I remember one Christmas afternoon when my mother disclosed that her father was a ‘great Stalin man’. I almost choked on my drink at the news but when she explained, it made perfect sense. My maternal grandfather had been a staunch unionist and an Orangeman but became disillusioned after experiencing long term unemployment during the Great Depression. Embittered he looked, like many of the working class, to the supposed workers utopia in the Soviet Union. As a result, on VE Day 1945, 93 Northumberland Street flew the Hammer and Sickle while every other house sported the Union Flag. The story makes me smile now as it did then, but it makes an important point – VE Day was not all about Britain. The USSR were our gallant allies and did the heavy lifting. British losses in the war, depending on what source you use, were between 330,000 and 400,000 dead while Soviet dead numbered a staggering 25,000,000. It was the Red Army which destroyed most of the German army and stormed into Berlin forcing Hitler’s suicide. Subsequent attempts by sections of the British media to present World War II as an almost wholly British triumph do not bear up to scrutiny. Actually, it is hard to see how any power even the USSR or the USA could have beaten the Third Reich on its own, certainly not by May 1945. Victory was a team effort and even countries that had been defeated and occupied such as Poland, France, Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands contributed substantial ground forces to the Allied war efforts after their countries had been overrun.
There was an out-pouring of joy and relief on VE Day. People had endured years of blackouts, and rationing, many had lost their homes and loved ones. In my own family, my maternal grandmother had a brother killed in Kent trying to defuse an unexploded bomb during the Blitz, followed by her nephew four years later in Normandy. My paternal grandfather lost his younger brother in Germany in the final weeks of the war while another was fortunate to be evacuated from Dunkirk.
VE Day is also often seen as the end of the Second World War which it was not. While London and New York partied, the Americans were suffering their worst casualties of the Pacific War on Okinawa and looked upon the prospect of an invasion of mainland Japan with horror. General MacArthur warned the US Defense Secretary, Stimson, that US casualties would be around a million in such an undertaking. For the soldiers who ended the war in Germany or Italy, VE Day was a welcome, but apparently temporary respite. Many faced being shipped to Asia or the Pacific to finish off Japan and a slogan among British troops was ‘Burma looms ahead’.
In popular culture the war is seen as straight forward battle between good and evil. The liberation of the camps and the salvation of Europe’s Jews from genocide are now seen as reasons for fighting, but these are modern reconstructions. Elements of the UK press occasionally reported on the genocide of Jews (a term not invented until after the war) but no one seemed particularly interested in reading about it. When the Soviets uncovered the first death camp at Maidanak in eastern Poland in late 1944, the US and UK press refused to publish reports of ovens and human ashes used as fertiliser. The stories seemed too fantastic to be credible and were dismissed as Soviet propaganda. As a result, the Soviets kept quiet about what they found at Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945 until after Germany’s defeat by which time, British and American troops had discovered the charnel houses of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau for themselves. Churchill and Roosevelt knew full well about Hitler’s attempts to exterminate European Jewry but downplayed it because they were afraid of encouraging the widespread anti-Semitism in their own societies.
My experience of interviewing British war veterans at the turn of the century indicated they thought Hitler was a menace who had to be removed, but the enemy was German militarism, not Nazisim per se. The wilder stories about German atrocities were dismissed as the type of ‘brutal Hun’ propaganda their fathers had been fed in the Great War and they were deeply sceptical of what they were told about their enemies. The American public were more interested in the Pacific which was seen as a war of revenge for Pearl Harbour, while the conflict in Europe was regarded as ‘Roosevelt’s War’. Eisenhower became so frustrated about the lack of animosity GIs showed towards their German enemies he insisted on them being shown around concentration camps. One young soldier, visibly sickened by the sight of naked, emaciated corpses stacked like cordwood, was asked by his Supreme Commander, ‘Still having trouble hating them?’
Much of that is now largely forgotten along with the fact that while in Europe British soldiers fought to liberate countries, in Asia their main role was to return Burma, Malaya and Singapore to British rule. Britain can be rightly proud of its role in the defeat of Germany and Japan but that doesn’t explain the current nostalgia and downright jingoism for a war which is outside the memory for anyone under eighty. Unfortunately, the Second World War has become mythologised much as the First World has been. The ‘Blitz spirit’ is constantly evoked and the Queen even quoted ‘We’ll meet again’, a popular ballad from the war, in her recent Coronavirus address. At least she actually served in the conflict.
History of course is always more nuanced. Yes, there was great courage and stoicism among the general public but also shirkers, spivs and looters. The notion that the entire country pulled together for the war effort is a myth. Albert Sutton, a Dublin RAF veteran I interviewed, recounted with some bitterness that the Blackpool landlady he was billeted with gave the bacon eggs she was supposed to feed him to her paying customers, while he got a piece of dry toast. Other local ex-servicemen also recalled with anger the fact that worker in Shorts and other war industries were paid more than them and that some contemporaries who opted not to enlist, even lamented the end of the war as it brought the gravy train of overtime and big orders to an abrupt end.
World War II is commemorated largely in the UK and Commonwealth, the United States and Russia. Everyone else suffered defeat and collaboration, civil war and dead who fought on both sides. National nightmares are not the stuff of nostalgia or celebration.
1945 was the last time the United Kingdom was a big player on the world stage; the story since then has been one of continuous decline. The empire has gone and the country has rejected partnership with its European neighbours opting to go it alone or more likely, become an American client state in all but name.
Victory in Europe is rightly a source of pride but the main celebration surely should be of the decades of peace that followed. The Germans and French get that, the British on the whole do not. There has been no war between major European States since 1945. That is the lasting legacy of VE Day and a cause of celebration for us all.
- Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil 2013, L. 19359 ↑
- Manchester, W, American Caesar, 1978, p.438 ↑
- Interview with Captain William Stirling, RE, 2 April 2003 ↑
- Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil 2013, L. 18494 ↑
- Werth, A, Russia at War, 1955, p.899 ↑
- Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L. 16982 ↑
- Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L. 8105 ↑
- Thompson, S, The Lesser Evil, 2013, L. 18521 ↑
- Interview, Albert Sutton, RAF, 2 April 2001 ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam