VE Day 75th Anniversary: Life In Dunstable During WW2

“My memory of VE Day, 1945, was that it seemed that everyone in the world had come to the centre of Dunstable. The crossroads were jam packed and everyone was singing and dancing. Chaos!”
Paul Heley gives his recollection of VE Day and growing up in Dunstable during WW2.

VE Day 75th Anniversary: Life In Dunstable During WW2

VE Day 75th Anniversary: Life In Dunstable During WW2



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Lately we are having all sorts of 75th anniversaries dealing with some aspect or another regarding the ending of World War 2. So far as we are concerned it was 8th May, 1945 when we celebrated VE Day (ie Victory in Europe Day) recording the date (or the day before) when Germany finally signed an unconditional surrender. The war in the Far East against Japan continued for a few months before they, too, surrendered on 15th August, 1945 and we could then celebrate VJ Day.

My memory of VE Day, 1945, was that it seemed that everyone in the world had come to the centre of Dunstable. The crossroads were jam packed and everyone was singing and dancing. Chaos!


VE Day Street Party. Edward Street, Dunstable
VE Day Street Party. Adelaide Street, Luton
VE Day Parade. George Street, Luton.

These celebrations were followed by street parties when people got together whatever they could find. But prior to VE Day itself, Allied troops (British, American, Canadian and Russian) had also liberated some of the death camps run by the Nazis. Terrible places such as Auschwitz Birkenau, Belsen and Treblinka where cruelty beyond imagination had been committed in order to carry out the Nazi’s “final solution” ie the extermination of the entire Jewish nation. There is the sickening “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work gives freedom”) sign over the entrance to Auschwitz which must have rung especially hollow to 70% of the new arrivals as they were immediately taken off to the gas chambers.


“Work gives freedom” The gates at Auschwitz.

The war started on 3rd September, 1939 and I remember that my family was due to go off on our summer holidays to Hastings – but that we never went. I was almost 6 years old at the time – old enough to be bitterly disappointed at not having a seaside holiday. But as it so happened, there were a few months of the so called “phoney war” when nothing, in a military sense, took place – so we could have gone.
But it was the start of 6 years of deprivation on the family front – not helped later when my Dad had to go into the Army and become Private Heley No. 14288189 (later to become a corporal). The deprivation took many different forms – mostly in the manner of some sort of rationing. Not only was rationing conducted for domestic groceries, it was also for meat, soap, tea, clothes and petrol.

Unlike today when everybody has a car, in 1939 and during the war, very few people had such a luxury – a motorbike (if you were lucky) otherwise it was Shanks’s Pony – so petrol rationing didn’t affect the ordinary Joe too much but it was a severe drag on family businesses. It seems amazing – in this day of so much food being wasted because of some “sell by date” – that we existed at all during the war. For example, the weekly food allowance per person was something like (it could vary a bit depending upon whether a food carrying ship had got through without being torpedoed) :- 2oz butter, 4oz margarine, 2oz cooking fat, 1 egg, 4oz bacon, 2oz cheese, 4oz sugar (2oz = 56 grams). This allocation was marked off in your “ration book” at your registered grocer’s (in indelible pencil so it couldn’t be rubbed out in order to get another helping). I remember that sweets were also on ration and that I took my monthly allowance in 4 Crunchie bars. This meant one bar a week and I recall that after coming home from school, I would have a single bite out of my Crunchie bar. Unfortunately Crunchie bars go all soggy and horrible if left uncovered for a few days so, by the end of the week, mine was in a real mess. But I didn’t care!

It’s important to appreciate that there were no supermarkets in those days so one had to choose a particular grocer’s who would hold your rations and mark your ration book. It was the same with a butcher’s.
Meat was rationed not by weight but by value. The meat ration would be something like 1/4d a week so in order to get more meat, one had to go for the cheaper cuts like offal, ox tail, pig’s head or trotters – or sausages (which contained more bread than meat). But living in the country – Dunstable was very much a country town then – meant that meat could be supplemented by such as rabbits, pigeons or something similar (eg squirrels?).

In addition to the food on ration, it was possible to get other provisions such as cereals, porridge oats; pots of paste, jam, marmalade; tins of beans, peas, spaghetti, sardines or soup. So called raspberry jam was actually plum jam with tiny wooden “pips”.
These sorts of item were available on “points” and there were strips in your ration book of A, B and C points where A = 1, B = 2 and C = 4 points. There was a certain allocation of these points to last the duration of your ration book so you could either blue the lot in one glorious binge or eke them out bit at a time. Most people chose the latter.

I remember something called “bread and scrape”. This was a slice of buttered or “marged” bread (which was then scraped off) and on top was paste or jam (which was also scraped off). The net result was slightly flavoured bread!

