A most remarkable Christmas

1945: The War was over. It was a time of hope, homecomings and unforgettable celebration
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"May I," wrote Sir Stafford Cripps to Winston Churchill in December 1945, "as an old colleague still imbued with gratitude for all you did for us during the War, send you and Clementine my very best wishes for a happy Christmas and a good New Year."

They were sentiments the nation doubtless shared - the London Evening Standard named him its Man of the Year - but gratitude had not been sufficient to keep Churchill in office. Britain's first majority Labour government was elected on a landslide vote in July 1945. And Cripps himself, once Churchill's ambassador to Moscow and Minister of Aircraft Production, was now President of the Board of Trade in Clement Attlee's cabinet.

The War was over, but the memory lingered on. The Nuremberg trials were under way, servicemen and women were still scattered all over the world - many of them increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of demobilisation - and gales were setting mines adrift in the Channel.

Britain was virtually bankrupt - the War had cost almost a quarter of the country's entire pre-war wealth - and a worldwide food crisis loomed, after a disastrous wheat crop in Europe and North Africa and a rice crop in Asia that was 15 per cent below normal. Just before Christmas, Parliament voted to accept a pounds 1.1bn loan from the United States.

Churchill, meanwhile, spent Christmas in London, holding a family party at Hyde Park Gate on 22 December, and going to the theatre on Boxing Day to see Henry IV, Part Two, in which Laurence Olivier played Mr Justice Shallow (after playing Hotspur that afternoon in Part One).

Elsewhere that Christmas, Kitty and The Stork Club opened in London cinemas, and The Road to Utopia with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby was at the Carlton Haymarket. Charlton were top of the Football League (South); Everton were top of the Northern table. Humphrey Bogart celebrated his 45th birthday on Christmas Day, and the writer Jeffrey Bernard, then a 13-year-old pupil of Fonthill School, East Grinstead, took his first drink and was groped by Santa Claus in Harrods' Christmas grotto - though not necessarily in that order.

Norman Lewis, author of Naples '44, was a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps.

Returning to England just before Christmas 1945 after an absence of three years, I was aware of a slump in the national spirits. I had come straight from Austria in the aftermath of defeat, yet here, after a long- delayed victory, the mood was hardly less drab. Food shortages were worse than in wartime. With power cuts, freezing houses and the citizens of London groping their way by torchlight through unlit streets, celebrations were understandably muted.

A category of sharp-eyed young men, for whom the name spiv had been coined, nevertheless exuded unquenchable good cheer. They "knew their way around" and were instantly available as guides to such remnants of pleasure as were still to be found behind the gloomy facades of the post-war existence.

Rationing remained strict and the Government had sensibly imposed a maximum price to be charged for the supposedly austere meals restaurants were permitted to serve. Whether you dined at the Savoy or the humblest of eating houses, the limit was five shillings. As ever, there was huge scope for manoeuvre here, so that many of those unable to take their meals at home did quite well, although the majority fared badly.

On Boxing night an amiable young spiv attached himself and led me to a restaurant in Romilly Street. Here, peering through a curtain dividing the privileged few from the rest, I spied one of the guardians of the nation's destiny - instantly recognisable from his many newspaper photographs - who was busying himself with five shillings' worth of pheasant. For those of us on the wrong side of the barrier, a well-known Soho speciality was bleached horsemeat disguised as escalope de veau. It was a masterpiece of culinary deception, accompanied by several glasses of excellent red Algerian. Facing the night again an hour later, a few stars had made a furtive appearance, and hope was reborn.

Daphne Park (now Baroness Park of Monmouth), officer in the WTS.

I was serving in Germany in the mixed Anglo-American-French unit. I can remember very clearly that a friend of mine whom I met there, an RAF officer who had been in the hands of the Japanese, had been in Czechoslovakia not long before the War and had made a lot of friends there.

On Christmas night he invited me to drive with him into the Black Forest - it was a very snowy night - and after a while we came to a farm of sorts in the middle of the forest. I remember there was a great big barn, and as we drew near I could hear music. Inside were some circus riders with horses, dancing to music - it was an amazing scene. It turned out that they were either circus people or gypsies, and that they had managed to hide these trained horses first from the Germans and then from the American army, who wanted to requisition all good horses.

