The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Press Conference on VE/VJ Day Commemorations – 11 January 1995

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s press conference, with Viscount Cranborne, given in London on Wednesday 11th January 1995 regarding the Government’s plans for the VE Day and VJ Day Commemorations.


Good morning, Prime Minister, Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Robert Cranborne, I am the Chairman of the Steering Group which is coordinating the commemorations for the end of the war – VE Day and VJ Day. I would like to thank you very much, Prime Minister, for coming here this morning and for launching the programme which we have in mind for this summer in May and in August.


Robert, thank you very much indeed. Perhaps firstly I might thank you all for being here this morning to launch what I think is going to be a very remarkable commemoration.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Second World War, the most devastating war in history, the cause I think well known to all of us – Nazism in Europe and militarism in Japan. And perhaps as much as any war in history, this was a people’s war against tyranny, its impact was made ever more devastating by the use of modern technology. Untold millions of people died in that war, servicemen and civilians alike. Some of mankind’s greatest aesthetic achievements were destroyed and tragically, even at the moment of liberation, millions of people were enslaved again.

But of course in the end the tyranny lost, those who remained enslaved for four decades after 1945 now have their freedom. It was for them a long and painful wait. But they would not have obtained that freedom at all if the Allies had not won that war in 1945, liberty would not have been possible today in Eastern Europe, nor frankly, if we had lost, would we have had liberty in Western Europe either.

It is for those reasons and many others, familiar I think to everyone in this room today, that it is absolutely right to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the War.

Our commemorations are going to focus on two of the most significant dates this century, VE Day when the fighting ended in Europe, and VJ Day when the war as a whole came to a close.

We have considered and consulted very carefully about how best to commemorate these great events. We rested very heavily on the advice and the guidance of the Veterans organisations who perhaps best represent the men and the women who fought in those wars and who won them. And I am delighted that we have with us today Lord Slim, whose father commanded the 14th Army in Burma, and Field Marshal Lord Bramall who fought himself as a young officer in the Normandy campaign.

Let me turn directly now to the two specific anniversaries. The anniversary of VE Day will be marked, across the nation, over the weekend of 6-8 May. The theme is reconciliation, a celebration of 50 years peace in Europe and hope for the future. Above all, the expectations that the young people of all nations will continue to live in a peaceful Europe as this century draws to a close and as we prepare for the next Millennium.

Commemorative events will be held right around the country. In London, the focal point will be events in Hyde Park which will bring together veterans, families, young people and the leaders or representatives of all the countries that played a significant part of the war in Europe. They will join in a national and international celebration of the peace which we so dearly cherish in this country.

In addition, Her Majesty the Queen will attend a Service of Remembrance at St Paul’s and host a lunch at Buckingham Palace in honour of Heads of State and other representatives.

The VJ commemorations in August will have quite a different theme. They will provide the opportunity for the nation and the Commonwealth to give thanks for the end of the war and to remember solemnly the sacrifices of the war-time generations. First and foremost we will pay tribute to the veterans of these islands and the Commonwealth. But the Second World War of course was total war, the entire nation was mobilised, not just the men and women in uniform. So we will remember also the wider contribution of the Merchant Navy, the landgirls, the Bevan boys, the ambulance and fire services, and many more, all of whom in their separate ways, through their own efforts and their own determination, played a vital part in winning the war.

Events to mark VJ Day will include a Service of Remembrance at Buckingham Palace, including a march of veterans who served with Commonwealth forces. Our five years of World War II commemorations will end on a solemn note on the evening of 20 August when a Beating Retreat and Sunset Ceremonies will be held in London, in Edinburgh, in Belfast and in Cardiff.

In a few moments the Field Marshal will no doubt wish to remind you of the companionship and the caring which the Royal British Legion and other veterans organisations and charities provide, and I would certainly wish to share in his appreciation of their remarkable work over so many years.

