down in flames."


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