8 May 1945 was one of the most important days in 20th Century history. On that day, the war that had been raging in Europe since September 1939 officially stopped and the Allies finally emerged victorious against Nazi Germany. In the United Kingdom, the British people woke for the first time in years to relief and excitement rather than fear and the resulting celebrations became legendary. Innumerable street parties were held and thousands flocked to London and other city centres. People from all backgrounds and ages marked the end of WWII in Europe from the Royal Family and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to serving military personnel and civilians. The breakdown in social barriers even included the teenage princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, who left Buckingham Palace to join the wider celebrations.
To mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the Discovery Channel will be premiering a one-off special documentary hosted by the actor, author and presenter Sir Tony Robinson to celebrate the historic moment. Tony Robinson’s VE Day: Minute by Minute will take a unique look at the pivotal day and delves into the key events that made VE Day such a momentous 24 hours. It also includes original interviews with historians and veterans who tell their stories and share their first-hand experiences with extensive use of archive footage and stills.
A prolific documentary maker, Robinson is the UK’s foremost face of popular history. His highly varied career and enthusiastic interest in history has helped to popularise the subject for decades. Speaking ahead of the premiere of VE Day: Minute by Minute, Robinson describes what happened on 8 May 1945 (including the continuation of the war in the Far East) and what parallels can be drawn from WWII with today’s international crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is the premise of VE Day Minute-by-Minute?
It is so unlike most of the war television that we see. I’ve done a huge number of programmes about the World Wars and of course they always have a sombre aspect to them. You deal with the toughest kind of awfulness – heroism, sacrifice, bombs and refugees. There is a certain psychology that you enter into but this documentary is totally different.
It is almost unalloyed pure joy to see all those people doing the knees-up, singing songs and talking in accents which aren’t all like ours today. I think at another time we might have thought that this kind of documentary would represent that the past is another country. But, given where we are right now with the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems very pertinent. There are so many parallels with now to what was happening at the end of WWII.
What were the circumstnaces of VE Day?
The official surrender in Europe had acutally happened the previous day but a political and bureaucratic dance had to take place whereby various generals met up in different parts of the European front to sign the documents. It was certainly decreed in Britain that celebrations would begin at midnight on 8 May and that Winston Churchill would make a national announcement at 3pm. At the same time, both Harry S. Truman and Charles de Gaulle would make similar speeches. It was as though all of the Allies adopted this day in order to celebrate the end of the war.
Of course, there were two deep ironies about that. One was that even on 8 May there were still some skirmishes breaking out in Europe. More importantly, on the Eastern Front, the Soviets were still engaged in warfare as well as Allied troops in the Far East. All American soldiers fired a single shot at the Japanese at the same time when VE Day was declared. This was a rhetorical reminder to the Japanese that their time would soon come as well.
The documentary is peppered with remarkable interview testimonies from veterans and witnesses. Which of their stories stick out for you?
More than anything else, it’s the mundane stories that stick out for me. The fact is, although VE Day was announced as a day of celebration, no one was quite sure how it would turn out because there was no clarity. For example, an awful lot of people went into work but met a lot of people who were coming back because they’d been sent home. This created huge traffic jams, which was very reminiscent of the communication failures that we get nowadays. It wasn’t until around 11am on 8 May that people around the country decided, “Let’s celebrate”.
Elsewhere, young men and women from the French Resistance were being released. You often think that Resistance members were either dead or still operating in the hills. A lot of them were freed just outside Paris. One guy was released in Belgium and knew it would take forever to get to Paris so he pretended to be Belgian to get on a train. He jumped from that to get on another train to Paris and he was home by teatime.
VE Day was an international event but why do you think the celebrations in the UK, and particularly London, became the most famous?
I think it was specifically because of the Royal Family’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. That was so iconic and there was something about the King and Queen’s conduct throughout the war that had offered the British people an enormous stability. It was a very shrewd political move, and also an act of faith, to keep the flag flying at Buckingham Palace throughout the war.
Also, the two young princesses looked staggeringly beautiful and full of hope. The fact that Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) uniform showed that she too had been through exactly the same kind of experiences as everyone else. I think it just went down in folklore straightaway even though the legendary, almost fairy-tale, story of how Elizabeth and Margaret snuck out of the Palace and went among the ordinary people isn’t entirely true. In fact, they went to the Ritz and did the conga! That wasn’t an experience that was shared by the majority of Londoners but the story still had a fairy-tale quality about it and certainly the one that most people bought into.
VE Day is a story of celebration but to what extent was it also a sombre occasion?
I think you can see from the footage that people allowed themselves a few hours of unalloyed joy. Even Churchill referred to the fact that it was quite legitimate to celebrate. It had been a long, deeply awful time for people so why shouldn’t there be a day-long knees-up? However, underneath that there was a sobriety that was about to hit them in a profound way in the days yet to come. I’m not sure that VE Day was coloured by that sobriety. For them it would have been a great, fantastic feeling.
Of the people involved on VE Day, Winston Churchill has become the most central figure. How did he go from the zenith of his career on that day to losing the 1945 general election shortly afterwards?
Churchill’s experience on VE Day was very similar to what we’re beginning to see now with Covid-19 in that politicians have to ride two horses at once. One of those is the question of, “How do we deal with the here and now?” and the second is, “How are we going to position the country and people for what will happen in the tough years ahead?”