Later this month will see the launch of the Tribute and Promise Campaign. The tribute reflects the nation’s gratitude and our acknowledgement of the debt that we owe to our veterans’ sacrifices. The promise is a reaffirmation by the voluntary organisations that the caring and the companionship will not end when the commemorations end. I welcome the objectives of the campaign and I am delighted that they will take a prominent part in the open air service outside Buckingham Palace on 19 August.

Our commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war will give the nation the opportunity to remember the actions and the sacrifices of those who won the war. The best way to keep pace with them is I believe, as the Queen said in her Christmas broadcast, to resolve to cherish our liberty, to be considerate to our neighbours, be friends with people of different races and religions, and to recognise our faults before we criticise others.

We all have a responsibility to honour the peace these commemorations mark. I hope that we can all work together towards making them a success. I hope that you all have the full details of the commemoration in your packs. I would like in a few moments to invite Lord Bramall to say a few words on behalf of the veterans’ organisations. And then, unless Robert Cranborne, who is leading the overall steering committee would like to add anything further, we will seek to take your questions.

Let me just add a final point. I believe these commemorations are not just a casual event. These commemorations actually mark one of the most remarkable events in the whole history, not just of this island race, but of the world as a whole. If it had not been for the events marked by these commemorations this year, you and I would not be sitting here today, we would not have the sort of country that we have today, we would not have the nature of Europe that we have today and I doubt very much that we would have the peaceful nature of the world at large that we can see in so much of the globe at present.

That was what was at stake in the 1939-1945 war, that was what was won for us by the people who directed that war, who fought in that war and who won that war. I have not a shred of doubt that it is not only our privilege, but our responsibility, to mark those remarkable events with the commemorations that we will hold this spring and in August.




Could the Prime Minister tell us what consultations took place with the governments of Germany and Japan concerning the tone of the celebrations and commemorations that he has outlined and also if their heads of government and veterans organisations have been invited to play any part?


We have discussed our plans with a lot of nations, we have certainly discussed them with the Japanese and we have discussed them with the Germans and they are content with the plans that we have in mind. Detailed planning beyond that has been dealt with here in this country with the degree of consultation that I referred to earlier and that Lord Bramall mentioned as well, but yes, there has been consultation with both the nations you mentioned.


Prime Minister, is there going to be any mention throughout the celebrations about the Polish General [inaudible] who recently died in Edinburgh and who contributed to the Second World War victory without dispute?


I think I will ask Robert to respond to that. I am surrounded on this platform – and indeed in the rows immediately ahead of me – by those people who spent not many hours but literally days and weeks working on the details so I am extremely well-served on this occasion and I think I will invite Robert to respond to you.


May I make a general point about the Polish contribution to the Second World War? I have personal links with Poland which go back to the earliest years of my childhood. I was brought up on the dramatic story of Polish heroism in 1939 but perhaps above all on the debt of gratitude that we the British people owe the Polish people. I suspect that it would have been very difficult for us to have won the Battle of Britain without the contribution of Polish pilots and indeed pilots of other nationalities, including Czechs and Americans and it is extremely important to us that the Poles perhaps above all, as one of the principal victim nations of the 1940s, should be in a position to receive the gratitude of this country and that includes not only those who have survived but perhaps more important, those who died whether as military men or indeed in the concentration camps of Europe so I hope that that is a message that you will be able to take back to Poland and that the Polish people will be aware of the gratitude of the British people and we are aware of the debt that we owe them.


Can I add a further point to that about Poland? I had the pleasure and privilege last year of attending the commemoration of the Warsaw uprising, a remarkable evening in Poland attended by the President of Germany and the heads of a lot of other governments as well and I suppose one of the most tangible successes you can see of the last fifty years and why reconciliation is such an apt theme for us this year is that even as we speak today Poland are applying to join the European Union and the two principal supporters of Poland joining the European Union as soon as it practical are the governments of the United Kingdom and of Germany and I think that is a very practical illustration of the way in which reconciliation is working not just in terms of commemoration vital and necessary though that is, but also in terms of the practical changes we are seeing on the continent of Europe that could not have occurred but for the success of the Allies in the War.


