LONDON, May 8 -- On the day the war in Europe ended, Vera Godden and her sister made their way to Trafalgar Square to celebrate. The place was mobbed, she recalled -- ecstatic people singing and dancing and wading in the fountains. But she was a proper young English girl and she didn't let strange boys kiss her -- even those in uniform.
"Your American boys just didn't understand us," she recalled with a smile, a touch of affectionate indignation still lingering.
Prince Charles lays a wreath at the World War II memorial in Whitehall as veterans and others watched on the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
(Pool Photo/Stefan Rousseau Via AP)
When she got back to her home in the west London borough of Hammersmith that evening, her neighbors asked her to sing. She can still recall the song: "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World."
Like the rest of Europe, Britain on Sunday celebrated the day 60 years ago when the lights went on again. Prince Charles laid a wreath at a commemoration service at the World War II memorial in Whitehall, while his new wife, Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, watched from a nearby balcony. Several thousand retired servicemen and their families paraded through Hyde Park in the afternoon, and in the evening, the BBC televised an open-air concert at Trafalgar Square, site of the most raucous of V-E Day celebrations outside of Times Square.
But one of the most poignant gatherings took place the day before, in the old Hammersmith town hall. Three hundred survivors of the war -- soldiers and civilians alike -- gathered there for an afternoon tea and dance, and a chance to reminisce about the most frightening, difficult and exhilarating days of their young lives.
There was Anita Monk, who was brought to England after being evacuated from Gibraltar at age 9 with hundreds of other children. "All the youngsters were coming out of London and we were coming in," said Monk, who, as it turned out, faced far more danger from German bombing raids in London than she would ever have experienced back home.
And there was Christina Boughtflower, whose neighborhood on Percy Road was blown to bits by a German bomb in February 1944. That's Boughtflower's mother standing with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in a fading black-and-white photograph on the day the royal couple came to survey the damage. A few months later, Boughtflower's aunt was killed by a German rocket that hit Hyde Park while she was listening to a band concert.
And William McDonagh, a Hammersmith resident and Royal Air Force gunner who survived 40 missions and three plane crashes, the worst with six live bombs aboard, was there. "We had one wheel down that wouldn't come up and one wheel up that wouldn't come down," he recalled. "I was lucky to get out of it, really."
Amy Hughes had served as a "clippie" -- a female bus conductor. She recalled the day her house was leveled while she was at work. She ran home to find that her father had miraculously survived. "He was surrounded by debris, but all he had was a scratch on his face."
Some of their memories were faded beyond recall, and there were certain things that some simply didn't want to remember. "I don't like to think about what I saw that day," said Alan Reid, a former sailor who had helped ferry American servicemen ashore to Omaha Beach on D-Day and watched helplessly as they were shredded by German machine-gun fire.
These are quintessentially English people from the days before London became one of the world's most multicultural cities, and they are shy, humble and more than a little self-deprecating. "I didn't do much -- I'm afraid I wasn't very good," confessed Boughtflower about her time as a welder in the Women's Air Force Service.
And of course, they were frightened. "When you'd see people go down, we'd scream for them to jump and you're thinking to yourself, 'Thank Christ it's not me,' " recalled McDonagh. "It was afterwards that you'd really think about it."
But in the end, they came through with a certain steely optimism. "Life is what you make it," said Doris Gardiner, who wears a pin from the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, which provided supplies and entertainment to soldiers. "If you're going to be miserable, then you will be."
There was an extra layer of meaning and pungency to the British festivities. After all, this was the sole European combatant nation to have avoided German occupation. From the summer of 1940 until the United States entered the war in December 1941, Britain stood alone, surviving an aerial onslaught by the Luftwaffe. Not only were 245,000 British servicemen killed during World War II, 60,000 civilians died as well, 30,000 of them in London. Large patches of the city were leveled by an all-out offensive designed to terrorize as well as vanquish. For many Britons, it was indeed their nation's finest hour and defining moment.
"This is your victory," an admiring Winston Churchill declared to the surging crowd from a Whitehall balcony that afternoon 60 years ago. "No, this is your victory," some of them shouted back.
The Hammersmith tea and dance was organized by May Charlie Treloggan, himself a 20-year-old Royal Navy sailor somewhere in the Pacific on the day the war in Europe ended. He said he still found it hard sometimes to believe that Britain had made it through the darkest of days. "The fact that we were just a little island and the fact that we managed to survive -- it still seems like a miracle."
On that day, 60 years ago, Godden had sung:
When the lights go on again all over the world,
And the boys are home again all over the world.
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won't mean goodbye but hello to love.