'We were apart on VE Day but knew we'd meet again'

John and May Mitchell’s love story has lasted more than seven decades but could easily have been ended by the brutal cruelty of World War Two. The couple, who are both 95, spent their 72nd wedding anniversary in lockdown, sharing a bottle of champagne in the garden of their Ayrshire home instead of having a big party. A world war, the Nazis and the Normandy landings couldn’t keep them apart, so coronavirus was never going to faze them.

Friday marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day – Victory in Europe – when Germany surrendered to the allies.

Sealed in letters

John and May have been revisiting their memories of the moment, on 8 May 1945, when the news finally came that the war was over. The couple knew each other since they both left school at the age of 14. They were friends and met up at “the dancing”.

Their war years served as their courtship and the relationship was sealed in letters they sent to each other across the channel.

John, who was trained as a wireless operator, said: “I wrote letters in between listening to the radio set and sending the coded messages. We were allowed one a month and it was called a ‘green letter’ which wasn’t supposed to be checked.” May said: “It was still a tentative time in the relationship.

We were friends but we corresponded all the time.” She had a map on her wall at home and marked all the places John told her he had been.

‘Not an exercise’

May was stationed as a supervisor at a bomb-making factory at Bowhouse, near Kilmarnock while John was being trained for the Normandy invasion of June 1944. The pair decided to get engaged on his last leave before the landings would take place.

He was on a ship when he heard the D-Day landings had begun.

He said: “We were actually at sea when we heard the landings had taken place so we knew it was the real thing not a trial or exercise. I landed on D plus one (day two) with the Canadians on Juno beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer.” He came close to disaster shortly after when the Canadian truck they were following was blown up by a mine.

‘Just another day’

His unit continued through France, Belgium and Germany and he thinks he was in the north of Holland when VE Day came.

But it was not the ticker-tape parade that was celebrated in the UK and in America. John said: “It was a non-event. We were on small detachment somewhere, not even with our own unit.

“I was in a wireless truck with three other men and we knew something was coming so in between our work, we were tuning into radio stations to hear the news reports and that’s how we knew.

“There were no celebrations. It was just another day,” he said. “What I was elated about though, was that it was finished for people at home.

They were safe now.” Back in Ayrshire, May could see it coming too. She said: “They had stopped making incendiary bombs and we were winding down in the factory.

“All I remember of the exact moment was feeling relief. But me and my girlfriends who also had men away, we felt that war wasn’t over until they were home. “There were celebrations in the town, people were playing accordions and had gathered at the Cross.”

John continued serving for another year.

After Germany, his unit was earmarked for Burma but after the atom bombs fell in Japan, he was sent to the Middle East. For him, the end of the war didn’t come until more than a year later.

Five weddings

He remembers the first time he saw May. He said: “She had just finished her work at a factory in Darvel.

We met up and spent the day together, went for a nice walk.” The two set the date for the following year and were married on 24 April 1948. May said: “We went to five weddings that year.

All the boys were home. We were all from the same area and the rest of my friends were in the same position.”

On Friday, those lucky enough to be still with us will cast their minds back to that landmark day 75 years ago. John will join them, but not for long.

He said: “A lot of people don’t want to remember the things they saw.

I’ll be thinking about Saturday, because I want to look to the future, not the past.”

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