1945 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The Luddendorf bridge near Remagen.

The BEV Retrospective - 1945.

The previous year, Soviet forces had established bridgeheads across the River Vistula in Poland. Using these as springboards, the Red Army now launched the Vistula-Oder offensive on January 12th.

The opposing German army was now hugely outnumbered in all respects, and the Russians were on the River Oder about 70km from Berlin by February 2nd. They had , however, left themselves in a position where there were threats on their southern flank. It was a couple of months before they could clear them up and make the final assault.

On March 7th, US troops under General Patton found a Rhine bridge still standing at Remagen, and subsequently established numerous Rhine crossings.

On March 23, Montgomery's 21st Army Group forced a crossing of the Rhine near Wesel. As noted, the Soviet armies were close to Berlin, and the war in Europe was almost over.

On April 12, President Roosevelt died suddenly from a cerebral haemorrhage, tragically deprived of the chance to see victory. He was succeeded by the Vice President, Harry S. Truman, who at that point had to be briefed about the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Hitler had moved to his last-resort bunker in January. On my birthday he took the life of his wife Eva, having married her shortly before, and then had the balls to take his own. Soon afterwards Germany capitulated to the Allies, and the war in Europe ended.

At the beginning of April, US forces had begun their penultimate island-hop in the reconquest of the Pacific with an assault against Iwo Jima. The fight there lasted until June 21st and was exceedingly bloody. President Truman was persuaded that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would be a disaster in terms of military and civilian losses. In an attempt to bring the war to a rapid conclusion he sanctioned the use of nuclear weapons.

In August, the United States Army Air Force dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering in a new age of potential Armageddon. As a consequence, the war against the Japanese also quickly came to an end.

It was over.


The two bombs dropped on Japan were two of three fission bombs that had then been produced by the Manhattan Project. The first, a Uranium 235 gun-type bomb, was built using Uranium 235 produced by enrichment of natural Uranium at the Oak Ridge facility. It used two separate pieces of fissile material, one of which was fired down a gun barrel at the other to very quickly create the critical mass that would sustain a chain reaction. It was the only one of its kind, and no such device had ever been tested. The scientists were confident from their calculations that it would work.

The other was a Plutonium bomb utilizing Plutonium produced in the reactors at Hanford. It had been discovered by the physicists and mathematicians late in 1943 that Plutonium could not be used in a gun-type device. Plutonium had too high a rate of spontaneous fission that released neutrons. These stray neutrons from the bullet and the target would initiate a chain reaction before the two parts collided, and the bomb would 'fizzle'.

A large team of the best minds in the USA had laboured at Los Alamos throughout 1944 to perfect the implosion technique whereby conventional explosives surrounding a hollow Plutonium core created an inwardly focused explosion that suddenly compressed the Plutonium into a critical mass. This had previously been regarded as the long-shot option. Because it was technologically complicated, one of these bombs was tested at the "Trinity" test in New Mexico only a month before the bombs were used in earnest.

On a lighter note, the Microwave Oven was invented in this year. At the Ratheon Company in the US, which made cavity magnetrons, Percy Spencer was working on a live radar set when he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket got melted. He put together a contraption in which the output from a powerful magnetron was piped through a wave guide into a metal box with no escape, and made popcorn in the box. Simple when you know how!

The USA 'imported' 88 German scientists and engineers who had been involved in the development of the V2 rocket to help them to get up-to-speed. The Russians knew about the V1 at the time but were not particularly impressed. They had a program of their own.
Politics & Economics.

The end of WW2 in the east was the trigger for a slew of political changes. In China, a civil war between communists and nationalists had been going on since around 1927. This had been interrupted to some extent when the Japanese invaded northern and coastal China in 1937. The nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fought a conventional war against the Japanese, while the communists largely restricted themselves to guerrilla activities. As a result, the war against the Japanese favoured the communists, since their losses were fewer.

