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VE Day diaries: 70 years on, two women tell us their enchanting love stories from wartime Belfast

One met her future husband that day, while another was waiting for her suitor to return

By Kerry McKittrick

The distinctive sombre tone of Winston Churchill announced on wireless sets all over the UK the news that everyone had been waiting for - the war in Europe was over - and Tuesday, May 8, had been designated Victory in Europe Day.

The beleaguered population of Britain and Northern Ireland had just spent the previous six years watching as their young men marched off to war, suffered the Blitz, rationing and hardship, trying to hold their families together as many were left widowed and orphaned in the war against Hitler's Nazi regime.

Many took to the streets, such was their joy, to celebrate the end of the war, as they believed Churchill's triumphant message signalled the end to the misery it had brought to everyone's lives.

But rather than waiting for the official day to mark Victory in Europe Day - banners were unfurled, any available alcohol was cracked open while hastily-arranged street parties saw young and old alike dance until the early hours of the morning when bonfires were lit.

Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945 precluded the German surrender when Grand Admiral Donitz, who had been President of the Third Reich for a week, had to wave the white flag.

Donitz travelled to General Eisenhower's HQ at Reims in France to surrender unconditionally to the Western and Russian demands on May 7, 1945, as British, American, Russian and French senior officials looked on.

While the parties reflected the unbridled happiness of the British people, VE Day was to be a short and bittersweet celebration for most - especially those who already knew their loved ones were never coming back.

Post-war austerity continued for many years after the bunting had been cleared from the streets and the celebratory fires had been reduced to embers with more rationing imposed on the people.

We speak to two women who share their unforgettable VE Day memories which proved to be a significant moment in their own personal histories.

'People were happy but I was sad, Robert was still away at sea'

Betty Porter (93) lives in Gilnahirk with her husband Robert (92). They have three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She says:

Robert and I both belonged to Albert Bridge Congregational Church when we met. In those days the church was very busy with more than 1,000 families and although I knew his cousin, I had never really met Bob.

Then the church started a youth fellowship for young people over 16 and Bob and I met properly for the first time. We were thrown in together because we lived in the same direction and in those days all you could really do was walk or cycle, so he would walk me home.

In 1942, we had been going out for about six months when he went away on his 19th birthday. He joined the Merchant Navy for two years and then served in the Royal Navy for a year after that.

I said I would write to him when he headed off. It wasn't an unusual thing to do, lots of my friends were writing to their boyfriends as they were all away at that time. Robert can't remember for sure, it was such a long time ago, but he thinks he was in Hamburg on VE Day.

When I left school at 17, I went straight into work at the cashier office in Belfast City Hall and I was 22 when the war ended. We had known it was coming for a while, but we didn't know exactly when the news would arrive.

The day before VE Day was a Monday, I still remember that, and the youth fellowship organised hikes every week on a Monday. That evening we took the tram to the Oldpark area and walked round the back of Cave Hill. When we came back to Glengormley, everyone in the street was outside celebrating - the war was over. That night quite a few streets lit bonfires, which were already prepared and ready, so as we got the tram back down into Belfast, we could see people lighting them and celebrating. There was havoc in the city centre, I don't know how so many people got there so quickly. It was nearly better than VE Day itself.

It was great to have an end to the war in Europe, but I was still a little sad about it all. The war wasn't completely over and Robert was still at sea. It wasn't until VJ Day that I could properly relax because then I knew he was safe.

I can't remember if I went to work the next day or if it was a holiday, but I did go to the City Hall. I remember the girls and I sat on the windowsills - that was unheard of back then - and watched the crowds. By then the soldiers had arrived and were dancing in the streets. They even started a conga line.

I was thrilled because there were many changes introduced straight away. We were able to get rid of the black-out curtains and take the tin covers off our bicycle lights.

There was still rationing after the war, though. It was terrible, two ounces of butter and one egg a week. There wasn't much meat either, but if you knew people in the country they could shoot rabbits. You could also get them from the butchers - if you knew which ones sold them.

The rationing went on forever. Our youngest daughter Janet was born in 1953 and I still had to cadge coupons from my granny, aunts and uncles to get enough clothes for the baby. By then things had gradually started returning to normal. But there were new things as well. I remember seeing a banana for the first time. They were such queer little things, we hardly knew what they were.

Robert was demobbed in 1946 and we got engaged, then married, in 1947. When he came back to Northern Ireland he went to Larkfield College and trained as a teacher.

His first job was as master of a two-teacher school near Rathfriland. We had a lovely time there and all of our children were born there as well. Then education changed and primary schools started only going up to age 11 whereas previously it had been 16. We decided to move back to Belfast and he taught at Lisnasharragh High School, until he retired.

I had to leave my job at the City Hall when I got married because married women weren't allowed to work for the Corporation back then.

I had my three children and when the last one went to study teacher training at Stranmillis, I returned to work. It was funny then because it was 1972 and there were lots and lots of jobs. I went for an interview at the Rupert Stanley College for Further Education. They were so short-staffed the day I went in, the manager asked if I would take some letters for him while I was there - I didn't even have the job at that stage. I worked mornings there until I retired.

