VE Day in West Sussex 8th May 1945 – Part One: an Overview

By Martin Hayes and Alan Readman

As we approach the 75th anniversary of VE Day, not only do we wish to celebrate that day, as best we can during this challenging period, but also we remember and give thanks to all those who served, died and suffered, overseas and at home, in the Second World War. This first blog aims to give a flavour of the events on VE Day across the County and portray the excitement and outpouring of joy and relief as peace finally returned.

Part Two will showcase the records you can use to find out more.

As the armies of liberation progressed through occupied Europe en route to Berlin, at home the coastal defences were gradually removed, tenders being invited for the demolition of the dragons teeth and pill boxes which had been so feverishly constructed in 1940.

At Bognor and Worthing the barbed wire was cleared away from the promenade, giving some small children their first glimpse of an unobstructed seafront, though the beaches still had to be cleared of mines.

The formal German surrender was taken by General Montgomery at his Luneburg Heath HQ, near Hamburg, on 4 May 1945.  In Britain Tuesday 8 May was declared a public holiday, VE (Victory in Europe) Day.

In West Sussex the day dawned with dull skies and slight drizzle, but spirits were not to be dampened and the weather improved too. One Barnham Land Girl, Daphne Byrne, recalls [1] unfurling a moth-eaten Union Jack on top of a water tower, and watching as all her neighbours began stringing up flags, bunting and streamers.

In Bognor Daphne Byrne recalled that everyone was “going mad with joy”.  Frank L’Alouette captured the scene (above) as crowds gathered in the High Street, some dancing to relayed music and the Legion Band, whilst others just watched and wondered how to feel now that war was over. The music became louder, enhanced occasionally by high-spirited improvisation. Reg Seward it was who took to the road with his drums, beating out a rhythm that inspired the dancers to greater exertions. Young and old danced the jitterbug in front of the Southdown Bus Station to music relayed from the Ikon Galleries. Inspector Burridge and PC Mills were tempted to join in but duty called their attention away to diverting the traffic. A bus hooted. The crowds parted. ‘Come and dance, Clippie’ shouted a wag.

The Chichester Post reported that the city was bedecked with flags and banners on the afternoon of VE-Day as the Prime Minister’s 3 pm speech was broadcast from the Cross. In Petworth too flags and bunting decorated the Town Square and crowds gathered to hear Churchill’s broadcast and George Garland photographed this historic occasion (below).

Events were many and varied. Southwick’s ancient Green saw a ’pop-up fun fair’, sports for children and probably the biggest tea party in the County. The afternoon’s events were rounded off by, what else, a cricket match between Southwick village and a Mr Bennett’s XI from Brighton. In Shoreham the flag of Russian ally was hoisted over the Town Hall and ventriloquist George Gulliver entertained children at St Peter’s Hall. 

One of the most popular celebrations was the street party.  “Bring your own cup and plate” children were told as rationing was forgotten for the day. Such was the strong community spirit at Park Terrace East in Horsham that it was one of the first organised. Children tucked in to a feast of food not seen for years and one of them, surveying his lemonade, cake and ice cream, asked “Is peace like this every day?”  In the evening Gordon and His Band arrived at the Terrace to play for dancing and singing and householders took leads off their household current to illuminate the street! Returned prisoners-of-war joined in and a collection raised £11 2s 6d for the Red Cross.

One of the less well-off streets adjacent to Worthing Road in Rustington, saw an equally impressive effort. See above.

Towards the end of the day adults came to the fore as dances were held. All tickets for the Victory Ball at the Assembly Hall in Worthing were snapped up in minutes and 700 people danced the night away to Tom Priddy’s Municipal Orchestra. At 9pm the Mayor arrived and a hush fell as everyone listened to the King’s speech. In Balcombe the speech was broadcast through loudspeakers outside the Victory Hall and the subsequent dance was made possible by an amplified radiogram.

As darkness fell, new opportunities arose. In Haywards Heath paths at St Francis Hospital (then Brighton County Borough Mental Hospital) were illuminated by hundreds of coloured lights and bulbs spelled out VE on the water-tower and the main entrance. Bonfires blazed along the top of the Downs.  One was built outside the Norfolk Hotel in Arundel, Daphne Byrne remembers people dancing around it on VE-Day, singing “Good old Sussex by the Sea”.  Southwick’s bonfire off The Driveway, near Buckingham Park, featured a Hitler ‘guy’ in uniform with arm raised in Nazi salute whereas Horsted Keynes burned Mussolini. The creative residents of Sandfield Avenue in the Wick area of Lyminster designed a Nazi swastika (above) to be the centrepiece of their firey celebration.

Of course there were tears as well as happiness. Those who had given their lives were remembered. So too those still fighting the Japanese and those yet to return from their wasted years in POW camps in Europe and beyond. Some amongst the crowds simply watched the festivities, lost in their own thoughts and prayers, but there would be a special time for remembrance and for this day at least the overriding sense was one of unbridled rejoicing.

[1] MP 3846 Notes and reminiscences of Miss Daphne MF Byrne; extracts and photocopies from her journal of Women’s Land Army service at Barnham, 1944-5

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