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London's revelry marked end of World War II in Europe

A vast crowd assembled in front of Buckingham Palace, London, on May 8, 1945, cheers the royal family, including Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Margaret, as they come out on the balcony, minutes after the official announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender.

Associated Press

A vast crowd assembled in front of Buckingham Palace, London, on May 8, 1945, cheers the royal family, including Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Margaret, as they come out on the balcony, minutes after the official announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The explosion of joy had not yet erupted. But there, in the heart of London, the usual night-time darkness was strangely absent on one city street: A stream of light illuminated almost an entire city block.

Some happy soul had raised a blackout shade in the apartment window. And for the first time in nearly six years, it was done without fear of inviting an air-raid warden's citation or Nazi bombs.

The date was May 7, 1945. And that marvelous lighted scene, foretelling the end of Europe's deadliest period, has stayed with me all these years.

I was 19 then, a radio gunner on a B-24 bomber and on a three-day pass from my air base outside of Norwich. On an underground train en route to Piccadilly Circus, I kind of understood after spotting a newspaper headline. In thick bold letters, it proclaimed that the Germans' unconditional surrender was imminent.

The lighted street I later walked along seemed to confirm the headline.

By 3 p.m. the next day, it was official. Standing on the War Ministry balcony above Whitehall at that hour, a beaming Prime Minister Winston Churchill flashed his usual V sign. This time, though, it was no symbolic promise.

The hostilities with Germany were over.

"This is your victory," he told a huge crowd that had gathered in the street.

Lights back on

Cheers grew into one hell of a party. People poured into the streets, shouting, dancing, embracing. They mounted double-decker buses and utility poles, waved flags, started bonfires and danced the hokey pokey around a statue of Queen Victoria in Kensington Park. Sirens blared, car horns honked and church bells pealed.

In four neat one-syllable words, a newspaper headline said it all: "Our Day of Days".

I found myself drawn to Buckingham Palace. A roar from the crowd and wild applause greeted the appearance of people on the palace balcony.

From where I stood among a mass of humanity, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, their princess daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and Prime Minister Churchill were a distant blur. The next day newspaper pictures showed them responding to the crowd's adulation with smiles and waves.

That night floodlights illuminated Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament for the first time since the Battle of Britain began in 1940. And Big Ben's toll, signaling the official end of the war in Europe, was greeted by exploding fireworks and screaming sirens.

The celebration went on for two days.

Bus and train service in and out of London was halted, and thousands who had flocked to the city to witness and participate in these historic moments jammed hotels and parks.

Weathering the party

U.S. military personnel passes were extended for two days because of the mass-transit breakdown.

Great, except for the fact that the Red Cross servicemen's hotel and other hotels had no vacancies, and my money had just about run out.

I joined hundreds of others, spending a damp, chilly night trying to keep warm and sleep near one of the bonfires in St. James Park.

An attractive, thin, dark-haired girl I met also was left out in the cold, unable to return to her suburban home because trains weren't running. Doreen — that was her name — said her mother had come to London to celebrate the end of World War I, and she had met and married a Yank.

Doreen said she couldn't wait for the end of rationing, especially for the day when nylon stockings would be available in England. Back in the States several months later, I answered her prayers, and mailed her three pairs of nylon stockings. The expected thank-you note never arrived, though.

Memories of those tumultuous days were rekindled this month as England observed the 63rd anniversary of V-E Day, signaling the end of World War II in Europe. And what joy those memories bring.

Retired newspaper reporter and editor Si Liberman splits his time between Palm Beach and New Jersey.

London's revelry marked end of World War II in Europe 05/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 2:48pm]
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