Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

VE Day Buckingham Palace 1945

THE SECOND World War in Europe ended early on the morning of 7 May 1945 when General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document in Reims. Churchill was informed of around 7am and, soon afterwards, widespread rumours of the surrender began to draw thousands of people onto the streets. At 7.40pm, the Ministry of Information made a short announcement:

In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.

The celebrations began that evening and continued late into Tuesday until a thunderstorm broke shortly before midnight. Vast crowds gathered in locations across central London, including outside Buckingham Palace where the chant of ‘We want the King!’ was repeatedly raised. There a BBC recording team captured the night-time uproar at 12.30am on the 8th of May, and the recording (BBC library number 9952) is reproduced on this page.

Much archive footage exists of the events of VE Day, but it typically lacks a soundtrack or else the crowd sounds are overlaid with commentary and recorded music. This recording is different in that only the crowd itself is heard, with whistling, cheering that swells, fades and then redoubles, applause, and the beeping of car horns for sight of the King. That day the Royal Family would make eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

VE Day bonfire in London

Other sounds of VE Day were described by the English novelist Mollie Panter-Downes, writing for the New Yorker magazine:

All day long, the deadly past was for most people only just under the surface of the beautiful, safe present, so much so that the Government decided against sounding the sirens in a triumphant ‘all clear’ for fear that the noise would revive too many painful memories. For the same reason, there were no salutes of guns – only the pealing of the bells, and the whistles of tugs on the Thames sounding the doot, doot, doot, dooooot of the ‘V,’ and the roar of the planes, which swooped back and forth over the city, dropping red and green signals toward the blur of smiling, upturned faces.

VE Day celebrated in the Strand, London

A second BBC transcription disc of the celebrations also existed at one point, but I’ve been unable to track it down. According to its catalogue description, it included the sounds of Whitehall crowds as Churchill made his way to the House of Commons, and of a street party in Stepney where the crowd sang ‘Roll out the barrel’ and ‘When they sound the last all-clear’ whilst a bonfire crackled in the background and children laughed and called.

The two photographs here are reproduced from Wikimedia under the terms of their original Imperial War Museum non-commercial license. The upper photograph shows a crowd gathering around a bonfire in an unnamed part of London, and the lower one is of revellers in a truck driving along the Strand.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

VE Day Buckingham Palace 2:31