|Publisher:||The History Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Paul Feeney is the author of the nostalgia books A 1950s Childhood and A 1960s Childhood.
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From Ration Book to ebook
The Life and Times of the Post-War Baby Boomers
By Paul Feeney
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Paul Feeney
All rights reserved.
Victory and the Post-War Baby Boom
At 7.40 p.m. on Monday 7 May 1945, BBC Radio reported that Germany had surrendered to the Allies and the war in Europe was over. It was declared that Tuesday 8 May would be an official day of celebration and a public holiday, which would be called Victory in Europe (VE) Day. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, was to make an official announcement the following afternoon. A whole week had gone by since news had reached us that Hitler had shot himself in the mouth and the British people were growing increasingly frustrated because, as yet, there had been no official broadcast from 10 Downing Street, and now Churchill was going to make everyone wait another day. There were rumours that German delegates had visited Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters in Lüneburg Heath in northern Germany to surrender their armies to the Western Allies, but we knew nothing for certain. There was a shroud of secrecy over events and we didn't know what was delaying the official announcement. The British people were not told at the time, but there were very good reasons why the war had dragged on for those extra few days. One reason was that the Allies were insistent they would only accept an unconditional surrender from Germany and nothing less. Then there was the problem with the German troops who had chosen to continue fighting the Russian Red Army on the Eastern Front rather than being captured by them, because they feared that the Russians might seek cruel retribution for the atrocities committed against their people during the German invasion of Russia. The final delaying factor was that the Allies had bowed to Russia's insistence that the unconditional surrender be kept secret until Wednesday 9 May, but this agreement was scuppered by the Germans when they broke the news to their own people on German radio at 2.27 p.m. on Monday 7 May, and word of it soon spread around the world. Hence, everyone knew the war in Europe was over but the British public needed to hear it first-hand from the prime minister himself.
Meanwhile, throughout Britain, shop windows had been decked-out with tri-coloured rosettes and banners in anticipation of Churchill's imminent declaration of peace in Europe. At least the public now knew that they only had to wait one more day to hear Churchill's official broadcast. The interim news report of Germany's surrender was enough to trigger an immediate release of the tension that had been building up for several days. It was a big relief to everyone; it was as if people suddenly felt able to breathe again and the feeling of liberation produced a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. The public could not contain their overwhelming feeling of joy and they made it clear that they had no intention of waiting until the next day to begin celebrating their victory in Europe. All at once, a sea of red, white and blue began to spread across the nation; bunting was hung in criss-cross patterns along the streets and Union Jacks were draped from upstairs' windows and lampposts. Although the mood in the country was a mixture of jubilation and sombre reflection, there was an irresistible desire for everyone to celebrate. The public outburst of pent-up emotion was not confined to a number of brash exhibitionists playing to an audience of onlookers; the news was so good that it inspired thousands of ordinary men and women, who would not usually say boo to a goose, to temporarily shed their inhibitions and dance in the street alongside complete strangers.
In London, where the biggest celebrations took place, the street scenes portrayed an atmosphere of unbridled happiness, which created a mood of genuine friendliness among people from all walks of life. Thousands of revellers besieged the areas around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and the noisy festivities continued on throughout the evening. As night fell it became quite dark because there were no streetlights due to the blackout rules, but this did not deter the revellers. Adopting their typical wartime 'make do' attitude, the crowds used newspapers to build small bonfires on the pavements to supplement beams of light emanating from night buses, which were slowly weaving their way through the hordes of high-spirited people filling the main roads. Even the overnight storm did not dampen the ever-increasing euphoria generating from the growing crowds. The police estimated that by midnight there were 50,000 people packed into Piccadilly Circus and celebrations were continuing to gather pace throughout London, and in every other town and city around the country. That evening, for the first time since the war began, the BBC was allowed to broadcast the weather forecast and it promised good weather ahead.
The merriment carried on overnight and Tuesday 8 May, VE Day, turned out to be a glorious summer's day. People wore their Sunday best and women added to the cheerfulness of the day by sporting brightly coloured summer dresses. Newspaper headlines shouted 'Germany Surrenders'. In London, there was hardly a cloud in the sky: perfect weather for the thousands of people who had crammed themselves into Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and other public areas around central London to hear the King's speech, which was to be relayed on specially erected loudspeakers. The country was very loyal to King George VI and the people undoubtedly shared the sentiment shown in his heart-rending 'Thanksgiving' speech that day, but it was the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill that they were most eager to hear. Their patience was eventually rewarded at 3.00 p.m. that day when Churchill made his famous 'End of War in Europe' speech to the nation, broadcast live from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. In it, he announced that Germany had signed the act of unconditional surrender at 2.41 a.m. the previous day at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Rheims, France. Churchill confirmed that the ceasefire was already in place and that hostilities would end officially at one minute past midnight that night. The assembled crowds cheered loudly and waved their flags even more vigorously when they heard Churchill say the words 'God bless you all. This is your victory!' Hearing this touching phrase sparked renewed outbursts of loud cheering and enthusiastic flag-waving from the crowds of proud and happy people who had congregated in open spaces in every town and city across the length and breadth of the country. Church bells rang out throughout the land to mark the momentous occasion.
