VE Day 70th anniversary: Media blackout on deaths lifted

Athelstane Road, N4, VE Day celebrations

Athelstane Road, N4, VE Day celebrations - Credit: Archant

Reporter Jon Dean looks at how the local newspapers reported the end of the war, including letters of complaint from readers

Amid the triumphant mood across the country following Germany’s surrender, a solemn note was sounded for those still fighting in the Pacific theatre.

Victory parcels of cigarettes were sent to the Finsbury lads serving in the Far East, and the entertainment of some school children was “postponed until all of the evacuees have returned”.

One reader wrote to the Gazette to say that “90 per cent of Theberton Street were flying colours. Why the 10 per cent aren’t I cannot say, unless they are less interested in victory than war”.

The following edition, someone responded by saying “What a ridiculous statement! There are still thousands for whom it is not yet finished.”

During the conflict there had been a media blackout on reporting the extent of casualties in the borough. The full picture of devastation only became clear following VE Day. A V2 bomb falling on Mackenzie Road, Holloway, killed 72 and injured 86; two more V2s exploding in the air, showered fragments on Highbury and Canonbury; a V1 famous destroyed Highbury Corner. In total 1,241 incidents killed 958 people.

The North London Press at the time said: “Now these secrets are out and we are able to complete an unfinished narrative.

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“The figures may come as a surprise to some readers, for rumours about the extent of the casualties and damage have always been rife.

“It has been a matter of regret to this newspaper that we have hitherto been unable to dispel those rumours.”

The Gazette, which was already 88 years old in 1945, sounded a conciliatory call.

An editorial entitled Pray for Germany, read: “Amid our thanksgivings on this day; we had certain apprehensions as to the future.

“We should have failed if we have merely crushed and humiliated our foes, leaving legacy of bitter hate and sullen resentment.

“We must pray the German nation might experience a change of heart.”

Elsewhere the tone was more celebratory: “Germany has capitulated and Europe cerebrated victory over a brutal enemy” and a “dark veil of anxiety will, for many, be lifted” while the vicar of St Paul’s Church, in Essex Road, spoke of the “depths of evil to which so many Germans have sunk”.

But in many ways life trundled on as normal, including complaints to the council.

One person wrote in saying: “I protest against the total blackout that Islington borough council has imposed on residents since it was supposed to be could the people of this borough be expected to celebrate VE Day in the dark?”

The council responded that the order had come from the Ministry of Fuel and it had to comply.

Another complained that £2,000, roughly a farthing a head, was to be spent on VE Day celebrations.

And another was worried that disabled ex-service men from “ a little back room in Cross Street” had not been invited to take part in the victory parade.

Meanwhile one north London magistrate was very impressed that in two days of celebrations, the court had not had “a single case of drunkenness here”.

But the borough was hardly incident-free. One man was sentenced to six months’ hard labour for stealing from an American soldier in Clerkenwell. Another was arrested after allegedly hitting a woman on the head with a shovel and a third man died after accidentally setting his own trousers on fire.

And war news continued to filter through.

Finsbury Town Hall was no longer to be used as a sleeping quarters; a group of “trapped Japs” were captured, in part by a Corporal from Junction Road, Tufnell Park; and two neighbours from Packington Street managed to reunite while on duty in Calcutta.

Military medals were awarded to Sgt George Albert Glover, of Islington, for clearing a detour through a minefield under heavy shelling, and Gunner Richard Allen, of Highbury, who remained in his Jeep to send signals despite his vehicle being bombarded by shellfire.

Meanwhile, RAF prisoner of war, warrant officer John Brogden, from Sutterton Street, Islington, managed to make it back to the borough, despite being marched 350 miles through snow during a 52-mile forced trek.