Deaths of Chelsea Pensioners crowns black mood for VE Day celebrations

European commemorations of 75 years since victory day curtailed in pandemic

epa08388697 A masked Chelsea pensioner waits outside Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, Britain, 28 April 2020. A minute of silence was held nationally to mark the 84 health workers, including 69 NHS workers and 15 care workers who have had died due to the coronavirus  EPA/NEIL HALL
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Victory in Europe Day celebrations began on a sad note on Friday after it was announced that nine British veterans from the renowned Royal Chelsea Hospital had died from coronavirus.

The news put the severely curtailed commemorations into sharp relief as Britain fell silent for two minutes at 11am in respect to the war dead on the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

The silence was led by the Prince of Wales marking the moment in 1945 when Britain, American, Russia and their allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.

A four-day long weekend and hundreds of street parties had been planned mass celebrations but with Britain still in lockdown and suffering Europe’s highest Covid-19 death rate it has now been muted. Military parades and a service at Whitehall’s Cenotaph, the place where Britain remembers its dead, have also been cancelled

The Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force display team, flew over the quiet streets of London while people across the country observed the silence. A Spitfire also flew along the southern coast in tribute to the Second World War generation.

At the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London there was greater poignancy when the retirement home of British Army pensioners announced nine ex-service personnel had died over the last month.

Among them was Fred Boomer-Hawkins, who died 1 April, having served in the infantry for 20 years. Writing on Facebook his son Terry said: “If the government showed footage of someone at the end with this virus it would scare people and they would heed the advice I am sure.”

Sir Adrian Bradshaw, governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, said: “Our pensioners have risked their lives serving our nation through war and conflict somewhere in the world, just as our NHS staff and care workers are providing vital and sometimes dangerous service to the nation here at home during this crisis.”

While there have been military flypasts and wreath-laying, the tone of the commemorations has been tamped down to reflect the pandemic.

There will be no mass gatherings, no hugging or kissing, but that day of liberation is being remembered from Belfast to Berlin. For the few surviving Second World War nveterans, many living in nursing homes under virus lockdowns, it's a particularly difficult time.

Despite the death toll topping 32,000, the country's self-isolation lockdown has started to fray. Officials are concerned that fine weekend weather across Britain will encourage people to go out more and ignore the social distancing measures.

The government, which has been accused of mishandling the crisis, received further criticism today over its confused messaging on lifting lockdown measures.

The Prime Minister hopes to clarify the restrictions after meeting cabinet ministers on Sunday before making a speech to the nation announcing a potential end date to the enforced quarantine. But with 208,000 coronavirus infections, it is expected he will only allow unlimited recreational time outdoors and some shops to reopen.

While Boris Johnson said yesterday that the nation’s “gratitude would be eternal” to the wartime generation, his words were eclipsed by the new Labour Party leader.

The traditionally right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper gave front page prominence to Sir Keir Starmer’s argument that the wartime generation must receive the “dignity and respect” they deserve.

Mr Johnson, who wrote a column for the newspaper until he became PM, has faced criticism over the failure to protect elderly in care homes where more than 8,000 people have died. The Telegraph highlighted Sir Keir’s comments about the “harrowing” impact of Covid-19 on the elderly.

In a letter to Second World War veterans Mr Johnson wrote: “Those of us born after 1945 are acutely conscious of the debt we owe... who protected our country in its darkest hour”.

Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, led the country in a two-minute silence at the war memorial on the grounds of Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Charles laid a wreath of poppies on behalf of the nation. At the main memorial on Whitehall in central London, traffic ground to a halt as people observed the silence.

The tributes will continue through the day. The victory speech of Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, will be broadcast on BBC Television.

Queen Elizabeth II, at 94 a World War II veteran herself, will speak to the nation at 9 pm, the exact time that her father, King George VI, addressed Britons 75 years ago.