The 8 May 2015 is the 70th anniversary of ‘VE Day’ – Victory in Europe Day – which commemorates the end if World War Two and which heralded two days of celebrations throughout the western world back in 1945.
After such a long and arduous struggle the local celebrations seventy years ago were more driven by relief than elation, and were certainly not triumphalist. Jim Ainscough, author of ‘Pocklington at War’ summed up what happened in Pocklington: “The problem for the town, as elsewhere, was that relief at the conclusion of the war in Europe was tempered by the continuation of the war in the Far East and the absence of so many of the town’s men.”
Nevertheless, the town of Pocklington, and particularly its RAF airbase greeted the news of Germany’s surrender with considerable joy, and both town and aircrew joined together to enjoy the moment and party into the night.
It had been clear that the war was all but over for a couple of weeks before the actual announcement, and after the last raid undertaken from RAF Pocklington on 25 April, the squadron commander, Wing Commander DF Hyland-Smith, recorded in the 102 Squadron operations book: “Although it was clear that the Germans were all but beaten, few, if any, realised that the operation against Wangerooge on the 25th April, was actually to be our last. Our sword must now be beaten into a ploughshare and we look forward to playing a useful if less exciting role in Transport Command.”
For the next couple of weeks RAF Pocklington remained on alert but its operations were stepped down. Some dummy bombing practice flights were made locally, ground crew and support staff were given sight-seeing flights to the continent, there were a series of visits from concert parties to entertain the station personnel and the base even had a visit from three Russian radar officers. Pocklington resident, Denis Moor, was a member of Pocklington School’s Air Training Corps from 1943-45, and he remembered an ATC trip across East Yorkshire in the personal Airspeed Oxford two engine aircraft of Gus Walker, Denis recalled: “There were about eight of us in the Oxford. We had to strap on parachutes and the WAAFs showed us how to use them and told us how to bale out in an emergency, then we flew from here straight across to Bridlington, followed the coast down to Spurn Point then came back up the Humber and to Pocklington.”
In 1943, Walker had been appointed both station commander at Pocklington and Air ADC to the King. In February 1945, he was promoted to Senior Air Staff Officer for No 4 Group, Bomber Command, the group of a dozen air bases, which included Pocklington, Melbourne, Holme-on-Spalding Moor, Full Sutton and Elvington, and he went on to become Air Chief Marshall Sir GA Walker, Inspector-General of the RAF.
The various outings and activities kept the 2,000 staff on the base occupied until the big moment. The first Instrument of Surrender was signed at Reims in France 02:41 on 7 May 1945, with it planned to take effect the following day.
The newly appointed station commander at Pocklington, Group Captain DO Young DSO, DFC, AFC, got out of his sick bed, assembled the station personnel and gave the following speech:
“On this great day, the day which marks the end in Europe of the greatest war that the world has ever seen, we must lift up our hearts and thank God for the present of victory. Five years ago today enemy forces were overrunning the whole of Western Europe and this small island was the only bulwark of Christianity left. Since then we have all suffered, some of us have lost our nearest and dearest relatives, some have had their homes destroyed by bombing and all of us have seen a great many of the best men of the country going out to fight and not coming back. We must thank God that this sacrifice has not been in vain.
“I would like to thank you all, every single one of you for the great part you have played in achieving this great victory. When I tell you that in March, when everyone was worked until they were nearly dropping from lack of sleep, the two flights of 102 Squadron dropped more bombs on Germany than any other two flights in the whole of this group, you will understand that your part has been [vital] and how proud I am to command this station during these weeks and months of victory.
“Now the war in Western Europe is over and we no longer fear that our country will be over-run, we must remember the men of the Dominions, and Allies and Colonies who came to help us when we needed help so badly. Now we must do our utmost to help them to overcome the enemy on the other side of the world.
“Today is a day of thanksgiving and of celebration. We will celebrate it as best we can. Some of us obviously must remain on duty. I think you will understand that, but I ask every officer to release as many men and as many girls as they possibly can during the next two days to celebrate. This afternoon there will be games for those who wish to play them or to look on and to support them. Tonight there will be a Victory Dance in the Station Dance Hall.
