For millions of men, women and children across Europe the official end of the war was merely a technicality, something that they barely noticed. The Allies struggled to cope with the huge numbers of ‘Displaced Persons’, former concentration camp inmates, slave workers, forced labourers, prisoners of war and refugees, most of them stranded hundreds of miles from their home countries.
Ingoushka Petrov, later to become better known as the film actress Ingrid Pitt, was an eight year old living in the forests of Poland with her mother. Months earlier they had escaped from one of the death marches from a concentration camp:
I missed the end of the war.
It was three weeks or so before the news filtered through the forest that the Allies had crushed the Germans and it was safe to go home. Home! What did that mean to an eight year old with only memories of overcrowded camps, rank fear of anything out of the ordinary and living in a forest, frequently ill, usually freezing cold and constantly starving?
There had been a lot of talk about going home for the last month or so. The sound of distant battles had stopped. Opinion on the cause of the cessation was divided. Some said that it was because the Germans had been defeated; others that they had won. It didn’t mean a thing to me at the time.
Another interesting factor to be stirred into the argument was the sudden absence of refugees — farmers and residents of the surrounding countryside fleeing their homes before the advance of the Russian Army or deserting soldiers on the run.
They were either allowed to stay, threatened with violence if they didn’t move on or, if times were particularly bad, led off into the woods, never to be seen again.
We, my mother and I, had been lucky. When the threat of the advancing Russians compelled the Germans to pull out we had been marched off with the other inmates of the camp. Constant strafing by Allied planes had soon convinced the Nazi guards that being in close proximity to a column of prisoners, which from the air probably looked like troops movements, was not good for their health. After one strafing my mother managed to haul me off into the woods without being noticed by the few remaining guards.
It was winter and all we had on were the rags we had managed to scavenge before leaving the camp. On top of that, I had a streaming cold, which reduced my face to a mask of thick mucus. I think I whined a lot. My mother encouraged me with, ‘Not much farther,’ but I soon began to disbelieve her.
We trudged on through the wood. My mother was displaying confidence she could not possibly have felt. At last even she began to fail. We huddled down in a thicket. By this time I felt too ill to even cry.
Then the miracle happened. Two indistinct figures passed close by. My mother called to them. She didn’t care who they were. If we stayed where we were we were doomed anyway. They were two ‘partisans’, locals who had found it safer to live in the woods rather than be sitting ducks for marauding soldiers from whichever army might be in ascendance at the time. They weren’t keen to take us but my mother suggested they either shot us or took us with them. Luckily, they decided on the latter course.
So we joined the ill-assorted group living in the forest in ramshackle huts and waited out the war. The news of its end came with the Russian soldiers. They fed us and took us out of the forest.
It was the start of two years wandering around Europe looking for my father. At last we found him. That was the real end of the war for us.
One of many recollections of the end of the war to be found in VE Day – A Day to Remember