Online exhibition

Victory in Europe Day

This online exhibition has been created to commemorate Victory in Europe Day 2020 (VE Day). John Spencer, Military Curator for Calderdale Museums has curated this exhibition using several objects from the Museums collection.

Calderdale and the Second World War

The Metropolitan Borough of Calderdale was formed in 1974 by the merger of Brighouse, Elland, Halifax, Mytholmroyd, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Halifax was the largest town, and the Museum Service’s collections reflect this, but in 1939 all were proudly independent towns which served their country during the Second World War.

After years of worry over the rise of Fascism in Europe and following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939. Italy allied with Germany in 1940 and in 1941, Japanese expansion in the Pacific brought Japan and the United States into the conflict.

On the Home Front, the local population made tremendous efforts. In addition to the thousands who served in the Armed Forces, others served in the various Civil Defence organisations. In 1941 there were over 12,000 of them, many combining their duties with a full day’s work. Fortunately, they were rarely called upon; of the 11 recorded bombing raids only one resulted in fatalities.

It was a tiring and stressful time for all. Families faced a constant struggle to feed and clothe themselves and luxuries were in short supply. Everything was geared towards war production as the government controlled all aspects of life as never before. Men and women could be conscripted into the Forces or directed into vital employment and children could be forcibly evacuated

Under the inspiring leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the nation fought its way to victory. After the collapse of Germany, peace was restored to Europe on 8th May 1945 - VE Day. The war against Japan continued until the 14th August -  VJ Day.

Headlight Covers

In anticipation of the outbreak of war, the ‘Blackout’ was enforced from sunset on September 1st. Streetlights were switched off and other lights had to be invisible from outside. This required a great deal of ingenuity and yards of blackout material. Baxter and Grange of Market Street, Halifax, advertised ‘Lightproof Bolton Sheeting’ and Boots sold rolls of blackout paper. Supplies of black dye soon began to run out as householders recycled their own material. Windows were often covered with a crisscross of brown tape to minimise blast damage.

In addition, all vehicles, both civilian and military, were ordered to be fitted with headlight covers. These directed the light down into the road and only a few yards ahead so that they could not be seen by enemy aircraft above. This made driving at night particularly dangerous and provided a major sales boost for the ‘Catseyes’ invented by Halifax man Percy Shaw in 1934.

These were produced at his ‘Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd.’ factory in Boothtown, Halifax and were described in Parliament as ‘The most brilliant invention ever produced in the interest of road safety’. Millions were manufactured in during the war despite a shortage of rubber after the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941.

Civilian drivers also had other difficulties to contend with. As the Armed Forces were fully mechanised, unlike in the First World War, petrol was quickly rationed. Drivers were also legally obliged to immobilise their vehicles when not in use by removing the rotor arm from the engine in case they were captured and used by German invaders. By 1940, many private cars were off the road.

Air Raid Warden’s Helmet and Rattle

Initially most Air Raid Wardens were only issued with armbands, but many bought their own uniforms, including military pattern steel helmets. One of their duties was to warn of gas attacks, and the rattle was used for this. Gas had been used several times since it was developed during the First World War, most recently by the Italian dictator Mussolini during his invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. It was widely feared that gas would be used again in any future war.

Throughout 1939, Calderdale continued its Anti-Gas preparations and after frantic efforts enough gas masks were ready. Many were assembled by workers at Paton and Baldwins and Mackintoshes. In Elland, pupils from the grammar school lent a hand. They were distributed by Civil Defence workers and the Women’s Voluntary Service. At the Aid Post in Akroyd Place, Halifax, 2 500 were fitted in 4 hours.

An Anti-Gas Training Centre was established at Stoney Royd, Halifax and decontamination centres for gas casualties were set up throughout the area. The Aid Post at Woodside Baths, Boothtown, included a decontamination area fitted with zinc cubicles and showers. Its staff were trained in Anti-Gas First Aid and included a mobile team of volunteers equipped with protective oilskin suits, rubber boots and military-pattern gas masks.

Similar posts were set up at King Street in Hebden Bridge, in the Corporation Stoneyard on Clifton Road, Brighouse and at the junction of Station Road and Norland Road in Sowerby Bridge.