There were very few items which might be called luxuries – it was all very basic stuff.
Absolute treats like tinned pineapple or other exotic fruits were rare, and treasured, if and when a ship got through. Something I remember vividly was that older people kept telling me about how wonderful bananas were. I had never seen a banana and had visions of joy beyond description when, at last, they appeared in the shops. My level of expectation could never be realised, however, and I recall that I was, in fact, slightly disappointed when I first experienced a banana – the indescribable Heaven was too much.
Something else which people of a certain age (ie old!) will remember is the wonderful taste of the first new potatoes of the season. Nowadays potatoes are edible all the year round because they can be brought in from anywhere. But that was not the case during the war when potatoes were seasonal. This meant that during the winter, the last season’s crop were stored outside in what were known as “clamps”. These were piles of potatoes covered in straw and it meant that the outer ones were frozen and the inner ones had mostly gone rotten – the net result being that for almost six months of the year potatoes could only be eaten if mashed (and that they were horrible). Hence the unbridled joy when the new crops became available. People today simply cannot imagine how wonderful new potatoes actually were and how much we looked forward to them.


“Dig For Victory” posters.

Vegetables were an important part of the diet during the war and we were forever being encouraged to “Dig for Victory” courtesy of a poster showing a happy yeoman clutching an armful of lovely vegetables. There was also a brief period when rhubarb leaves were thought to be another form of green vegetable and we were encouraged to cook them. That is until a number of people went down with minor food poisoning after which it was discovered that rhubarb leaves are mildly poisonous!
But despite the manifold restrictions – especially when compared with today – it is claimed that people on average were healthier during the war than they are now where too much food has led to overweight, obesity and diabetes – and a generation of fat children.

Made in Luton. A Churchill Tank.

Something else I remember as a boy is the endless convoys coming along Church Street from the Luton direction. These consisted of lorries, Bren gun carriers and other military vehicles (including tank carriers with Churchill tanks made at nearby Luton) and seemed to go on for ages completely blocking off all other roads. To a boy they were fascinating.

Civilian boat “Vanity”, evacuating soldiers in Dunkirk.

It must be said that people in Dunstable hardly knew there was a war going on – we were very rarely involved directly. Obviously the radio kept us informed of the different conflicts and battles – such as the disaster of Dunkirk in May/June 1940 (when England could have been invaded), the eventual D-Day itself in June 1944 (when my Dad went over on D2), the suicide of Hitler leading to the Nazi surrender in May 1945. Many of these events have been covered time and time again more recently.


D-Day, Normandy.
D-Day landings at Normandy.
D-Day landings at Normandy.

As I’ve said, Dunstable was a country town but had two factories producing equipment and material for our military – and which the Germans would like to destroy. One was the Sphinx Works at the north end of town and the other was the Rubber Works at the south end of town. A never to be forgotten memory (which I think must be unique) occurred during the summer of 1943 (when I was nine). I was by myself standing at the top of our street and heard the drone of an aircraft. Looking up I recognised a German Dornier – we boys knew all the ‘planes – flying so low as to almost skim the rooftops. I could easily make out the face of the pilot who smiled at this small boy gawping at him (perhaps he had a small son back home in Germany?). The whole experience lasted for seconds only, but seemed like hours. Then this pilot turned his attention to the job in hand and strafed the Sphinx Works, strafed the High Street, and then strafed the Rubber Works. But he had smiled at me!

This was the most noticeable occasion when Dunstable was clearly a deliberate target. Other times when the odd bomb fell on Dunstable usually followed a raid on Luton (the railway, Vauxhall, Bedford and Commer trucks were all targets) and we received a “throwaway” or “left over” bomb. However, Dunstable had something of great importance and that was the Met Office at the top of West Street. It was here, for example, where the weather forecast for the D Day landings was put together.

Other memories are that Dunstable received a number of evacuees from the ferocious bombings in London. These tough cockney kids and we country yokels didn’t always get on terribly well and there were many fights. Although most of the evacuees returned to London as soon as they could, a few had found some form of haven and stayed.

Something else is that, almost for the first time, women took on what had always been men’s jobs and showed that they were very good at it. A classic example was the Land Army where women became agricultural labourers and helped tremendously in the production of all important food.
There are so many memories and I hope that these jottings might inform (to an extent) those who were not there as well as jogging personal memories for those “oldies” (like me) who were.

The Vine Dunstable – April / May 2020  Read the latest issue of The Vine Magazine for your area HERE




VE Day 75th Anniversary: Life In Dunstable During WW2

VE Day 75th Anniversary: Life In Dunstable During WW2