Robbie knew these people before the War and had somehow got in touch with them, and they had asked him to come along on Christmas night. We drank punch, and he brought some cigarettes, which were like currency in those days, and I had some chocolates. I remember there were some children there, too. It was a wonderful experience because at that time, only six months after the end of the War, we were still under orders not to fraternise, and a lot of young Nazis in Bavaria were still attacking our troops and laying ambushes on the autobahns. So, to find this atmosphere of friendship and to have had this amazing coming together of people is something I'll always remember.

Bill Leadbeater, leading hand in the Royal Navy.

I was on a ship called the HMS Prince Albert. We were out in the Far East and we were transporting a group of Dutch ex-prisoners of war who had been held by the Japanese. They were being taken from Padang in Western Sumatra round to the capital, Madana; they were mainly women and children because the Japanese had separated them from the men.

We were going to have a Christmas dinner on board and the cook had purchased a load of chickens from the Naafi: each member of the crew was going to have half a chicken as his Christmas dinner, and naturally we were all looking forward to this. However, in view of all these refugees on board, a movement grew among the crew that it would seem a little disgusting if we were all sitting down to chicken while the refugees were given normal Navy rations. We hadn't any extra food on board, so we voted to let them have it; and we took our mess tables up to the upper deck - we were round about the Equator - and served them our Christmas dinner.

They were absolutely overwhelmed by this generosity because this was the first time they'd had freedom, although the War had ended in August, and this was their first meeting with white people in over four years. It was only a relatively short voyage, but it was amazing what friendships were struck up between the children and the crew. It was one of the best things I ever did in the Navy.

Leslie Phillips, stage and film actor.

I came out of the Army just before the end of the War. I was invalided out - a boy when it started and an officer when it ended. I went back to the theatre because I couldn't think of anything else to do.

I have a strong recollection of that first Christmas after the War and the period between Christmas and New Year. There was mad, lunatic behaviour in Piccadilly Circus. Everyone went bonkers. I had never seen so many people go bonkers. I was with a pal who had served in submarines and been invalided out. The two of us met up and went equally bonkers.

We'd all been in the War, even those who weren't in the services - people had lost families, houses, limbs - and there was delight that there was no more killing. Everyone was so open and friendly. You just went into places - restaurants, hotels, people's rooms. A whole solid mass of hysterical people staring at Eros.

Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent for New York-based Collier's Weekly.

I must have been in Berlin with the American occupying force, writing about the 82nd Airborne Division, whom I'd been with through the War. The city was snow-covered and looked like jagged teeth because it was bombed out and devastated. I may say we didn't care.

The Americans really wanted to go home and were anxious to leave. They weren't supposed to fraternise with the "Froleens", but, as anything could be bought with a cigarette or chocolate, it was probably happening but hidden from view.

The Germans were very distressed, but we had absolutely no sympathy for them because we had seen the devastation they had caused. We were very stony about them.

Michael Alexander, writer and Colditz PoW, captain in the 2nd SAS regiment.

On Christmas Day 1945, I stood on the platform at Calais station trying to board the rubber-tyred train known as "la Micheline" bound for Paris. All seats were reserved for VIPs. It was the only train of the day. I had lost my bet that I would have Christmas dinner in the then-forbidden capital.

I should not have been at Calais at all. Military conditions still prevailed there. Stationed near Colchester with the 2nd SAS regiment, with a dubious mission to Chunking happily aborted, I had borrowed the regimental motorboat moored on a local river and with two brother officers chugged down the east coast and across the Channel for a clandestine landing. We attended the Christmas Eve Ball at the Hotel de Ville unchallenged and unticketed.

We met our Waterloo next morning on Calais station. As "la Micheline" moved off, a bossy major asked for our papers and ordered us to leave town. We got into our little boat and headed for home. Christmas Day in an open boat on a wet and windy Channel without our loved ones was a flop. To make matters worse, we got stuck on a sandbank and had to get out and push - an odd sensation out of sight of land.

Beryl Bainbridge, novelist, was a schoolgirl in Formby, Lancashire.

We were near some pine woods, so we had a Christmas tree, though there weren't very many to be had that Christmas. I remember decorations being up in the hall, and everybody put a small Christmas tree-type thing in the window to show they were celebrating. We went to the carol service on Christmas Eve at the local church, and there was mulled wine afterwards - that was a sort of social do - but from Christmas morning onwards, unless you were going to see relatives, you kept in the house all day.