Prime Minister, you answered the question about the contacts with the German and Japanese authorities, you have said that they were happy with the nature of the celebrations that were taking place. I think there is some difference in the nature of the presence and representation at the various celebrations from Japan and Germany and could you outline why there is that difference?


VE-Day relates specifically to the European theatre and we are inviting to the VE-commemorations over fifty heads of state or government or their representatives of all those nations that participated significantly in the European theatres of war; attending also will be ambassadors from other countries.

We have, as I said, discussed our plans both with the Germans, the Japanese and of course with other countries as well though your question related particularly to them. They are content with the arrangements. Ambassadors from the world’s nations, including of course the Japanese ambassador, will be invited to appropriate events during the international commemorations between the 6th and 8th of May. I hope that meets the question you put to me.


Is there any information whether President Yeltsin will be amongst the fifty heads of state to participate?


It is too early to say precisely who will be coming. Invitations are just going out and it is too early to say yet who will be coming. Early indications are that we will get a very significant response to the invitations but we don’t yet know precisely who will be here.


Lord Bramall, a great deal has been said about reconciliation today. Could you say whether the veterans would regard it as still premature after fifty years to see units of the German army on the streets of London?


It is an entirely hypothetical question, isn’t it, because there won’t be units of the German army walking down anywhere because the emphasis on the 6-7-8 May will be on youth and reconciliation and looking forward and there will be no military parades at that time at all and at the time when there will be a military parade of course it is entirely a national and Commonwealth thing so the question just doesn’t arise.


Of course, it is perhaps worth noting that the people during the run-up to D-Day who were most anxious that at a certain point the Germans should be represented in a spirit of reconciliation during the course of the whole series of Second World War 50th anniversary commemorations were representatives of the British armed forces, both present and retired.

I have found during the course of the last eighteen months that there is nobody more dedicated to the spirit of reconciliation with Germany than veterans in this country and as you well know I am sure, there are already many opportunities and reunions for that reconciliation to take place on an annual basis.


Could the Prime Minister please answer the question as to whether the heads of state of Germany and Japan and indeed the other Axis Powers have been invited or not and whether any of their veterans will be attending?


I think those questions have been answered if you read the transcript but I will make it clear to you again.

We have invited to the VE-commemorations fifty heads of state and government from the nations that participated in the European theatre of war; that includes Germany but not Japan of course.

The commemorations later in the year in August are a separate sort of commemoration, they are commemorations more for the Commonwealth, they are not commemorations that involve heads of government elsewhere. The Japanese ambassador will be attending between 6-8 May as I said earlier as will ambassadors from other countries around the world.


Prime Minister, what part do you expect young people to play in these commemorations?


I think young people, successive generations, are the principal beneficiaries of the outcome of the War; it was their future that people fought for, it is their future that is being built now. I hope they will not regard it is a piece of ancient history; I hope they will regard the outcome of the War as something that was as significant to their lifestyle and their future as anything else that has happened in the last fifty years so I hope they will take a very great interest in the commemoration ceremonies, I hope they will attend them. I hope they will take the opportunity where they can’t attend to watch them on television.

I would echo very strongly what Robert Cranborne had to say about the remarkable coverage across the media as a whole of the D-Day celebrations. I had the pleasure of being at Arramanche and in other places but I saw subsequently the television pictures; I found it as moving watching them afterwards as it was being there seeing them live. I think they will have that impact upon young people as well.

It is often the view of people that we are cynical these days beyond the levels of cynicism that existed in past generations. I don’t believe that to be true, I think D-Day gave the lie to that argument. I think there will be a much greater depth of understanding and interest amongst young people than many perhaps would suspect and I thoroughly welcome that. It is their country, it is their future, it was for them that the people who won’t be here and who fought in the War and the people who did and are still alive that they made those sacrifices. I think it is about young people, I hope they will take a great interest and I myself believe that they will.


