St Neots VE Day celebrations

On Friday 8th May, the whole of Europe had intended to commemorate the end of World War II with VE and VJ Day events.

The events were to mark the 75th anniversary of the original Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan days, held in May and August 1945. While the planned celebrations are sadly no longer possible, we can all still privately and virtually commemorate the millions who died too soon, and all those whose lives were changed forever by the catastrophic events of the Second World War.

An end to war

On the 8th & 9th May 1945, after over five long years of war, the entire population of Europe came together to celebrate the end of the fighting on the continent. Though nations still mourned all those who had died or been injured or traumatised, and continued to wait for the end of the war in the east (where the war with Japan was still continuing), the end of fighting in Europe was a reason to celebrate.

St Neots celebrates

The local newspaper, the ‘St Neots Advertiser’, reported details of the many celebrations that took place in the town and the surrounding villages.  Reports read:

“St Neots received the joyful news of the end of the war against Germany quite calmly, with feelings of thankfulness to God; happiness; relief; pride; humility; gratitude to the gallant men and women who made victory possible; remembrance of those who had given their lives for us in many parts of the world; sympathy for their relatives; and a vivid reminder of the stern fight ahead against the brutal Japanese.”

‘Salute the Soldier’ parade, Sandy 1944

“An outward sign of rejoicing was a profuse display of flags…Russell Street was a specially high spot. Church bells rang merrily in St Neots, Eynesbury and Eaton Socon”

The re-formed Eynesbury and St Neots Town Silver Prize band paraded the town and played on the Market Square. Church services were held throughout the day and the paper reported “joyous scenes on St Neots Market Square on VE night”. Loud speakers had been installed on the square and dancing to popular tunes continued in to the early hours.

The paper believed that local lady, Miss Dorothy Wrycroft, was chiefly to be thanked for arranging the dancing, along with Maypole dances for children. Victory Day coincided with St Neots May Fair (which opened on Thursday 10th May), and Thurston’s, the fair owners, allowed the public to use the motor track of one of their large roundabouts for dancing on the Market Square.

Dorothy Wrycroft

At 9pm a hush fell as the “immense crowd” listened to the speech by H.M. King, George VI, which was later printed in local papers. In part of his speech, he spoke for the whole nation when he said:

“Let us remember those who will not come back; their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the services, and the women in all the services, who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulations, and they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.”  

An end to restrictions

After five long years of night time black-out restrictions, another hugely popular part of the celebrations was the lighting of bonfires, and on many of them, the burning of a hastily created effigy of Hitler. Lights in the darkness must have been a particular pleasure after the black-out, and locally, Little Barford power station was floodlit and could be seen for many miles around. Many other buildings were also floodlit in celebration of the end of the war.

Local celebrations

St Neots police station, ‘Air Raid Precautions HQ’ 1939 – 1942

In the villages around St Neots, each community came together to celebrate. In Eaton Socon, the highlight of VE Day itself was the huge bonfire at the Hillings, where Hitler’s effigy was duly consumed by the flames. Fireworks were let off on the Green, where the dancing continued until 2 a.m.  Another bonfire was lit on the Fair Ground at Eaton Ford, where the large crowd that had gathered witnessed another cremation of Hitler.

Even the Inmates of the St Neots Institution had extra rations, and those who were well enough were allowed to attend local church services and the jollifications.

At Little Barford, the whole village assembled at Little Barford House at 1pm by invitation of Mr W H Alington, where a short address and a toast were made.  After an evening Service of Thanksgiving, a bonfire was lit and a great centre of interest was a life-size, and remarkably life-like, effigy of Hitler found hanging from a tree.

In Great Gransden, the St Neots Advertiser reported that:

“Hundreds of people assembled in the Cricket Field in the afternoon to hear Mr. Churchill’s broadcast of the end of war in Europe…In the evening it was estimated over 1,000 people were on the field where an open-air dance was held.”

In Waresley, the village was gaily decorated, a dance took place on the Tuesday evening, and on the Wednesday tea and sports were held in Mr. A. Minney’s meadow.

Throughout the celebrations there was little rowdy behaviour, although the police were kept busy preventing some celebrations from getting out of hand.

Festivities for children

Russell Street VE Day celebrations, St Neots

If Tuesday the 8th May was a day for adult celebrations, then Wednesday 9th May was, in many places, given over to parties and sports events for children and young people.  Both women and men put all their energies into entertaining the children and making it a memorable day for them.

In St Neots and Eynesbury, many parties were held in the decorated streets, on the greens, and in halls and barns.  The women organisers of the parties made a wonderfully good job of it at very short notice; not only did they collect money, beg or bake dainty food for sumptuous repasts, cut sandwiches, make jellies, officiate as waiters (in gay hats and costumes), clear away AND do the washing up, but they helped to decorate their children for fancy dress parades. Meanwhile, the men folk gave a willing hand, fixing up tables and, on the Wednesday, arranging sports and games in recreation grounds and fields across the area.

Service men and women return home

In the newspapers, under the heading “News of our Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen”, appeared reports of those who were returning home after being held as Prisoners of War.

Perhaps the happiest people in Eaton Socon on VE Day were Mr and Mrs G Eckford.  They had received no news of their son, George, who had been taken prisoner at Tobruk just over three years prior, and had been held in camps in Italy and Germany.  Tuesday 8th May brought the telegram they were waiting for which said that he was ‘safe and well’.  This good news meant that all the Eaton men who were prisoners in Germany were accounted for, some were even home with their families in time for VE Day.  This included Flight Sergeant Aubrey Waters, son of Inspector Waters of St Neots.  His plane had been brought down over Germany on 16th March the previous year; he had baled out safely and landed in a back garden in Stuttgart, where he was captured by the German civil police.  It had been only his third ‘op’ after taking the place of a sick gunner from another crew.  His original crew were shot down some three weeks later.  During his time as a prisoner, he had been in a number of camps, and had suffered close to starvation on the long marches between them.  He later said, however, that boredom had been his greatest enemy.

A group of servicemen including Spitfire pilot Victor Ekins of New Street, St Neots

Also home was Private Horace Coe from Bedford Street.  He had endured three and a half years as a prisoner im Sicily, Italy and Germany, having been captured while serving with the 1st Armoured Division in the African Desert.  His greatest ordeal was having to march 800 miles with few, or no, rations following the D-Day break through.

Petty Officer Graham Ibbs gave his parents a surprise by walking into their home at The Crescent unexpectedly.  In June 1942 he’d been serving with the destroyer Bedouin when it was torpedoed while on convoy escort to Malta.  He was picked up by an Italian Red Cross boat and imprisoned in Italy.  On the capitulation of Italy, Petty Officer Ibbs escaped, and actually reached the Swiss border before being recaptured by German troops.  He was then sent to Bremen where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Allies.

These three reports illustrate just a few of the many stories of hardship being told by the returning Prisoners of War. In marking the 75th anniversaries of both VE & VJ Days, we recall and commemorate the sacrifices and the hardships experienced by the people of Britain and the global population during the 1939 – 1945 war.

Looking to share your own family memories?

The Museum is still looking for photographs and memories of St Neots and the surrounding villages from 1939 – 45, so if you have any information please do get in touch. We can scan and return photographs, so precious family items do not need to be donated to the museum. As we are currently closed, you can get in touch by emailing us at curators@stneotsmuseum.org.uk.