Bomber Command veteran, former Flight Lieutenant Douglas Newham LVO DFC is President of the RAF Association’s Cockermouth Branch in Cumbria. Now 98, Doug is supporting our Operation CONNECT by volunteering as a telephone befriender, giving companionship to isolated veterans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Doug reflects on his memories of VE Day and shares his own plans to celebrate this 75th anniversary in these difficult times.
“As participants in our six years of war, we each had our own special reasons to celebrate victory on 8 May 1945. We had each lost friends and loved ones, suffered worry, privation and danger. In consequence, when the news finally broke the cumulative relief and happiness burst like a wave across the nation. There were tears aplenty. Tears of relief and happiness amongst all, but mixed with tears of deep loss for the tens and thousands of service and civilian casualties, injured or lost over those previous traumatic years.
The overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude spread across the whole country. We had ‘made it’, we had survived, we had emerged into the sunshine.
In the villages, towns and cities across the land the streets suddenly blossomed with flags and bunting. The church bells – silenced in 1940 and to be used only as a sign of invasion – rang out in gratitude, there was dancing in the streets, neighbour hugged neighbour.
At that time, I was serving as a navigator on 10 Squadron, operating the Halifax aircraft of RAF Bomber Command. We were based on an airfield a few miles east of York.
I had earlier completed my first operational tour on Wellington aircraft, targeting German industrial areas, some sea-mining at U-Boat ports and later participating in the invasion of Algeria. I then returned to the UK for a spell of instructional duties, before I was later released to serve as a squadron navigation leader on ‘Shiny Ten’ (10 Squadron).
I can, in my mind, still smell the unique perfume of my aircraft, the mixture of high-octane fuel, hydraulic fluid, exhaust fumes, cordite fumes from the previous night’s firefight – and the Elsan toilet!
But probably the most frequent ‘ghosts’ that still lurk in my nights are memories of returning from a rough trip, tired and cold, but concerned that a couple of the squadron’s aircraft had not yet returned. That’s fourteen of your colleagues and friends. We hoped maybe that they were damaged, or short of fuel and landed elsewhere. We sprawled out in chairs in the unlit Mess anteroom, in the cold pre-light of the winters’ dawn, waiting for our friends, until eventually we gave up. I would climb on my bicycle, cycle down the road to our sleeping hut tucked in the trees a mile down the land, and climb into that cold bed knowing full well that it would be the same again in a few nights’ time.
Yet those occasions became markedly less frequent from about the end of March 1945. The end was clearly approaching and it had a somewhat strange and eerie feeling. Rumours started circulating and, eventually, just before midnight on 7 May came word that the squadron was leaving Bomber Command and transferring to Transport Command.
On station, in Yorkshire, VE Day dawned in a quiet and waiting atmosphere. Somewhere mid-morning, I was sitting in my tiny office in the navigation hut when the door behind me was quietly edged open, a ‘flash-bang’ grenade was tossed in, and the door slammed shut! VE Day had been declared! I exited via the window… barely in time!
It was a bit of a wild party in all of the Station Messes that evening, and we remembered the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy, the Army, fire services, ARP, miners and civilians. We cynically had a rusty scythe fastened above the bar in the Officers’ Mess and there were many cynical toasts that evening to death, the ‘Grim Reaper’ who had flown with us on so many sorties.
Remembrance days will always have a very special significance for me. Some of that has origins in my childhood; my father served in the Army from 1914-18. I grew up in a community where most families had lost at least one member in the First World War.
VE Day marks an extraordinary and essential date in our nation’s history. I commend the effort to highlight the 75th anniversary despite these troubling times, and to bring to the attention of the current generation the history of those war years, what a close run thing it was, and the sacrifices made by the whole generation to secure our liberty and freedom.
Personally, on Friday 8 May, I shall take my ‘socially-distanced’ and permitted personal exercise walk down to the war memorial in the churchyard of my small Lake District village and quietly lay my spray of Remembrance Poppies, in tribute to all of my many lost friends and ‘mates’, to the tens of thousands of service, merchant-navy and civilians who gave their all.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to hold back the tears!