VE Day 60 Years: London From The Blitz To VE Day

By Oskar Czerniawski | 05 June 2005
Shows a black and white photograph of two young girls standing amongst rubble, each holding a union flags.

VE Day in London, May 8 1945. Two small girls wave flags in the rubble of Battersea, snapped by an anonymous American photographer. © IWM

May 8 2005 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Many Londoners who celebrated in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus remember it as the happiest day they have ever known - for others it was still a time of uncertainty.

But on that day the traffic stopped for smiling crowds that danced in the streets and the air was full of music, cheering and the ringing of church bells. The collective outpouring of joy was understandable: five years of horror and hardship were finally over.

The war had a false start for London in 1939. The evacuation of a million children from the capital began just before war was declared on September 3. London was not bombed that year and by Christmas, many of the children had come back.

Shows a poster depicting two smiling young children above the caption Children are safer in the country... leave them there.

A wartime poster urges familes to leave their children in the safety of the countryside. © IWM.

They left their homes again the next year. The new Children’s War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum tells their story and looks at every aspect of the war as children experienced it.

In 1940, London tasted war. Those in the south of the city could witness the Battle of Britain in the clear August sky. Thanks to this RAF victory, Hitler had to cancel his plans to invade England.

The Royal Air Force Chapel in honours the pilots who fought against the odds with a stained glass window whilst the Battle of Britain Hall at the RAF Museum in Hendon affords you the chance to explore this crucial air battle in more detail. A current exhibition, 'Their Finest Hour', also takes the Blitz and the Battle of Britain together as its theme.

shows a photograph of bomb damage at Bank Station.

Air raid damage at Bank Tube Station, January 1941 - a bomb which exploded in an escalator machinery room at the station killed 56 people. © London’s Transport Museum Photographic Collection.

Any sense of reprieve or even victory was short lived for Londoners - 'the Blitz', short for Blitzkrieg or 'lightning war' in German, was fast approaching. Between September 1940 and May 1941, this bombing campaign left one in six Londoners homeless.

Everything changed. Explosions could destroy the fronts of homes, leaving their rooms exposed like doll’s houses. Children played in bomb craters and collecting shrapnel became a schoolboy hobby.

The poisonous snakes in London Zoo were put down in case a chance explosion released them. The smell of charred molasses and other goods spread from the burning warehouses of the docks in East London, a prime target for Luftwaffe bombers.

shows a black and white photograph of two women on the roof of a building - they are wearing tin helmets and looking for planes through their binoculars.

London Transport employees Mrs I Vance, a deputy chief tracer (left) and Mrs E Clements, a clerk on staff records, act as enemy aircraft 'roof spotters' on the roof of London Transport's Griffith House offices at Marylebone. © London’s Transport Museum Photographic Collection

The sky was filled with barrage balloons to thwart the enemy planes and the crews of 4,000 searchlights tried to direct the anti-aircraft fire. On the ground, total blackouts were strictly enforced and people dashed for cover when the sirens started wailing.

The Imperial War Museum at Lambeth has a display on the home front during World War Two. Examples of incendiary bombs and other Blitz-related material are included in the museum’s home front displays in the main World War Two galleries as well as the sizeable displays within the Children’s War Exhibition.

The London Fire Brigade Museum near Southwark Bridge has displays recounting the Blitz as well as a recently curated exhibition and archive that preserves the memories of Blitz firefighters as they battled the blazes while many Londoners crowded the underground shelters. Read the 24 Hour Museum news story, Blitz Firefighters' Memories, here.

Shows a photograph of a group of Fire Brigade veterans standing around an old fire engine.

The London Fire Brigade Museum is a key location when exploring the Blitz experience in London. © London Fire Brigade Museum.

Many purpose-built shelters proved unpopular because of their lack of toilet facilities. The government soon allowed people to stay in Tube stations, dropping its concerns that the people would be afraid to come out again.

The government also converted eight stations into fully-equipped shelters with 8,000 bunks each, canteens and hospital facilities. People felt lucky to get tickets. The entrance to the shelter in Belsize Park is still there, 100 yards down from the station.