We had a directive from the Prime Minister – a directive which seems to me to be an extremely sensible one for the reasons he has given – that young people should play a very prominent part in the VE-Day commemorations above all because we were thinking about peace, about reconciliation and the future. Therefore, young people will play very much a part in the events of the VE-Day weekend but more than that, in view of what the Prime Minister said about education, the Secretary of State for Education has taken a programme of distribution of what I think are called in the jargon “education packs” to every school in the country so that they will have an opportunity to study a little more carefully the implications of what happened fifty years ago and the results of those events.


Prime Minister, I know you have already touched on this but can you tell us to what lengths you went to try to ensure that after last year’s discussions about the D-Day celebrations no-one was offended this time, even in this country plus heads of state abroad?


Nobody is seeking to offend anybody. The purpose of this is reconciliation as we indicated. Reconciliation and commemoration are the two themes.

This isn’t a Government occasion, this is an occasion for all the people in this country and the Commonwealth so it isn’t for the Government to direct what has to be done and to say: “We think this is the way it should be done!” so we went to a great deal of trouble by consulting the people who would be most directly involved. That was the purpose of involving so fully the veterans organisations, it was the purpose of drawing together the rather distinguished group that Robert Cranborne chairs to make the arrangement for May and for August.

That work has gone on for a long time. We learned a lot from the preparations for D-Day. It is an enormous task. I think it is very easy to underestimate the sheer scale of planning that is necessary to ensure that these two events are satisfactory so the direct answer to your question is: a very great deal and the way in which we did it was by consulting as widely as possible. The other point I would make is that that consultation isn’t yet over. That consultation will continue right up to finalising the plans and right up the execution of those plans on the days concerned. We will continue to consult.


Prime Minister, will you be attending events outside this country because for example there are major events outside the United Kingdom in conjunction with VE-Day, for example the commemoration of fifty years of liberation of concentration camps in Germany?


I think it is certainly probable that I will be attending events outside the United Kingdom. It is not yet determined which events I will be attending but I certainly will be attending events beyond the United Kingdom as well.


Could I ask how much money the Government is likely to be putting on one side to fulfil all of the plans and joined with that, how much of that money is likely to be put on one side to help veterans, especially those from Scotland perhaps and the farthest-flung places, come to the capital to attend those functions?


We can’t be precisely clear what the total costs will be because the final arrangements are not made. It will be a few millions, quite how many millions I don’t think is clear but that cost will be met by the Government out of Departmental budgets. All this was considered of course at the time of the last Public Expenditure Round so the money has been put to one side and will be available.

As far as the events are concerned, all the events of course will carry no charges at all. There will be events in different parts of the country, it isn’t the case that everybody has to come to London. The Government will not of course be meeting travelling expenses but it will not be charging for any of the events and the full cost of the events has been set aside in Government budgets.


We are very keen, as the Prime Minister said, that all these events should be national events, that the whole nation should be given an opportunity and encouraged to pay its tribute. However, it is equally important that all parts of the United Kingdom should be seen to be fully represented in the central events in London. This does present difficulties over travel and of course we have to be careful about public expenditure, otherwise if we spent too lavish a sum of money you would quite rightly criticise us.

It is therefore very nice to be able to record that we are in the process of securing sponsorship from different parts of the United Kingdom but particularly for Scotland to help veterans who would not otherwise be able to come down to London. That sponsorship is not fully secured but it is well on the way.


On the theme of reconciliation and given that these are not among the 194 events listed, what plans are there for Britain to be represented in Dresden on 14 February, the fiftieth anniversary of the loss of 30,000 civilian lives, and in Hiroshima in August where among the civilians there fifty years ago were 20,000 Korean forced labourers?

