Studying a BA (Hons) in History shows you how history shapes and reshapes our world every day. History can also help us challenge our interpretations of the past so we can use that knowledge to inform the present. In this 75th anniversary year of VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day (and also the upcoming Victory over Japan Day this month), two Worcester historians, with entirely different specialisms, give their insights into this significant moment in history.
Professor Maggie Andrews
Cultural historian and Professor Emerita, Maggie Andrews, reflects on the reality of British life behind the celebrations, what people had endured and the uncertain future, difficulties, and social and political change that lay ahead as the country emerged from the rubble.
VE Day commemorates what is seen as an iconic, defining point in British history when, after a monumental struggle, victory over Hitler and fascism was celebrated. The 8th May 1945 was a day of street parties, drunken revelry, moments of sexual indiscretion or raucous behaviour. However, others had more mixed reactions. Jack Gillard stationed at RAF Defford recalled ‘we simply felt a drained sigh of relief that the nightmare in Europe was at last over and done with’.
Lead up to VE Day
Six years of war had taken their toll on those on the home front. Rationing, the conscription of men into the forces and the threat of invasion and then the London blitz had spread fear amongst the population in 1940. However, by the end of 1944, victory over Germany seemed at last in sight; the threat of invasion had evaporated, mines and barbed wire were removed from the beaches. The Home Guard, seen a symbol of British defiance in the face of Nazi aggression, stood down. The air-raid sirens finally fell silent in April 1945. Families who gathered around their wireless sets to keep abreast of the news were informed at the end of the month that Mussolini had been shot and Hitler had committed suicide. It was not however until the 7 April that a much-anticipated announcement informed the population that the war had ended and the next day would be VE Day. Many British people however looked to the future with mixed emotions: trepidation and joy, excitement and anxiety.
Social change as Britain looked to the future
Planning for a new post-war world had been intrinsic to fighting the war. People queued to buy copies of William Beveridge’s report in 1943, which provided a blueprint for the organisation of welfare and how the country could address the five giant evils of: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. The 1944 Butler Education Act, guaranteeing secondary education for all children, seemed to be a first step along this road. When the summer General Election gave the Labour Party a parliamentary majority of 145, this was seen by some as another step towards significant social and political change.
War rages on abroad
The transition from war to peace was inevitably fuzzier than a focus on VE day suggests. The conflict in the Far East did not end until the middle of August and many service personnel instead of coming home were redirected to take part. The consequences of war were all around on the home front. The Flying School at RAF Worcester, in Perdiswell, closed but a German Prisoners of war camp remained on the site until 1948; in other parts of the county camps of displaced people from war-torn Europe awaited their fate. Significantly, Britain was virtually bankrupt – massively in debt to the United States. The austerity and hardship associated with war increased after VE Day, the government reduced the bacon and lard rations three weeks later. Bread rationing was introduced in 1946 and food rationing only ended in 4 July, 1954 when rationing on meat and bacon was finally lifted.
Long-lasting legacy of war
Families torn asunder by war could not necessarily be put back together again. Two and half million couples had been living apart for long periods of the war. A third of a million servicemen and women and merchant seamen had lost their lives. Some evacuees never returned home; many were adopted by their foster parents. Many parents could not be located, some had died and some felt their children would be better away from the poor housing of the cities. And the legacy of wartime bombing was a housing shortage. More than 156,000 prefabs were put up in 1946 and 1947. Over 60,000 were habitable by 1947 but this did little to alleviate the problem. Making peace and putting the country back together proved as, if not more, challenging than fighting a war.
Professor Neil Fleming
Principal Lecturer in Modern History, Professor Neil Fleming, explores the importance and impact of the British empire in bringing about that victory, and its relevance to modern multicultural Britain.
The message of triumph over adversity gave the 75th anniversary of VE Day a special resonance during a global health crisis. There is, however, another parallel to be drawn. The former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has warned governments against treating the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘national issue.’ Likewise, historians challenge the still popular image of plucky little Britain standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany. Just as the UK’s scientific response to COVID-19 is part of a global effort, so too was its wartime mobilisation in 1939-45. Britain was supported from the outset by its global empire, with people and resources marshalled on a huge scale and across the world.
Forgotten role of Empire in wartime
The imperial dimension of the Second World War is largely forgotten today. The fact that the empire no longer exists is an obvious explanation. The reluctance of schools and museums to tackle the subject is another. There is wariness too of doing anything that has the potential to glorify or excuse imperialism.
However well-meaning, ‘imperial amnesia’ has had unintended consequences. In the 1960s, opponents of non-white immigration to the UK claimed that the Welfare State was meant to reward the nation’s wartime sacrifice, and that it was therefore unfair that South Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants also benefitted.
Service in Armed Forces
Rather than being latecomers, non-white communities, present in Britain for several centuries, were an integral part of the UK’s war effort throughout. Moreover, almost as many non-white men as white men volunteered to serve in the ‘British’ armed services. By far the largest contingent came from British India (present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), though Africans and West Indians also enlisted in significant numbers. It is also important to recall the wartime role of Muslims. As Muslim leaders have asked, why is it not better known that over a million Muslims volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the British empire?
How Empire helped Britain on Home Front
Civilian work was also vitally important; in agriculture, industry and transport, women and men were mobilised across the empire. Canada’s role in the Atlantic convoys is still remembered in Britain, but almost completely forgotten are the large numbers of South Asian and African sailors. Equally less known are the hundreds of Caribbean workers in British munitions factories.
Dissent in the Empire?
In relaying all of this it is important not to replace one myth with another. There were still tensions between Britain and the self-governing ‘dominions’—Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—over wartime strategy and organisation. More significantly, the image of a united front was undermined by nationalist opposition to participation in the conflict. The Indian National Congress chose to boycott the war effort despite being sympathetic to its aims. Ireland (excepting Northern Ireland), demonstrated its sovereignty by remaining neutral.
These examples of nationalist opposition were not completely effective. 43,000 Irish citizens joined the British forces and many Irish people moved to Britain to perform civilian war work. A staggering 2¼ million Indian men served in the armed forces. But not everyone was a volunteer. In Nigeria and Tanganyika, the colonial authorities were so determined to extract certain resources that they used techniques of forced labour.
Progress of change in the Empire?
As this suggests, racism remained a marked feature of the British Empire despite waging a war against the Nazis. There was nevertheless some progress, such as removal of the ‘colour bar’ preventing non-white men serving as commissioned officers in 1939 and Jamaica’s House of Representatives elected on a universal franchise in 1944. Still, this should not disguise the fact that the British were determined to remain in control of the pace of constitutional reform. They were willing, during the war and for almost two decades after it, to use coercion against those actively challenging their authority.
That determination reminds us that the Second World War did not herald the end of the British empire, at least not immediately. The independence granted to India and Pakistan in 1947 was part of a process of constitutional reform dating back to 1919. The displacement of Britain during the war by the United States, especially in the Caribbean and Pacific, did not eliminate completely Britain’s influence in either region.
Remembering the Victory
‘Imperial amnesia’ is understandable given that empire went hand in hand with racism, violence, and oppression. Equally, a determination to avoid repeating Europe’s destructive wars has encouraged precious habits of reconciliation. Yet, it has meant that Victory in Europe Day looms larger in the British imagination than Victory over Japan Day in August 1945. If this preference for VE Day is unlikely to change, let us hope that Britain’s multicultural society can remember that Asian, African, and Caribbean men and women contributed to the victory.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.
We offer an Undergraduate History BA (Hons) degree and postgraduate History MRes at the University of Worcester.