They came in their thousands to line the parade route from Horse Guards Parade to Westminster Abbey. Fewer perhaps, than the anniversaries of the past but, bolstered by droves of curious tourists, their commitment to honour those who fell in the war against Japan was undiminished.
Seventy years ago there was a steady stream of drizzle, as tens of thousands gathered to watch King George VI drive down the Mall in an open-top carriage to mark the end of the Second World War. Today though, the sun was shining, just enough to reflect off the shiny brogues and polished medals of the hundreds of Second World War veterans, former prisoners of war and civilian internees who paraded through central London.
“I don’t do emotion anymore,” Royal Navy veteran Lewis Trinder, 91, told The Independent on Sunday.
“I’m lucky enough to be alive today and in good health, though I don’t see very well anymore so my mate has to be my eyes. Today for me is about remembering my friends that didn’t come home.
“We lost ships with all hands. The Japanese were a truly terrible enemy. I can’t say I’ve brought myself to forgive fully, but that’s all in the past now.
“I just want to remember my friends and celebrate that I’m alive and have had a life to live.”
Five of the nine Second World War Campaign Medals sparkled on his chest, including the Pacific Star for his service in the Far East in 1945. Before that he was on the sloop HMS Magpie, which sank six U-Boats in one voyage during the Battle for the Atlantic, protected Arctic Convoys and landed troops in Normandy on D-Day.
More than 2.5 million British and Commonwealth troops, including up to 500,000 Indian troops, served in the Far East during the Second World War, in what was the longest campaign of the six-year global conflict.
Field Marshall Lord Slim, the commander of the 14th Army who was nicknamed “Uncle Bill”, once warned his troops that the bloody campaign in Burma would become lost in history. “No one will know where you were or what it is you did, you are and will remain the forgotten army,” he told them.
But at the official ceremony on Horse Guards Parade, Viscount Slim, the son of the Field Marshall, gave an emotional reading from his father’s memoir, Defeat Into Victory, and actor Charles Dance read the poem The Road to Mandalay, by Rudyard Kipling.
Earlier, Richard De Renzy Channer, 93, a veteran of the Battle of Imphal and holder of the Military Cross for gallantry, laid a wreath on behalf of the Burma Star Association at the statue of Lord Slin outside the Ministry of Defence. It was a touching and almost private moment of remembrance that was played out under the glare of the media. But, in a very British way, it prompted first a polite round of applause then rousing cheer that rippled out along the parade route, where veterans, war widows and their families were soon to march.
A fly-past of military aircraft, including a Hurricane, a Dakota and a modern RAF Typhoon Jet, passed directly over the top of the statue, as parading veterans, many wearing his trademark slouch hat, turned “eyes left” in tribute.
A morning service at St Martin-in-the-Fields church was a sombre commemoration of the estimated 71,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the war against Japan. It was attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who served in the Pacific with the Royal Navy 75 years ago. The church is home to sleepers from the original ‘Death Railway’ in Burma and the service remembered the 12,000 prisoners who died in Japanese captivity, often in the most brutal and inhumane conditions.
Beyond the tight security screen around Horse Guards Parade, the public had been gathering since mid-morning. Among the early arrivals was Veronica Dickens, 64.
She was unconcerned by newspaper reports last week that the VJ Day commemorations were reportedly being targeted by British jihadis who wanted to use a pressure-cooker bomb to kill the Queen and create chaos.
She spoke for many: “It hasn’t put me off. We can’t let it, that’s exactly what they want. We can’t let the threat of terrorism put the fear of God into us.”
Like many lining the route, some with picnics, she had no connection to the military and no late father or brother in the military.
Alongside flag-waving well-wishers, tourists who came across the parade were delighted to catch part of a very British occasion as the Royal Standard billowed over Horse Guards and the massed marching bands of the armed forces came out onto Whitehall. First came the Band of the Coldstream Guards, then the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Portsmouth and finally the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment, reaching full volume as they reached the statue of Lord Slim. It was a demonstration of the most formal kind of British, white-gloved pomp and pageantry.
Then came the flag-bearers, serving soldiers, families and the VJ Day veterans themselves. They advanced at a slow walking pace, making their way to lay wreaths at the Cenotaph. Most came in wheelchairs, pushed by children or grandchildren, some in uniform, many smiling, but some crying as the crowd that lined the parade group showered them with applause.
After the wreath laying, as the veterans moved on amid a less sombre atmosphere, one broke into a dance while another spun his smart black umbrella to the delight of the crowd.
Every year at these occasions, there is speculation about when the last veteran of the Forgotten 14th will be able to parade. But, seven decades on, veterans like Mr Trinder ensured the “friends that didn’t come home” were remembered.Reuse content