Fortunately, gas was never used in Europe as it was recognised that it would trigger a ‘tit-for-tat’ warfare for which both sides were ready. However, the Japanese did use it in their war against China, a country unprepared for such a weapon.

Ration Books

Food rationing was only introduced in the last year of the First World War after supplies became desperately short. That experience led the government to make plans as soon as war broke out in 1939. By the end of November, everyone had been registered at nearby shops and ration books had been issued. At first it was hoped that only bacon and butter would be affected, but by the end of 1940 many more items had been added.

Households were bombarded with a wide variety of wartime recipes to help them win the war on the ‘Kitchen Front’. These featured vegetables grown in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and even horse and whale meat. Bread and potatoes were not rationed during the war, but despite victory in 1945, it was necessary to ration them in peacetime. The last rationing restrictions on food were not lifted until 1954.

This tin of Horlicks patent health drink, in its ‘wartime economy’ packaging was labelled as being only available on prescription. Horlicks was also contained in military emergency ration packs.

Clothes rationing followed in June 1941, and the Board of Trade laid down a series of regulations for Utility clothing, intended to make savings on materials and labour. They forbade embroidery and trimmings and limited pleats, seams and buttonholes.

The Utility principle was also extended to furniture. This was not rationed, instead allocations were made according to need, priority being given to bombed-out families.  Utility furniture was made until 1952.

Civilian Gas Mask Carrier

The government was successful in ensuring that the entire population had received a gas mask before the war broke out in September 1939. Heavy duty, military style masks were supplied to those who might be expected to spend much time in the open during a gas attack, such as Civil Defence volunteers and policemen. However, most people were issued with a lighter civilian pattern.

These were made of black rubber, fitted with a large celluloid visor and a cylindrical filter. They remained government property (though very few were ever handed back after VE Day in 1945) and were supposed to be carried at all times. A minor industry grew up in manufacturing alternatives to the basic cardboard box they originally came in. These ranged from simple fabric covers and tins to much more elaborate items for the fashion-conscious, such as this handy handbag combination.

Even children were not immune from this. Halifax schoolgirl Hazel Whiteley recalled that ‘To give these utility boxes aesthetic appeal, outer cases of smart American cloth could be bought for a few shillings. But a thrifty mum could run you one up on the Singer in an evening-and embroider your name on the flap in chain-stitch. Owners of disintegrating boxes held precariously together with string earned little or no respect from their peers’.

The ‘Mickey Mouse’ Gas Mask

Gas mask drills were regularly held at school and could provide much entertainment. Halifax schoolgirl Hazel Whiteley remembered the first time her whole class tried them on together: ‘With the black snouts in place we turned to stare at one another with awe and amusement. Each individual was eerily transformed into a look-alike, alien and grotesque – a sort of instant cloning. Breathing easily, we discovered to our great delight that each exhaled breath produced a ‘rude’ noise. This provoked a great deal of (muffled) mirth’.

The Government had recognised the difficulty of persuading younger children to wear a mask and had come up with the so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ pattern. This was moulded in red and blue plastic in an attempt to make it more child friendly. It was not always successful, as Hazel recorded:

‘Some of the very young children were afraid and had to be coaxed into their masks by the older children pretending to be ‘piggies’ and grunting around the classroom on all fours. A special ‘Mickey Mouse’ mask had been manufactured to avoid any possible phobia. One small boy however became hysterical at the sight of his and was carried out of the classroom kicking and screaming’.

But the masks did offer some advantages: ‘You daren’t arrive at school without it. For late scholars it provided a handy excuse- “Please Miss, I forgot me gas mask and had to go back home for it”. Its fragile structure and the fact that it provided a means of life support also deterred the school bully. “Don’t hit me” the victim would plead, “you’ll break me gas mask!”’

Anti-Gas Helmet

These were issued to the parents of children who were too young to wear even the ‘Mickey Mouse’ children’s mask. The Helmet was adjusted by sliding the curved seat at the base to lengthen it if necessary, before the baby was placed in. Rather than just covering the face, the helmet fitted over the whole of the baby’s body, leaving just the legs exposed. Then the ‘gas-proof’ fabric skirt was fastened around with a drawstring.

