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.