By Paul H. Vickers, Prince Consort’s Library
By the beginning of May 1945 it was clear that the Second World war in Europe was nearing its end. Adolf Hitler, recognising at last that the war was lost, had committed suicide on 30 April, and shortly afterwards, on the 4 May, Field Marshal Montgomery had received the surrender of all German forces in the Netherlands, North-west Germany and Denmark. In Aldershot on the morning of Monday 7 May rumours began to circulate that the end of the war was imminent, but it was not until the one o’clock news broadcast on the radio that there was official confirmation that Germany finally wanted to surrender. The 3 o’clock news bulletin brought the announcement that the enemy had unconditionally surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
Anticipating the declaration of victory, all over the town people had been preparing bunting, decorations and flags during the morning, so as soon as the official announcement was made the town was suddenly ablaze with colour as flags and bunting appeared everywhere. The British Union Flag was joined by the flags of all the Allied countries flying from houses, shops and municipal buildings. Some people brought out the decorations they had kept from the coronation of King George VI, fairy lights were strung out in ‘V for victory’ formation on the front of many houses, and victory slogans painted across shop windows. The bell ringers of the Parish Church rang out a peal of celebration in the evening.
The government declared that Tuesday 8 May was officially “Victory in Europe Day”, or just “VE Day”, and a two day national holiday was announced, much to the delight of local schoolchildren who arrived at the school gates to find notices that the schools were shut all that day and the next. From early in the day soldiers from the Camp and women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) joined the people of Aldershot in the streets of the town in a joyous, holiday atmosphere. All the local churches quickly arranged services of thanksgiving for Tuesday evening, and the bells were rung out again in gratitude.
Throughout the day the local cinemas and theatres did good business, and landlords who had been quick of the mark on Monday had been given extensions to their licences to stay open until 11 o’clock Tuesday night, doing excellent business as the pubs were packed. Into the evening of VE Day the celebrations continued unabated. A pipe band from one of the Canadian units led an impromptu parade through the streets of Aldershot, followed by a large crowd of soldiers, ATS girls and civilians who all linked arms as they marched along. Bonfires were lit, many burning effigies of Hitler, and searchlights, floodlights, fireworks and gunfire all added to the noise and colour.
At the Aldershot Recreation Ground a crowd estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 assembled, including British and Canadian troops and civilians, who sand “Auld Lang Syne” followed by the British and Canadian National Anthems, then the floodlights were switched on for the evening’s dancing for which the band of the Royal Military School of Music played continually from 7.30 to 11.30 with only a 15 minute break. Not wanting their celebrations to finish so soon, the crowd left the “Rec” and headed for the town centre, singing popular songs as they went, marching up Victoria Road, along Wellington Street to the Ritz Cinema (now Gala Bingo) where they stopped for more community singing, before continuing back to the Recreation Ground from where they finally dispersed.
The Recreation Ground was the focus of attention again on Wednesday 9 May, when the Army gave a Victory Display which included a musical ride by the RASC Animal Transport Company, a marching display by the ATS drum and fife band, rhythmic exercises by the Physical Training Corps, a motorcycle display by the Military Police, and music from the RASC Band. The following Sunday, 13 May, saw an equally impressive but more solemn event at the same venue as the Camp and town came together for a formal Service of Thanksgiving. On parade were 3,650 British and Canadian troops, including women’s detachments, plus the Aldershot Civil Defence Services, Fire Services, nurses, Home Guard, and youth organisations.
In Farnborough a Victory Dance was held at the RAE Assembly Hall, where 500 guests danced to the music of three bands: The Raeolians, The Leadswings and The Stardusters. There was an alarming moment in the early hours of the following morning when the party, which was still in full swing, suddenly stopped as a loud explosion was heard. Fears that this was some last enemy weapon were quickly put to rest when the MC announced that this was just some fireworks exploding over the airfield. The dancers cheered, the band struck up again, and the party continued.
All over the town Victory street parties were held, the first as early as the day after VE Day. Over the next few weeks almost every street had its party. The biggest was that in the West End, at which 350 children were entertained to a tea of sandwiches, jam tarts, jelly and blancmange, which was followed by the distribution of sweets, oranges and ice-creams. After tea were children’s sports, singing contests, pony rides and clowns. In the evening the parents continued the celebrations with games, community singing and dancing to “amplified gramophone music”. Not all parties were so big, some smaller individual street parties had around 40 children, while the majority had between 50 and 150. However, they all followed a similar pattern of a grand tea for the children, some organised entertainment, and then dancing in the evening for the adults, either to records or to local dance bands. Despite the wartime hardships and shortages, the party organisers, mainly women, made heroic efforts to give the children a real treat with many delicious offerings on the tables. The Mayor of Aldershot, Alderman J W White, attended every party. At the Northbrook Road party on Saturday 26 May he noted that this was the twenty-first party he had attended in a fortnight. The official visitors also gave practical help, for at the same party it was reported that the Mayoress took off her chain of office to help in the kitchen with the washing-up.
