VE Day for the Guards
Posted on: May 6, 2020
On 8th May 1945 Winston Churchill announced Victory in Europe, the official end of the war against Germany. Guards units were scattered across the continent, from Cuxhaven on the Baltic sea to Northern Italy and the Austrian border. They celebrated in different ways.
In Germany, the priority was to arrange a local surrender of the strategic port of Cuxhaven and to move the Guards Armoured Division in to occupy it. The Division had covered 100s of miles from Normandy, through France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. The heavily bombed port was full of German Navy troops and the crews of several ships. Sadly, one tank and its crew were obliterated by a buried sea mine in an ambush on the way. But fortunately, the Germans surrendered the town and agreed to stay on their ships or assemble to be disarmed.
The Scots Guards moved into the town on Welsh Guards tanks. With them was Gerald Mansfield who found a tourist type map of the port and marked it with enemy positions. He later celebrated by eating a whole cake he had been sent from home, much to the annoyance of the Germans he was guarding. The Guards rolled their tanks onto the quayside and kept a watchful eye over rows of ships full of surrendered sailors.
Relations between the two sides seem cordial in several photos of germans posing with British tanks.
Coldstream Guards oversaw the surrender of the 7th Parachute Division at the nearby airfield. The Germans apparently refused to surrender until they learned it would be to the Guards, who they considered a worthy foe having fought them in Belgium.
On VE Day evening artillery fired flares to celebrate. For the first time in months, the men of the Guards Armoured Division slept in the relative comfort of German barracks and knew that they would not be packing up and moving on the next day.
In Italy, by VE Day the fighting had already been over for 6 days. The Grenadier Guards had crossed the German’s last line of defence on the River Po at the end of April and the German’s had surrendered in Italy on the 2nd May. On VE Day 24th Guards Brigade were occupying the Trieste area, which was in dispute between Italy and Communist Yugoslavian forces. Although the atmosphere was tense, the guardsmen enjoyed seaside bathing between guard duty and ceremonial events, the Scots Guards beating Retreat on the seafront in the evening.
On VE Day 1st Guards Brigade was on the move, crossing from Italy into Austria to occupy Villach. The Welsh Guards led the way through mountain passes, past lakes, and snow-capped peaks. In the days that followed they settled into a peaceful routine of recreaction in an area hardly touched by the war.
In London, VE Day had been expected for some time with the King’s Guard abandoning the wearing of steel helmets a few days earlier as a gesture. On the day itself a drumhead Thanksgiving Service was held in front of the ruins of the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks. A poignant setting given the chapel had been destroyed by a V1 bomb during a service on 18th June 1944, killing and injuring many.
As crowds gathered on the streets of London to celebrate, and converge on Buckingham Palace, they were joined by guardsmen from the London garrison.
The Household Brigade Magazine mentions parties in the various messes, fireworks, and bonfires in the bases outside London. The possibility that they might be sent to the Far East to continue the war against Japan appears not to have dampened spirits.
The families on the home front naturally thought of their loved ones overseas. Gerald Mansfield’s mother wrote to him to describe VE Day in Whetstone. She described her joy at the parties, decorations, and bonfires, but hopes the lights would stay on to celebrate the end of the blackout were apparently dashed by power shortages.
Victory in Europe marked the end of the war for the Household Division. They were not involved in the Far East and the Regiments began to adjust to peacetime. But it was a time of uncertainty with reorganizations looming and it would still be many months before all the men returned home.