In London, the tightly packed areas around Whitehall echoed with the sounds of rapturous shouts of approval, which rebounded off the walls of government buildings and tall office blocks. On hearing Churchill's words, 'This is your victory!' the crowd roared back, 'No, it's yours!' in acknowledgement of Churchill being the hero of the day. Everybody starting kissing one another and some formed themselves into lines to have a knees-up and sing popular pub songs like 'Knees Up Mother Brown' and 'The Lambeth Walk'. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, musicians began to arrive on the scene, playing all kinds of musical instruments, from accordions to barrel organs. Upright pianos were dragged out of local pubs into the street and groups of British and Allied servicemen and women, arm in arm with civilians, gathered around to sing their favourite wartime songs. They belted out their own renditions of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' and 'Roll Out The Barrel', many sounded like a cats' chorus but nobody cared. With rolled-up trousers and hitched-up skirts, men and women frolicked in the fountains of Trafalgar Square. The lower ledges of Nelson's Column were full to overflowing with excited onlookers while others sat astride each of the four monumental bronze lions, flag-waving and cheering. Fathers carried their young children shoulder high to protect them from the crushing crowds. All over the country, in the local backstreets there were thousands of children's street parties in full swing, with youngsters laughing and grinning in between mouthfuls of cake and jelly: party food they had only ever before dreamed of. There was a great show of pride and patriotism throughout the nation. Everybody wore something in colours of red, white and blue; even small children and babies had tri-colour ribbons in their hair and pet dogs were tagged with patriotic rosettes and decorative bows. Back in London, as evening fell, more and more people converged on the area around Trafalgar Square to see London's great monuments illuminated, floodlit specially for the occasion. There were firework displays all around the capital and effigies of Hitler were burned on bonfires. Then, after six long years of blackout, the streetlights came on. This was another welcome sight to highlight the fact that the war in Europe really was over. Some people found the party atmosphere too manic and the crushing crowds too hard to bear. And so, having set off early to travel into the capital from the outer suburbs of London and the Home Counties, they went home. When they got there, some joined in with local celebrations while others allied themselves to the many who had chosen to spend their time at home in quiet reflection. All around the country, people marked the day in many different ways, but everybody went to bed that night knowing that they could at last sleep in peace. There would be no air -raid sirens and no bombs to fear, but they would never forget what had gone before.
During the war, few British towns or cities escaped the bombardments from enemy aircraft, with Bootle, Hull, Birmingham and Coventry being among those that suffered the most. But, from the start of the Blitz in September 1940 and throughout the war, it was London that took the brunt of the incessant German bombing raids and suffered the most destruction and the highest number of casualties. Now, at long last, people would no longer need to fear the terrifying buzzing sound of approaching German V-1 flying bombs or Doodlebugs, as they were commonly known, and the newer and even more terrifying V-2 rockets, which travelled faster than the speed of sound and gave no warning before impact. Nevertheless, residents in urban areas of the country were haunted by recollections of the sheer terror they had experienced during the war. The enormous amount of destruction and the indiscriminate killings these missiles inflicted on innocent civilians were all too fresh in their memories. Those that were fortunate enough to have escaped any bodily damage still carried the mental scars of war: vivid memories of enemy attacks and the loved ones they had lost, the sound of victims' cries for help coming from beneath the rubble of bombed and collapsed houses, and the horrible smell of burning buildings and powdered brick dust that regularly filled the air. It had only been six weeks since the very last German V-2 missiles had fallen on London, on 27 March 1945, one having made a direct hit on Hughes Mansions in the Stepney area of London, killing 134 residents and leaving 49 seriously injured. On that same day, the final V-2 had landed in Orpington, Kent, killing housewife Mrs Ivy Millichamp, who was the last civilian to die as a result of enemy action over Britain during the Second World War. The horrors and torment of war were indelibly stamped upon everyone's mind and nerves remained very raw. Despite this, there were few that could suppress the happiness they now felt in the knowledge that those six long years of wartime destruction and misery were now at an end. At last, Nazism had been defeated.
