VE Day in Midhurst and Petworth in 1945 was celebrated with great gusto
Alan Readman, former county archivist, and Martin Hayes, county local studies librarian, West Sussex Record Office, bring stories from the archives and remind us how Victory in Europe was celebrated across the area.
As the armies of liberation progressed through occupied Europe en route to Berlin, at home coastal defences were gradually removed, tenders being invited for the demolition of the dragons teeth and pill boxes which had been so feverishly constructed in 1940.
At Bognor and Worthing, barbed wire was cleared away from the promenade, giving some small children their first glimpse of an unobstructed seafront, though the beaches still had to be cleared of mines.
The formal German surrender was taken by General Montgomery at his Luneburg Heath HQ, near Hamburg, on May 4, 1945. In Britain, Tuesday, May 8, was declared a public holiday, VE (Victory in Europe) Day.
The excitement really began the evening before. As the news broke of the end of the war, people had been waiting so long for the moment they spilled onto the streets, cheering and singing, slapping each other on the back, ready to drink the health of Mr Churchill.
Roll Out the Barrel and We Won’t Go Home Till Morning were popular songs. The threat to freedom had vanished and everywhere there was an impatience to find expression for the mood of gratitude and relief.
In West Sussex the day dawned with dull skies but spirits were not to be dampened and the weather improved.
One Barnham Land Girl, Daphne Byrne, recalls unfurling a moth-eaten Union Flag on top of a water tower and watching her neighbours string up flags, bunting and streamers. She records in her diary how the excitement built up, with even the Italian Prisoners of War, working on the local farms, joining in the mood of the day.
Passengers waved from the windows of a passing train, which proudly flew the Union Flag from the guards van. Daphne recalled everyone was ‘going mad with joy’ in Bognor. Crowds gathered in the High Street, some dancing to relayed music and the Legion Band, while others just watched and wondered how to feel now that war was over. After the 3pm broadcast by the Prime Minister, the music became louder and Reg Seward took to the road with his drums, beating out a rhythm that inspired the dancers to greater exertions. Young and old danced the jitterbug in front of the Southdown Bus Station to music relayed from the Ikon Galleries. Inspector Burridge and PC Mills were tempted to join in but duty called their attention away to diverting the traffic. A bus hooted. The crowds parted. ‘Come and dance, Clippie’ shouted a wag.
The celebrations took many forms but one of the most popular was street parties. In Lyon Street, in Bognor, against the background of the Sudley Road bombsite and St John’s Church, nearly 100 children sat down for tea. “Bring your own cup and plate,” they were told as rationing was forgotten for the day.
The citizens of Chichester were up early, putting the finishing touches to their decorations and busying themselves with arrangements for the afternoon parties. There was much activity at the food shops as rationing and restricted opening were forgotten, for one day at least. The Chichester Post reported that the city was bedecked with flags and banners as the Prime Minister’s 3pm speech was broadcast from the Cross. In the evening, the City Band played at the Cross and celebrations continued until the early hours. Next day there would be sports at the recreation ground and a dance in the Assembly Rooms.
In Midhurst, the parish church bells were rung from 7am and continued through the day at various intervals until one of the stays in the belfry gave way! Dancing began at 9pm and continued through the night. Bonfires were lit and, as various Hitlers fell to their doom, rousing cheers were heard from the Grammar School boys.
Some adventurous spirits threw thunderflash fireworks, scaring timid citizens out of their wits. Finally, the Midhurst District Times reported that ‘at one o’clock ... a solitary banjo player marched down the Petersfield road, his music gradually dying away to leave the nightingales unrivalled’.
At Petworth, flags and bunting decorated the Town Square, the old fire bells were rung and crowds gathered on VE Day to hear Winston Churchill’s broadcast. Later on in the afternoon, street parties were held in various parts of the town, including Hampers Green. Merry-makers thronged the streets after the King’s speech at 9pm and a huge bonfire was lit on the Sheep Downs. The parish church spire was lit by a powerful beam shone from the cinema. Finally, rain sent everyone home in the early hours.
At the Witterings Laurie Crisp recalls ‘building the most humungous bonfire ... on the waste ground opposite The Parade, between Admiralty Row and Shrubb’s Old Dairy. By 8 o’clock that evening, it seemed that the whole village stood around our bonfire, which was some 20ft high ... Later [at] the end of a most exciting day, I remember climbing the stairs to bed and halting on the landing. Through the window I could see that every household, for miles around, had its lights on – visible for the first time since the blackout of 1939!”
In Selsey, dances were held at the Barn Club, church hall, Crossley Hall canteen and at the Marine and Selsey hotels. The outstanding event was a huge children’s party at the Cinema Hall, supplied with undreamed of treats by the American servicemen and by generous local people.
Of course, there were tears as well as happiness. Those who had given their lives were remembered. So, too, those still fighting the Japanese and those yet to return from their wasted years in POW camps in Europe and beyond.
Some among the crowds simply watched the festivities, lost in their own thoughts and prayers, but there would be a special time for remembrance and for this day at least the overriding sense was one of unbridled rejoicing.
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