My memories of how we celebrated that first VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) 75 years ago are still vivid – not only because of the significance of what it represented but because of a very unfortunate incident which involved a member of my family.
On May 8th 1945 I was 17 years old and my brother Martin was 10. We lived in the ground floor flat of one of those imposing quasi-Regency houses in Bassett Road, North Kensington, just a short walk from Ladbroke Grove underground station and half a mile from the Portobello Road and its world-famous street market.
It was a reasonably tight-knit community, and the cruel treatment meted out to us in West London by the Luftwaffe in 1940/41 and then the V1 (flying bomb) and V2 (rocket) in 1944/45 had resulted in us relying on and helping each other as ”good neighbours” in desperate and dangerous times. Thus it was that a grand street party was organised (by the ladies of course !) to celebrate VE Day, leaving the question of the range and quality of the drinks to their nearests and dearests!
Until the war, Bassett Road had been an attractive, quiet street, about a half a mile long, with the inevitable mature London plane trees set at 100 yard intervals. We all had front gardens and these were dug, tilled and planted with a great variety of flowers and shrubs by keen gardening tenants. We all had a low rendered brick wall which marked the front boundary, and which was initially surmounted by the inevitable cast iron filigree work. However, this had been sacrificed to the state for turning into weapons of war but, which we understood much later, had been dumped in the Essex marshes. Each grilled front gate had been 2 metres high and held in place by elaborate hinges which secured it to two imposing pillars, each sporting a pediment. All very impressive ! But of course, by 1945 all our artistic ironwork was (supposed to be) littering Nazi Germany in various guises and necessarily in bits. But those solid pillars still remained, bearing the numbers of the houses they guarded.
This pleasant environment had been ruined by the loss of three houses, but more seriously by the orange brick street shelters which were built all along the pavements – just as the Blitz blew itself out, late in 1941. They might have been of some use to us as the V1s rained down, but by that time they were all flooded and/or infested with big black rats that held court while the local kids threw stones at them.
The evening of May 8th was balmy and everything was going swimmingly. Where all the food came from God only knows, for by that time the only thing that wasn’t in short supply had been German V weapons – and we had also been promised a V3 by that raving idiot Adolf Hitler
However there we were, with Europe at peace at last – a hundred or so good neighbours enjoying the relative quiet of a newly-found peace. The tables were planks laid along on empty beer barrels (of which there was an ample sufficiency !) but the ladies did us proud and we actually had tablecloths !
And then, after the magnificent repast, our attention turned to the firework display – which someone sagely remarked was nothing like as impressive as those we had had the misfortune to have seen over our homes on so many occasions during the past six years ! And then it happened – my young brother picked up a lighted banger which immediately exploded in his hand and enveloped his head in a burst of flame. Shock horror enveloped us all and his cries were terrible to hear. I remember seeing him being carried off the scene, his face blackened and one eye completely closed. Naturally we all feared for little brother, but I’m pleased to report that he made a full recovery and the sight in his left eye was as good as in the right, for the next 60 years or so. He said he could readily identify a free G&T at a range of 50 yards !
So my story has a happy ending after all ! But it was scary at the time …