Proposals to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day have been welcomed by a resident who attended the town’s original celebration. Robert Mullins shared his memories of wartime Shaftesbury, as Alfred learned about next year’s plans.
“Shaftesbury Town Council is in the early stages of planning what we’re going to do in 2020 on the Bank Holiday weekend – Friday 8th May, Saturday 9th May and Sunday 10th of May – to celebrate 75 years since VE Day,” explained Shaftesbury Town councillor Peter Yeo. He has assembled a group which includes Shaftesbury’s Royal British Legion to fine-tune plans for next year.
Cllr Yeo was keen to hear locals’ accounts of VE Day, when the Allied forces celebrated Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. Robert Mullins was five years old when war broke out. He explained how the war affected his early years in Shaftesbury.
“First, I remember we went to the Town Hall and collected our gas masks as a family,” Robert recalled. As a young child, the war seemed exciting, rather than frightening, when events disrupted lessons at his primary school in Cann. “When the siren went, we used to have to get under the desk. Then when we got the all-clear, we were giggling and playing about all the time,” said Robert.
He remembers an extra shelter being created near to his Coppice Street home. “They dug some trenches over in what is now St George’s Road, which was a field in them days,” said Robert. And Shaftesbury was certainly well aware of the German threat. “Night after night, you could hear the siren go and you could hear the Germans going over when they were flying up to Coventry. There were hordes of bombers. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear that distinctive noise and then a couple of hours later the siren would go again and they came back over.”
Whilst many families endured nights of fractured sleep, Robert found a cosy spot in which to bed down. “I slept under the stairs. They said it was one of the safest places. I suppose it saved my mother coming upstairs and getting me down,” said Robert.
The nearest official shelter to his family home on Coppice Street was beneath what is now the post office. “It had been a garage for years. They pulled the garage down and started building the post office. The war came and it stopped, so they used the cellar as an air-raid shelter. The ARP (Air Raid Precaution Wardens) also had a shelter at the junction of Old Boundary Road and St. Rumbold’s Road,” said Robert.
Bombs did fall in Shaftesbury. Robert remembers what was then the only bungalow on Grosvenor Road being hit. “Mr Creek used to live in it. It didn’t go off, but it did damage his house. The plane dropped another one on the Higher Blandford Road. It landed in a hayrick. It didn’t go off. It made just a great big hole and buried itself in the ground.” Locals were told that the plane was getting chased by the RAF and it dropped the bombs to lighten its load. “I’ve often thought afterwards that was said so we would not worry,” said Robert.
The rationing, separation from loved ones and disruption continued for years after VE day, but Robert will never forget the sight of the crowds on Shaftesbury High Street, celebrating the end of the conflict. “There was just a mass of people there, concentrated on the corner in front of the Town Hall. It was the first big gathering I could remember,’ he recalled.
Cllr Yeo wants to recreate that sense of occasion, 75 years on. “We’re not yet confirming what we’re going to do, but I’m hoping there’s going to be some sort of major street party, hopefully in the High Street outside the Town Hall, with all sorts of live music, food and re-enactors, 1940s songs as well a modern band later on. We’re hoping that’s going to be a major event,” said Peter.
Robert doubts that the Town Band would have played in 1945, as many of their members would have been away fighting. School pupils would have provided music. “The Grammar School Cadets had a bugle band. It would have been part of that parade,” he said.
Back in 1945, a parade formed a major part of the celebration in Shaftesbury. “They made up torches, which were big sticks. They would have been topped with rags or hashing dipped in oil. These were lit. We walked up to the High Street in a parade – one lot one side of the road and one the other. We walked out onto Castle Hill. There was a big bonfire there. We lit it by throwing our torches on it. We came back to the Town Hall and George Norton had his amplifying equipment, which was a couple of speakers up on the balcony. People were dancing in the street for an hour or so I suppose,” said Robert.
Cllr Yeo wants to reflect the role of the military in next year’s commemorations. “I’ve been in contact with one or two people who own military aircraft and military vehicles. I am hoping that we will get some sort of flypast and have some World War Two jeeps and maybe armoured vehicles, even a tank perhaps in the High Street. It’s all in the early days of planning at the moment,” he said.
Robert has heard Peter’s outline proposals and he approves of the plan. “It is nice to let people know what did go on,” Robert said.
Peter hopes that locals will arrange their own festivities to supplement his committee’s events. “Hopefully people will have their own street parties on Saturday.” That might not be entirely authentic, but it should encourage community participation. “I can’t ever remember a street party as such, because with rationing, people just wouldn’t have had the food to have done it,” said Robert.
“On Sunday we’re envisaging some sort of church service and parade,” Cllr Yeo continued. He’s keen to hear from any residents with further ideas and suggestions, because he believes the 75th anniversary of a day which changed the UK’s future should be marked.
“It is obviously a very important event in national history,” said Peter. “We need to remember the sacrifice that so many people – not just soldiers, sailors and airmen but also civilians -made to ensure that we enjoy the freedom that we have today.”