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Victory over Japan Day: Celebrating the end of World War II

THE JAPANESE WAR, wrote Nigel Nicolson, editing his father Harold’s well-known wartime diaries, ‘aroused little interest in Britain. The fall of Rangoon to General Slim’s 14th British Army on 2 May had not even been mentioned in his Diary, nor was the fierce fighting by the Americans for Okinawa’.

For Nicolson at least, after VE Day it was the situation in Europe, including the fate of Poland, that dominated thinking, along with the domestic political landscape following Churchill and the Conservative Party’s defeat at the polls and the formation of the new Labour government in July. 

The Japanese war arouses no interest at all, but only a nauseated distaste. We must expect human nature, after having risen to such heights of feeling and resolution, to deteriorate into petty meanness and rancour. But all this will pass.– Nigel Nicholson

Other British people were far more interested in the Japanese war than Harold Nicolson. Frances Partridge, pacifist and Bloomsbury group member, was on holiday at St Helen’s in Cornwall. On the evening of 13 August she was in bed with her husband when they heard the noise of a procession making its way to the pier, and the hooter of the Scillonian, the vessel that ferried people to and from the Scilly Isles, blasting away in the harbour. ‘Shouts, more trumpets, rockets and then maroons going off with a deafening whoosh followed by an echo like a whole town collapsing . . . “The whole world is now at PEACE!”, we said to each other. On 15 August the family watched a torchlight procession at Penninis – ‘like a pagan festival’ – held to celebrate VJ Day.

On the same day, the novelist and soldier Evelyn Waugh was at his family home in Ickleford, Hitchin. ‘Peace declared. Public holiday. Remained more or less drunk all day’. On the following day he wrote: ‘Another public holiday. Hangover, Winston [Churchill, the Prime Minister’s grandson] a boisterous boy with head too big for body. Randolph [Churchill] made a bonfire and Auberon [Waugh’s son] fell into it. American came to luncheon and signed Randolph up for highly profitable daily column. Some village sports and damp bonfire and floodlit green.’

For those with relatives stationed out east, the end of the Japanese war was, naturally, as significant as the end of the war in Europe back in May. The ‘ferocity of the war against Japan’, writes Martin Gilbert’, ‘did not abate’ after VE Day.The casualties in the Okinawa campaign, for instance, up to 13 May, included 6,634 American and 137,557 Japanese dead. On that day, 13 May, British bombers had successfully mined the Yangtse River. In an attack on a Japanese-controlled strategic railway. Eight British planes ‘scored seven hits on the track, and killed 200 Japs who were caught standing in formation along the railroad’.

With the war in Europe over, the British were pivoting their military strength towards the Pacific, while also preparing for the final battles in Burma and the recapture of the Malay peninsula. By early 1945, the most powerful Royal Navy fleet in operation was the British Pacific Fleet, enduring kamikaze attacks along with US forces as they pushed towards the Japanese home islands. Even as VJ Day was declared, these forces were attacking Japanese targets, and being attacked in turn, as South East Asia Command prepared for its own D-Day, the long-anticipated amphibious assault on occupied Malaya.

The atomic bombs brought relief to those expecting more hardship and danger as the war with Japan looked set to drag on for months if not years. Doctor Sholto Forman was in Bombay, on his way to the war, when it happened. Resident medical officer to 5 Commando near Poona, the unit was training to fight the Japanese. The bombs were dropped ‘as we were packing up an exhausted looking tramp steamer in Bombay harbour for the invasion of Penang Island [Malaya]. None of us wept for the victims. Perhaps we were wrong, but on the night the war ended I don’t think any of us gave a damn. Reprieve is sweet. I was home six months later.’

‘It was predicted the war with Japan would last until 1950’, recalled English schoolboy Norman Hurst, because it was said that her troops would indulge in a suicidal defence of her territory, island by island. It was with little emotion therefore that one heard of the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the huge casualties it caused. When the second bomb went off we were staying at a pub, on the outskirts of Monmouth, run by friends. In the orchard at the back we built the customary bonfire around which customers drank while the beer lasted. [We were happy in the knowledge that] we youngsters were not going to get caught up in a fighting war.

The same went for those already serving, though Even with VJ Day, there still remained an array of military tasks to be performed out east, such as running British Military Administrations in reconquered colonies, repatriating Prisoners Of War (POWs), and reoccupying allied colonies, which could involve fighting. Kingsley Amis had been in the Army since 1942, and after VJ Day was hoping to get a ‘Class B release’. Without one, Amis was convinced, he would have been shipped to the Far East, where, though the war was over, ‘plenty of disagreeable things remained to be done, in the course of which one might have got shot by Communists or just died of some tropical disease, as had befallen one of my college mates’.

The final capitulation of Japan on 15 August was the cue for celebrations around the world. In India, crowds flocked to the Taj Mahal and in New Delhi ‘there were dances and route marches, parties and a Victory Parade’. Meanwhile in Brisbane, unbidden yet in their thousands, people congregated around the eternal flame in Anzac Square, a memorial to the dead of the last war. At the same time, in Vieux Fort in the British West Indian island of St Lucia, spectators were awed by flares fired from an American airbase built on leased land, while Lockheed P-38 fighters treated them to ‘some radical air manoeuvres’. There were celebrations in Mauritius, too, including a reception at the Governor’s residence, Le Réduit, a grand parade through the streets of Port Louis, and a gathering of around 50,000 people at the Champ de Mars racecourse.

