V E Day 1945

A few months ago I wrote about my sister Audrey Higgins. I shared with you her part in the story of H.R.Higgins (Coffee-man) Ltd from the time she left school just before she was sixteen. In taking over her effects when she died in 2014, I came across this account of V E Day 1945. I am sure Audrey would not mind me sharing it with you.

Tony Higgins

 

8th May 1945 – V E Day

I am sitting on the edge of my bed at number 48 Stockens Green, Knebworth, trying to describe some of the amazing scenes I have seen today. Even as I write at 10.56 pm the sounds of Knebworth’s celebrations can be heard across the fields.

After meeting June and her brother David, we had lunch. We then took a bus down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus. The whole city was fluttering with flags of nearly all nationalities. Crowds surged along the streets wearing every kind of decoration imaginable! Ribbons, streamers, comic hats, flags and flowers.

We spent some time until just after two pm in the Royal Academy looking at the paintings. The streets were hot and tiring and we wanted to sit down. Then we strolled down St James’s. Several army lorries were tearing about loaded with cheering people. One boy was hanging perilously on the back of one and seemed to be in danger of falling off any minute! The Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace was the most crowded place we had seen up to then.

We made our way to The Palace to hear the Prime Minister’s Speech. It was to be recorded all over London at 3pm. The sweep of the road that surrounds the Queen Victoria Memorial was one mass of people, right up to the gates of the Palace and all over the monument. We moved about a bit trying to decide the best place to stand. The King and Queen were expected on the balcony after the speech. We decided to get on to the steps of the memorial, a decision we much regretted afterwards. However having forced our way up, it was IMPOSSIBLE to move one’s shoulders. We found we were stuck with a six foot three Grenadier Guard in front of us. It was stifling and I wondered just how long one could stay like it without fainting.

As Big Ben was striking the voice of Churchill came through the loud speakers and the massive audience of thirty thousand fell silent. He gave his historic speech and it was followed by the Victory Salute from the buglers. The crowd broke into deafening cheering and shouting for The King. Now it is sad to record that although I was so near, I only caught a brief glimpse of The King and Queen stepping out on to the balcony. But the two Princesses were also there. The crowd went wild with excitement and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow”.  The Royal Family after much waving went back into the Palace and the crowd TRIED to move.

June had just time to call “Where shall we meet if we get separated” and David to answer “St. James’ Palace” when we began to drift. A man leading a boy, judging by the colour of the boy’s face he was just on the point of collapsing, stepped between us. June was swept forward and David and me back. It was impossible to keep together. I sent up a prayer that June would remember the way to St James’ Palace.

David and myself gradually made our way down the steps of the memorial to The Mall. We were there held up again by a crowd of people who formed themselves into a procession and were forcing their way in the opposite direction from that of the crowd. We reached Friary Court at St James’ and were just getting really worried when June appeared. It was agreed that the only thing to do was to get into the park where we could sit and rest our aching legs and feet.

We had bought a newspaper which said that Mr Churchill was expected on the balcony of The Ministry of Health in Whitehall at about 5pm. After our rest in St James’ Park, we decided to begin walking towards Whitehall. Everyone had the same idea and progress was slow but nobody minded. The squeakers that were blown in one’s face, and balls on a piece of elastic that thumped into one’s back were all taken in good part. The only thing we could not stand at any price were rattles of wood that people whirled round. They really made an awful noise. June said it was an invention of The Devil. Actually they were designed to warn people of a gas attack.

We reached Big Ben and Whitehall and found the crowds once more consolidating. The time I noticed was 4.30pm. None of us knew which building was The Ministry of Health but it was obvious when we turned into Whitehall. There was the balcony divided into three by pillars and hung with Union Jacks. The crowds were massing in front and an amazing number of people had climbed on to the roofs of the bus shelters, lamp posts. In short, anything climbable.

After our experience at Buckingham Palace, we were much more careful in choosing our position. We took a stand on the edge of the kerb facing the balcony. I should have said we took our seat on the kerb, because that is where we stayed until we were in danger of being trodden on by the ever growing crowd. It struck me as I sat there, getting a dog’s eye view of things, how badly many people stand and feet look different from the usual view one gets of them.

We got to our feet about five to five and everyone became very expectant. There had been aeroplanes swooping over us all day. As we stood there in Whitehall, one dropped two red flares that landed on the roof of The Ministry. It gave us all quite a thrill. Big Ben chimed five, but except for one or two unknown people who kept looking down from the balcony no one came.

