Imagine the courage of a nation, the struggle for basic everyday survival. A lack of basic things; essential supplies, rations and shortages of basic foodstuffs like eggs, bread, milk and meat – even water in which to bathe was rationed to five inches. This is the story of ordinary men and women, our grandmothers and grandfathers, who existed and coped for 6 long years during the war of 1939 through 1945. It is also the story of two Royal Princesses who were allowed out from their sheltered Royal household to take part in the street celebrations of VE Day; celebrations of a nation dizzy with happiness at the end of what had been a long war.
A story of how, after 6 long years of struggle, when the end of the war eventually did come, the ordinary men and women of our nation reacted with jubilant scenes all around the country. On that night 70 years ago, the then-Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, the Princess Margaret, along with the whole country was jubilant in rejoicing the coming of peace. And now, as documented in the Hollywood film “A Royal Night Out”, here we give an insight into what it was like on that very night for every man, woman and child in the land on that night – Royalty included.
Tuesday the 8th of May, 1945, saw the nation erupt in what had been a stirring afternoon, so reported The Guardian on that Day. Winston Churchill appeared on the of at Buckingham Palace at 5.30pm, along with the Royal family, and was subsequently the last to leave having waved his bowler hat at the adoring crowds, enjoying every moment of his victory. It was Churchill who had led the people to victory for 6 long years during World War 2 and he who had, like a Trojan, been fearless and strong for the entire country, surviving on as little as 4 hours sleep each night. He was enjoying the moment and the crowds were loving him!
“For he’s a jolly good fellow!” the crowd sang. An Australian soldier famously climbed the gates of the palace, waving the victory flag and leading the crowd in further song and chants of good cheer.
“God bless you all” Churchill declared. “This is your victory – victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”
He gave the “V” sign, to which the crowd responded tumultuously. It was a moment which the elder statesman relished. Then came the part of Fleet Street, and what could be more fitting than a ticker tape parade. Trafalgar Square saw young men and women shoulder-to-shoulder, en masse, dancing and linking arms, all the while proudly singing. The crowds were jubilant; taxis, cars, public transport – they all came to a complete standstill.
A party of soldiers managed to get their hands on a barrel organ and raced it all the way to the National Gallery where they provided music for the people; music for the revellers. Bombers who – just days before – had seen action in the skies now flew over Nelson’s Column, plane wings almost touching Lord Nelson himself. Swooping and dipping, they drew gasps of delight from the crowds below.
Services had been held earlier in the day at St Pauls Cathedral, while cabinet ministers, members of parliament and the House of Lords went to offer their thanks at Westminster Abbey. Meanwhile, “up North” in Manchester The Guardian reported that, “Young men and women [were] dancing in Albert Square, making it a huge, impromptu dance floor upon which partnerships [were] formed on a free and easy plan.”
Music was blaring from the Town Hall through loudspeakers, red carnations, ribbons and rosettes were commonplace – people climbed atop the air raid shelters to dance; girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and men of the Royal Navy. Great cheering continued, fireworks emerged and even paper hats, streamers and confetti were hurriedly fashioned, despite the fact that there had been a paper famine during the war years.
The people were war weary – they had, quite literally, had the stuffing knocked out of them, time and time again. The years of austerity had taken their toll on the nation and they weren’t holding back on this most magnificent of celebration. Enough of having to ‘make do and mend’, the nation had awoken to triumph, breathing a huge sigh of relief that the war was finally over.
Half a million homes had been destroyed by the enemy, thousands of civilians had been killed and millions of lives had been forever disrupted by the Hitler war machine. The whole nation had depended on the radio during the war and this day was no different, as people tuned-in to the wireless to find out the news. Crowds had further gathered in London and – on the following day, at 3pm – Churchill made a broadcast to the nation. One eye-witness noted as the time that there had been an “extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude”.
The Queen’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with the two Princesses, proceeded to appear an unprecedented eight times on the balcony of The Palace before mingling with the London crowds. The Princesses were allowed to join the crowds later in the evening, along with their cousin Margaret Rhodes. The Royal Princesses had both taken part in the war effort and 18 year-old Elizabeth, after months of begging her father to let her pitch in, was allowed to join the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, with the rank of Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor. It was here that she trained as a mechanic and military truck driver, making Her Majesty the only head of state to have partaken in active service as she did during World War 2.
This was a victory for the people, and each and every one of the British population had played a crucial part in the war machine which had led to this victory. Parades for the children were held across the country and street parties took place as people drank and danced in the streets, while others took to the church to give thanks to God for the victory. For many people left behind, having suffered the loss of a loved one, the moment of truth was bittersweet. Peace was not going to be easy; the war had changed people and rations continued until the mid-1950s.
To this day our Queen has continued to remember fondly the VE Day ‘Royal night out’ and spoke of it in a rare interview, where she revealed that one of the party had mischievously pinched a Dutch sailor’s hat. “I also remember when someone exchanged hats with a Dutch sailor, the poor man had to come along with us in order to get his hat back,” said Her Majesty.
Princess Margaret also commented that she thought “it was a one off occasion” and one where it was “so clever” of the King and Queen to send their children out into the world to experience this one moment in life; the night the war was over.
A Royal Night Out is out in cinemas on May 15th.