Once inside, a parent or sibling had to maintain a constant supply of filtered, breathable air by pumping the bellows which were attached to the side. It is difficult to imagine who found this the most traumatic, the baby or its distressed family.

Fortunately, these devices, along with the other gas mask patterns, were never put to the test of a genuine gas attack, but there were those who did their best to simulate one. Halifax schoolgirl Hazel Whiteley wrote: ‘My father, a practical man, did lock us in the garden shed with a smouldering pellet of sulphur. In spite of our gas masks, my brother and I panicked and screamed and had to be let out-spoiling dad’s fun and ruining the experiment’.

One suspects that even he would have drawn the line at attempting this with a baby!    

Sten Machine Carbine MK 111

The British Army had been slow to adopt individual automatic weapons. ‘Gangster Guns’, like the Thompson sub machine gun, featured in many films as the notorious ‘Tommy Gun or ‘Chicago Piano’ were viewed with suspicion. Early actions against German troops armed with the excellent MP 38/40 ‘Schmeisser’ Machine Pistols soon altered this opinion and Thompsons were ordered from America.

However, demand soon exceeded supply and after the evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940, where many firearms were lost, the Army was desperately short. The ‘Sten Gun’ was designed to fill this gap as quickly and cheaply as possible. The name derived from the initials of its designers, Major Shepherd and John Turpin and the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield where Turpin worked.

It was made from simple stamped metal parts, often crudely welded, and with a simple black painted finish. They could be produced in small workshops by firms with no previous experience of firearms manufacture. Many were also made by Lines Brothers, better known as the makers of ‘Tri-ang Toys’. One could be turned out in five hours at a cost of fifteen shillings (£33.00 today) as opposed to over five pounds (£220.00 today) for the much more engineered Thompson. Over four million Stens were manufactured, arming soldiers and resistance groups throughout the world. 

The Sten did come in for some criticism. It had no effective safety catch and was prone to go off accidentally if mishandled or dropped. Another weak point was the magazine, based on that used in the German MP38 so that captured ammunition could be used. This was prone to damage and jamming, especially if it was held while being fired.

War Savings Plaques

Money raising drives were held throughout the war to help finance arms production. In September 1940, ‘Spitfire Funds’ were formed in Halifax and Elland and enough was collected to pay for three of the famous fighter aircraft. People were also encouraged to invest in Government Bonds, money which was ‘not donated, but loaned to the Country’.

A healthy rivalry sprang up between neighbouring boroughs and towns as they competed to see who could raise the most money for the war. These efforts peaked in 1943, when the Calderdale area subscribed over £5,000,000 (£220,000,000 today) during the ‘Wings for Victory’ appeal on behalf of the Royal Air Force. Each area which contributed received a plaque in recognition of its generosity.

Made of Bakelite by De La Rue Plastics, they depicted a winged warrior struggling with a three-headed monster representing the enemy powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. Above was the motto of the RAF, ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’ (‘Through Adversity to the Stars) and below, the Morse code dots and dashes for the letter ‘V’, the symbol of ‘V for Victory’.

The second plaque commemorates the efforts made during the ‘Salute the Soldier’ campaign of 1944. It depicts a typical British ‘Tommy’ in shirt-sleeve order and 1937 Pattern ammunition pouches advancing with his Number 4 Enfield Rifle and fixed Spike Bayonet.

These were originally hung in council offices and town halls throughout the area. In all, the inhabitants of Calderdale raised nearly £19,000,000 (£836,000,000 today), a staggering achievement.

HMS Unsparing 

His Majesty’s Submarine Unsparing was built by Vickers-Armstrong in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and commissioned into service in November 1942. So far, she is the only Royal Navy ship to bear that name. All but her first of thirteen War Patrols were carried out in the Mediterranean and she survived only to be sold for scrap in 1946.

As part of the government and the Admiralty’s efforts to raise funds and morale, she was adopted by Sowerby Bridge, whose people supplied her crew with comforts and support. When the Unsparing returned to Chatham dockyard for a refit after what turned out to be their last patrol on active service before VE Day, her crew were invited to pay a visit to the town. In September 1944 they spent a week there, visiting local people and factories which had manufactured clothing for the Navy. Other entertainments included dances at the Regent Cinema and concerts at the Working Men’s Club.