From the roof of another building further down Whitehall, another diversion was caused by someone sending up great clouds of coloured smoke. But what the crowds wanted was Churchill. Time went on and still no one came. The crowd got impatient and started whistling and cheering to encourage him to come out, but an unknown man kept appearing. At last the crowd changed their cheers to Boos, “We want Churchill not any old Tom Dick or Harry”. Everything that was thought to be encouraging was shouted at the building. “We want Churchill!”  “We want Winnie!” and this one when the crowd really got restless “One two three four, what the hell are we waiting for”. There was a ripple of laughter when this was first heard and then it was taken up by all sides.

The crowd, as I have said was dense, and it wasn’t long before there were cries of “Gangway please”. People were being carried, half carried, half dragged and led through the crowds to get to a less crowded part and air. I am afraid a number of these, judging by the colour of their faces, had fainted before they got clear.

We were standing on the edge of the kerb at 5.45pm. There were five people sitting at our feet with their heads on their knees. Just after this time there were shouts from people hanging out of the windows in the building we were watching that Mr Churchill was at last about to appear. And there he was. A rather short stocky figure in a black suit that made his face show up white above it. The crowd went wild with excitement and waved, cheered, and clapped. What I did I can’t remember, but I have never heard anything like it.

With Mr Churchill there were members of The War Cabinet. These were all in the middle balcony on either side people had crowded. All no doubt famous statesmen and war leaders, but who they were I cannot say. Mr Churchill raised his hand, in an effort to make it quieter. “God Bless you all” came through the loud speakers. There was more cheering and then he gave a short impromptu speech about this being our victory over an enemy that had sworn to wipe London off the map. The crowd went mad. Then Mr Bevin came forward and called for three cheers for victory. It was deafening. That is the only way I can describe it. Mr Churchill still waving stepped out of sight.

At this point, we thought of moving. That was the nearest we got to moving for the next few minutes, but slowly we began to drift. And then began the worst moments of that day and I think the most dangerous. The dense mass seemed never ending and I seriously began to wonder how far we were going to be swept before we had a chance to decide for ourselves which way we wanted to go. June had been determined that at all costs we were going to stick together. As I was in front she hung on to me, and David on to her. And believe me one had to make it a really strong grasp.

There was rather an unpleasant incident when a man carrying a child began to barge his way through. He crashed into us and June was in danger of losing me. She made a desperate grab at my arm. No one knows what, if anything happened, but the man began shouting. “That was pretty deliberate that was” and various other unpleasant remarks. I felt very much like answering back, but decided it was safer to remain quiet. In any case, he was being swept away from us. It gradually became easier to walk, and we found ourselves on the Embankment. We had then to decide our route from there to Kings Cross.

The only means of transport was by tube, which was completely jammed, and by tram for which there was a huge queue, and couldn’t take us very far in the direction we wanted. I thought if we could reach the Strand we should be on the 77 bus route which would then take us right to the Cross. It was a considerably longer walk than I imagined. We all felt on the point of dropping. One could, if one had the necessary strength, only walk slowly. We were further shaken up by a firework that went off with a terrific bang right next to us. In fact I thought it was something more serious than a firework. Perhaps my nerves aren’t so good.

We got at last to the Strand, and it was obvious that there were no buses running down that street. It was one mass of people, all very happy. In fact I wasn’t sorry to be leaving it. Even then at 6.30pm, people were getting slightly drunk with every intention of getting more so. Charing Cross tube was hopelessly packed. We decided to try for the next station which was Holborn, and hope for the best. It was a long walk as anyone who likes to try it will agree. It was a tremendous relief to find Holborn underground comparatively empty.

From there, it was plain sailing. At Kings Cross it was about 7 pm. Our first thought was to get a cup of tea, which though it was only hot water, we all enjoyed. At 7.30 we boarded the 7.50 for home. We found ourselves a comfortable coach in the front of the train that had tables. Us all sitting down into the comfortable seats with thankful sighs of relief. June immediately took off her shoes for her feet were unbearably sore. She was very doubtful whether she would get them on again. David had got to the state where his head throbbed with every step. I felt generally “ Whacked to the wide”. But we all agreed that without any doubt it had been a really thrilling day. We would not have missed it for anything.

This is the day we have waited for

Through five and a half long years of war

We’ve cheered at the Palace and at Whitehall

Been one of thousands to flood the Mall

This victory is ours, that fact we’ll make plain

But war, we’re determined, shall not come again.

Audrey Higgins

VE Day 1945

 

A Note from Mr Tony

At this time our world is facing a challenge that reaches into all of our lives. And though our enemy is not a physical one, it is equally destructive.

My hope is that we can all take heart and comfort from these stories and the resolve of those who lived through the Second World War and know that there will be brighter times ahead.

I hope you are keeping safe and well as we soldier on through this troubling time.

Best wishes from myself, and all at H. R. Higgins

Tony Higgins