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Time to recall VE Day

PUBLISHED: 17:10 03 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 30 June 2010

BECAUSE the nation was avidly following the blanket media coverage of last month's General Election and its aftermath of a hung Parliament, the 65th anniversary of VE Day slipped past almost unnoticed.

BECAUSE the nation was avidly following the blanket media coverage of last month's General Election and its aftermath of a hung Parliament, the 65th anniversary of VE Day slipped past almost unnoticed.

The Germans surrendered on May 8 1945; this year Victory in Europe Day fell on the Saturday, when politics were in turmoil two days after the hustings. The 1939-45 war continued in the Far East until the summer, when the Japanese surrendered in August after two atomic bombs fell on them, so ceremonies and services to mark 65 years since VJ-Day will be held soon.

As I was 10 when hostilities ended, I could not remember life before the war. It was hard to comprehend that henceforth there would be no more air raids heralded by the dreaded wail of sirens, searchlights probing the sky for enemy bombers, the crack of flak, the whine of falling bombs and the juddering when they exploded, the nervous wait as a Doodlebug flying bomb passed overhead without its engine spluttering to a halt as a prelude to it crashing, no more nights in shelters, fears for the safety of family and friends...

Shops were not suddenly full of long-absent goods, and food rationing and austerity lingered for years. But somehow everybody managed to find enough to provide children with a feast at the street parties organised to celebrate VE Day in warm spring weather, totally unlike conditions on May 8 this year. Tables and chairs were fetched out, mothers produced jellies, blancmange, cakes and long-stored tins of peaches for us youngsters to devour.

I attended one in the rear passageway between Harley and Garfield Roads in Newtown where my grandmother lived, and all the youngsters were in awe when a VIP visitor arrived during what today would be termed a whistle-stop tour of street parties - Alderman Fred Debbage, the deputy mayor.

I rushed indoors to fetch my autograph book, empty but for the signatures of a few relatives who had penned little rhymes like “By hook or by crook I'll be first in this book” and some of the Royal Air Force personnel who had taken me under their wing while they manned the barrage balloon site off Lowestoft Road in Gorleston, overlooking the railway station.

Mr Debbage signed one of the pastel-coloured pages, the last person to do so until Yarmouth Speedway opened in 1948 and the oily smudged scrawled signatures of members of the Bloaters team brought some kudos to my little collection.

In that era Through the Porthole was nightly in the Eastern Evening News, and the journalist whose identity was cloaked by the pseudonym of Peggotty wrote in May 1945: “There is ample evidence that many people in Yarmouth have wasted very little time in ridding their homes of the Morrison shelters which have been an immensely comforting addition to the household furniture during the years the now-impotent Luftwaffe visited the town so frequently.

“In the front gardens of many houses, the parts of the shelters have been stacked, hopefully for a lorry from the borough engineer's department to collect them.”

Indoor Morrisons were like a steel table top under which you crawled on to mattresses, protected round the sides by heavy metal mesh. The outdoor shelters in gardens were Andersons, a corrugated iron affair that some folk kept after the war for use as sheds.

My 1945 predecessor also noted that “last night's news about VE Day was quietly received and there seemed nothing approaching jubilant celebrations in the streets. But corporation workmen were soon busy erecting flagpoles, with Hall Quay presenting a wonderful sight, with the flags of all Allied and Dominions flying.”

The end of the war in Europe also meant the end of the blackout - but not necessarily in Yarmouth and Gorleston, for I have been assured by somebody who was older than me in those days that although the restrictions were lifted inland, they remained on the coast possibly for several weeks.

That claim surprised me because I thought the town tried to return to some kind of normality almost immediately, with street lamps switched on, lights shining through house and shop windows and advertising signs again being part of the townscape at night.

In particular, I am sure that what seafront decorative illuminations survived the six years of war were cheerily shining, especially as from the next month, June, the council's entertainments committee - re-formed the previous year in anticipation of better times - staged Catlin's Showtime at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, presented twice-daily dancing at the adjoining Winter Gardens (Harry Roy and his Tiger Ragamuffins), a varied programme at the open-air Marina, and a dance band at Gorleston's Floral Hall.

Brisk work on clearing hidden mines and unsightly anti-invasion defences enabled the beach between the Britannia Pier and the Jetty to be reopened so residents and visitors could dip their toes in the dear old briny for the first time since 1939.

My Peggotty predecessor wrote of his delight in being able to stroll through the gardens and Venetian Waterways on North Drive for the first time in years, but also expressed concern at the lack of hotels and guest houses open because most had been pressed into armed forces use for the duration but had not been derequisitioned and restored for private purposes. He described that shortage as “a prime obstacle to the resort being able to enjoy the greatest benefit of the lifting of wartime restrictions.”

It was his expectation that for that initial summer, Yarmouth and Gorleston would have to rely on day trippers rather than staying guests for the bulk of its business.

Of course, Yarmouth in wartime threw up a multitude of frightening, bizarre and unforgettable experiences, none of which its residents wanted to see repeated. By contrast, it also produced a few unique occasions.

One was watching American servicemen based on Norfolk airfields give a demonstration of their national sport, baseball, on the Wellesley Road Recreation Ground where I was a keen spectator. Another was GIs parading through the town centre, their casual style in sharp contrast to the usual British “blanco and bull” marching.

Both US appearances were to support special weeks to encourage people to save money for the war effort.

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