Rationing was still in, though people didn't seem to care much about that. What people had done each Christmas during the War was "buy" a pig from the local farmer, keep the kitchen scraps and give them to the farmer to give the pig - and then at Christmas you'd have your ham. I remember my father going into Liverpool to the wonderful half-covered market to buy turkey and ham, and waiting until half-past six when they cut the prices. We had sixpenny bits in the Christmas pudding, which were cleaned with HP sauce, and there was very little to drink - just sherry really, not very much at all. The church choir came round and sang a whole hymn at the gates - they didn't come to the door - and then one person would come round the houses and collect donations.

I suppose we're talking here about people who were sort of lower middle class, and who were trying to climb upwards, and they didn't go out to the pubs at Christmas: that was considered not very nice. On Boxing Day the in-laws came, usually by train from wherever they lived, and you all had high tea - turkey and ham. There was, of course, no telly, so you sang songs round the piano, which was rather nice, and the kiddies did recitations, and we played charades. More generally, I suppose there was a feeling that things were going to be different, that the Tories had had their day. Churchill had been wonderful during the War, but the minute it was over they turned on him.

Dame Barbara Cartland, Hon Junior Commander in the ATS, lady welfare officer and librarian to all services in Bedfordshire.

Both my brothers were killed at Dunkirk, and my husband died later from the wounds he got when he was 18 in the First World War, so you wouldn't feel Christmas was a frightfully glamorous or exciting time that year, but we wanted the children to enjoy it - I had small children.

During the War I was in the ATS and looked after 50,000 troops, and because I was the only lady welfare officer I bought thousands of wedding dresses that Christmas, which they kept at the War Office so that everyone could get married in white. In fact, couples still come up to me now and say, "It was due to you that we were able to get married in white." So it wasn't heavy gloom all the time, but I still missed my brothers terribly. It was rather a sad Christmas, but I have always believed it was a time for the children.

Jean White, trainee teacher in Canterbury.

We were still very heavily rationed, of course, so there weren't very great festivities. We were quite lucky because our father kept hens, so we had one for the table, and also you were allowed extra food if you sold your eggs.

As far as decorating the house was concerned, there was nothing - we had to make all our own. We made them out of sweetie papers, milk bottle tops, all those sorts of things, and we couldn't get a proper Christmas tree, so we painted the branch of an apple tree and hung the things on that.

Everything was desperately shabby because we weren't able to paint our houses or decorate in any way, but what was lovely was that there was no blackout, so we could shine candles out into the street. We were also all terribly short of fuel, and were consequently very cold. My sister stayed in bed most of the day to keep warm.

Kenneth Clark, corporal in the Royal Engineers.

A Christmas Day spent in an unseasonably hot place is always memorable, even though Christmas 1945 was such a long while ago.

The hot place was Jamaica, a delightful island to be sent to at the age of 18 to serve your National Service. We office wallahs were looking after the paperwork of an infantry battalion stationed in the colony in case of civil unrest (there wasn't any). After six months the beaches bored us and three of us decided to climb to the change of air camp 4,000ft above Kingston for Christmas dinner.

Our garb reflected our odd status: half mufti, tropical shirts above khaki shorts, army boots and rucksacks. We soon passed through the black suburbs and over the watered gardens of the white district.

The real climb began on the dusty road snaking up the mountainside. We scrambled up the steeper pathways that crossed and recrossed the road. Sweetwood, wild fig, orange trees (very green oranges) and giant fern surrounded us as we reached the lusher heights. And the solitaire bird sang to us, a high and low note sounding "sweet song, sweet song".

So we reached Newcastle, its 19th-century barrack rooms and bungalows perched on the terraces and half-hidden by trees. Socks and boots were removed on the Naafi verandah, and we were brought beer by a German prisoner of war. (The presence of these men was one of the many surprises of Jamaican life - they were mainly merchant seamen caught at sea on the outbreak of war.)

The tropical sunset was soon upon us - pink, purple, light green, lilac, deep purple, black black, always the same magic, but on this Christmas night we looked down on the twinkling lights of Kingston far below, their pattern reflected by the fireflies winking on and off in nearby trees.

And at midnight we lit a nostalgic wood fire in the bare bungalow we had "borrowed" and settled down under blankets to sleep in the firelight.

On Boxing Day we decided to climb to the top of Blue Mountain. And we did ...

Interviews by Richard Preston and Scott Hughes