In return, the submarine’s commander, Lieutenant A.D. Piper DSO presented her ‘Jolly Roger’ ensign to the town. It had become a tradition for submarine crews to sew and fly these on their return to port after a patrol. Each carried symbols describing their victories and those on the Unsparing’s are as follows:

  • Red Bars - Enemy warships torpedoed and sunk
  • White Bars - Enemy merchant ships torpedoed and sunk
  • Broken Bars - Enemy ships torpedoed and possibly sunk  
  • Stars – Gun actions on the surface against enemy targets
  • Figures with hands up – Prisoners taken in action
  • Lighthouse – Enemy Lighthouse destroyed
  • Reef Knot – Damaged ship towed safely to port

Churchill Tank

After the success of German ‘Blitzkrieg’ warfare, which relied heavily on mobile armoured columns, the British Army began to expand its own tank strength.  In 1941, some Infantry Battalions were retrained to become tank crews. Amongst these were the 8th and 9th Battalions of The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. As the 145th and 146th Regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps they retained the customs and traditions of the Dukes but exchanged their rifles and bayonets for a variety of armoured vehicles. 

The 8th Battalion went into action in North Africa and Italy with the Churchill Tank. Churchill described it as: ‘...the tank they named after me when they found out it was no damn good!’

There was some criticism for its old-fashioned design, an infantry support tank, relatively slow and more suited to a First World War battlefield. It did not perform well in its first action, the attack on Dieppe in August 1942. However, with improved armour and later a more powerful 75mm gun, it did serve successfully for the rest of the war. It had a crew of six: commander, gunner, loader/radio operator, driver and co-driver/hull gunner who operated the two Besa machine guns it carried.

The 9th Battalion served in India, Burma and Sumatra, mainly fighting in the American-made Lee-Grant tank.

One man who served with both battalions would go on to become famous-Captain Tom Moore, who raised thirty million pounds for the NHS.

This model was presented to the 8th Battalion by Vauxhall Motors, who made 5,640 Churchill tanks.

Civil Defence Tunic

As the international situation became more threatening, the government began to prepare for a war in which the civilian population would be in the front line.

On July 17 1939 an exercise was held to test the efficiency of the newly formed Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Services. A derelict house off Northgate, Halifax was deliberately demolished to demonstrate the activities of the various ARP and Civil Defence detachments. Amongst their main tasks was to ensure that the civilian population observed the blackout and kept to their shelters in case of an air raid.

Anderson Shelters (named after the Home Secretary) were provided for those with gardens to bury them in. By 14 October 1939, 1,350 had been delivered to Halifax and were on the way. Many houses had their cellars strengthened with iron girders; in others, families made refuges in cupboards under the stairs. 

Workplaces and schools built concrete and brick shelters and councils provided public shelters. In October 1939, an official list identified 25 shelters in Halifax town centre. The largest, at the tram sheds on Huddersfield Road, could take 1,200; the smallest at the Northern Academy of Hairdressing, Carlton Street, 7.     

This tunic was worn during the VE Day celebrations and later parades in Halifax by a female volunteer. A whistle is carried on the lanyard over the shoulder. The sleeve has red chevrons, each indicating a year of wartime service. On the breast is the ribbon of the Defence Medal, 1939-45. This was awarded to Civil Defence personnel who had served for at least three years in an area which had been exposed to enemy attack.

Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945

The hope felt in Calderdale on 6 June 1944 as the news of the invasion of France reached the country had declined as the year drew on. German rockets began the ‘Second Blitz’ causing a new influx of evacuees. One missile even reached Calderdale, damaging Little Tooting Farm in Sowerby, though no one was seriously injured. The failure of the attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem in September and the German counterattack in the Ardennes at Christmas showed that the war was not over yet.

But by the spring of 1945, victory was in the air. Continued Allied advances and Hitler’s suicide on 30 April showed that the end was near. Germany finally surrendered on 7 May and the news spread rapidly. At 7.40 pm the BBC announced that the following morning would be a Bank Holiday-VE Day.