There is an important archive of photography that reveals the lot of Londoners in wartime at London’s Transport Museum. The online archive covers virtually every aspect of transport in the capital during World War Two and features many evocative pictures of Londoners sheltering in the Tube stations together with dramatic photographs of bomb damage. Visit the website at photos.ltmcollection.org

shows a large hole in a road caused by an explosion over a tube station.

Air raid damage to the District line tunnel between Sloane Square and Victoria stations. © London’s Transport Museum Photographic Collection.

The government had to take cover too; the House of Commons took a direct hit in May 1941. Churchill directed the war from the Cabinet War Rooms and visitors can see how even the Prime Minister had to live and work underground.

The recently opened Churchill Museum is also within the same complex in the atmospheric vaults underneath the Treasury Building in Whitehall.

By 1942, war became almost normal for Londoners. Roof spotters gave an extra signal along with air raid sirens so that people could carry on with work if there were no bombers above their immediate area.

shows a male wax mannequin dressed in military uniform and sat at a desk

The Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum offer an atmospheric insight into the subterranean world of wartime government. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum.

The roof spotters were Churchill’s idea. The government could not afford to waste time running for cover in its war effort.

Londoners were expected to have the same attitude and every bit of space was utilised to feed the population. Since 1939, there had been a drive to 'Dig for Victory': every available piece of land was turned over to agriculture. At Watford Museum they are commemorating this phenomenon with their ongoing Dig For Victory Project, which features a wartime vegetable garden.

Further towards the centre of the capital Hyde Park had its own piggery and Kensington Gardens replaced its flowers and planted rows of cabbages. Almost half of the families in London kept allotments to top up their rations. The Chelsea Flower Show in 2005 will include a Peace Garden to commemorate the end of the war; you can see it at the Chelsea Flower Show between May 24 - 28. Perhaps some vegetables would not be out of place?

Shows a poster with the slogan Dig For Victory at the top, then a picture of a spade and the words 'At Watford Museum' below it

Dig For Victory at Watford Museum. © Watford Museum.

In 1944, the relative lull of the previous two years ended. A new weapon started hitting the capital. The V1 rocket, also known as the 'Doodlebug', would fly to London and then cut out, dropping to cause a huge explosion. After the D-Day landings, they were sent at the rate of 100 a day.

Only half of them could be shot down before they hit the capital. One of the most devastating of these attacks killed 119 and injured 102 in Wellington Barrack’s Guard Chapel. V2 rockets, a more effective version of the V1, were launched from September. One of them killed 160 people in New Cross Road Woolworths.

V1 and V2 Rockets can be viewed in the main hall of the Imperial War Museum in London – the V2 is hung from the ceiling close to a German Messerschmidt and an Allied Spitfire.

shows a woman in overalls digging in a field with a spade.

May 1941, London Transport Gardens at Brockley Hill. A land girl poses for the camera whilst planting potatoes. London’s Transport Museum Photographic Collection.

Much of the history of London’s war lies in such indiscriminate suffering as well as the resilience and camaraderie to live through it. To read accounts of how Londoners coped with wartime conditions in the capital, a visit to the VE Day archive of the Museum of London offers a valuable insight into the minds of Londoners in May 1945.

Looking around London today, it is difficult to believe that much of it lay in ruins only 60 years ago but monuments such as 'The Blitz', a sculpture in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the memorial garden in St James’ Church on Piccadilly, with its plaque dedicated 'to the courage and fortitude of the people of London' offer a reminder of events over sixty years ago.

Perhaps the best way to understand VE day might be to talk with someone who lived through it.

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum 'World War Two-60 Years' index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.

If you have memories of London during wartime and would like to contribute or comment on this trail, try Storymaker our free and easy-to-use web facility that enables members of the public, working with the support of journalists at the 24 Hour Museum, to get their stories online.

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.

Read personal stories contributed by people from London on the BBC WW2 People’s War website.