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“A great honour and the opportunity of a lifetime” – Les Bruce dusts off his memory and reminisces on being selected for the …
Victory Parade of 1946
It was a familiar scene, a shipload of Service personnel leaving New Zealand for foreign shores in the mid 1940s. Only this time the atmosphere was jubilant and the assembled crowds were celebrating.
The first half of 1946 was indeed a happy time. World War Two was last year’s memory and the group leaving New Zealand was on a mission of celebration. They were the New Zealand military contingent bound for London’s Victory Parade, 60 years ago.
Several hundred New Zealanders were chosen from the three services to march through the streets of London on 8 June 1946. Included were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the New Zealand Army Nursing Corps.
The last New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, VC, DFC was one of the 106 RNZAF personnel under the command of Wing Commander J. A. Oldfield, DFC.
It was a great honour to be selected and an opportunity of a lifetime to be part of the massive festivities.
Well, most people thought so anyway. Captain Charles Upham, VC and Bar, reluctantly flew to London. He said he didn’t want to go because he was too busy on his farm, but had been prevailed upon to do so by the Prime Minister. “I am sick of crowds and the fuss that people make over my decorations,” he said.
However, there was a much more excitement and enthusiasm amongst the other New Zealanders after they were notified of their selection in early 1946. Medical assessments and drill training were undertaken before the group assembled in Wellington on 20 April for the five week voyage to Great Britain.
Nearly 1000 people gathered on the wharf to farewell the Kiwis departing on the Maunganui – a ship which first saw service during World War One as a troopship, then World War Two as a hospital ship.
The contingent arrived in UK on 27 May and established camp in Kensington Gardens. The lead up to the parade involved much practising and a visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.
There were 3500 “Dominion and Colonial troops” camped in the gardens and spirits were high as personnel from the allied world enjoyed each others’ company without the threat of bombing raids!
Victory Parade fever ran high in London with millions of visitors swarming into the city to view the coming spectacle. On the day before the great event, the Kiwis spent four hours practising, leaving Kensington Gardens for the last time before the parade. From midday, everyone was confined to the camp polishing and preparing their equipment.
Victory Parade day dawned extremely wet, but the heavy rain did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds or the participants. An estimated ten million people lined the streets of London, many having camped out overnight for the best vantage points. This was a time of celebration, and everyone was determined to have a good time! However, the throngs of people proved too much for some, and 3000 ambulance officers gave first aid to 4127 spectators along the route.
The parade took approximately two hours and culminated in march past of the Royal party. The New Zealanders marched in two columns, then merged before passing the saluting base along the Mall. The route took them through Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Trafalgar Square, Northumberland Avenue, Parliament Square, Whitehall, The Mall, Constitution Hill and Hyde Park Corner.
Included in the parade were personnel from Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa, Rhodesia, India and many other allied nations.
The fly past was led by a veteran Hurricane – a survivor of the Battle of Britain. Three hundred aircraft, bombers, fighters, coastal reconnaissance and the latest jets, flew in an aerial procession extending for 60 miles above London’s rooftops, roaring over the saluting base.
A massive fireworks display provided a fitting end to the victory celebrations.
The New Zealand contingent was given leave in the UK and returned home aboard the Maunganui in early July.
And as for Captain Charles Upham? “I have enjoyed every minute of my stay and have had a wonderful time in spite of the rain.” However, he did add that he would be glad to get back to his Canterbury farm!
Les Bruce spent nearly four years in the RNZAF during World War Two. He served with No 25 Squadron in the Pacific.
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