Meanwhile, the war against Japan in Asia and the Pacific continued unabated, but that war was also expected to end soon. It did so shortly after the USA dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. Just three months after the Allied victory over Germany in Europe, the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, made a radio broadcast announcing Japan's unconditional surrender. The Allies declared the historic day of Wednesday 15 August 1945 to be Victory over Japan (VJ) Day and it was to be marked by a two-day holiday in the UK, the USA and Australia. Once again the people took to the streets and the scenes of jubilation were repeated. For the British people, this was the ultimate celebration because it marked the end of the horrible world war. No more British servicemen and women need die in battle and loved ones could start to come home. The biggest conflict in history, the Second World War, formally ended on 2 September 1945, several days after the VJ Day celebrations, when the Japanese finally signed the surrender document on board the American battleship, USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay.
Amidst the excitement of Britain's victory celebrations, there were many people who had to face up to crucial and sometimes upsetting changes that the war had caused in their personal lives. There was a coming together of war-torn families, friends and sweethearts, and some of these reunions were not at all easy. Many child evacuees returned home as strangers to their parents, having spent their formative childhood years living with foster parents miles from home. Some never managed to adjust to their change in circumstances, rejecting their real parents and wanting to go back to their foster parents. After all, imagine a 12-year-old child returning to a war-torn inner-city home after having lived in a quiet country village as part of a loving adoptive family since the age of 6. It was hard for all concerned; the homecoming children often spoke with unfamiliar regional accents they had picked up from local people in the area they had been evacuated to, and their real home life was very different from what they had been used to when living in the country. For some, having spent such a long time apart, even their brothers and sisters were now strangers to them. Not all siblings had been evacuated during the war, however, many children stayed at home or returned home within weeks of being evacuated and so their family bond was not broken, unlike those who had spent years away from home. It was a very difficult and sad situation; there were parents who felt guilty for having sent their children away to the country and some children carried the mental scars of evacuation with them for the rest of their lives.
Then there were the problems of battle-weary servicemen returning home from war. Many had been changed physically or mentally, or both, by the effects and the long duration of the war. Young people in particular struggled to come to terms with each other's new behaviour as time spent apart sometimes turned a one-time lover into a stranger. The young teenage boys who went off to war six years before were returning home as full-grown men, often shell-shocked and traumatised by the horrifying things they had witnessed. They longed to see their sweethearts who in younger days had sworn their undying love, but sadly, some were not waiting at home with open arms as they were expected to be. They too had experienced the strains of war, having been left at home to suffer the austere times and to witness all the wartime distress while, at the same time, living in an environment in which there was a distinct shortage of young men. A lot of these young women had found themselves living and working in strange surroundings, doing jobs they would never have dreamed of doing and having to live temporarily in places that were unfamiliar to them. To help the war effort, the majority of eligible women had worked in various skilled and labouring occupations that would have normally been done by men, from working in dangerous munitions factories to labouring for long hours in the fields as Land Girls in the Women's Land Army. Most of the other eligible women either joined or were conscripted into one of the many women's auxiliary services, like the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service), the WAAFs (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), the WTS (Women's Transport Service) and the WVS (Women's Voluntary Service). Some even did service overseas, particularly those special women who undertook highly dangerous roles in the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Women also served alongside men in the fire, police, air transport and air raid and anti-aircraft services. All in all, about 90% of women took an active part in the British war effort. This was one of the hidden consequences of the war, suffered by many families; everyone and everything had changed to some extent and people had to get to know one another again.
Each and every family knew of some unfortunate person who had been killed during the conflict or had his or her home destroyed, and there was still a lot of grieving to be done. The young had been forced to grow up quickly and to do without many of the frivolities usually enjoyed as part of one's youth. Everyone sacrificed a lot over a long period of time to help secure our country's freedom and to create a safer world for future generations to live in. These young men and women now yearned for the dawning of a new Britain – one that would be filled with opportunities to improve their standard of living and provide a better future for all – and they had helped to lay new foundations on which their children could grow up and prosper without the dreadful burden of war hanging over them. Parents could now happily leave their new-born babies in prams outside their street doors to enjoy the fresh air without fear of enemy bombing raids and the resulting pollution. People were at last able to plan for the future in the knowledge that employment prospects were good, housing and social services were destined to improve, and the country was a safe place in which to live and bring up children.
Excerpted from From Ration Book to ebook by Paul Feeney. Copyright © 2012 Paul Feeney. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One 1940s – Victory and the Post-War Baby Boom,
Two 1950s – Childhood Austerity and Innocence,
Three 1960s – From Gymslips to Miniskirts,
Four 1970s – Kipper Ties, Shagpile and Discontent,
Five 1980s – 30-somethings in Leg Warmers,
Six 1990s – Pass the Reading Glasses,