7 May 2020
Victory in Europe Day, VE Day, on 8 May 1945 marked the unconditional surrender of German forces to the Allies following five years and eight months of war in Europe. It came eight days after Adolf Hitler’s suicide on 30 April, after which the mantle of President of Germany had been taken up by Admiral Karl Donitz. VE day was a decisive moment: the final defeat of one of the most murderous and ideologically malevolent regimes in history.
When the 75th anniversary of VE dawns on 8 May 2020, many Europeans will reflect on the enormous sacrifices made by so many Allied soldiers, including millions from British and French colonies. Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, Europe will not have the opportunity to celebrate in the same way that so many did in 1945. Yet, we can still memorialise and remember. For those in Germany, of course, reflections are likely to be more complicated. Donitz, it should be remembered, was seeking to preserve the lives of millions of Germans who had suffered during the war and also faced an uncertain future at the hands of occupying forces.
In Abingdon School’s Jekyll Gardens is a memorial stone commemorating the lives of 16 Old Abingdonians who died during the Second World War. Dating from the 1960s, and originally located in front of what is now Beech Court, it was paid for by Old Abingdonians who had attended the school in the 1920s and wished to pay tribute to friends who had given their lives in the service of their country. The inscribed initials provide a poignant reminder that these OAs who died fighting in the war were fathers, husbands, sons, siblings and friends. They are always sorely missed.
The Abingdonian Magazine of Christmas 1945 lists 49 former pupils who lost their lives in service; several further names were added in the Christmas 1946 issue, which also includes the reflections of OA Stanley Paige (‘S.D.P’) on his time in the RAF, operating in the Middle East and Mediterranan. VE Day was for many a day of great relief and hope, a significant unifying moment; but for some there was not the opportunity to see the liberation of the brave new world that they fought to defend. To borrow Churchill’s wonderful words: whether it is those that died during the war, immediately after or survived much longer, or are surviving today, we can only say that never was so much owed by so many, to so few. It is beyond argument that a world dominated by Nazi Germany would have been one of further, unimaginable horrors.
Memories of moments of national triumph, unity, relief or celebration are complex. Victory in Europe did not mean the end of the Second World War; the conflict raged on in the Pacific for another three months, and the scars of the conflict in Europe were deep and long lasting. The Abingdonian Magazine Christmas edition of 1945, published seven months after VE Day, also tells the story of C.C. Painter, an OA, who had “died recently in a German concentration camp. He was arrested with his 19-year-old son by the German military authorities in Jersey, 1943. When they were transferred to another camp the son died of bronchial pneumonia and C. C. Painter, who was ill, could not stand the evacuation in open carriage[sic] in rain and snow without food and died from exposure in three days.” Papers released from Whitehall on 1 December 1992 revealed the extent to which the Jersey and Guernsey administrations collaborated with the occupation, and the Home Office’s determination to sweep complaints under the carpet after the war. C. C. Painter died as a tragic victim of war. Alongside such stories and its wider commemoration of the School’s war dead, the Abingdonian Magazine of the war years, and the years immediately after, published reports of the rugby XVs, football, the school library and ‘war savings’. The efforts to maintain normal school life while memorialising, and never forgetting, the lives of former pupils is what represents the beacon of hope in this story – a unity of purpose and a desire to preserve the bonds of community while being willing to reveal and confront difficult truths.
By Nicholas Knowland, Head of History, Abingdon School