VE Day: 'I want my children to understand what we owe the people who fought'

Cole Moreton joined the young and old commemorating the end of the Second World War (and got a lesson in wartime cooking from Marguerite Patten, Britain's first celebrity cook)
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The Independent Online

James was colouring in paper flags yesterday. As he did so, a huge V2 rocket loomed over him, like the one that landed in his street 60 years ago. "Living during the war would have been very frightening," said the six-year-old, absorbed in his work. "I would have worried about bombs falling on me or tanks coming through the houses."

James was colouring in paper flags yesterday. As he did so, a huge V2 rocket loomed over him, like the one that landed in his street 60 years ago. "Living during the war would have been very frightening," said the six-year-old, absorbed in his work. "I would have worried about bombs falling on me or tanks coming through the houses."

Violet was almost the same age as James when she died. The five-year-old was killed in an air raid on Doncaster, one of the 7,735 children who lost their lives in Britain as a result of enemy action during the Second World War. Her headstone was on display at the Imperial War Museum in Kennington, where James was making his flag.

Bunting - of the kind Violet never got to see - in red, white and blue has been strung up at the museum this weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of VE Day. It will be seen all over the country today, at street parties, tea dances pubs and most of all in Trafalgar Square, where veterans have been invited to mark that momentous day, the day when mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, lovers and friends felt enormous relief that the war was over at last - spiked with the sharp regret that so many had been lost.

"The tension between celebration and commemoration was actually the real VE Day experience," said a spokesperson for the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, where bands were playing 1940s music yesterday. Veterans were among the 40,000 people at Duxford in Cambridgeshire for an air display. Organisers were heartened by the large numbers of young people turning up. Families went to events at Chatham dockyard in Kent dressed in period clothes, to mingle with actors performing wartime sketches.

In London's Kennington yesterday an actor dressed as a Spitfire pilot saluted a woman with a video camera and said: "Hope you're not a spy, madam. Good job the war's over, eh?" As he passed, William Henderson smiled. The 43-year-old from East Dulwich was part of the last generation to grow up playing war games in the playground: the Tommies versus the Hun. Like so many people of his age, the housing director no longer wants to subscribe to the gung-ho militarism he learned from Biggles books and the Victor book for boys. But he does want his sons to learn about what was done for their country 60 years ago, and to remember it. So although he doesn't like guns in the house he brought James, six, and Alexander, four, to the Imperial War Museum.

"They got very excited about the tanks and the rockets and I thought, 'Oh no, is this glorifying it all?' But it's not. I wanted them to get a sense of what we owe the people who fought."

James looked up to say he had a photograph of his great uncle Robert, handsome in a captain's uniform. His younger brother asked, "How did he die?" Their father flinched. "He was shot, I'm afraid. In France. We might go and visit his grave."

Mr Henderson's grandfather was one of the last people to leave Singapore when it fell to the Japanese. "He held the ship back until the last possible moment so more people could get on. He had to tell some to stay. They were imprisoned and died. Terrible. We mustn't forget."

Nobody will as long as Marguerite Patten can draw breath. The first celebrity chef, who taught Britain how to cook properly in the early days of national television and the last days of rationing, was still at it yesterday. "I am sure many of you will have no idea what this is," she said to younger members of a rapt audience at the museum, as she brandished a bottle of powdered egg.

"We had to encourage people to have lots and lots of vegetables. Imagine, at this time of year, there would be no lettuce, no tomatoes, no citrus fruit. We had raw vegetable salad: turnips, parsnips, swedes."

Mrs Patten was working at Harrods on VE Day as an adviser for the Ministry of Food. Her husband was in West Africa. "My mother said to my sister and myself: 'You girls must go into London. If you don't you will see the papers tomorrow and be very sorry. Mother was a teetotaller, but she allowed us a sherry."

The sisters elbowed their way to the gates outside Buckingham Palace, where they chanted for the King.

"I kissed more people that day and night than I have kissed in my life, before or since. I didn't know who they were, and I never saw them again. There was such a good temper among the crowd, you see. You suddenly realised that you were not afraid. You were not listening for sirens. It was such a strange, wonderful feeling after so long."

These days people are always asking her if the wartime generation didn't have a healthier diet than today. Two years ago she beat Jamie Oliver to the draw by taking over dinners at a school in Brixton. "By the end they were knocking back the cabbage because they didn't have a choice. That is how it was for us: 'Here is the meal, dears, and if you don't like it that's too bad because there is nothing else.'"

Mrs Patten has astonishing energy for an 89-year-old. "I said to Vera Lynn, it's the wartime food that keeps us going."

Afterwards, many of the older men and women who had been nodding so vigorously during her demonstration went to the Children in War exhibition. Next to Violet's headstone were lines from a poem by Dylan Thomas describing the aftermath of a bombing raid: "The grievers/Grieve/Among the street burned to tireless death/A child of a few hours/With its kneading mouth/Charred on the black breast of the grave/The mother dug, and its arms full of fires."

"Oi!" shouted a young teenager to his mate, breaking the sad silence and drawing tuts from pensioners. "What's your problem?" They jostled through the crowd and disappeared.

Later the same boys sat in total darkness, in an exhibit recreating the sights, sounds, smells and terror of a shelter during the Blitz. Afterwards, the taller of the two had wet eyes. His friend was silent.

I thought of William Henderson, ruffling his son's hair and saying: "We've got to keep remembering. We mustn't forget."



The Prince of Wales will be at a memorial service at the Cenotaph today. This evening there will be a VE Day concert in Trafalgar Square. Tomorrow the Queen visits Guernsey and Jersey for independence day.


Chancellor Gerhard Schröder will attend commemorations in Berlin. Tomorrow the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe monument opens as a tribute to the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust.

Czech Republic

The European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication, Margot Wallström, will attend a ceremony in Terezin marking the liberation of the Terezin Ghetto concentration camp.


US President George Bush will mark the end of the war at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, where more than 8,300 American soldiers are buried.


President Jacques Chirac and veterans will attend a VE Day ceremony on the Champs-Elysees. The President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and there will be a military parade.


The Soviet Union will mark the peace a day later. Tomorrow the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, George Bush and other international leaders will attend a Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square.