Today 75 years ago, Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared Victory in Europe and the end of the Second World War. Leona O’Neill talks to four NI people whose memories of that time are still vivid this day
Bangor widow Marlene McDowell (83) had five children with her husband James. The former Whites Home Bakery employee lived in the Sydenham area of Belfast with her mum Hilda and dad Billy during the war. The proud grandmother and great-grandmother remembers the entire family hiding under the stairs as German planes dropped bombs, destroying the next street over.
“We lived in a three-bedroomed house in Aigburth Park in the Sydenham area of Belfast,” she says.
“Hillfoot Street was about 30 yards from our house. One night the German bombers were targeting the shipyard and the aircraft factory. I remember the sirens going off. There was a shelter immediately outside our house but we didn’t use it as it smelled quite bad and we didn’t like it. We just stayed in the house and gathered under our stairs. I remember the sirens blaring and seeing everyone run up the street towards Stormont. The street was packed with people but my dad said we weren’t going and was of the mind that if it was meant to be, it was meant to be.
“So, my mum, dad, my two brothers and I were under the stairs. It was around 9pm. I could hear the heavy drone of the planes, it was almost deafening. They were heading towards the shipyard. We could hear the bombs exploding and the ground shaking. I was only a little girl of eight-years-old. I don’t remember being frightened. My mum and dad had a great sense of humour and kept us calm. Dad would sometimes sing.
“That night Hillfoot Street, the next street over, was totally demolished, there was nothing left of it. When the bombing was over we went out to see. The houses were all destroyed and on the next street over they had dropped incendiary bombs there, too, and they were on fire. Those bombs could have fallen on our house. When the council cleared the ground they brought in an emergency water supply. And us children thought this was just fabulous, because we had an outdoor swimming pool and we really made use of it.”
Marlene remembers the sense of community spirit of the era, the sights children would see and the people they got to meet — including movie stars.
“We lived at the end of a terrace and we had metal railings around our garden; as part of the war effort you had to give up your garden if you had railings. Because my father and his two brothers were great gardeners they had greenhouses and grew vegetables. So, my father got permission to keep our garden and railings as long as he supplied the district with potatoes and carrots and all kinds of vegetables. My brothers and I would pile our cart with food and go around the district and give out the vegetables.
“To the children, it was fun. We didn’t really know the context of war. We just saw things happening around us. I was often at my granny’s house in Bangor. I remember looking out of the window one day and seeing, at the bottom of the Donaghadee Road, troops of American soldiers in a camp. There were hundreds of them. Among their number were actor Clark Gable and General Eisenhower. We were young children and thought that this was all just amazing.
“My grandmother allowed some of the troops to use her bathroom facilities and they formed a queue outside with their towels and their soap bags and they came in and had a bath.
“Another day the troops called my cousins and me over to the camp and they gave us huge tins of jam, butter, dried eggs and flour for my granny as a thank-you. She shared it amongst the neighbours.
“The next morning when we went outside to play, they had all disappeared. They had been staying at Ballyholme and going to the shore to practice manoeuvres before launching the D-Day landings at Omaha and Utah.”
Marlene says the day victory was declared was celebrated in style in her Belfast street.
“There were parties all day and all night. People brought tables out onto the street with sandwiches, buns, beer and lemonade. Men and women were kissing and hugging. Someone wheeled a piano out into the street and there was music and dancing. It was a beautiful street party and everyone was happy.”
She says today’s coronavirus crisis has instilled the same community spirit in people.
“What we are living through now is a silent war,” she says. “Back then you had sirens and explosions and you knew what was going to happen. But at the same time it has brought our communities together like back in those days. Neighbours are looking after one another, asking if you need anything. On a Thursday night we are all out clapping and it has brought back that bit of spirit and it is lovely to see. I hope it stays like this when the pandemic is over.”
Former service engineer Bertie Salmon (84) survived wartime in Belfast. Bertie, a grandfather who now lives in Hillsborough with his wife of 63 years, Margaret, says he doesn’t remember being frightened — more curious — by what he saw.
“I was only nine years old on VE Day,” he says. “I lived on Broadway in Belfast with my father Joe, a Navy officer, and my mother Mary Jane. Dad was called up for duty and went away in 1939. We didn’t see my father for two full years.
“I remember the time well, even though I was very young. When the sirens went, all of west Belfast headed for the hills. I remember when I was only five years old and getting dragged up the Whiterock Road at speed to get away from everything.
“People used to sit up on the side of Black Mountain looking over Belfast. I remember the drone of the aeroplanes over our heads. You couldn’t see them, but you could certainly hear them. I remember hearing the bangs and seeing the flashes of the bombs hitting the city below. It all looked like a nightmare to me at the time, but I wouldn’t say I was frightened. I was so young I didn’t know any better.