South East Asia Command’s (SEAC) long-anticipated amphibious invasions of Malaya and Singapore were never fully executed, the enemy’s formal capitulation rendering the plans redundant. Nevertheless, in the aftermath tens of thousands of imperial troops were put ashore, accompanied by East Indies Fleet ships sailing from Rangoon and Trincomalee.

News came through that Japan accepted unconditional surrender … Everyone here went wild. Although we had expected it any time, its impact nevertheless hits us.– Alan Brundrett, 14th August

Corporal L. V. Wills celebrated Victory Japan at 145 Repair and Salvage Unit Ratmalana, drinking beer with his pet monkey Jenny. Ken Waterson, meanwhile, was on the middle watch aboard Relentless in Trincomalee harbour when the news was received: 

That night Trincomalee had its celebrations. There were rocket (distress flares) displays, jumping jacks and concerts. The weather was cooler, the oppressive heat had subsided. VJ evening started just before sunset. Ships were dressed, every colour of flag was flown. There were lots of nationalities. The alphabet went down the USA (America) and USSR (Russia), the latter flew the hammer and sickle. All the flags were hauled down at sunset but were then immediately re-hoisted. The dark night showed up illuminated Vs made up of coloured light bulbs. Some of these were in many colours.– Corporal L. V. Wills

On 16 August there was a Victory March in Ceylon, wrote sailor Alan Brundrett, from ‘village hall to Camp restaurant in which we all have to take part’. On 25 August he was back in Colombo for the big Victory Parade on Galle Face Green. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, wrote proudly in his diary that ‘the great Victory Parade was held in Colombo, at which some 3,500 representatives of all the services marched past in 35 minutes. At this rate, the 1,380,000 men in SEAC would take nearly 9 days and 9 nights to march past!’.

First and foremost, after the formalities of taking the surrender of scattered Japanese garrisons and ensuring order, the liberation of prisoners of war became SEAC’s number one priority. As soon as the surrender came into effect, aircraft from Burma, Ceylon, the Cocos-Keeling Islands, and India commenced Operation Mastiff, dropping food, medicine and radios to all prisoner-of-war camps in Japanese-held South-east Asia and the Dutch East Indies. Later still, many of the inmates of the prisons were air evacuated to Ceylon and to freedom. Bernard Longstaff was an engineer working on Douglas Skymasters in Ceylon, his job now to assist prisoners of war as they were unloaded from transport aircraft.

Tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war returned home to Europe via Ceylon after their liberation in South-east Asia, the Dutch East Indies, and the Far East. ‘As the first ship carrying prisoners of war arrived in Colombo, every ship saluted with its horn. Barges, lighters, and RAF craft ferried them ashore. Most looked like men from Belsen, wearing brand new uniforms. Many attractive young ladies had been recruited as escorts. Marquees had been erected and Colombo did its very best to welcome and entertain them’.

Squadron Leader Sachs was an RAF engineer based in Ceylon working on Skymasters, DC10 transport aircraft. When the war ended his squadron’s job was to receive aircraft loaded with released prisoners of war. 209 Squadron’s Sunderland flying-boats had been modified to take stretchers, and they were the first into Singapore to bring prisoners back from Changi gaol. Most of the former internees arrived in Colombo by ship.

Lady Edwina Mountbatten had made arrangements for the men to be cared for by the tea planters in up-country Ceylon to recuperate before heading home for Britain. She arrived at the King’s Pavilion in Kandy, where her husband wanted her to rest up after her punishing schedule of visits to camps and hospitals. She had a quick ride ‘a glorious mountain road on delightful ponies’. But then it was back to work; ‘I then did a quick change and started off on a Hospital round’. As well as hospitals, she visited hospital ships, convalescent depots, cafeterias and clubs, dental surgeries, YMCAs and the Hospital Supplies Association. She also addressed the Wrens, Welfare and Canteen workers, and VADs, inspected parades of St John and Red Cross representatives and tasted the beer at the Royal Stag in the Services Holiday Camp run by the NAAFI.

Many British servicemen who had been engaged in the war against Japan also returned home via Ceylon. John Mills, who had served aboard the East Indies Station destroyer Volage for 18 months, had to stay a while in Ceylon to recuperate following an operation. Finally, he left Ceylon on board the carrier Formidable, converted to a troopship by putting rows of beds in the hangars. She carried 2,000 passengers home. Once at sea, Mills and 20 others were detailed to push a number of brand new Hellcat and Corsair aircraft overboard, so that under the terms of Lend-Lease the Royal Navy would not have to pay for them.

For many imperial servicemen, VJ Day did not signal the end of hostilities, as South East Asia Command, depending primarily on Indian troops as well as Japanese POWs, reoccupied Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indo-China, where new, nationalist conflicts were already underway.

In this story

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

Professor of Imperial and Military History

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