My eldest son Michael is now 67. He's retired now, but worked as a research chemist. Elizabeth is 64 and worked as a nurse and Janet followed her dad into teaching. She's now 61.

Life has changed completely since the war ended. I think my generation and the one just after that had the best time - all of my children had a free education and nowadays they would have to pay about £9,000 a year. I don't see how anyone could afford that and if they can't, then it means their kids will have that hanging over them for the rest of their lives.

The children all played outside at the back of the house then and they loved anything you did for them, too. But now, with television, nothing is a surprise for them any more. My husband and I are both still involved in the Albert Bridge Congregational Church although there are only about 100 families who go there now.

I ran the Girl Guides at the church for years and I still write the church newsletter about four times a year. It used to be monthly until a couple of years ago, but there aren't enough people to read it these days. Since we've retired we've still been very active in the church and we both love gardening. Our family are quite spread out, but they are very good about coming to see us.

There are now 23 of us in my extended family. I was an only child myself and sometimes I wonder what my parents would think if they came back and saw us all now!"

'Suddenly a boy hugged and kissed me...I'd met my future husband'

Susan Neilly (84) lives in Belfast. Her husband Bertie died three years ago. They have two children, Sarah (50) and Sammy (48). She says:

When the war ended, we were living on the Shankill Road. I was still at school but worked part-time in a fish and chip shop in the evenings and weekends.

We all knew the end was coming but when the news broke everyone just upped and surged into town. There were thousands and thousands in the city centre. Everyone was singing and dancing and hugging and kissing each other. All of a sudden a guy came up, grabbed me and gave me a big kiss. I told him to catch himself on - I wouldn't have minded if he'd been a big hunk but he was just as short as me!

That was my Bertie, who was 16 at the time. He was working with the trams in the town centre, opening and closing the points for them. After VE Day he found out that I was working in a fish and chip shop - I think he asked one of his friends. After that he would come into chat to me. My mother was happy enough. She had met him and thought he was a nice young man, so there were no objections.

When the war ended people could relax a bit more. We stopped looking up at the sky for the planes coming over. I can remember the Belfast Blitz very clearly.

We lived in Joseph Street and there were eight of us - four boys and four girls in a two-bedroomed house with my parents.

The Tuesday night the Blitz started my father was working in the Central Library as a night watchman. He was on his own and the Germans machine-gunned the building - they must have thought it was an important office or something. He had a slight heart attack and had to be brought home in an ambulance.

In the meantime my mother decided to take us all down to the big air-raid shelter in Percy Street. An incendiary device had come down the chimney of a house across the street and it caused one of the children to have a panic attack so my mother thought the big shelter was the best place for us.

She brought us down the street - there was a big string of us all holding each other's hands. A lady who knew us stopped my mother and brought all of us into her house instead. Not five minutes after we had gone into her home, the Percy Street air raid shelter went up and everyone in it was gone.

The next morning there were piles of rubble everywhere and the ambulance came down the street with my father in it.

After that my father packed us all off to a house in the country. My mum's sister and her family joined us as well, so there ended up being 21 of us crammed into a two-bedroom house.

We were able to watch the rest of the Blitz from across Belfast Lough. We could see the planes and the flashes as the bomb hit.

It was a simpler time back then. People were very poor. When I was working in the fish and chip shop my family would wait until I came home to see what I'd brought back with me. I would ask for one tiny toy for Christmas, it wasn't like now when children get lots of things. My mother was very good at making ends meet. She would sell sugar and margarine on the side and made candy apples and honeycomb to sell.

I went on to marry Bertie, the boy who grabbed me and kissed me that day. We were wed when I was 20 and I worked as a stitcher in the Albion factory.

Bertie worked in Mackies and then for Inglis's bakery for a while. After the children came along I went back to work as a petrol-pump attendant.

In some ways it was much better back then, people were kinder and there wasn't so much badness about. People had much more respect for each other and helped each other out. And the children were perfectly safe going out to play on the streets."

What's happening on VE Day

  • War veterans, officials representing all branches of the services, the British Legion, veterans' associations, military families, friends and those who simply want to remember and pay tribute to the brave men and women who fought gallantly in the Second World War will attend special VE Day commemoration events in Northern Ireland
  • There are plans for numerous VE Beacons to be lit with events confirmed at Eisenhower Pier, Bangor, Knockagh Monument in Newtownabbey, Craigavon Civic and Conference Centre, Craigavon, and Castle Island in Enniskillen. Meanwhile, a gun salute will be fired at Hillsborough Castle by 206 (Ulster) Battery, the first of which will mark the beginning of a two-minute silence, with another to mark its end
  • The Northern Ireland War Memorial will be celebrating VE Day with a two minute silence at 3pm today to mark the end of the Second World War in Europe and will be followed by afternoon tea and ration recipe carrot cake. Betty Porter will be the guest of honour with her scrapbook from the time
  • Tomorrow, the NI War Memorial is hosting a Victory Party for families featuring music from the Belle Hoppers, sample rations and games from the period

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