First published in the Daily Express on 04 May 2020.
This Friday’s VE Day anniversary plans may have changed – but we can still celebrate the values of courage, perseverance and love.
Let us learn the lessons from our past and mark this day with remembrance and reconciliation.
I was conceived shortly after VE Day. Perhaps that’s not surprising: my parents and the country had plenty to celebrate, personally and collectively.
My father Eric, a young officer serving in The South Lancashire Regiment, had survived the war despite being wounded during the D-Day Landings. My mother, Rene, who had worked as a Red Cross nurse, met my father when he was convalescing from his injuries.
The end of the war in Europe meant that they could finally plan a future together. For the record: Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) was, of course, May 8 1945: I was born less than ten months later: on March 4, 1946.
Over the next 74 years, my passion and admiration for bravery have grown and grown, partly as a result of my father who, when I was a small boy, described his own experiences racing up Sword Beach under a murderous fire.
Early on June 6 1944, during the D-Day landings, my father’s Commanding Officer (CO) was shot dead at his side, while my father, then a lieutenant, received shrapnel wounds but fought on until he was finally ordered from the battlefield.
So next Friday, May 8, has a special meaning – not just because it is exactly 75 years since Britain and its allies defeated the evils of Nazi Germany.
It is because the United Kingdom is, regrettably, in the midst of another global crisis: one that, like the Second World War, has claimed many lives. From 1939-45, we relied on our frontline servicemen for our survival, whereas today the burden is falling on our frontline health workers. Yet during any life-or-death emergency, a feeling of unity helps us through.
There is no doubt that our past shapes our future – and rightly so. Unless the world (with some notable exceptions) had united to defeat Adolf Hitler, we would have been unable to halt his thirst for power and his evil doctrines from spreading across the globe.
As it was, after six years of war that cost an estimated 75 million lives, we were able to guarantee the freedom of hundreds of millions of people. Germany and Japan too learnt valuable lessons, but from the point of view of the losing side rather than the victor.
On VE Day, as on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, it is right that we as a nation pause to reflect on the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for their king, their country, their comrades and for wider freedoms during the 1939-45 war.
I believe that momentous days in history deserve to be marked in a significant way. Today, we should remember not just our own dead from the Second World War but also the horrors of the Holocaust.
Between 1941-45, Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered an estimated six million Jews in German-occupied Europe – incredibly, that was around two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. In the days leading up to VE Day, during the fall of Germany, tens of thousands of Jews were freed from concentration camps.
Anyone who has seen the heartbreaking images of beaten and starved men, women and children behind the fences of Nazi concentration camps in 1945, before finally gaining their freedom, must surely unite in preventing such horrors ever being repeated again.
On a happier note, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words and I welcome the fact that there are so many photographs to remind us of the May 8 1945 jubilations.
VE Day should be about reconciliation too – this is not the time to bear grudges for atrocities from yesteryear. It was in a spirit of reconciliation that I welcomed the decision by our Government two years ago to invite the German President to our national memorial service on Armistice Day – 100 years after the end of the Great War – in order to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph.
There were some who resented his presence at a service attended by the Queen and senior members of the Royal Family, along with the Prime Minister and senior politicians – but not me.
As an avid traveller, I have visited some 150 countries. For decades I have made a point, as I have travelled the world, of visiting as many Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries as possible to honour our war dead. But, nowadays where possible, I increasingly look into the cemeteries containing the bodies of “enemy” soldiers, also to pay my respects to their war dead. Does such a visit make me any less patriotic? Certainly not, but it does make me more reconciliatory.
Sadly, a series of events up and down the country to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day have been either cancelled or postponed because of coronavirus. Street parties have been replaced by “stay at home events”. This is not the three-day extravaganza that was originally planned but it will suffice.
As a year, 2020 will always be remembered for the effect that coronavirus had on all our lives. However, I urge everyone to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day in three ways: by learning lessons from our past, and through remembrance and reconciliation.
Above all else, the main lesson of 75 years should be that, if the resolve and the courage are great enough, good will almost always triumph over evil.
In the words of Winston Churchill in his VE Day speech to the nation: “I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say ‘do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be – unconquered’.”