This was the scene that greeted the 14-year-old Hetty when her mother took her to Leicester Square to enjoy VE Day 75 years ago. After hiding in the darkness during bombing raids in London, seeing spotlights around a makeshift stage where screen siren Margaret Lockwood sang during the celebrations has always stayed with Hetty. Hetty, now 89, says: “I can remember my mother saying, ‘We have to go and celebrate, we are liberated’, so she took me to Leicester Square.
“Margaret Lockwood and various other people were singing on a platform in the square, surrounded by lights.
“As an evacuee in the countryside we did not even have street lights and none of them were on in London throughout the war in case of bombings. It was an amazing spectacle.”
Hetty had been due to board a Red Cross ship to America to stay with an aunt just after the start of the war in 1939 but was not allowed on as she had a cold, having suffered diphtheria a year earlier.
Her frustration turned to shock when the ship was sunk by a German bomber, with the 300-plus children on board all killed.
Hetty was repeatedly evacuated to Malmesbury in Wiltshire but her mother, who had come to Britain as a child refugee from Romania, kept bringing her back to their home in London’s Holborn.
She says: “I was then sent up to Birmingham as an evacuee but when the bombing started there my mother brought me home again, so I was in London for the build-up to VE Day.”
Her two older brothers had signed up as soon as the war started, the eldest in the RAF and the other in the Navy.
Hetty with a fellow Wiltshire evacuee
Hetty, a great-grandmother of two who lives in Sutton, Surrey, says: “Just before the end of the war my mother got a telegram to say my younger brother was in hospital in Naples, his ship had been torpedoed. He was left mentally disturbed by the war.
“The older one phoned to say he was coming home. I went to the Underground station and can remember running along the platform and flinging myself at him, and nearly knocking him over.
“It was wonderful to have him home but he could never talk about the war.”
Hetty, who worked in a clothes shop until she was 78, adds: “I have been looking forward to celebrating the 75th-anniversary weekend as this is an amazing country which has always welcomed refugees and given them such hope.”
Fellow evacuee John Barrett was only nine on VE Day but cherished the homemade cake and lemonade at a street party his mother organised in New Cross, southeast London.
For both children the celebration on May 8, 1945, marked the end of a turbulent six years when they were often sent to live with strangers in rural areas to escape the Blitz in the capital.
John, now 83, had to move around the country repeatedly. He was only four when he lived in Brixham in Devon with two of his three older sisters. Within a few months his mother brought him back to London as the couple he was billeted with wanted to adopt him, having lost their own son a few years earlier in a fire.
John Barrett now
After moving to Wales with his sisters where his mother worked in a munitions factory, John returned to London in 1942 when the Blitz started again. He was then sent with his youngest sister to Batley in West Yorkshire, which he hated.
John, who lives in Orpington, Kent, and celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary to wife Pam, 80, last October, says: “My first day at school was horrendous.
“As soon as you walked into the playground the other kids crowded round and said, ‘Where do you come from?’
“I had a lovely pair of leather shoes but they disappeared as soon as I got to the family in Yorkshire and I was taken down to the local market and had a pair of wooden Yorkshire clogs to wear.
“It was lucky that I did because this big kid came up to me who was 11 and said, ‘Do you come from London?’ I said ‘Yes’.
“He said, ‘Can you fight?’ I kicked this kid as hard as I could and he went down like a sack.
“The next thing I know, the headmaster has got me by the scruff of the neck and I was dragged up in front of the school as a London school bully.
John as a wartime schoolboy
“No one would come near me after that. I used to sit out on the school steps and the dinner ladies used to come out and talk to me.”
After seven months his mother brought him back to London where she was running a pub not far from the Thames in New Cross. John, a former marine captain on the Thames, and a great-grandfather of one, was glued to the radio every evening for the 6pm news bulletin in the weeks leading up to VE Day.
After Victory in Europe was announced he recalls: “There was a lull, there was the euphoria of the end of the war, then there was a feeling of, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ “And then people like my mum started planning street parties and celebrations, putting bunting up and waving flags.
“We lived in St John’s Vale and she just put a rope across the road and invited people in, invited people to make cakes and lemonade.
“We had a wonderful day.”
Hetty and John are in Escaping The Blitz, Together TV, tomorrow, 4pm and 9pm
Published at Sun, 10 May 2020 08:02:00 +0000