While the nation partied on VE Day we were still fighting behind enemy lines

Joe Shute
·6-min read
Lt Jim Booth photographed at home - Andrew Crawley
Lt Jim Booth photographed at home - Andrew Crawley

While a victorious British public poured on to the streets to celebrate the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, Jim Booth found himself in a somewhat less enviable position.

A commando in a special unit termed the Combined Operations Pilotage and Reconnaissance Party, that day he was boarding a Royal Navy ship transporting troops from Burma to the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee. Booth and his men had endured months of hand-to-hand fighting in the jungle far behind enemy lines and as Europe cheered the end of the war they were being prepared for months – possibly years – more fighting against the Japanese.

‘V Day in Europe,’ the now 99-year-old wrote in his leather-bound wartime diary which he still keeps in his desk at home and only showed his daughter for the first time a week or so ago. ‘Churchill makes speech on German surrender. We sail 1000 hours…I have feverish cold and stay in bed all day.’

Speaking to the Telegraph ahead of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Booth recalls a muted atmosphere onboard as they sailed across the Bay of Bengal. “There wasn’t any celebration,” he says. “We knew we had a lot to come.”

Jim Booth in the wartime years - family photo
Jim Booth in the wartime years - family photo

Following Germany’s surrender, it would take four more long and brutal months for the Second World War to officially be declared over. After the US dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, Japan eventually surrendered on August 15 marking VJ Day and the onset of peace.

British troops sustained tremendous losses in the war in the Far East, 90,000 casualties of whom 36,000 died. There were 12,000 deaths in Japanese Prisoner of War camps alone.

Jim Booth, who today lives in Taunton, Somerset, was among 100,000 British troops who fought in Burma, alongside 119,000 soldiers from the East and West African colonies.

Booth’s role in Burma was special and top secret. The previous year at D-Day, he was part of a team which had slipped out on one of two miniature submarines known as an X-craft to be the first British vessels to reach Sword Beach and direct the massed Allied armada in.

Booth, who at the age of 18 had abandoned a degree in medicine at Cambridge University in the first term to join the Royal Navy, played a vital role in ensuring the success of the landings and was awarded the Croix de Guerre - but that heroic operation was far from the end of his war.

After being dispatched to Burma he was part of two clandestine reconnaissance teams working ahead of the 14th Army to inspect beaches as suitable landing points. They operated at night, often fighting the enemy units they encountered with their Fairbairn-Sykes knives to avoid detection. Aside from the Japanese troops, crocodiles also posed a constant threat.

“It was quite scary in the jungle but we were all trained so ready for everything,” recalls Booth whose final rank was a Lieutenant, with typical modesty. “At one stage we were caught and almost eliminated but we lost nobody and killed a lot of them.”

Col Aylmer, far right, photographed in Germany on VE Day - family photo
Col Aylmer, far right, photographed in Germany on VE Day - family photo

Even for those troops on the battlefield in Europe on VE day, it was hard to share in the national celebrations back home. While people danced the jitterbug in Trafalgar Square, many on the frontline were only beginning to comprehend the scale of the death and destruction of six long years of war.

Colonel John Anthony Aylmer (known as Tony) was a 19-year-old officer in the 3rd Battalion, The Irish Guards. He had been fighting overseas since February 1945, pushing the retreating German army back through Europe.

He recalls the devastating power of the 88mm guns of the German Panzer divisions to which the British Sherman tanks proved little match. His company commander was killed by a sniper during their very first battle after arriving in Europe as reinforcements, and even after crossing the Rhine on wobbly pontoon bridges the fierce fighting continued.

“The Germans were very well disciplined and fought until the last day they surrendered,” the now 94-year-old recalls.

On VE Day itself, Aylmer and his fellow troops were based in North West Germany. The evening before, he says, news of the German surrender had come over the radio of the farmhouse where they were billeted but they were ordered to resume battle positions the following day in case the enemy betrayed them.

“When we saw the prisoners laying down their arms and disappearing over the hills on the long walk home we felt a tinge of respect for them,” he says.

But even once the fighting was over he remembers little celebration among his men. The first thing they did was arrange a service of remembrance for the fallen in the grounds of the farmhouse where they were based.

“Later I went around with a bottle of whisky to cheer everyone up but there wasn’t tremendous cheering or shouting,” he says. “We were quite tired.”

Leslie Needham photographed during the war - family photo
Leslie Needham photographed during the war - family photo

Elsewhere in Europe, other serving troops felt more able to let their hair down. Leslie Needham, a cypher operator with the Special Operations Executive (SoE, known as Churchill’s underground army which waged war behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia) was based in Siena, Italy, at the time of the Nazi surrender.

He recalls his fellow troops taking over a local park and his commander Major General Gubbins racing around on a tiny welbike (the miniature motorbikes invented by the SoE to drop to partisans behind enemy lines). There were three-legged races, while a group of American troops greased up a piglet and took bets on which of them could catch it.

“We obviously knew from the messages we were receiving that VE Day was coming, but still it was a fantastic occasion,” the now 98-year-old Needham recalls.

Though for him, too, the day was laced with sorrow. Prior to being recruited by the SoE, Needham had been a wireless operator in the Royal Signals but in 1943 was severely wounded in a bomb blast in North Africa leaving him with injuries so severe doctors feared he might die. Just a few weeks before his injuries he discovered his brother, Eric, who was a fighter pilot, had been killed. “War was full of good times and bad times,” Needham recalls.

On Friday, the veterans of the Second World War will quietly reflect on this universal truth of any conflict - those stark memories seared upon their minds.

Jim Booth had been hoping to attend the national commemorations in London and had also been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace a few weeks later, though both have been cancelled as a result of the coronavirus.

In a way, he notes, that will make it the second VE Day in his life he has missed, but at least this time he will not be stuck aboard a troopship wracked with fever while Britain parties.

But he believes his experience in 1945 stands him in good stead for surviving the crisis today - and waiting patiently for the moment when we will come together to celebrate once more. “It’s an awful situation for all of us but we will get through it in the end,” he says.