Anticipation had already been building up, and despite a rainy, misty dawn the streets began to fill as tables and chairs were dragged out and red, white and blue bunting sprouted like magic as long-hoarded food supplies were prepared. Crowds gathered at the Town Hall to hear the Mayor, Alderman Chambers, remind them that victory had only been achieved through the supreme sacrifice of many thousands of men and women.  Others gathered at churches, where the bells rang out for the first time since 3 September 1939.

At 3.00pm, Prime Minister Churchill broadcast the official news to the nation. The war against Japan still went on, as many local families knew only too well, but, as Churchill had announced, decided ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing’. As the evening drew on, cinemas and theatres stayed open late and schools opened for dances for those who weren’t already dancing in Bull Green and Southgate.

Streetlights blazed as the blackout had been lifted and floodlight illuminated local landmarks like Wainhouse Tower. Hundreds of bonfires lit up the night as effigies of Hitler and his Nazi cronies were ceremonially burnt. It had been a long six years, but at last there was something to celebrate.

VE Day Thanksgiving Services and Celebrations

These were attended by Halifax-born Mabel Pickles. Famous at the time as a novelist under her pen name Elizabeth Burgoyne, she lived in London during the war. To ‘do her bit’, Mabel worked as a volunteer at ‘The Officers’ Replacement Society’, based in Park Lane. This provided a valuable service in supplying clothing and kit to officers who had lost theirs on active service. Other ranks would be re-supplied by their respective quartermasters, but officers were responsible for buying most of their own uniform and equipment and replacing it quickly could be a problem. The Society claimed it could provide everything from a pair of gloves to a complete kit for an Admiral.

Mabel has pencilled the date ‘8 May 1945’ on the ‘Service of Thanksgiving for use on the Cessation of Hostilities in Europe’. This includes the National Anthem and the Hymn ‘For All the Saints’.

The celebrations continued after the initial Bank Holiday on 8 May, when things had been more spontaneous and there had been less time to organise. The ‘Thanksgiving at St Pauls Cathedral’ on 13 May included details of a parade by members of the Air Training Corps (ATC) in Hyde Park and noted that similar parades would be taking place at that time throughout the country to honour the Royal Air Force.

The ‘Official Programme of the Victory Celebrations’ gives some idea of the scale of Britain’s war effort. Over twenty pages it lists a multitude of participants in the Victory Parade, from the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force to the many Civil Defence organisations and contingents from throughout the Empire.

The ‘Victory Bell’

This hand bell was one of many commercially manufactured souvenirs made in the months following VE day. They were advertised for sale by post or from Gas and Electricity Showrooms and Golf Clubs. One was auctioned for charity (probably the RAF Benevolent Fund) for £1,200 at the first Battle of Britain Memorial Dinner in 1945, about £53,000 today.

It was claimed that they were made from aluminium taken from the wrecked airframes of German aircraft which had been shot down over the UK during the Battle of Britain. This iconic battle, which raged in the skies between August and September 1940, came to symbolise the struggle against Nazi Germany for the British. However, by 1945 it is likely that these would already have been recycled and the material is far more likely to have come from Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force planes.

The handle is cast in the shape of the letter ‘V’ for ‘Victory’, and the bell carries portraits of ‘The Big Three’. These were Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America and Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union. They were popularly known as ‘Winnie, ‘FDR’ and ‘Uncle Joe’.

These leaders of the main Allied Nations first met at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 to discuss the opening of a ‘Second Front’ against Germany and again at Yalta in February 1945 to debate the post-war world. President Roosevelt had died in April 1945 to be replaced by his Vice President Harry Truman, but this bell recognises FDR’s massive contribution to the Allied Victory.     

More information 

The Imperial War Museum is a great website to learn more about VE Day. What you need to know about VE Day tells the story of VE Day through photographic archives. Voices of war is a five minute soundscape that shares many different first-hand experiences of VE Day.

The National Army Museum - Virtual VE Day covers the last months of the War leading to the final defeat of Nazi Germany. It includes the sections 'Breaking Boundaries' on the increasingly important role of women, and 'Britain Alone', how the country was mobilised on the Home Front.

You can find out more about the local Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and the Second World War at Bankfield Museum in Halifax, which is home of their regimental museum.