Personal VE Day stories
Personal story: Cynthia Edwards
By Stephen Walton, Imperial War Museum Senior Curator
Teacher training college student Cynthia Edwards, like countless others in Britain and across the world, was aware that she was witnessing a momentous event in history on VE Day, May 8, 1945.
In many respects London was the epicentre of this event, and she captures the key moments of her day in the capital in the letter she wrote to her family shortly afterwards, a letter that is now part of Imperial War Museum’s collections.
In it she recalls the service of thanksgiving in St Paul's Cathedral (of which there were several throughout the day to accommodate as many visitors as possible), Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s radio announcement of the end of hostilities at 3pm, his later public appearance on the balcony of the Ministry of Health in Whitehall, the regular appearances of the Royal Family on the main balcony at Buckingham Palace, King George VI’s victory broadcast at 9pm, and the night time revelries and official “light shows”.
Cynthia’s letter gives us a more personal glimpse of these occasions, enabling us to participate in them across the intervening years in a way that would not otherwise be possible.
She is star-struck by her immediate neighbour in the St Paul’s service, the celebrated screen actor David Niven (whose surname she touchingly misspells - perhaps her friends had to tell her who he was).
Although there is no mention in other sources that David Niven was in London during the VE Day celebrations, his wife was indeed pregnant at the time, a detail which Cynthia also mentions in her letter.
She notes what seems to be the relatively muted reaction of the crowds to the appearance of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, and the contrastingly unbridled enthusiasm for Churchill, struggling to speak to the cheering multitude in Whitehall, in the midst of which she has difficulty staying on her feet.
Her letter includes a map of exactly where she stood in the crowds at Whitehall, enabling her family to picture the scene she witnessed for themselves.
After the late-night celebrations, some of her fellow students are called up before the college principal for being too late back.
We have had the privilege of being permitted a moment of intimate access to Cynthia’s life at a defining period of our modern history, sharing her unique personal experience of this time. She writes that the newspaper reporting “cannot possibly show what it is really like”.
It is only through the medium of letters, diaries, photographs, films and other kinds of personal records, created by ordinary men and women, that we are now able to approach what history “is really like”.
Cynthia’s letter is just one of millions of memories cared for in Imperial War Museum’s collections.
To read more personal stories of the people who witnessed the end of the Second World War and to find out more information about how this momentous milestone in our history unfolded, please visit www.iwm.org.uk/history/victory website.
On May 8, 2020, Imperial War Museums will be sharing first-hand testimony of VE Day in the form of voices from its unique sound archive.This will be the first of three in a trilogy of unique broadcasts, Voices of War, aimed at sharing recollections of the end of the Second World War through the voices of those who were there.
Personal story: Lotte Moore
I was just four years old when my parents sent me to Herefordshire from my home in Essex and I became a child evacuee.
One day, my father told me I had to go away. I burst into tears - I didn’t understand what war meant.Along with hundreds of other children, I was taken to an enormous building in the countryside. We were terrified. I shared a dormitory with 20 others and every night we wept and wept. We missed our parents so much.
A scary matron would creep along the corridors shouting "In your beds!"Shortly afterwards, my brother arrived. Swinging on a tree one day, he broke his arm and was sent back. I rushed up to the headmistress and begged: “Please, please, can I break my arm too so that I can go home like my brother?” The answer was a resounding: "No."
I returned home in 1944. That was when I experienced air raids for the first time.
You dropped everything and ran as fast as you could. The hysteria was overwhelming.
We’d hide in caves under our house, you couldn’t see anything and sometimes we stayed there overnight. I
was so frightened and thought Hitler was down there waiting for me.
There was an extraordinary feeling of family – there were lots of people we’d never even met before but everyone was so kind to one another.
We were living in Kent when the war in Europe ended. The whole village went mad.
I couldn’t understand why everyone was singing and shouting: "It’s over, it’s over, it’s finished!"The neighbours came out of their homes holding glasses and waving flags.
We had balloons and jelly. There were no mobile phones or even televisions, so the news was shared just by people telling one another.
I recently turned 84. A few years ago, I decided I just had to share the legacy of what I went through with school children.
In 2016, I published my book Lotte’s War, about my experiences.I’ve visited over 200 schools sharing my story and telling pupils what it was like to be a child evacuee and live through the horrors of war.
The children are always fascinated and moved by what they hear. Once, a nine-year-old boy with tears streaming down his face exclaimed: “Gosh, I can’t believe you’re still here. Thank you for being alive.”I tell them about the rationing, which went on for ten years after the war ended, and how if you needed a shirt you would tear down a curtain and make it.
My parents were great friends with the Churchill family and we used to visit them at Chartwell. Just before war broke out, we all went swimming in their swimming pool.
My brother dived under Churchill, who was floating in the water, and tipped him over!My mother shouted: "Don’t drown the Prime Minister!” We had no idea who he was.The school children laugh their heads off when I tell them the story.
On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I shall be thinking very powerfully of the vulnerability of us innocent people who simply didn’t know or understand what was happening.And those children whose Daddy’s never came home. Such courage was shown and such despair was suffered.
After our generation is gone, there will be no-one left to tell these stories. I can’t bear to die yet – there are so many schools I still have to visit.
