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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.”

To say that darkness hung over Europe was no metaphor. No outdoor light had shone for six years, and blackout curtains had prevented any indoor light from penetrating a window.

From the moment of the D-Day landings in Normandy a year earlier, people had expected the war to end at any moment. Instead, Hitler had unleashed the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs, food rationing had become tighter and tighter and the cities remained plunged in darkness. Europe's cities had the feel of dense, terrifying forests.

“By this point, the blackout was supposedly over,” Ms. Gardiner said. “There'd been a dim-out since the autumn, but almost none of the councils observed it, they just kept the lights out. . . . It wasn't really till the end of the war that the lights went up again.

“So it was really a very, very dingy, bleak, dreary, dismal place — and the people were much the same, I think. Everybody was exhausted from it, desperate for it to end, and in a sense feelings were dominated by a tremendous war weariness and desire for closure.”

The look of the cities seemed to prefigure the mood of the victors. “London was just incredibly grubby — it's always been grubby, but now even the nice parks and squares looked a terrible mess, with rubble and dust everywhere, everything covered in filth,” Mr. Wheal said. “And it looked about the way I felt. There was a serious sense of comedown. You built up thoughts of the end of the war, as if that would be the end of all your difficulties.”

Indeed, behind the exhaustion and wariness was a mood of impossible optimism.

“We thought everything was going to be wonderful,” said Susan Goodman, who was 10 years old at the end of the war and had lived in exile in the countryside. “In 1945, there really was a feeling that complete and total change was going to happen. We were never going to go back.”

It was a revolutionary feeling: After the Depression, the totalitarian movements of the 1930s and the huge personal sacrifices of the war, it seemed like society could be remade completely.

And in many ways it was. By 1950, new forms of government and economy, the welfare state and the mixed economy, had emerged in Europe, as a direct result of the strivings and expectations felt so strongly in that last week. But, to the shock of many, it didn't feel any better. In fact, it felt worse.

The food rationing during the war was bad. After the war, it was terrible. Posters were put up reading, “Eat Less Bread: Eat Potatoes Instead.” Then, in the spring of 1946, those posters went down: There was no bread at all. There never had been bread rationing during the war; for years after, it was a regular reality.

Coal supplies were cut back to almost nil, so the winter of 1947, the coldest in British history, people were ordered not to heat their homes. The winter was followed by the wettest spring in history, during which meat was severely rationed and food had to be delivered by soldiers because of a long-running dockworkers' strike.

“The end of the war was a terrible shock for most people,” Ms. Gardiner said. “Britain came very, very near to collapse. Really, it was on the edge. There were no coal supplies so therefore there was no electricity; therefore no production, and then the whole society was going down. The whole postwar period was one of great disappointment for most people.”

If the economies and buildings and cities were fractured, even worse damage was done to families.

Even in supposedly victorious nations like Britain, which had escaped the utter decimation of population and mass rape of women suffered by German civilians, the scars ran deep.

About four million children had been shipped away from their parents, to unknown locations and with almost no contact, for years. Children and parents alike returned from the war to find things utterly different, or even completely gone.

“My father came back in July,” Ms. Goodman said from her house in Maida Vale, a London neighbourhood that was badly damaged in the war. “I was sent to meet him, rather than my mother, and I can't quite remember why.

“The state of all our clothes was really terrible — there had been no fabric for six years — so I borrowed a sky-blue linen dress from a friend. It was the first nice piece of clothing I'd worn in years. And then this man got off the train — he was very tall and very yellow. He came up and said, ‘Hello, Sue, I'm Daddy,' and I put out my hand and said, ‘How do you do?' It was not auspicious.”

For thousands of children, there was nobody to come home to. For millions, there weren't houses: There was simply no money or supplies to counter the effects of the craters and house the baby boom (which began in Europe during the war, with birth rates beginning to soar in 1942).

This had its political effect. The war economy, however painful and authoritarian, had seemed an improvement over the Depression. The postwar economy was something else altogether.

“After six years of sacrifice, people did not want to go back to the bad old days of poor industrial relations, inadequate health for the poor, insufficient educational opportunities, the state failing to take a role in regulating unemployment,” Ms. Gardiner said.

Eventually, as a result, miracles were worked. Universal public health care came to Britain in July of 1948, and to most other European countries soon after. Decent public education and free, accessible universities were introduced almost everywhere. Labour standards improved. When housing was built, it was public housing available to all.

But this came at a terrible economic cost. In Britain more than any other country, the postwar economy was simply a continuation of the war economy. It had been a total war, and the state had taken control of all the means of production.

After the war, this control increased, choking off any possibility of a real economy developing. In 1946, the iron and steel industries were taken over by the government, followed by full nationalization of all railways and ports, of electrical generation and transmission, of most transport, and of major industries like the Jaguar car company.

Housing became the sole concern of the government. Before the war, most Britons lived in private rental accommodations. By 1980, almost half the country rented their apartments and houses from the government. In between was a flurry of construction of public-housing complexes, most of them ugly and grim, on the craters and flatlands that Hitler had created throughout every British city.

The poor and middle classes were taxed heavily to pay for these monopoly industries, and high duties prevented any other kind of economy from emerging. As a result, wages stagnated, unemployment soared and living standards plummeted.

