8 May, 1945: The homecoming, sixty years on

When the fighting stopped, did life on the home front return to blissful normality? Far from it, says Charles Wheeler, whose new radio series looks back at the summer of '45. By Peter Stanford
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The Independent Online

"I've no idea what I did on VE Day," says Charles Wheeler, the BBC broadcaster, now 82, who is presenting radio documentaries all next week on the hopes and disappointments that came with the surrender of Nazi Germany 60 years ago. "I was in Germany, in Hamburg, in the Marines, but VE Day itself was not an interesting day for me. And I don't think I was unusual in that."

Victory in Europe Day has become, in history books, a time of public outpouring of joy, dancing in the street, poignant homecomings, savouring the sweet taste of victory, albeit on a ration book, and a collective relief that Hitler was defeated.

But, using archive material and interviews with those who remember VE Day, the series also paints a more complex picture, of celebration mixed with people picking up the loose ends of their lives, amid shattered relationships, broken bodies, difficult reunions, and the promise, long delayed in many cases, of new opportunities in employment and housing. For some, the relief was tempered because their men were still fighting and dying across the world in the jungles and Pacific islands against suicidally ferocious Japanese. That fighting would not end until August, 1945.

The idea of a single, jubilant, communal VE Day, Wheeler feels, is a distortion of history. At the very least there was a VE Week. "There was nothing neat and tidy about the end of the war. VE Day was simply the day the Allied leaders agreed the celebrations of peace could begin. It was not like the First World War, when the troops laid down their weapons and emerged from the trenches on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This war just petered out at different times across Europe."

In Britain, celebrations had already started in Edinburgh and London on 7 May. That day, wartime restrictions on buying red, white and blue bunting were lifted. Pictures of street parties appeared in the papers, well before George VI and Winston Churchill were able to announce the outbreak of peace in Europe, the delay caused by friction with the US and Stalin.

In Hamburg, for 22-year-old Wheeler, there were few celebrations. "Germany was choking with refugees from the East, escaping the advancing Russians who were raping and pillaging as they went. They were in a dreadful state, utterly terrified. They had nothing."

Any concern that their plight might have awakened in Wheeler and his comrades was damped by emerging news of the horror of the concentration camps. "That cast a big cloud," he says. "Compassion was a long time coming."

Many servicemen faced the grim prospect of transfer to the Far East where an Allied invasion of Japan was expected. "I, like many others, assumed I would go there and the war would carry on in the East," Wheeler says. "No one wanted to, then in August the news came that the war was over in one day because the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, selfishly, I was pleased because now I wouldn't have to go. I didn't think of the casualties. None of us had any idea such a bomb even existed."

With hundreds of thousands of demobilised servicemen and women, Wheeler faced the problem of finding a job. He had been a copy-boy at the Daily Sketch before joining up, but was told there was no chance there. "In the end," he says, "I managed to get a job at the BBC. Someone had said they would take anyone."

Back in London in early 1946, Wheeler found any anticipation of a new dawn after victory and the July General Election which brought the first majority Labour government had evaporated. "By then, people had realised it was going to be a very long haul. We were living in overcrowded houses. Some were squatting on disused Army bases. Everything was on rations. In the end I was glad to be sent overseas." That move not only launched a distinguished and award-laden career, Wheeler reporting from Berlin, Asia, Washington, US and Europe, escaping the creeping disillusionment that engulfed many of his former comrades. "A lot of my friends came back to mundane jobs. When we met afterward at reunions, they talked endlessly of the great time we had had in the Forces, how it was the high point of their lives, lives they obviously perceived as duller ever after."

There were efforts by the authorities to ease the reintegration of the estimated 22 million men and women between 14 and 64 who were in uniform or in support industries. A 1946 guide to civilian life entitled Call Me Mister told its readers bluntly: "Coming out of the Forces into civilian life is rather like plunging into a tepid bath. One finds neither the icy, tingling invigoration of a cold shower enjoyed on first enlisting, nor the steamy, heart-warming glow of a hot bath enjoyed on leave."

But in fraught economic conditions, with Britain reliant on a US loan which Wheeler notes is still being repaid, practical measures to build "a land fit for heroes" were slow to start and even slower to come to fruition after the brief honeymoon in the weeks after VE Day.

Dissent started with the failure to get men home at the pace they expected. After a slow start in June 1945, with just 44,500 demobbed, by November it had risen to a peak of 391,000. Particularly badly affected were those in the Far East, including 85-year-old Peter Cochrane from Edinburgh. After active service in 1944 in Italy - "including crossing the Rubicon the wrong way" - he was posted to India. "I caught malaria and I was in hospital when I heard of VE Day," he says. "It did irk some of us, all this talk of the war being over when the Japanese were there in Burma and showing very little sign of going."

Mr Cochrane returned to Britain at Easter in 1946 to be reunited with his American wife, Louise. They had not met since a five-day honeymoon in 1943. "We were among the lucky ones," he says. "Some wartime couples realised they had made a terrible mistake, but we haven't been apart for a day since."

Charles Wheeler's Coming Home is on BBC Radio 4 at 9am all week