“It is the Victory of the cause of freedom in every land”

Maurice Gautier (second from the right in his St John Ambulance uniform) with the British naval officers Surgeon-Lieutenant Ronald McDonald, RNVR, and Sub-Lieutenant David Milln, RN, shortly after landing in Jersey on the morning of 9th May 1945 as part of the advance liberation party

On the 7th May 1945 the Germans surrendered. The Church Bells rang out and on the 8th May 1945 people poured onto the streets of the towns and villages of Sussex to celebrate VE Day, the Allied Victory in Europe.

Winston Churchill spoke to the crowds in Whitehall “God Bless you all. This is your Victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.”

Churchill would announce in his radio broadcast that “…our dear Channel Islands are to be freed today”.

As a stark reminder as to what had been fought for the Channel Islands remained under German occupation until the 9th May 1945 when they were finally liberated.

My wife, Teresa, is a Channel Island girl whose family can trace their roots on the island of Jersey back to medieval times. Her aunt Enid celebrated her 86th birthday last weekend. We telephoned to wish her a happy birthday and our conversation turned to the war and her late husband uncle Maurice. Enid said “The Germans banned all clubs and gatherings even the Girl Guides but church was allowed. The churches were packed during the war, we had forms in the aisles. I worshipped with the Methodists up at Sion. Everyone had someone away. We didn’t know if they were alright so it became a tradition to finish our services with the hymn ‘God be with you till we meet again’. The Germans allowed us to sing any hymn from the English Hymnal so on special occasions we sang ‘God save our gracious King’. They put a stop to that when they found out. You tried to defy the Germans whenever you could.

You felt really safe before curfew, the Germans were very strict with the discipline of their troops. They weren’t feeding their prisoners, Russians and POWs. They let them out at night to scavenge. Some people hid [the prisoners] or fed them on the quiet, others built crystal wireless sets. People split on them and they ended up in prison or were sent to Germany to the camps – they never came back.

We were hungry especially after D-day when we were cut off. We really relied on the Red Cross Parcels that came in on the ships – oh my goodness the parcels were our life line.

Maurice was older than me – eighteen at the end of the war and interested in what was going on – he realised he was witnessing history. Maurice was in the St John Ambulance. They worked with the Red Cross. When the SS Vega came into St Helier harbour on the 9th May Maurice was there to unload the Red Cross parcels onto trolleys. The farmers came with their horses to pull the trolleys into the sheds. All of a sudden a little boat came in with the first British Naval officers, so Maurice and his friend ran down the steps to meet them and shook their hands. A car was found and the advance party were taken to the Pomme d’Or hotel where the expectant, cheering crowds were waiting.” Enid paused and concluded “It’s all history now.”

Like in Sussex flags and bunting were found and hung up. The celebrations were heartfelt providing a moment of respite and hope. Many had lost loved ones oversees and at home, and the war against Japan was far from over. But the first victory in the cause of freedom in every land had been won.

“This Was Their Finest Hour” – Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill

70 years ago, on the 7th May 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces. What had been fought for were the ideals of liberty, freedom, justice and fairness. But we had also fought for our national identity, bound up with the narrative of our island history and the English Romantic tradition.

Whenever the English find themselves under threat, they turn to their monarchy, their church and their landscape; our nation’s identity is bound together by these timeless threads. As 1944 drew to a close Winston Churchill said “A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril.”

Victory in Europe, VE Day, was celebrated on the 8th May 1945 with a public holiday. There was a sense of relief and exhilaration at the end of six years of war. Stepping stones of defeat and been turned to triumph. The hard fight to free Europe restored, preserved and changed our nation’s ideals and identity.

Photographs taken by Captain B. St. C. Tony Rutherford
Black and white photographs taken by Captain B. St. C. Tony Rutherford, group photographer of the 53rd Welsh Division, from late June in Normandy to Hamburg May 1945

In response to the attack by British Bomber Command on Lubeck in March 1942 Hitler ordered bombing raids on old historic English cities, noted as important places to visit in the Baedeker travel guides of the period. They became known as the Baedeker bombing raids. Targets often included our Cathedral cities like Canterbury, York and Exeter. In so doing the Nazis sought to strike at the very identity of our nation, the quintessentially English. Remarkably the Cathedrals of Canterbury, York and Exeter survived. The tragic loss of life and homes failed to diminish morale.

A view of the ancient Cathedral city of Chichester
A view of the ancient Cathedral city of Chichester

Although bombed on three occasions Chichester remained relatively unscathed and it is for this reason that it gives us such a wonderful and complete picture of an ancient English Cathedral city.

Suffragette movement via blog.tooveys.com
A photographic postcard depicting the suffragettes Mary Gawthorpe and Miss Pankhurst speaking to a crowd in the Market Place, Uppingham, Rutland, posted in 1907

At the heart of our modern freedom is our democratic right to vote. The Reform Acts, from 1832 onwards, had successively extended democratic voting rights to broader sections of British society. Women’s suffrage became a national movement in 1872. It was the efforts of suffragettes like Mary Gawthorpe and Emily Pankhurst which brought limited rights for women to vote in 1918. But it was not until the Conservative government passed the 1928 ‘Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act’ that all women over the age of 21 were given the vote. Women’s working roles during the war had been vital to Britain’s success. Women’s votes and equal rights would shape the future of British society.

Victory in 1945, and political victories before and since, have shaped our nation, upholding and defending our ideals of liberty, freedom, justice and fairness.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that our Parliamentary elections should fall on such an auspicious day as the 7th May 2015.

Late in the war the House of Commons was bombed. Reflecting on its rebuilding, in October 1944, Winston Churchill said “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” Our freedoms have been hard won and costly to defend. Rights come with responsibility. Our universal right to vote and shape our nation through the House of Commons is a vital responsibility.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 6th April 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.