I was actually born a year to the day after VJ Day and so the whole end to the war was very central to me while growing up. I was constantly reminded of VE Day each year when the anniversary went by and I remembered not understanding why it was that Clement Attlee became prime minister when Churchill seemed a towering figure. He represented Britain’s success in the war and had been a major figure but had been left behind in the first general election after the war.
It wasn’t until pretty recently that I understood that it was precisely because he epitomised all that struggle and sacrifice that Britain wanted something new. The British wanted something different – a new promise, a new birth, a new day. I’m sure there were a minority of politically aware people who remembered Churchill’s part in the General Strike of 1926 and his attitude towards the trade unions. A lot of the things that historians say were a factor in his electoral defeat did play a part but I don’t think it was the primary reason by any means. I think there was something deep within people that wanted somebody who represented something new.
As a side note, I was actually at Churchill’s funeral in 1965. My mum and dad lived in Woodford Green, which was in his constituency, and so we were allowed to jump the queue for his lying-in-state. We went up to London from Woodford on the Central Line and the queue was ridiculously long. We went right to the front and walked straight in. I remember seeing him laid out in state so it was very vivid in my memory.
How do you think VE Day would have been received in defeated countries like Germany or Italy?
I suppose the answer is that places like Berlin had so many huge problems to attend to that the end of the war really wasn’t the end. They were still under siege and attack with many being sought out as collaborators and enemies of the state. Its not as though they could breathe a sigh of relief because they were defeated and things were not going to get back to normal. It was going to take a long time before things got anywhere like back to some sense of normality. Although the British had deep economic problems at least they could think that in victory they were all in it together. I don’t think you would have that feeling in the defeated Axis countries.
Allied troops were still fighting furious battles against the Japanese in Burma and at Okinawa among others on VE Day. To what extent have we neglected the fact the WWII carried on for months afterwards until VJ Day on 15 August 1945?
I’ve always rather despaired of the fact that we view the European front as WWII by and large. We don’t give enough thought to the terrible sacrifices that occurred during the Pacific War. I think it is partly to do with the fact that we couldn’t handle the cruelty of the Japanese camps. I remember my friend’s dad had been in a Japanese POW camp and you were not allowed to ask him anything about it. It was thought to be inappropriate and all that you really knew about the war against the Japanese was that it was very unpatriotic if you bought a Japanese car.
I think that it was also felt that the war in the Far East was the Americans’ conflict. This of course totally fails to engage with the huge struggle that Britain took part in such as the Pacific, Burma and Singapore. I suppose part of that was the enormous embarrassment of the swiftness of the defeat at Singapore in 1942.
We’re currently living through the Covid-19 pandemic and many politicians and media outlets are comparing this current crisis to WWII. To what extent is it right or wrong to make those comparisons?
In a sense, the comparisons with WWII are poetic at best and cravenly opportunistic at their worst. However, there are obvious parallels most particularly with the mass mobilisation. There is a sense in Britain of actions that we should all be doing and that it is our patriotic duty to do them.
The other thing is the idea that there are certain members of the community, which in this case is the National Health Service and people delivering vital services, who are being heroic and sacrificing themselves on our behalf. There is also the fact that most of us changed gear pretty quickly. We all got used to being without certain things, including personal freedoms, very swiftly.
I do think the parallels are there if we choose to look at them because this kind of crisis isn’t unprecedented. During the war, you couldn’t put your lights or go out after a certain time. For anybody who was born before 1946, what is happening today is not unprecedented. It is part of what has previously happened in Britain during their lifetimes.
In the same way, I think there will undoubtedly be a burst of joy when the lockdown finishes. The difference will be that there won’t be celebrations like VE or VJ Day but more like a dozen things to cheer about at different times.
What can the generation who survived the war, such as the praised NHS fundraiser and WWII veteran Captain Tom Moore, teach us today during this current crisis?
There are very few of that wartime generation left and the irony is that they will be the last to be let out of their houses again once the lockdown is eased. The government have already picked on the over-70s and the over-80s are the only ones who can remember WWII. Many might well be dead by the time they are let out of their houses.
What can they teach us? The answer is that unless we look after them and respect their rights to have some mobility they’re not going to be able to teach us anything. We have to have respect that generation who survived WWII. We shouldn’t wrap them in a blanket but in a way that they are able to share their lives with their grandchildren and do the responsible things that they were doing before the virus hit.
I don’t think we’ve given any thought to that. We wax lyrical about WWII and Captain Tom Moore but how are we really treating those people who lived through the war? Not very well, and what the recent controversy over care homes has exposed is the rank ageism in our society. Care homes have been largely ignored while the elderly are dying. Those who look after them haven’t been given the protection they need and Covid-centres are actually being created. Politicians are still not really speaking about this problem and the figures of the people who are dying in care homes is still unclear and not presented to us properly. There is no proper exit strategy for elderly people yet.
Having said that, the fascinating thing about Captain Tom Moore is that we are able to touch the war through him because he was there and is still playing his part. He’s still disciplined, marching around his garden and being generous. He’s given us an injection of what that time was like.
For more fascinating interviews why not purchase History of War, Britain’s best military history magazine? Subscriptions and single copies can be bought online at www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk This includes a special VE Day 75th anniversary commemorative issue with two WWII veteran interviewees, which is on sale now.