Dancing and Singing

In Exeter people danced in bunting-decorated streets, attended thanksgiving services in the cathedral and the city’s churches, and watched a military parade. In Plymouth they gathered near the bombed-out ruins of St Andrew’s church to hear Churchill’s VE Day speech. Then, until midnight, they thronged Plymouth Hoe to dance and sing. ‘There were upwards of 1,000 dancers,’ the Western Morning News reported, ‘with perhaps 20 times that number looking on.’

Bonfires and Sports Events

Smaller communities also celebrated, and in many villages, in addition to church services, there were dances, bonfires and sports events. At Woodbury a men-versus-women football match was won by the women, while at Killerton they burned exploding effigies of Hitler and Mussolini. Ottery St Mary moved its traditional procession of lighted tar barrels from bonfire night to VE Day, some of the barrels being rolled by local soldiers just home from the war.

A Mixture of Emotion

Celebrations in the north of the county were also exuberant. But as elsewhere they were tempered by the knowledge that so many lives had been lost and that the war outside Europe still needed to be won. In the streets of Barnstaple, the North Devon Journal reported, the mixture of emotions was plain to see. ‘Some people were hilarious with joy, others burst into tears as the pent-up feelings of over five war years burst forth… A soldier in battle dress found himself hugged and caressed by a matronly woman overcome with happiness at the thought that her soldier sons would soon be home again’.

The First Parish to be Bombed

At Instow on the Torridge estuary the celebrations had particular resonance. In August 1940 Instow had been the first North Devon parish to be bombed. Now, with the coming of peace, the children were given rides in tanks on the sands, and the popular winner of the 100-yards flat race was the parish priest. For everyone the darkest days of the war were at an end.