Similarly, given that the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian forces is to be commemorated on 27 January, what plans are there to commemorate the opening of concentration camps by British forces such as [inaudible] and Belsen in April 1995?


As far as we know, the Japanese have as yet no plans for commemorations at Hiroshima, at least we haven’t been advised of them so we are not in a position to be able to answer that particular part of your question.

As far as Dresden is concerned, as you know the Germans are mounting what sounds like a very splendid series of commemorations in that city and although this doesn’t form a part of our own official programme which is of course purely a British affair, they have been kind enough to ask His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent whom I understand will be travelling to those particular commemorations and we welcome that.


You have mentioned the theme reconciliation so many times but I think that the question still remains to be answered clearly about why this theme was not extended to VJ-Day including invitations to all of the countries involved there.


I think Lord Slim may wish to say something about this.


May I start by saying that the media as a whole, through no fault of its own, sometimes gets the wrong idea about the Japanese warrior. I think if you look in the history books you will not find a time when we have had to fight such a courageous, tenacious and tough foe. I think that there is no-one who fought anywhere in Asia who doesn’t have the greatest respect for the Japanese soldier.

There were other bits that went on in nations that were crushed, nations that were defeated, where perhaps the behaviour was not in accordance with the way that we believe a prisoner of war or a civilian internee was looked after.

We veterans now are all charities, we look after our people and we remember those who are still buried all over Asia and we remember the people of those countries who were maltreated in the most beastly way so when we remember those who did not come back, we remember our mates and we remember the people who were trodden so hard upon in the countries that were defeated.

So our reconciliation is a little different. We admire the capabilities of the Japanese warrior, we are perfectly happy to meet Japanese in different circumstances when we travel and go abroad but we do not necessarily wish to meet them all the time; I tell you that because the media doesn’t always get it right. There is no question in this case that VJ-Day is the Veterans’ Day, End-of-War Day, Commonwealth Day and I think the Japanese who we speak to perfectly understand that it is a Commonwealth Day; we are interested in meeting those of the Commonwealth like the great Indian Army who fought beside us and I think that is it.

When you talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Field Marshal and I were in both those places within about six or seven months of the bomb being dropped. There were casualties, it was horrific but as the Field Marshal said, we were also planning to have to attack and take Japan and you don’t have to be a military genius when you know that your enemy fights to the death and never surrenders to know that the casualties inflicted on this country by doing so if we had had to would have been far in excess of the numbers of killed, maimed and wounded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That is our view, a very friendly view but basically our enemies at that time – friends now – particularly the Japanese, were not in the Commonwealth of British Nations.


I would if I may, just as a matter of record, confirm that we have been in close touch with our Japanese friends and consulted them over how they saw the question of commemorations which for reasons Lord Slim has made clear were bound to be delicate in view of the events we are commemorating and indeed the survivors. They have confirmed to us that they would not feel it appropriate for them to be represented at what is a Commonwealth occasion and they are very happy to be represented at VE-Day where one of the themes is reconciliation. I hope and believe that our Japanese allies are wholly content with our approach and as long as that remains the case I am perfectly content as well. As I say, these are matters which stir high emotions on both sides.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have given the Prime Minister quite a long ride; he has certainly been patient with me. I wonder whether we might draw this part of the proceedings to a close. The Prime Minister has another appointment.

Anybody who wishes to bombard me or any of my colleagues with questions, we are here; we also have a representative selection of veterans who I am extremely grateful to for turning up. I see a number of familiar faces from the D-Day events here and it is very nice to see them again. Perhaps, if I may, I would particularly like to mention the representatives of SAAFA and the British Legion and Admiral Wilson, Mr. Jobson and General Charles Grey who have put so much work into their contributions to this campaign. I am sure that if any of you would like to ask any of us questions and reactions we would be delighted to try and answer them as best we can.

Thank you very much for coming and thank you for entering into the spirit of this. I look forward to constructive suggestions over the next few months.