“We will drink to our victory and play games and dance, but remember this, that a drunken man loses all dignity and self respect and brings disgrace upon the Service that even the Germans admitted has been the cause of the downfall of our enemies, and a drunken girl is the most deplorable and disgusting sight in the whole world. I can see that you agree with me.
“Now there are many things I should like to tell you about the possibility of release from the service. I am just out of sick bed and I am afraid I cannot stand up here to tell you the whole story. Some will still have to fight against our enemies overseas. Some will, in the course of the next few months, be released to civil life, but that release is bound to be slow and to be an ordered one. I want you to understand the difficulties and complications of releasing hundreds of thousands of people to civil life. It can’t be done until civil life is ready to receive them, so now we will say a prayer and remember that we have not yet finished our work.”
Though Group Captain Young had strongly warned against the celebrations getting out of hand the party soon began and they went on to drink the base dry.
Flying Officer Basil Spiller DFC, an 18-year-old Australian from New Guinea, where his father owned a coconut plantation, when he joined the Australian air force in 1942, described the last days of the war. He had participated in 40 bombing missions with the 102 Squadron and spoke about late April and early May 1945, saying: “I was at Pocklington the 8th of May when the armistice was signed. There was huge celebration in the officers’ mess when the war was declared over. We all got drunk. It was a big party. Everyone was happy and excited.”
A photograph (pictured) survives of one of the aircrews celebrating VE day with a beer. Mark Peterson, son of Bill Peterson, a New Zealand pilot who flew from Pocklington in the closing months of the war, described his father’s memories of the photo: “The car belonged to Roly Morell a New Zealand Navigator from B Flight. The base had run out of beer but Roly had a mate who ran a Naffy store and he managed to get the Naffy beer they were drinking in the picture. Bloody awful beer is the old boy’s view.”
A young Ken Durkin knew about the dance organised on the base, he was not allowed to attend but has clear recollections of the festivities in the town: “There was a big dance at the airfield but our mum and dad would not let us go, they said there would be too many drunks about. On VE Night we were up until about 3am, they were dancing in the streets and one man who we’d seen toe dancing in the Sergeant’s Mess was doing so on an air raid shelter. Somebody had some fireworks that were as big as a pint mug, he let one off on the top of the shelter. A couple came running out and up the street, the shelters were hollow and if you had been inside what a bang it must have been. There was different music coming from all over, apart from a man with a trombone who turned as he was playing it and a shop window went in. Two men fell asleep in George Todd’s front garden and they were not found until 10 o’clock the next day. People were so glad it was over, I remember my mum saying to the lady next door she did not realise how relieved she would be that we could go to bed with no fear of bombing.”
Despite drinking long into the night in both the town and the air base, there was no trouble and on 9 May 1945 Pocklington’s Police Superintendant called on the station commander to congratulate him on “the exemplary behaviour of his personnel.”
In addition to the impromptu celebrations in the streets and pubs, the schools at Pocklington also joined in. Pocklington School had a victory bonfire. The town’s other schools celebrated VE Day with a two-day holiday. The mix of townsfolk and RAF personnel parties continued beyond VE Day and on to the further celebrations for the end of hostilities in August and November. However, at the same time as the various celebrations organised between May and November 1945 there were major comings and goings as life at Pocklington tried to get back to normal. The personnel at RAF Pocklington quickly began returning to where they had come from, many of them to all quarters of the Commonwealth, while Pocklington residents on active service made the journey back home in the opposite direction. It created a paradoxical mix of emotions, sadness at the departures and joy at the homecomings, but the bond and the friendships forged in those war years would last for lifetimes.
(Sources: ‘War Diary of RAF Pocklington’ by Mike Usherwood, ‘Pocklington at War’ by Jim and Margaret Ainscough, www.102ceylonsquadron.co.uk managed by Chris Harper, www.pocklingtonhistory.com managed by Andrew Sefton)