This economic strangulation proved painful. At the end of 1947, after celebrating the birth of public medicine, Britain's Labour government was forced to pass an emergency austerity budget that severely restricted access to services, increased duties to prohibitive levels, and caused even more rationing of meat, fuel, potatoes and bread.

Within two years, the austerity measures were tightened further. And just as this was occurring, the billion-dollar American war loans were exhausted.

There was no sign of an economy emerging, and imperial Britain had been reduced to developing-world status. Never during the war had people suffered so much.

But those in Britain who were able to travel to continental Europe realized how much worse it could have been. Mr. Wheal, taking his national military service as a teenager, aided in the reconstruction of Germany — most of which involved armed security patrols to prevent the starved and desperate people from robbing and killing each other for food.

“It didn't look like reconstruction was even going to get going there,” he said of his German stint. “There were just mountains of rubble on every street, and there were people starving everywhere and really nowhere for anyone to live. It made you think about your own experience, didn't it, and how much worse they had it than we did.”

How did Europe escape all of this? In large part, because of American money. But it didn't happen quickly.

This is another of the enduring, indelible images of the last century: The euphoria of V-E Day, followed by the great reconstruction of Europe. But the contemporary imagination of those events tends to leave out a gap of 10 to 15 years — some of which, in Germany especially, bore a striking resemblance to today's reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Americans, enjoying a postwar production boom, were horrified to find that Europe, years after the end of the war, still had developed no viable economy. It was not just the starvation and misery that worried them: It was the complete lack of foreign markets for U.S. exports, and the deep-seated worry that Stalin's Soviet Union, which had now engulfed half of Europe, would soon seem more appealing to the other half.

Still, the $20-billion of aid the United States provided through the Marshall Plan wasn't announced until the end of 1947, and didn't arrive until the 1950s. It really was not until the very late 1950s that its effects began to be felt by ordinary people anywhere in Europe.

Susan Goodman remembers the London of her young adulthood as a slow, strangely elegant work of tedious ruin. “The whole city was just pockmarked,” she said. “It had a strange kind of beauty about it — all the jagged walls, flowers growing out of ruins. I remember bits of wallpaper fluttering in the breeze.”

But this look, and this mood, continued deep into the 1950s. Her middle-class family found themselves living extremely constricted lives. Today, in her comfortable home in a London neighbourhood that has become very well-off indeed, she marvels at the awful European years of postwar malaise.

“Nobody had any money — it was all very drab and conformist. My father was a lawyer, we were supposedly well-off, and he had a very hard time making the most basic ends meet. Fuel was difficult, food was very difficult. We had nothing to show for all the struggle. I went to the States for a year for university, and the contrast was amazing — there was just abundance and plenty everywhere, you could simply buy what you wanted without thinking about it.”

When the European economies finally did get going in the late 1950s, it was just the right time for huge tracts of awful architecture to be built. The combination of utopian socialist modernism and cheap, poured-concrete building materials caused many of Hitler's and Churchill's craters to be filled with dreadful, high-rise public-housing units that contributed to the worst social ills of the past few decades. Urban blight and racial segregation were, in this strange, displaced way, also Hitler's fault.

The children who walked the streets that final week of the war often waited 15 or 20 years before they saw the kind of prosperity they had dreamed of. If they stayed in Britain, they often waited 20 more years, as the public-sector economy stagnated further, preventing any growth until the 1980s. Some became part of a downwardly mobile generation.

A surprising number, though, wound up like Mr. Wheal — a child of the slums whose experience with the war's violent mishmash of social classes led him to a successful literary career as a writer of thriller novels and a recent memoir of his war years, World's End: A Memoir of a Blitz Childhood.

Whether successful or not, the sensations of 1945 created a very different sort of individual, one whose childhood and young adulthood was shaped by a world without parents, without even basic goods, and without any sort of security.

“The simple fact of growing up in the war made us in a sense like Elizabethan children — you had to have a real cognizance of the adult world around you,” Mr. Wheal said as he surveyed a former bomb site turned into a pretty urban garden. “You had real duties, responsibilities, and the terrible consequences of avoiding them were there to be seen all around you. You became very serious very early in your childhood.”

That high seriousness is one of the great distinguishing marks of being a child at the time. “We had a different attitude to death from other children,” said Ms. Goodman, who recently edited an oral history titled Children of War: The Second World War through the Eyes of a Generation.

“For those years, death was all around us. You'd hear about how pilots and soldiers died every day, and they were your friends and neighbours. Even us little people, they couldn't keep it from us — young death was just a part of life.”

Death, and deprivation. For so many of the young people who walked the streets of European cities in that long, anxious, odd-smelling first week of May, 1945, what remains in their minds, and deeply ingrained in their characters, is a sense of deprivation that began some time before 1939 and ended many long years after the war. They are the people who still save bits of string and scraps of tin foil, and who launder their clothes until they are threadbare.

This life was the essence of their childhood.

“There was no fuel, no heat. I felt absolutely frozen, absolutely frozen all the time,” Ms. Goodman said, speaking not of the winter of 1947 but of the years of the 1950s, when things should have been better.

“That's why we're a tough old breed. I do save pieces of string.”

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's London bureau.

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