Among the most welcome guests greeted by the Mayor at some of the parties were ex- Prisoners of War who had returned to their homes after liberation. The town gave these men a formal welcome home on Thursday 14 May, with a dinner organised by the Trades Council at Darracott’s Restaurant (which was on the corner of Union Street and Grosvenor Road). At the dinner the indefatigable Mayor expressed the town’s appreciation for the men’s service and hoped that they would all soon be restored to full health after their ordeals. Following the meal the men were guests at the Ritz Cinema, where they were welcomed from the stage by the manager who remembered the courage and fortitude of the men in captivity, and hoped that their spirit would be an example to all.
Joyful although the VE Day celebrations were, they were tempered by the knowledge that the war was not yet fully over. Victory had been achieved in Europe, but in the Far East the war continued and thousands of British soldiers were still engaged in bitter fighting against the Japanese. It was not until midnight on Tuesday 14 August that the official announcement was made that the Emperor of Japan had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Six years of war was at an end.
In Aldershot, a few minutes after the midnight announcement a large Victory “V” in lights was switched on in St Michaels Road, followed by a flight of rockets which illuminated the sky. A few minutes later there were more rockets, star-shells and fireworks in the cloudless night sky across the town. The government declared another two-day holiday for Wednesday and Thursday (15 and 16 August), although food shops opened on Wednesday morning until midday to allow people to make essential purchases. Flags were brought out again and flown from many buildings, but there wasn’t the same level of colourful bunting as had been seen on VE Day, nor were there the same numbers celebrating in the streets, perhaps because of rain throughout Wednesday morning. The weather did not dampen the spirits of the local bell ringers, and peals of joy rang out from the churches across Aldershot and Farnborough.
The official celebrations followed a similar pattern to those of May, again centred on the Recreation Ground, and a loud-speaker van toured the streets on Wednesday morning to inform people of the arrangements. A baseball match was staged on Wednesday afternoon which drew a big crowd, and this was followed by music and dancing in the evening. On Thursday the Army staged another Victory display, followed by more dancing under the floodlights to music by the bands of the RASC and 12th Lancers, and a fireworks display brought the evening to a fitting end.
On Sunday 19 August a United Thanksgiving Service was held at the Recreation Ground, led by ministers and choristers from the Royal Garrison Church, St George’s Garrison Church, and St Michael’s Parish Church. On parade were 2,000 British and overseas servicemen and women, plus the Special Police, British Red Cross, nursing sisters, and the Girls’ Training Corps. At the close of the service was a minute’s silence to remember the fallen, and the parade re-formed to march past the GOC, General Curtis, who took the salute, led by sections of the Canadian Army, then representatives of British Army units, including the ATS, and finally the Police, Red Cross and Girls’ Training Corps, each unit receiving loud cheers from the huge crowd as they passed the saluting base.
The final civic acts of thanksgiving were presentations of the Freedom of the Borough, the first of which was on 11 September to the Hampshire Regiment. Four hundred men of the Regiment were on parade, representing 7 battalions, each with their colours. They marched to the Recreation Ground for the formal ceremony, at which the Mayor presented the Colonel of the Regiment, General Sir George Jeffreys, a silver casket containing the parchment Freedom scroll. The regiment marched through the town with colours flying and bayonets fixed, as was now its right, led by the mascot “Fritz”, a St Bernard dog who had been rescued by members of the regiment during their attack on Arromaches in 1944.
Later that same month, on 26 September, the Freedom of Aldershot was conferred on the Canadian Army Overseas, the first occasion that such an honour was given to an overseas army. The ceremony followed a similar format to that for the Hampshire Regiment, the main difference being in the scale of the event for nearly 10,000 Canadian troops attended the parade at the Recreation Ground. The Freedom was received by Lieutenant General P J Montague of the Canadian Military Headquarters, and the ceremony concluded with the playing of the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada". The Canadians followed tradition by then parading through the town with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed, through large crowds of onlookers who greeted their Allies with enthusiastic cheers. In the evening the focus turned to the Maida Gymnasium, where the Canadians and the “Lads of the Village” jointly organised a Victory Ball for charity. Canadian Army bands played for some 1,300 guests who danced into the early hours.
The last Freedom presentation did not take place until 1948, although it had been agreed by the borough in 1944. This was to Winston Churchill, in appreciation his wartime leadership. For various practical reasons the honour could not be presented in 1944 or 1945, so the ceremony was eventually held on 6 July 1948 at a lunch at the Dorchester Hotel in London, attended by 400 Aldershot people representing both the military and civilian parts of the town.
Aldershot, the Home of the British Army and also the home of the Canadian Army Overseas during the Second World War, had known its share of grief and suffering. Although not as badly bombed as some towns, because the town was so closely intertwined with the Army the citizens felt even more keenly their anxiety for the safe return of the troops and sorrow over those who fell. In the 1945 celebrations was a mixture of joy at the final victory, relief that it was all over, and dignified remembrance for those who did not return.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, 001, April/May 2015
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.