It is 75 years since the East End celebrated VE Day – victory in Europe over the forces of fascism. East End families had more to celebrate than most. Not only did thousands serve in the army, navy and airforce, thousands more served on the home front, as air raid wardens, fire fighters, in munitions factories, and in hundreds of other roles.
The East End was in the front line from the start of the Blitz in 1940, right until the last V2 rocket fell in 1945. Indeed the King and Queen visited Vallance Road in the East End the day after VE Day 1945, visiting the families of 130 people killed when a V2 destroyed a mansion block. Many of my elderly constituents still talk about the Queen mother’s famous remark after Buckingham Palace suffered a direct hit in September 1940, when she said “I’m glad. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."
When victory in Europe was declared, the street parties lasted a week. The Odeon in Mile End Road hosted a cinema party for 300 kids from Bethnal Green. Then, as now, the entertainment was provided by Disney. The kerbstones were painted red, white and blue. People lit bonfires. A military parade stretched from Tower Hill, down Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road, to the People’s Palace. In Victoria Park, 9,000 people came to a ‘floodlit dance’.
It will be different 75 years on. There won’t be dances or street parties, and the cinemas and pubs are shut. Instead, we can reflect on the sacrifices of the ‘greatest generation’ who served our country to defeat the Nazis. We can remember the names of the local men and women who died in uniform, and the thousands of civilians who died in the bombing. We recall the names of those who died in the Bethnal Green tube disaster.
For thousands, the war did not end in May 1945. They bore physical and mental scars for the rest of their days, at a time when post-traumatic stress disorder was not properly understood. The men did not return home for many months. And of course thousands of East Enders were still fighting in the Far East, or imprisoned in Japanese prisoner of war camps, until August 1945.
We remember too what happened next. The generation who fought the war went on to win the peace. They created a welfare state with the NHS as the jewel in the crown. The Commonwealth countries who supplied millions of troops were called upon once again to supply the workers to build the post-war world, from bus drivers to nurses. A new East End grew from the rubble.
This VE Day, let us commemorate with pride what the wartime generation did for us. And reflect on what we will do, once we have defeated the new enemy of COVID-19, for the generations to come.