To compound this advantage, in the last few months of WW2, Soviet forces overran Manchuria, and when the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 700,000 Japanese troops surrendered to the Russians. The arms of these troops were promptly handed over to the Chinese communists. The Americans, in the person of General George Marshall now attempted to broker a peace between the communists and nationalists. This attempt was to a large extent utilized by both sides to bolster their power bases, and the truce Marshall had arranged fell apart the following year.
In April, a meeting of representatives from 50 countries was convened in San Francisco to negotiate the formation of the United Nations. The UN officially came into existence on 24 October 24th when its charter was ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council - France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, and by a majority of the other countries involved.

In July, there was a general election in the UK. It had been ten years since the previous one, as elections were suspended during the war. The electorate surprised themselves and everyone else by electing a Labour government. This upset was despite the fact that Churchill led the Conservative party, and was a massive national hero as a result of his conduct of the war. But now it was peace time, and the ordinary people wanted a life, and not the life they had in a different Britain before the war.

The Labour party ran on the platform of a welfare state - a safety net for the have-nots, with a National Health Service from which all could get medical treatment, and of nationalization of strategic industries. A brave new world that the ordinary people felt they had paid for in deprivation, and in too many cases, blood!

The vote-counting process took some time because there were still very many men away abroad, some still fighting in the east. So though the election was held on 5th July, the results were not declared until the 26th.

It must have been an awesome moment for the Labour leaders Atlee, Morrison and Bevin, who had been in the wartime coalition government, and therefor knew the state of things. The country was bankrupted by the war, and in ruins. Technically the UK had gone bankrupt before I was born, and was saved only by the Belgian government which donated its country's gold reserves to Britain when Belgium fell to the Nazi invasion (the reserves were actually located in London, so it's arguable that the British, in extremis, would have used them anyway). Most of British industry had been hijacked to manufacture war material; the work force for civilian industries was totally disrupted. What a responsibility!

Britain had actually suffered fewer casualties in WW2 than it did in WW1, and fewer than were suffered by the Americans. Of course both of these figures taken together were dwarfed by the casualties suffered by the USSR, which were of the order of 20 million. However, the financial costs of the war had crippled Britain, a trading nation that had done no business to speak of for 5 years, and had spent vast amounts on a war that was a much higher tech affair than WW1.

VE Day.

Needless to say, the end of the war brought celebrations, in Britain particularly so in the case of the end of the European hostilities. Very large crowds gathered in major cities, and I daresay a good deal of beer was drunk, and a lot of unexpected sexual encounters occurred.

In Cottingley it was a more modest affair. I remember standing in Cottingley Main Street. There was some bunting strung between the gas-lamp poles, and I had a little Union Jack that I dutifully waved. I don't remember there being anyone else about. Possibly the inhabitants were all down at the Sun Inn, which is where I'd have been if I had been a grown up.

Hmm, well that's not really true. If I'd been a grown up, I'd likely have been in the army, and not there on that day. The inhabitants of the village at that time were largely women, children, and older men. Some younger men worked in industries that were deemed essential to the war effort, but they were regarded with ill-concealed disdain by the wives of the men who were away.

I suspect that for many, the fact that the war was over was entertainment enough, but Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley continued their activities unabated.

The top US movies were "Mom and Dad" ("The Family Story" in the UK) - this was a pretty explicit portrayal of the story of an unmarried mother who was talked into having sex by an air force pilot, and her subsequent pregnancy.

In contrast, "The Bells of St Mary's" was a story about a priest - Bing Crosby - and a nun - Ingrid Bergman - who set out to prevent a school from being closed.

From the UK, the outstanding film was definitely David Lean's "Brief Encounter". This was the story of a poignant, hopeless love affair between a housewife and a doctor who meet and part at a railway station.

Music was not impressive. The only tunes I know from the lists of that year are "Sentimental Journey", which was then recorded by Les Brown and Doris Day, and "Laura", named for the previous year's film of the same name, by the Woody Herman band.


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