Sadly, neither my wife nor I have any memories of VE Day. We were both aged 6 in our various remote parts of England. My father was a local JP and my mother drove ambulances for the Red Cross, but neither told me anything about their daily work. We had no immediate family involved in the war despite a long history of be-whiskered and be-medalled generals on my wife’s side of the family. However, there was one of her cousins whose tale illustrates one point – that VE Day meant little to those in POW camps in Germany. For them the key event was the liberation of their camp, which occurred at various times as the Allies advanced.
The unpublished diary of Lt Eric Keen tells us a lot about this. He was captured at Dunkirk in May 1940 and spent five years in POW camps all over Germany. During that time he wrote and illustrated a diary that in cool and objective terms describes his experiences. The entry for May 8th has no mention of peace or VE Day, but is devoted to part of his efforts to get home.
During April 1945 he and fellow PoWs from his camp were marched up to 15 miles south every night away from the advancing Allies. German guards from his column were deserting each night. He finally arrived in southern Bavaria at a place called Moosberg (Stalag VII A) a vast transit camp holding 29,000 PoWs from all countries. Bartering occurred among the many nationalities – one gold ring in exchange for a large biscuit.
Finally at 12.12pm on 29th April the US Third Army, after a little local fighting, enters the camp and the diary exclaims WE ARE FREE! After many ups and downs Lt Keen arrived in England on May 10th. Sadly he died barely a year later, having suffered ill health from his five years of captivity, but leaving behind his fascinating diary.
The PoWs’ unawareness of VE Day does not diminish its importance to the millions who endured the wartime deprivations at home. The modest deprivations we have today help to highlight the stoicism and courage of the generation before us.