The celebrations in the UK for Victory in Europe (VE) Day on 8 May 1945 may have been passionate and heartfelt, but they were also, in one vital sense, incomplete. The Second World War was not over until Victory in Japan (VJ) Day on 15 August.
President Harry S. Truman announced the formal Japanese surrender at 7pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) on 14 August, which was the middle of the night in Britain. Celebrations began immediately in the USA, and continued all through the night and into the following day. But it was only on 15 August that people took to the British streets in earnest.
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But according to many the overwhelming emotion was of relief, rather than celebration,
and a sense, too, of tiredness. One woman in Bognor who was writing a diary for the Mass Observation programme wrote: “We’re relieved it’s over. Everybody is for that matter, but we haven’t quite got the same thrill we had as when we heard that the war with Germany was over. The war with Japan’s been too far away and as far as we’re concerned the war was over when the bombing stopped. Of course we can’t feel the same as we did on VE Day – you never get the same kind of thrill a second time.”
The Government declared a public holiday in an early-morning announcement that many people missed. In Hampstead, one housewife noted that there was “definitely much less excitement than on VE Day. The predominant feeling encountered among housewives at least in the early part of the day was annoyance at the shopping difficulties involved. By 09.30am enormous queues (30 and 40 people) were lined up outside bakers and greengrocers.”
In Central London large crowds gathered in the heat of the afternoon. Field Marshal Montgomery drove down Whitehall and through Parliament Square on his way to receive the Freedom of Lambeth. The crowds threw streamers over the bonnet, and waved flags at the windows.
Sailors and young girls marched down Piccadilly singing Land of Hope and Glory, and in the afternoon heat people queued for water at the two fountains in the wall by St James’s Church. However, one observer reported that “there is also an air of slight bewilderment and pointlessness about it all: it lacks the joyful spontaneity of VE Day”.
Richard Dimbleby was responsible for much of the BBC’s outside broadcast that day, but felt no joy: “When I look back tonight on the horrors and misery and the cruelty and the death that I have seen in the last six years, the unforgettable experiences I’ve had and how much older and tired they’ve made me, I just want to go and sit in a corner and thank God it’s all ending.”
That summer, and for months afterwards, British servicemen returned home to their families. According to the historian Juliet Gardiner more than two million women had lived without their husbands during the war. They had become independent, so a man moving back into the house meant making enormous adjustments. And for husbands coming home expecting tea on the table, roast dinners on a Sunday and everything to be the same as it was before the war, it was generally a disappointment. In 1943 Ernest Bevin, at the time Churchill’s wartime minister of labour and national service, had warned that decent housing would be necessary to build harmony into marriages that resumed after a long hiatus. However, the houses that the new Labour government promised did not get built as quickly as planned, and young families remained marooned on waiting lists for many years.
VJ Day also came at a terrible cost to Japanese civilians: the dropping of the world’s first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August. Attitudes had hardened against the Japanese after many atrocities against British servicemen, but not everybody accepted the bombs as a necessary evil. One diarist wrote, “When I first heard about the atomic bomb I felt a rather sick, horrible feeling; I felt that it was a dreadful thing that man had such terrific power to bring destruction to other men.”
In the summer of 1945 it was clear that the world that was approaching was going to be very different to the world before the war. People were now living in an age in which the biggest threats were nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union, rather than Nazi Germany and flying bombs. VJ Day may have been a day to celebrate, but few were under the illusion that life was going to be entirely carefree from now on.
Kevin Telfer is the author of The Summer of ’45: Stories and Voices from VE Day to VJ Day