Friday is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and the UK is unfurling the flags to commemorate VE Day. But what was it like back in 1945 when the guns ‘officially’ fell silent?
Through the dark years from September 1939, the local papers had chronicled events, their columns of parish pump activities containing snippets from the front lines, providing a growing picture of the horrors, and the casualties.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s announcement that the war in Europe was over was not, therefore, a major surprise.
Communities across the country had already set up ‘Welcome Home’ funds, prisoners of war were trickling back home, the constraints of living under fear of attack eased even more.
But there were still servicemen in the Far East. The war in Japan was not yet over, the death toll was still rising... but optimism was growing.
So, on May 8, VE Day wasn’t a surprise but it was a relief and cause for massive celebration.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was to address the nation, confirming the German capitulation, so everyone crowded round their wireless on a dreich day.
Kirkcaldy was already a colourful sight as more flags were being unfurled daily to welcome home the prisoners of war freed in the liberation of Europe but, on the Monday afternoon – in anticipation of the next two days’ holiday – the town was awash with red white and blue.
The town’s war years had been comparatively uneventful at least so far as incidents near the town.
No bombs were dropped and the nearest incident took place during the early hours of Tuesday, July 23, 1940, when bombs were dropped in a field at Begg Farm – the only casualties were two cows.
Torrential downpours on the Tuesday failed to dampen the spirits, with many seeking refuge and entertainment in the picture houses.
The bands of the town set the mood. The Boys Brigade Pipe and Bugle Band started from the Gallatown and marched to the Port Brae via St Clair Street, Nether Street and The Path.
The British Legion paraded from the Port Brae to the war memorial, led by the BBs. Other bands taking part were Barry, Ostlere & Shepherd’s and Dysart Colliery. A contingent of the Polish Forces also took part in the parade.
Then Kirkcaldy went out to party – there were dances and other celebrations in various streets and a number of Bonfires blazed well into the night.
Effigies of Hitler were placed atop many with youngsters cheering as the Fuhrer burst into flames.
According to the Fife Free Press, there were crowds of youths “singing uproariously” with their voices carrying on through the streets, well past the midnight hour.
In Levenmouth the mood was more subdued, especially in Methil as two ships were sunk on Monday, May 7, in the Forth by a German u-boat.
Lives were lost, including a 16-year-old British boy, and the arrival of survivors in Methil, amidst the newly-hung bunting and flags, was a sharp reminder of the horrors of the past and dangers loved ones were still facing.
Survivors from the stricken vesssels – the British ship SS Avondale and the Norwegian ship SS Sneland 1 – arrived ashore while the town was cloaked deep in the silence of the night.
A stream of 53 seamen wound its way from the deserted quayside into the Flying Angel Mission. Their thoughts were not on celebrations, but with those left behind on the ships that were sent to the bottom of the Forth by the last spiteful throw of a beaten enemy.
Six ladies, who had been roused from their sleep, were waiting with hot food and drink for the weary and shocked men.
An ambulance was in attendance throughout and two men were taken to Cameron hospital. One man died before he could be brought to shore and several were still deemed missing.
Surviving accounts of how the EastNeuk communities met the official news of May 8 are few and far between.
But to mark VE Day in Elie an anonymous donor presented every child with a National Savings Certificate. The Town Council gave them each a shilling, fresh from the Mint, along with a bag of buns. The school children also held their Victory Sports at Woodside Park.
One attraction that merited special note were the feats of a shepherd’s dog from Wadeslea – the high spot being the way in which the dog tore an effigy of Hitler to pieces.
All these celebrations combined victory with hope but even as the newspaper reports of the festivities of the May 8 and 9 holidays made their way into the forerunner of the East Fife Mail there was a poignant reminder of the tragic journey to VE Day in the announcement in the paper that Guardsman James Darling Winton, Pitcorthie Mains, Colinsburgh, had been killed in action in Italy on April 24.
He was 21.
With the Tullis Russell paper mill and John Haig & Co Ltd on its doorstep, Markinch was the focus of the Fife News, a forerunner of the Glenrothes Gazette.
“Wireless sets were kept on all day,” it reported. “Towards evening flags and bunting began to appear until the town was a mass of gay colors. Children came out waving flags and helped to decorate the front of houses. Flags were flown from all the main buildings and never has the town taken on such a gay appearance.”
It was announced that Churchill would address the nation on the Tuesday, the start of a two-day holiday across Britain.
Tullis Russell promptly announced it would close its gates at 6.00 a.m on the Tuesday, thereby saving many a worker a pointless journey from the surrounding villages.
All other works, businesses and schools also closed.
It was to prove a dreich day with torrential rain in the afternoon but most folk avoided a drenching as they gathered round the wireless to hear the historic news.
After the Prime Minister’s speech, the bells of St Drostan’s Church pealed for half an hour and in the evening thanksgiving services were held in all churches.
