Quiet celebration of a momentous day

28th April 1995 at 01:00
There was more to the day war ended in Europe than dancing in the streets. Gerald Haigh remembers a rather sober occasion and talks to teachers who knew only too well that their lives would never be the same again.

To a generation brought up on that oft-repeated newsreel footage of happy VE-Day crowds in central London, what we did in our little mining village seems tame just a torchlight procession and a bonfire. I cannot recall much of the detail. What I do remember is the quietness as we all walked with our torches to the high ground near Lady's Folly. There was just the steady tramp of feet in the gathering twilight, and subdued chatter. It was quiet at the bonfire, too, groups of people standing and watching the flames.

And yet I feel sure that somehow what we did was more reflective of the national mood than the dancing and kissing in the streets of London. Almost everyone had seen, during the previous weeks, newsreel film of the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen. Certainly I had, and it is that childhood memory of Movietone News in the Princess Cinema that stays with me.

It had been a long, wearying war and everyone knew that there were many hard days still to come. There were relatives still in mortal danger in the Far East, among them the men and women who would later take their place in the classroom, teaching the post-war generation.

In spring 1945, Philip Slater, who ended his teaching career as head of Findham Park School in Coventry, was a young naval officer facing kamikaze planes off Okinawa. When he taught A-level history to pupils in the Fifties and Sixties, it was with the experience of having seen casualties alarming enough for Admiral Nimitz to order them kept secret from the American people.

So although there were children's parties and dancing in the West End on that May night, what conflicting feelings filled the heart of Kenneth Tindall, head of West Downs School, Winchester, where they too had a bonfire. "We had the day off and spent the morning and afternoon building this great pyre," says the school log book.

As he cheered with the boys to whom he devoted his life, Mr Tindall's thoughts must have been drawn into a roll call of the 82 of his former pupils who were killed. Mostly though, he must have been thinking of his two sons Richard, killed in North Africa in 1943, and Mark, lost the same year in a barrack room accident.

In contrast to the thousands of schools taking part next week in commemorative events and local history projects in schools, the schools in May 1945 didn't arrange anything elaborate for VE Day. Logbook after logbook makes the simple announcement "School Closed for Victory in Europe Day", often sandwiched between much longer entries about the doctors' and nurses' visits that were so common then. For one thing, there was not much opportunity. Even though the day was eagerly anticipated, it was not announced until the evening before, and then May 8 and 9 were taken as holidays. On May 10, most schools had a thanksgiving service and there was often some organised cheering.

There were street parties and games for the children the nation's local papers have been filled with nostalgic photographs of them this spring, but they were largely organised by the local people. It is significant that while 50 years ago it was the communities who were getting together to throw the parties, for next week's commemorative events it will often be the local school driving things along.

In Nuneaton, as you might expect, there was little kissing in the street. Margaret White, then head girl of Nuneaton High School, recalls no school celebrations, only a draconian head mistress who vented her fury on those pupils who wore their school scarves over their heads "if you want to look like a mill girl, you can leave and become one". Nor was there any escape when she got home. "My family kept me on a leash until I was 21. There was nothing that any decent girl could do after 9 o'clock at night anyway."

In the same town, for young teacher Ida Bower, May 1945 was another month of waiting for Jim to come home from the army. Chapel-going friends before he went away, Jim and Ida felt their friendship steadily deepen through the months and years of letter writing. Ida started her teaching career in 1941, having gone to Derby Training College just on the outbreak of war. Life in college then was so hard that wartime privations made little extra impression. "We had to be in by 6 o'clock. At the weekends we could go into Derby, but we had to be back by blackout. If not, they sent a fellow out with a lamp, looking for us."

Ida recalls that there was an army camp by the teacher training college gates: "But we weren't allowed to mix. In fact we weren't allowed to hang our smalls out in case the soldiers saw them. I think we missed out on a lot of things mind you, my mother was probably pleased about that."

Jim Farmer, her pen-friend and husband-to-be had started his own teacher training in 1941, only to find it interrupted by call-up after two terms. In the spring of 1945 he was in India, preparing for the much dreaded final push against Japan. When the atomic bomb ended the war in August, he returned home and in 1946, picked up where he left off at Saltley College in Birmingham.

For some who came back, civilian life seemed desperately ordinary and the adjustment was hard to make. Jim, though, was just glad to be back. "It wasn't a let down because you came back to your family and your girlfriend. This was what counted most going back home. After all, the majority of us felt we were lucky enough to still be alive." Others, Jim recalls, had less happy homecomings and he named several contemporaries, including some who had been prisoners, who never really recovered and prematurely died.

Margaret White thinks there were other sorts of unhappy returns, "such as coming back to find a cuckoo in the nest".

All the same, historians of education tell of the fresh breeze that blew through the profession when the ex-service entrants arrived, either picking up interrupted training, like Jim, or doing the post-war one-year "Emergency Training". For one thing, under the quiet but insistent influence of returning servicemen, the training colleges ceased to be run like boarding schools (those for men at least women's colleges had to wait for the Sixties to be liberated). "They were two halcyon terms really," recalls Jim, "not like the first two terms before I went away, which were just as if the grammar school had carried on." Then came his teaching job at Herbert Fowler School in North Warwickshire, where he was to stay until his retirement in 1982.

"I cycled there in those days," and he paused to smile. "Sometimes Ida would cycle out to meet me on the way home." Just for a moment, in Jim's twinkling smile, the years had gone away, and I understood at last that the victory was really celebrated in the relieved contentment of those who had waited and worried.


January 17 Warsaw occupied by Soviet forces

February 4 Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt meet at Yalta to plan for the occupation of Germany and the future political shape of Europe

February 13 Soviets capture Budapest; fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied air raids March 7 United States troops cross the Rhine

April 12 President Roosevelt dies

April 15 Liberation of Belsen concentration camp

April 25 United States and Soviet soldiers meet on the River Elbe; the San Francisco Conference meets to establish the United Nations organisation

April 28 Mussolini captured and killed by anti-Fascists

April 30 Death of Hitler in Berlin

May 2 Berlin captured by Soviets

May 3 The closure of public air-raid shelters in Britain

May 4 Surrender of Nazi forces in north-western Europe

May 7 Germany surrendered unconditionally

May 8 - VE Day

Estimates of lives lost in World War ii are put at 15 to 20 million military and 25 million civilian

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