“I remember going down High Street in Belfast after one raid. There was just a single tram track going down the middle of the road and the rest of the street was just rubble — the whole place was flattened. I remember Cavendish Street was hit by a landmine that was heading for Mackie’s factory and foundry. It missed the foundry and wiped out nine houses in one go. No one survived. Other times you’d see a full street with no windows or doors or even a roof. Everything was just blown out of it.”
Bertie says VE Day itself has faded in his memory in comparison to the day his father, an officer in the Navy, came home from the war.
“I remember the sense of relief that we had when the war ended,” he says. “We had a wireless radio in the house and we heard the news on that. I don’t remember a street party as such. The memory from that time is of my father coming home, of him walking in the door in 1945. I was so happy and so proud of him.”
Former Coleraine mayor Toye Black (90) lived in rural Co Londonderry during the war. Toye, a former school principal, and her husband Robert had five children before he passed away. She lived with her second husband, Sam, in Portstewart until he died. They have 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
She remembers the Army camp across the street from her family home.
“During the war we lived in Agivey, near Coleraine, with my mum, Ida, and dad, David,” she says. “They owned a shop and a farm in the Diamond.
“Because we were living out in the country, we had very little experience with bombs and sirens that you would have had to endure in the cities. We were isolated. We didn’t really know much about what was going on apart from the fact that there were rations books and coupons for the shop and soldiers around.
“There was a camp just opposite our house at the time. There was an aerodrome beside us also, where the soldiers came to learn how to fly planes. In the camp the American and British soldiers would learn how to build bridges across the River Bann. There was always plenty of stuff happening.
“In those days when working in the shop I remember the American soldiers coming in. They always gave us ‘candy’. It was strange hearing the accents. I used to iron the trousers for the sergeants for money. My mother always told them not to pay me, but they would slip me money or candy for payment.”
She says she remembers the pure joy she felt as her community came to the streets to celebrate the end of war.
“We didn’t have a TV in those days, we had a wireless radio where we got all our news,” she says. “I remember the happiness and joy in everyone on the day the war was declared over.
“Everyone gathered out at the front of my parents’ shop and were dancing on the road. Someone turned up with an accordion, another fella had a drum and there was great music. We were out waltzing in the middle of the street, around 40 of us.
“I was 15-years-old and remember I was dancing the victory waltz with a fella called John Pyper. Before that I had danced with female dance partners in school, so it was something special. I can still remember his face. I must have had a notion for him.
“I remember looking around and seeing people so happy, clapping and singing. It was lovely. In those days there was great community spirit. There was no talk of religion back then.
“On this VE day I will say a little thank-you that I am as well as I am and I will recall with pleasure my parents and all the people who gathered together on the road that night in joy.”
South Belfast grandmother Mollie Blair (84) has two daughters with her late husband Robert. On VE Day 1945, the former teacher was living in Dunmurry with her mum, Kathleen, and her dad, Drummond.
“During the war we lived in Dunmurry — my mum, dad, my grandparents and my uncle,” she says. “My most vivid memory of the war is the sound of the German bombers flying overhead in the darkness. They had a very odd, humming, up-and-down kind of sound that was very frightening. But it was also quite exciting.
“When the sirens wailed we went under the stairs, which would have done no good at all looking back on it. I heard the sound of the bombers returning usually from bombing Belfast, which was pretty bad.
“I also remember one of the planes crashed up on the mountain and we all trooped up to see it. I was only about eight or nine- years-old.
“In school we had the windows all covered with white strips and we had an air raid shelter there. We always went to school with our gas masks in little boxes. We had a drill we did in case the sirens went and we had to take cover.
“A lot of it was exciting. I remember seeing barrage balloons over Belfast, which to my childlike eyes looked like big grey elephants in the sky. I don’t remember being terribly frightened. My parents were always very reassuring. My father was in the Home Guard and I was very proud of him. He had to drive through Belfast and that was pretty perilous. But the sound of the aircraft did frighten me.”
Mollie remembers VE Day in particular as a pivotal moment in her own lifetime.
“Winston Churchill was my hero,” she says. “And he spoke to the nation on VE Day at around 2pm. We had a wireless at home and we listened there. And that memory is all bound up with dashing over to the field and the great happiness and relief everywhere
“We had a big celebration in our village. We were given a bag of buns and a mineral drink, which I remember vividly. There was a bonfire built in the field beside us. It was so exciting that night, because people were so terribly happy, smiling, shouting and waving flags. And we got more buns and lemonade, which really made my day. I remember feeling great relief. There would be no more sounds of horrible aircraft flying over our house.”
She says there are some similarities between wartime and now.
“I hear this saying, ‘we are all in this together’, and that is like the war,” she says. “The only difference was, we could hug each other then, but not now. And that is difficult. But I do think that it has brought people together, as it did then.”