This account of VE Day in Durham (*written in 2015) comes from my father-in-law, David Young.
I knew as 1945 dawned that the end of the Second World War in Europe was nigh – so near, yet at times, so frustratingly far away. I knew because I was a nine-year-old boy and at that time schoolboys knew everything about the war. We heard the news on the wireless, saw our gallant lads winning on cinema newsreel screens, we saw our aircraft in the sky and could identify every one. Or so we thought. And the remarkable thing is I can remember all of this.
Winters seemed more severe in those days (we are more cosseted now) and as well as hampering our troops in Europe, the icy blast struck at home too, with the Durham Advertiser bearing the headline “The Great Freeze-up – City Icebound for a Week”. Plumbers had been in great demand, the Advertiser said, with innumerable households suffering the trying experiences of burst water pipes.
For the first time since 1940, the river had been completely frozen over near Framwellgate Bridge. Venturesome children walked across the ice for the entire width of the river in the face of warnings from scared onlookers, while on the hills in and around the city sledging was a favourite pastime. The frost, accompanied by heavy falls of snow, persisted for a week culminating in a blizzard and then a pronounced thaw. In some places snow had drifted, disrupting road traffic.
On a cheerier note, however, the Advertiser reported in March that the optimistically and, in the circumstances, appropriately named Gloria Dawn, a young Durham song and dance teacher, handed the Red Cross £85, the proceeds of her pantomime Dick Whittington, which she had produced in the Assembly Rooms in January.
All was not well on the Home Front, however, as Miss Audrey Powley, the wartime Durham Food Officer, handed in her resignation, citing ill-health from overwork as her reason. Conditions at her office were far from comfortable – there were no fires, the central heating system was antiquated, there were too few staff and she had had a serious illness. She relented, though, after the Food Office promised to make improvements. With rationing, coupons and so on for almost everything, food was the most precious commodity and as VE Day was imminent shops were given advice to close for the celebration. But special arrangements were made for the food trades.
Grocers were asked to remain open on VE Day for at least one hour, if possible for two hours, after the announcement had been made but if VE Day should come on a Friday, grocers were asked to open on Saturday but close on Monday.
Dairymen were recommended to deliver milk on both VE Day and the following day.
Restaurants were asked to keep open on those days.
Bakers were asked to keep open for an hour or two after the announcement and to open on the day after VE Day for an hour or two for the sale of bread only.
Shops dealing in perishable food such as fish, meat and vegetables should keep open for sufficient time after the announcement to clear stocks.
So there it was in the Advertiser on 4 May: a comprehensive but confusing shopping list for the housewife, most likely without a refrigerator at home, to cope with.
The big day arrived on 8 May with great joy abounding, though perhaps not in the homes where a loved one had been lost or where family members were battling on at the cruellest of battlefronts, the Far East – an issue that was not settled until August by the horrendous means of dropping atomic bombs, the true significance of which only dawned on us later.
So, in Hallgarth Street where I lived there were excited celebrations on VE Day with a bonfire bearing an effigy of the hated Adolf Hitler being set alight on the waste ground near where Elvet House now stands. Mr and Mrs Petrie of the Vic seemed to lead the celebrations and I am sure there are still people in the parish who remember the event.
I think St Oswald’s bells also rang out after a prolonged silence but were soon silenced again (apart from the curfew and communion bell) on safety grounds.
The British hero of the European victory was Field Marshall Montgomery who accepted the Germans’ unconditional surrender on Luneberg Heath. In 1953 Monty visited Durham to become the city’s 16th honorary freeman.
In his acceptance speech he said: “I suppose of all the regiments of the British Army, the regiment from Durham, the DLI, had more units fighting at one time than any other… The men from Durham stood very proudly on the foremost rank.”
The war took its toll on many people in different ways and when its end was nationally celebrated with great ceremony in 1946, the Vicar of St Oswald’s, the Revd Hilary Morse, wrote: “One of the tragedies of war is that now there are so many homes that are broken, too many homes that need mending. Let us happy ones help the unhappy ones so far as we can ever see a chance. Let us help one another to amend, to make up, to rebuild: that once again all our homes will be happy homes full of fun and goodness and the Peace of God.”
Written in 2015 for Durham St Oswald’s parish magazine