Celebrations then continued at the bowling club with Mr JC Duthie, president, proposing the toast of ‘Britain, her Colonies, and Allies’.
Markinch’s War Efforts Committee had organised a dance in the Town Hall that was was packed, with music supplied by Abe Moffat’s Band from Kirkcaldy.
On the Wednesday afternoon Markinch Choral Society, under Bailie JG Maxwell, with himself as soloist, performed in the Town Hall and the Tullis Russell Prize Silver Band, under John H. Haldane, also provided a programme of entertainment.
In the evening crowds gathered at the premises of John Haig where the Choral Society was again in fine voice and the Tullis Russell Band provided the music for open air dancing, including the test piece which had brought it success in contests.
The reporter covering the event highlighted one unusual treat – a euphonium solo.
The two-day programme, under the auspices of Markinch Town Council, concluded with a dance in the Town Hall to music by the Balgonie Syncopated Orchestra with Tommy Johnston as MC.
In St Andrews, the Citizen’s town reporter commented on a combination of rejoicing, restraint and dignity.
“It was a grey, characteristic day,” the copy read, “but the streets were brightened with flags and bunting, and the happy faces of the citizens bespoke their joy at the historic event of the declaration of European peace, and the surrender of the German Forces which had challenged the Christian and humanitarian ideals of the world and been utterly defeated.”
After a silence of 200 years the historic Kate Kennedy Bell rang out from the old College Tower to call the students to a service of thanksgiving in the University Chapel in the forenoon.
Through the efforts of Principal Sir James Irvine the bell had recently been recast and its first ringing was reserved for Victory Day.
There was a touching and simple address, given by Professor E.P. Dickie.
“It has been a religious war,” he said. “Nothing else. Everything of value was at stake.
“In the victory now achieved it is impossible not to see the hand of God. Five years ago He permitted us to be carried to the very rim of of the dark abyss.
“Our prayers became very earnest in those days, very real. Our fighting-men were never more courageous – on the high seas, in the burning sands of the desert, in the skies over the city of London.
“Our people in their homes and in the war factories were more deeply devoted to their tasks than ever they had been before. And from the very rim of the abyss God, in His grace, plucked us back.”
The “city” had been transformed with decorations, with residents in both the ‘new town’ and ‘old town’ notably equally enthusiastic.
After an open-air service the Boys’ Brigade Pipe Band paraded South Street.
“The charm of the pipes was too much for several sailors, and they made their way into the centre of the ring formed by the band, and began to dance vigorously,” the Citizen noted.
The Home Guard Pipe Band joined the proceedings with the drum-major having to clear a way with his stick the crowd was so dense.
Three men, one an RAF officer, entertained by singing ballads in three parts – tenor, baritone and bass.
Later the Town Hall was packed for the Victory Dance. A large crowd gathered at the hall door and, whether or not it was the same jubilant sailors as before we are not told, but a crowd of them started to sing. Squibs and fireworks were let off in South Street and, at 11pm,there was a torchlight procession.
The celebrations went on well into the night with crowds still gathering despite thick fog which began envelop them.
In Cupar, it would appear the Tuesday and Wednesday VE Day holidays brought the party to end parties.
Locals weren’t sure if the shops would be open on the Tuesday but the weekly cattle sale persuaded some to open up.
St Catherine Street was dripping with flags and streamers and the Mercat Cross was a cascade of red white and blue.
On such an occasion you tend to imagine a glorious sunny day, in fact it was a dull afternoon with torrential rain breaking through later.
The downpour affected few though, as it coincided with Churchill’s announcement of the German capitulation.
The address on the wireless was followed by victory peals from the bells of the Old Parish and St John’s Churches.
Thanksgiving services were held across the area and then the celebrations really did begin in earnest.
The Town Silver Band played up Bonnygate, South Union Street and down Kirk Wynd to the Cross, while the Cupar District Pipe Band played from the steps of the Corn Exchange and residents danced in the streets oblivious to the biting east wind and thick haar.
The celebrations then moved on, with word spreading that the place to be was Johnston’s Dairy where flags of all nations were unfurled and there was floodlighting at the junction of Kinloss Ctescent and Skinner’s Steps.
There was, by all accounts, a huge crowd at the dairy with dancing into the small hours of the morning.
The Haugh though was the real centre of community celebrations with residents returning time and time again to see the floodlit war memorial, illuminated by three big sodium lights.
The Fife Herald reported that folk making their way to the memorial noticed smoke blowing up St Catherine Street, someone having lit the Boy Scouts’ huge bonfire in the Haugh.
It was to be lit on the Wednesday but someone had other ideas.
The Scouts duly got to work the next day, building a new bonfire for the Wednesday night, which was another huge celebratory success with a singsong going on until midnight.