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Europe lay in ruins, with more struggles to come

Globe and Mail Update

London — The thing about that last week of the war, in the mind of a 14-year-old London slum-dweller named Donald Wheal, was not the strange public mood of anxious hope, or the utterly blank canvas that was the future, or the sheer painful impossibility of daily life. It was the odour.

The first week of May, 1945, had its own distinct smells, the inimitable sort of smells that linger in the memory for a lifetime. “As you walked through these streets that week, you'd get it in all your senses,” Mr. Wheal recalled. “If the day was damp or wet or raining, you would immediately smell this intense odour of charred wood. That smell was one of the London smells then, and in fact for quite a while after the war. And the equivalent smell on warm days was dust — not the ordinary dust of coal, but a very specific-smelling dust of broken bricks and fallen walls.”

When we think of the war's end, usually we think of pictures — the tough, pale women dancing arm-in-arm, the kisses, the crowds, the upturned bottles, the smiling soldiers standing in an open car amid a sea of revellers.

Here in London, Piccadilly Circus was the site of a floodlit bacchanal, as if switching on the city's streetlights for the first time in six years had somehow jolted everyone alive.

But that was one day. To those who were there, it was one stroboscopic flash of light, a quick jolt between long patches of grey.

It is worth lingering instead on the long final week of war that led up to that day. For it was at that moment, across Europe and in the world's major capitals, that the seeds of our age were being sown.

People everywhere knew very well that the war was about to end, any day now — Hitler's suicide was announced to the world 60 years ago today, and the phrase “V-E Day” was on everyone's lips.

What people saw, felt, smelled and sensed around them that week determined, in large part, what was to happen over the next decades — even if their hopes and anticipations for those postwar years were, in almost every case, completely wrong.

This week, Donald Wheal, now 74, stepped confidently along the streets of World's End, the west London slum of his childhood. To a visitor today, it looks like a bright, prosperous neighbourhood. But to those who were present at the time, the streets of any European city are etched with the patterns of the war's final week.

Mr. Wheal approached a pretty park set amid the tiny Victorian houses. “This part — it was the crater where many of my friends died, where dozens of houses collapsed on them. It really made quite a nice park, didn't it? But it makes me think of all those who were killed, and even worse, all the near-misses.”

Much of Mr. Wheal's childhood life — his apartment building, half of his school, many of his friends and relatives — lay in deep craters created by bombing raids or V-2 attacks, or along streets where houses were missing like punched-out teeth.

Almost all of his conscious childhood life had taken place amid blackouts and shortages. His idea of adolescent play was to build long, dangerous tunnels through the eight-storey mountain of rubble that filled the largest park. Death was a daily reality.

So any mood of optimism, in that first week of May, was heavily tempered by the extraordinary magnitude of destruction. British cities were decimated. German and Dutch cities were far worse — vacant, smouldering, lunar. To the men lucky enough to return to the cities, even those parts that were supposedly untouched looked far worse, far uglier and more dismal, than they had six years before.

“You really cannot imagine how shabby and how really devastated everything was,” said historian Juliet Gardiner, a specialist in the war years whose books include The Children's War and Wartime: Britain 1939-1945.

“The rubble was very often cleared up by the end of the war . . . but there were also great gaping holes, jagged walls, and only really the most minimal clearing-up to make things safe. It was a very, very depressing place.”

Since the 1930s, building materials, like most household goods, had been unavailable at any price. Europe was already a shabby-looking place after the murderously tough Depression years. Now, its best quarters looked hideous.

“Nothing had been painted, of course — no paint around for six years,” Ms. Gardiner said. Her own neighbourhood in South London had been completely flattened by Hitler.

“When roofs lost their tiles, they just had tarpaulin stretched over them. There was no glass, so windows, when they were blown out, were just covered with plywood, or something called R-Glass, which was completely opaque.”

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