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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 May, 2005, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Reconstructing VE Day
By Andrew Green
Producer, BBC Radio 4's Random Edition

Newspapers, they say, provide the first draft of history. The phrase hints at the fallibility of the process which rushes stories to the press - but by the same token that process provides a freshness and immediacy not always found in more considered works of history.

VE Day celebrations in London
The newspaper reported on VE Day celebrations around the UK

On Friday, Random Edition's VE Day Special recreates stories from the News Chronicle for 9 May 1945 - using the BBC archive as well as current interviews with some of the people caught up in those historic events.

The newspaper describes amazing VE Day scenes outside Buckingham Palace, and Winston Churchill struggling to make his way through excited crowds from Downing Street to the House of Commons. We're able to hear the eye-witness accounts of BBC reporters on the scene.

The text of George VI's VE Day speech to the nation appears on page 2 of the Chronicle - and we can also hear it delivered, hauntingly, in sound.

For five long years and more, heart and brain, nerve and muscle, have been directed upon the overthrow of Nazi tyranny
King George VI

The paper reports how Handel's Hallelujah Chorus was sung on the streets of Cardiff. Once again, that actual performance is there on tape, threatening to drown out the man from the BBC.

Prisoner of War Godfrey Place VC is home again, says the Chronicle, which lauds his part in the 1943 attack on the German battleship Tirpitz. Lo and behold, there's Place in the sound archive, vividly describing the raid for Home Service listeners.

Random Edition has also been able to make its own contribution to the archive of memories of a very special moment in British history.

We travelled to Sheffield to find the very bugle played (as the Chronicle reported) by a certain Joseph Revitt to sound the "All Clear" on VE Day. Imagine the thrill of hearing that Revitt also played this very same bugle on 11 November 1918 outside the railway carriage in Northern France where the Armistice was signed. It's enough to send shivers up the spine.


We also ran to ground two one-time prisoners of war, Ken Knott and Rob Williams, who benefited from the extraordinary airlift which saw 74,000 British and Commonwealth POWs returned home on Lancaster bombers in early May 1945.

"You would expect everybody to be very excited - but I don't think we were bubbling over," Mr Williams says of the airlift. "We had been through so much, you learn to suppress your feelings."

I diverted very slightly and took them over the white cliffs of Dover
Sir Michael Beetham
Lancaster pilot

Even after 60 years, their recollections are very fresh - not least the sight of WAAFs lined up to embrace the returning POWs as they stepped off the aircraft, and the shock on finding that one of the doctors conducting medical examinations at RAF Cosford was a woman.

One of the pilots, Air Marshal Sir Michael Beetham, also contributes his memories: "We flew across the channel - it was a nice day with good visibility, so I diverted very slightly and took them over the white cliffs of Dover."

'Lighting up'

The News Chronicle also carries a report that Rothmans Ltd sold more than a billion cigarettes during the war.

Winston Churchill greeting the crowds on VE Day
Churchill struggled to get through the crowds on VE Day

Sander Gilman, professor at the University of Illinois, explains how important "lighting up" was to the morale of troops.

He also reveals the intriguing information that the first authoritative academic study linking smoking and cancer was done by the Nazis - reflecting Hitler's pathological hatred of cigarettes.

The fact that weather forecasts were no longer top secret was front-page news on 9 May - so to actually hear the first BBC Home Service forecast after the cessation of European hostilities carries a special fascination.

And to link these stories together, Peter Snow walks the streets of London to the sites which saw such scenes of celebration on VE Day - from Piccadilly Circus and Whitehall to the very seat where Churchill sat in St Margaret's Westminster during Parliament's own service of thanksgiving.

The freshness of the most recent recollections is a reminder that this all happened just a few short decades ago.

Random Edition's VE Day special will be broadcast at 1100 BST on Friday 6 May on Radio 4.

Hear Winston Churchill's speech to the nation


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