African soldiers play a game of draughts in London

Troops returning to a changed UK

By the end of the year in 1945, many troops came home to a UK that looked very different to the one they left.

At the start of 1945, five million British men and women were posted around the world.

There were RAF crew in Egypt, infantry in Germany, Wrens in ports around the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, and artillerymen in Burma. Plus over a quarter of a million POWs still behind bars, 90,000 of them in the Far East.


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Soldiers being measured for civilian clothes at the clothing depot at Olympia, London after being demobbed from the army

The UK in 1945

By the end of the year, many of the troops were back home in the UK. But a UK that looked very different from the one they’d left when they sailed.

As these men and women approached the Clyde or the Mersey or the Thames, they were full of emotions and questions.

Will my girlfriend or boyfriend still be waiting? Has my town been changed much by bombing? Will I find a job? 

Rationing was still in place, and would continue in some way until 1954In 1944, unemployment was at a historically low level, but with thousands of men and women returning to the workforce from the services, soldiers were worried they might get squeezed out.

The process of demobilization - demob – involved the gift of a suit from the government, the promise of the right to your old job back, and a lump sum payment of £83.

Repatriated prisoners of war evacuated to safer areas - scene shows the landing craft approaching the merchant ship British Navy prisoners of war on their way to the repatriation ship Neighbours wave and cheer as they watch a young soldier being welcomed home from the Second World War by his wife and baby

The Beveridge Report and the NHS

The country was going through rapid changes. The Beveridge Report had been published in 1942, and promised post-war changes to the social structure of the country, including a new system of social insurance, family allowances, high employment and a National Health Service.

The Depression of the 1930s had scarred the country, and part of the hope of the war was a better life for all afterward - to deliver on the idea of a ‘land fit for heroes’.

 For the first time, people of all social classes in all parts of the country would be entitled to a safety net to catch them if they fell. The NHS was formally launched on 5 July 1948.

RAF repatriates from the Far East

General Election

In the summer of 1945 there was a general election - the first since 1935.

Throughout the war, the country had been governed by a coalition of Conservatives, Labour and Liberals. Everyone expected that Winston Churchill, the popular wartime leader, would be re-elected. But that was not going to happen.

There was a massive popular swing to the Labour party. Clement Attlee (who had served in the army in the Great War, at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia) became the Prime Minister on 26 July, between VE Day and VJ Day.  

Liberated POWs photographed in Singapore, 6 September 1945

POWs returning

Fergus Anckorn came home in November 1945. Before he left the UK in 1941 he had become engaged to Lucille Hose, a nurse.
Far East Prisoners of War

As a gunner in the Royal Artillery, he landed in Singapore on 29 January 1942 but was severely wounded within a few days.

He found himself a prisoner soon after, one of 80,000 captured by the Japanese. He survived the notorious Alexandra Hospital massacre and the Burma Railway.

Part of his survival strategy was to ‘survive today, not to think about yesterday or tomorrow’. But Anckorn also had a special skill. He was a member of the Magic Circle and made use of his magic skills in the POW camps.

One commandant loved to watch his tricks, but Fergus had no equipment with him. He borrowed a coin from the Japanese officer, made it vanish and then produced it from a tin of fish. As a result, he was given the fish to take away – a valuable addition to the poor diet provided by the captors.   

Petty Officer A E Eastlake, of Bethnal Green handing out cigarettes on board a landing craft

Fergus arrived at Liverpool on 9 November and took a train to London, where they were reunited. They married in 1946 and had two children, living a long and happy life together.

But Fergus had difficulty adjusting to his new life. In 2005 he visited Singapore again, and ‘the nightmares he had been experiencing for fifty years stopped’.

He was one of many thousands of British, Australian and Indian POWs who survived, but whose lives were altered forever by their experience. Some were able to forgive their Japanese captors, some were not. All carried their memories with them for their life’s span.

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