VE Day 75: How mouldy brass buttons helped Victory in Europe Day 1945 go with a swing for one Harold Wood veteran
PUBLISHED: 12:30 08 May 2020
Dennis Goodwin was 18 when the allies declared Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945, ending a war which was “80 per cent boredom and 20 per cent excitement”.
Now 93, the retired engineer from Harold Wood was in Brighton training with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) when the historic news came.
But brass buttons, an angry sergeant and a faulty sash window saw to it that the war’s “20 per cent excitement” was even more memorable.
“We were spotty kids pretending we were soldiers and loving it.
“One time in Brighton some guys were passing through. Desert veterans. This guy had lovely brass buttons. I hinted and he offered me them. After a couple of weeks, I got fed up with polishing them.
“Anyway, come May this grisly old sergeant said, ‘Everybody outside, full dress’.
“That meant greatcoats, backpacks, the lot. But we hadn’t touched the stuff for three months and there was mould on the buttons so I was put on a charge for disgracing the King’s uniform.”
On the eve of the 1939-45 conflict’s end, Dennis found himself confined to barracks at The Albemarle Hotel – which had been requisitioned by the military during the war.
Instead of joining his mates heading for a night out, the confined youngster was left seeing them off from his bedroom window.
But little did he know that what happened next would actually work in his favour.
“I’m leaning out the window waving when the sash fell on my hand,” Dennis explained.
With a swollen hand, his arm was put in a sling before he was packed off back to The Albemarle.
When VE Day arrived, Dennis slipped out of confinement with his pals, telling officers he needed to get his dressing changed.
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Instead the lads headed to the pier.
“We weren’t feeling like heroes. We felt like it was a relief. Anyway, this chap came along in plus fours, shiny buttons, pepper and salt tweed, a hat with a feather, military moustache. An officer type,” Dennis said.
Pip, Squeak and Wilfred – names given to three First World War campaign medals: the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal respectively – were pinned on his chest as he strolled along with his teenage daughters.
Spotting Dennis’s wound, the man stopped, threw the group a salute and said: “Here you are lads! Girls, give the heroes a kiss.”
Not needing a second invitation, Dennis and his friends grabbed the girls and started smooching.
“He had to prise us apart because it got a bit embarrassing. He was waiting,” Dennis said.
Thanking them for winning the war, the old boy pressed a fiver into Dennis’s palm and left.
In a day he remembers clearly, Dennis joined soldiers at the YMCA where he tried his first Coca-cola, mixing it with an aspirin after Canadian soldiers said it got you drunk.
“It did nothing,” Dennis laughed. “We danced until midnight.”
On what VE Day meant at the time, he said: “We had beaten the Germans. We were top of the world. We weren’t alone because the whole empire was with us. But Japan was looming.”
Reflecting on the war, he added: “It had been an adventure. It was 80 per cent boredom and 20 per cent excitement. Boredom because there was nothing to do.”
That’s because the cinemas were closed, there were no football matches, food was rationed, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around and the radio was full of propaganda and military march music.
“People were going barmy. We didn’t have the luxuries you could get on the black market. But it left me healthy. I’ve never been ill,” Dennis said.
Brighton was “a cushy number” and “un-army like”, but after VE Day Dennis carried on with his REMI training, eventually getting posted to Palestine. His service came to an end in 1948.
On how he plans to mark VE Day, Dennis said: “If the coronavirus restrictions aren’t lifted, there’s not a lot a 93 year old can do, other than keep one’s head below the parapet! If things are returning to normal I’ll probably be out on my bike.”
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