Amid scenes of joy there was fear for the future; 50 years ago the bonfires were lit and the sirens sounded, but there were still prisoners of war who would never return

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The Independent Online

Bonfires, street parties and the sound of ships' sirens and railway engine whistles greeted the news of Japan's surrender in Britain 50 years ago, yet the celebrations lacked the wild jubilation of VE Day.

The fighting in Burma and the Pacific was a far-away conflict of which many people knew little. It was not as immediately threatening as the war in Europe and involved smaller forces. The British soldiers who fought in Burma called themselves the Forgotten Army and so perhaps it was appropriate that the news of final victory in the Second World War caught most people in Britain unawares.

Although the scent of victory had been in the air for days since the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan and 3,000 people had gathered outside Buckingham Palace on the evening of 14 August, there were just 12 people there when the news of peace was broadcast at midnight.

In Downing Street, there was only one couple outside as Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, told the nation on the radio "Thank God for this great deliverance", and they were far too engrossed in one another to notice that a conflict which had cost 55 million lives had just ended.

But next day Britain did celebrate. Victory beacons long since prepared for the occasion blazed from one end of the country to the other and a huge crowd gathered in front of Buckingham Palace shouting "we want the King".

George VI obliged them, emerging on to the balcony with the Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Later the two young princesses slipped out of the palace accompanied by two plain-clothes police officers to mingle with the crowds.

Street parties were held in many towns and villages. Sylvia Townson, a London child who had been evacuated to Wales, later told researchers from the Imperial War Museum: "They had one great long table almost the whole length of the terrace and everybody participated. The children had a fancy-dress party and because I had just come back from London I didn't have any fancy dress of my own. So this dear old woman dug into her wardrobe or attic and managed to produce a Japanese kimono which was absolutely beautiful.

"It seems extraordinary now thinking back on it but there we were celebrating the end of the war in Japan and I went along dressed as a Japanese lady."

Yet amid the celebrations there was a sense of unease - fears for the future, concern about British prisoners-of-war still held by the Japanese and the beginning of the debate over the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which has continued since.

As the war ended, the British government announced that 1 million munitions workers were to lose their jobs and the Americans cancelled the Lend- Lease programme by which Britain got food without paying cash during the war, thus ensuring prolonged rationing.

For Wendy Peall, who was serving with the Women's Royal Naval Service in Dover, relief that the war was over was mixed with worry about her husband, Charles, who had been taken prisoner when Singapore fell to the Japanese three-and-a-half years previously.

Mrs Peall said last week: "I was hoping that I might hear that Charles was still alive as I had not had any news of him other than a note in 1942 saying that he was missing, presumed killed in action. It was some time before I learnt that he had survived. I heard about the Japanese surrender on the radio news but there were no street parties or celebrations in Dover, people had already done all that on VE Day."

Church bells rang all over the country, but not from the tower of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, where the dean, the Very Rev CC Thicknesse, said he could not thank God for a victory won by the use of atomic bombs, and provoked controversy by banning a civic thanksgiving service from the abbey.

But his was a minority view. Stella Fisher, who celebrated VJ Day with a special dinner, said: "I think one has to remember that everyone was shocked in one sense by the atom bomb but also very relieved because many had fiances or husbands who were prisoners-of-war in Japan."

As the street parties ended, life in Britain began to inch its way back to peacetime normality. In a process that would be wearily familiar to commuters today, the railway employers began talks with the unions to try to avoid a strike.