In May 1945, fighting in the Second World War had continued for nearly six years. However, following the D-Day landings in June of 1944, the Allied armies from Britain, France, Canada and the United States were advancing on Berlin from the West, whilst Soviet forces were attacking from the East. Nazi Germany, surrounded, agreed to a complete surrender on 7th May 1945. Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast a speech to the nation to say that hostilities would cease at one minute after midnight on the 8th May 1945. That day would be a public holiday known as Victory in Europe Day, or VE day.
On VE Day itself, huge crowds gathered in the streets to celebrate. The Prime Minister and the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Such was the enthusiasm of the crowd that the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony that day to celebrate with the people. After dinner, the 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth – now our Queen – and her 14-year-old sister Princess Margaret left the palace and celebrated with the people, singing and dancing in the streets. Dressed in her Auxiliary Transport Service uniform, the future Queen avoided much notice. “I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes,” Elizabeth recalled in 1985. “I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.”
Despite the celebrations, the war was not over. Fighting continued in the Asia-Pacific region until the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender on 15th August 1945 – VJ Day. By the end of the war, 18,000,000 service personnel and 45,000,000 civilians had been killed. Families had been devastated. Cities across the world were in ruins. Rationing– the control of how much food and essential commodities people could buy – continued until 1954.
This year, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves again involved in a collective struggle. I don’t feel comfortable with some of the comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and World War Two. Our contribution to this effort is not to leave our homes and go off to fight, but rather – for most of us – it’s to stay at home and limit the spread of the disease, to ease the pressure for those on the front line. The virus is not going to surrender: victory will be slow and gradual. But what is clear is that, if we are to win in the battle against COVID-19, it has to be a collective effort. Success in this struggle relies on all of us working together, supporting each other, ensuring that our actions protect those more vulnerable than ourselves. We must all play our part.
So, when I stand for the two minutes’ silence on Friday morning, I will be thinking of all those heroes who lost their lives to defend our freedom and our way of life, not only in the war of 1939-1945, but on the front line of the struggle against COVID-19. I am – we are – forever in their debt.