Celebrating VE Day

On Monday 7th May 1945, Germany signed the formal act of military surrender, bringing an end to the European War, a conflict that had lasted nearly six years and had cost the lives of millions.  It was announced on the evening of 7th May 1945 that Tuesday 8th May was to be a national holiday to mark Victory in Europe Day (VE) Day, and Wednesday 9th May would be a national holiday too.  

Even before that announcement was made, the celebrations had started in the district.  According to a recollection contributed to One Tree Books’ Wartime Memories 1939-1945, the driver of a train carrying a number of Grammar School boys on the Midhurst to Pulborough branch line that afternoon sounded the steam whistle the entire journey, and by the time the train arrived at Petworth, people were dancing at the station!  

On hearing the announcement of the VE celebrations, some chose to travel to the capital for the day. One local resident recalls how, on arrival at a London tube station, she clung for dear life to her friends for fear of being separated in the melee, adding,

“We were swept into a huge seething joyous riot, intent on getting to Buckingham Palace, to see the King and Queen.”

Back in Midhurst, what seems to have been recorded most about VE Day were the bonfires which took place that evening. Richard Comber of Manor Farm Heyshott recalls his father, Dick, a Cowdray tenant farmer, had kept a straw rick to the east of Ambersham’s wartime airfield, Royal Naval Air Station Cowdray Park, expressly for the occasion. It was set alight, and the family were joined by sailors, Wrens and farmworkers around the bonfire for singing, dancing and cider.

Another Ambersham resident, author Priscilla Johnston, wrote the following entry in her diary on 8th May: 

“The trains run and the rain falls…we heard the King and then went seeking bonfires led by a light all the way to Selham….there were showers of beautiful Very lights, golden bubbles floating in the air over Petworth.”

In Midhurst there was yet another bonfire, on the old Bowling Green on the Common, described here by Tony Beck in The Midhurst Society book, Midhurst in Living Memory 

“… almost the entire town turned out to sing and dance round this bonfire which was absolutely huge, threatening the overhead electric cables which went across there. Several boxes of old Home Guard thunderflashes were produced which were thrown at various people. The dogs were terrified, the cats stayed away but the rest of the town thoroughly enjoyed it. We did the same thing on VJ night.”


A Percival Proctor aircraft at RNAS Cowdray Park (credit – SAP Collection)


Tony Weston, whose family lived above the large garages which overlooked the stables at Cowdray House, went into Midhurst town centre to celebrate:

“That evening I was with a group of young friends walking down the road by Midhurst Parish Church.The whole of that area was crowded with people, across the road, everywhere, all heading towards the square in front of the church. Then someone shouted:‘Get out! Out of the way!’ Down the hill came a barrel with flames coming out of both sides and men running behind it followed by the crowd. People were shouting and out of the barrel hot pieces of tar were spilling, leaving small fires in the road, and people were jumping out of the way. Then the Fire Brigade turned up and took control of the situation.”

The late John ‘Jack’, Allen, a Fleet Air Arm rigger posted to RNAS Cowdray Park between 1944 and 1945, used to talk with amusement about the antics of some of the Commandos, billeted around Midhurst and Easebourne, whose officers had taken over much of Cowdray House during the war.  Throwing thunderflashes under pub seats and clambering onto roofs to drop smoke devices down the chimney, sending customers into the street, were a few of the pranks described.  If any of these men were still in the area on VE night, they would have livened up the celebrations considerably!


Men outside Cowdray House
6th Motor Coach Company, Royal Army Service Corps, Cowdray 1941 (credit – George Garland Collection West Sussex Record Office
No. Garland N20972)


On Wednesday 9th May a regional newspaper featured an article about a street party attended by some 50 children at Ashfield Road, Midhurst, organised by a Mrs H G Tribe and a Miss Parker, where ‘iced cake, blancmange, sandwiches and jellies’ were served, although the tables had to be placed in Mr Tribe’s garage, due to the uncertain nature of the weather.  The children were given a bag of sweets and a shilling to go home with, and at the end of the party, any food left over was sold and raised £1 for the Midhurst Prisoner-of-War Parish Fund.

That day the papers also announced, “His Majesty the King has expressed the wish that the Sunday following VE Day should be observed a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer” and special church services were duly arranged. 

On June 1946, thirteen months after Victory in Europe, and nine months after Victory over Japan, the Midhurst branch of the British Legion organised yet another Victory Celebration, funded by many months of collections, whist drives and dances. The Hampshire Telegraph and Post recorded details of the tea, sports day and gymkhana, put on for 600 local children at Cowdray Park, although only 450 actually attended, because it was raining – again!

Tania Pons

Copies of The Midhurst Society’s Midhurst in Living Memory and other local history publications can be obtained by emailing info@wheelersbookshop.co.uk


Cowdray during World War II

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