Lotte Moore lives in West London with her husband, Chris.
The end of the Second World War - Imperial War Museums
Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) on May 8, 1945, remained in the memory of all those who witnessed it
It meant the beginning of the end to nearly six years of a war that had cost the lives of millions.
Allied nations rejoiced, with Britain marking VE Day with street parties, dancing and singing.
However, fighting continued on a global scale and the impact of conflict remained central to people’s lives.
The war in the Pacific did not end until August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered following the dropping of the atomic bombs. The day was celebrated across the world as Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day).
Nevertheless, the political, social and economic repercussions of the Second World War were felt long after it officially ended.
The end of the Second World War - Imperial War Museums: Timeline of events
February 4-11, 1945
Allied leaders including UK Prime Minister Churchill, US President Roosevelt and Russian Premier Stalin meet at Yalta in Crimea to discuss plans for the end of the war and the ensuing peace. At the Yalta Conference the three leaders agree to divide Germany, Austria and their capitals into four post-war occupation zones, controlled by U.S, British, French and Soviet military forces.
February 13-14, 1945
On February 13 RAF Lancaster bombers drop high explosive and incendiary bombs causing a firestorm on the city of Dresden, Germany. The following day, the United States Army Force (USAAF) bombers attack the city. An estimated 25,000 died in the raid.
March 27, 1945
The last V2 rocket to reach England lands at Orpington, fired from the only remaining launch site near the Hague.
April 11-15, 1945
Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps are liberated by British and US forces.
April 25, 1945
Russian and US Forces meet at Torgau on the River Elbe. This is the first convergence of the Eastern and Western fronts.
April 28-30, 1945
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and 12 members of his cabinet are captured and shot by partisans whilst attempting to cross the Swiss frontier. Adolf Hitler dictates his Political Testament naming Admiral Karl Doenitz his successor. On April 30, 1945, Hitler commits suicide in his bunker in Berlin.
May 8, 1945 (VE Day)
At 2.41am on May 7, General Jodl, Chief of Operations of the German Armed Forces and Grand Admiral Doenitz sign the unconditional surrender of German forces on all fronts at General Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Commander’s HQ at Reims.
At 3pm on May 8, Churchill broadcasts to the nation from 10 Downing Street. He announces that hostilities would end at one-minute past midnight. Churchill later appears on the balcony of the Ministry of Health, and the King and Queen, together with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, in front of huge crowds.
August 15, 1945 (VJ Day)
On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. The capitulation follows three days of heated debate among Japanese leaders.
The Japanese military advocates outright rejection of the Allied terms of surrender, as it does not guarantee the emperor’s sovereignty. Emperor Hirohito summons an Imperial Council and asks his ministers to “bow to my wishes and accept the Allied reply forthwith”.
Japan surrenders unconditionally. British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, announces news of Japan’s surrender at midnight and a two-day national holiday, beginning with Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) on August 15.
Unity the key to success 75 years ago and now
By chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter
On 8 May countries around the world will commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. At the time there would still be three more months of fighting in the Pacific, but for a few hours, people rejoiced in the hope of peace.
Commemorations such as this are times to reflect on the millions of men, women and children who lost their lives from all nations and to honour the heroism and extraordinary courage of the veterans who liberated Europe and brought to an end nearly six years of conflict.
As we commemorate those who gave their lives in the Second World War, we should draw on the strength, determination and unity of purpose that they showed to bring liberty to Europe.
The Second World War showed us the darkest side of humanity. It redefined our understanding of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance. We will never forget the courage and service of our men and women who helped defeat fascism. Nor will we forget the bravery of our allies, including eight million Commonwealth citizens, who fought by our side.
It is also a time to reflect on what we might learn from the dark days of war. Code breaking, intelligence, and deception operations played a significant role throughout the Second World War. And information is a key part of the battlefield again today, although its pervasiveness makes it far harder to manage and to attribute sources than it was 75 years ago. Disinformation is a troubling feature of the current media environment, even if it is only as strong as the divisions on which it feeds.
The Second World War was a catalyst for huge change and innovation in society and also in the global institutions that were constructed in its aftermath. The United Nations, NATO, the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the IMF, all were created as a result of the War.
It took a whole of nation endeavour to triumph in the Second World War. All of society mobilised and united behind the war effort. In today’s ‘war’ the ‘enemy’ is invisible, but no less lethal. Once again, the whole of society is mobilising. We can learn much from the resilience and indomitable spirit of those who fought and lived through the Second World War.
In today’s ‘war’, it is the NHS – a post-Second World War innovation itself - that is on the frontline. The NHS and the Armed Forces have often worked together in the past, and the Armed Forces are very proud in the current battle to be supporting the NHS in delivering lifesaving care in an heroic fashion.
If there is one lesson we always learn from war, it is that the next one will not resemble the last. We should remember the winning qualities in all wars are adaptability, agility and a cross-government, whole of nation united effort, with strong international alliances.
To those who gave so much in the Second World War, thank you for your sacrifice. We must learn from what you did, we must stand together, united in a common purpose and a determination to defeat this unseen enemy.
As Churchill said in his VE Day speech: “in the long years to come not only will the people of this island, but of the world, look back to what we’ve done, and they will say – do not despair.”