On Friday 8 May 2020 we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, or ‘Victory in Europe’ Day, which marks the end of the Second World War against Germany and her allies in Europe (fighting would still continue in Japan for a further three months, the final official surrender by Japanese leaders was not until 2 September 1945).
At 3pm on Tuesday 8 May 1945 Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a radio address to the nation that the war in Europe had come to an end following Germany’s surrender the day before. Great cheers of relief and celebration immediately rang out across a jubilant country.
However, it also gave stark reflection for those who had lost loved ones in military service, as well as those civilian victims (of all ages, and from both sides) who had tragically lost their lives. The Liverpool Blitz lasted from August 1940 - January 1942. As a result more than 4,000 people died, 10,000 homes were destroyed and 70,000 people made homeless during air raids across Merseyside which peaked with the May Blitz of 1941. Food and clothing rationing still remained in place and the country as a whole needed to rebuild at great expense, it must have been a time of very mixed emotions.
The following objects are part of the King’s Regiment collection, all of which are on display at the Museum of Liverpool. The collection helps to tell just some of the stories of not only those who served but of other local people who participated in the war effort, and of the people of Liverpool who lived through the experiences of the Second World War.
In May 1940 the Government called on all men aged between 17 and 65 to join their local defence units, later renamed the Home Guard. These were all part time soldiers with day jobs. The Liverpool Home Guard was attached to the King’s Regiment and wore their cap badge stencilled on their helmets.
During the Second World War, sixteen battalions of the Lancashire Home Guard became affiliated with the King’s Regiment and were tasked with guarding local strategic positions. Almost 40% of the men who volunteered for the Home Guard were experienced soldiers who had served in the First World War.
Many units were poorly equipped at first and before uniforms were issued, they identified themselves with armbands, like this one.
Women volunteering for service during wartime dated back to the First World War, but during the Second World War the phenomenon really took hold and female Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) units were attached to existing male Territorial units.
Liverpool women were able to join the ATS and serve in England alongside the territorial branch of the King’s Regiment during the Second World War, but were not allowed into combat. The ban on women serving in close combat units in the British military was lifted in 2016 and they are now allowed to enter the cavalry, infantry and armoured corps.
Florence Bolton served with the ATS and her unit was attached to the 38th Searchlight Battalion, King’s Regiment. Her uniform, pictured here, is on display in the City Soldiers gallery at the Museum of Liverpool. She later became very active with the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.
Reforms in the Territorial Army meant that the 7th Battalion of the King’s Regiment, an infantry unit, was converted during the Second World War to the 40th Royal Tank Regiment.
Like many of their predecessors the Territorials retained their identity through their insignia, displaying a Liver Bird on their arm badge.
The 40th (The King’s) Royal Tank Regiment fought in the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. Under the command of General, later Field Marshall, Montgomery, they helped force the retreat of Rommel’s African panzer units out of Egypt.
British and American forces launched a combined invasion of Italy in 1943. This medal was awarded to Allied troops who had taken part in the Entry into Naples on 1 October 1943.
The 2nd Battalion arrived in the difficult mountainous terrain of northern Italy in 1944 and wore this purple shoulder title, which was unique to them. The Battalion began a nine month campaign in Italy in March 1944. The soldiers in Italy felt forgotten when the Normandy Landings in France received all the publicity at home. They jokingly called themselves the ‘D-Day Dodgers’.
The King’s lost their first casualty within 48 hours of their arrival in Italy.
On their first operation, crossing the Rapido River on their way to Casino they suffered heavy losses with 72 killed and scores more wounded.
Their difficult campaign is highlighted by the 20 gallantry medals they were awarded.
D-Day, Normandy Landings
On 6 June 1944 Allied forces launched Operation ‘Overlord’, a plan to liberate the Normandy area of France from occupation by Nazi forces. Men from the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment were among the many thousands of troops who made their way ashore to begin the advance towards Germany.
The 5th and 8th Battalions began training for the invasion in Scotland in 1943. They were allocated the role of Beach groups during the D-Day landings. The 5th landed at Sword Beach with the 3rd British Infantry Division. Sword Beach was divided into four sectors and stretched for about five miles. The 8th (Liverpool Irish) landed at Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Distinguished by white bands on their helmets and among the first ashore, their role was to ‘organise’ the beach, secure it and provide cover for the rest of the troops who followed them.
The Germans had lined the beach with barbed wire. Once through the wire, before they could even get off the beach, the soldiers had to negotiate mines, anti-tank obstacles, mortars, machine guns and trenches lined with more barbed wire.
As soon as they arrived ashore they came under heavy fire, but still had to secure and identify positions, direct troop movements and gather up the dead and wounded.
After six weeks in this role, both battalions had seen their numbers reduced, both by casualties and through men being transferred to other units. The 8th were disbanded.
The 5th Battalion however, survived and took on a new role as No.2T (Target) Force. Their job was to push forward with the advancing allied troops, but also to focus on securing important assets, including equipment and intelligence. They continued in this role until the end of the War. The ‘T’ flash on the jacket sleeve (pictured above) indicates that the wearer was a member of a ‘Target Force’ unit.
This wooden shield was painted by a member of the 5th Battalion with scenes of T Force’s movements, including at Normandy.
The Chindits were the largest of the Allied Special Forces trained in guerrilla warfare, and included soldiers from the King’s Regiment’s 13th and 1st Battalions. The name was derived from ‘Chinthe’, a mythical beast (half lion, half griffin), the guardian of Buddhist temples.
Japan had entered the British Colony of Burma in 1942 promising them independence. It soon became apparent that Japan intended to maintain control over Burma and key trade routes to China.
The Chindits were sent deep behind enemy lines to sabotage Japanese communications during the British advance. The jungle had few established paths and they often had to hack their way through using machetes and locally made Kukris. In dense forest, men could get lost if they strayed just a few metres away from their colleagues. The maps were printed onto brightly coloured silk (pictured below) so that they could be used to signal aeroplanes, but folded very small and easily hidden away if they were captured.
The first ‘Chindit’ expedition was not a success. Most of the retreating units managed to escape back into India on foot. Some wounded were evacuated by air. After the three month mission, almost half of the men were dead, imprisoned, or so ill that they were unable to continue service.
By 1944, the Japanese were being driven back on several fronts. The simultaneous Battles of Kohima and Imphal were a turning point in the campaign in Burma. After the four month battle, the Japanese had suffered their worst ever defeat with 55,000 casualties, including 13,500 killed. The two Chindit invasions, coupled with an uprising of the Burmese Independent Army saw Burma return to British rule in 1945.
Marking VE Day
Although many planned VE Day celebratory events and parties around the country will sadly have to be postponed or cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is still important to reflect on what was such a momentous day in history and the sense of pride of a nation, but to also remember the pain and suffering caused by all wars right up until present day, and think of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
A nationwide two minute silence will be held at 3pm on Friday 8 May 2020.