HMS Belfast in Sydney in August 1945
HMS Belfast in Sydney in August 1945

In early August 1945, HMS Belfast was on her way to East Asia. The ship and the men on board were prepared to fight in the ongoing war against Japan.

On 6 August a new type of bomb - the atom bomb – was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August, 

At midnight on 14th August 1945, US President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced to the world that Japan had accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, thus bringing the Second World War to an end

The following day was declared to be VJ – Victory over Japan – Day, although it was also widely referred to as VP (Victory in the Pacific) Day.

As had happened on VE (Victory in Europe) Day three months previously, the announcement sparked spontaneous popular celebrations in Britain, the USA and many other countries whose people had endured six long years of war. Scenes reminiscent of VE Day occurred on the streets of London - as this rare colour of footage of London on VJ Day shows -  although the VJ Day crowds were generally smaller and a little more low-key by comparison.

Some of the wildest celebrations took place in North American cities such as New York and San Francisco. A darker side to popular behaviour was also seen in the latter city when alcohol-fuelled rioting broke out, resulting in serious damage to property, over a thousand injured persons, and thirteen fatalities. Americans had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Pacific War, and it was therefore perhaps not surprising that its ending gave rise to such a strong mix of emotions and reactions.

'There is no more killing and fighting anymore'

Royal Navy sailor Kenneth Wiltshire, an Ordinary Signalman aboard HMS Belfast, was one of the many British armed forces personnel serving in East Asia when Japan surrendered. 

On the eve of VJ Day, Belfast was off the coast of Fremantle in western Australia, and Kenneth described what happened early the next day:

“As we began to get underway and make for the shore, the message came through that the Japanese War had ended and peace once again reigned all over the world --- `whoopee, yahoo, tantivy’ !!!!!!!! So now the job is done and there is no more killing and fighting anymore – seems impossible!!!”

“Everybody is going mad in the messes here, dancing, singing, shouting etc. It’s grand, simply grand, terrific!!!!!! Unbelievable!!!!!!!”

The excitement increased as the ship sailed into Fremantle to an enthusiastic reception:

“… as we sailed up the river, ships (hundreds of them) blew their sirens and hooters like billyho and hoisted flags and bunting everywhere possible, fireworks whizzed overhead and bands began to play – Boy, what a noise!!!! What a noise!!!!!!”

Amidst the uproar, Kenneth was also glad to see things that he had missed after so long at sea: “green fields … trees, flowers, trains, English names displayed on store houses etc”. It all seems like a “marvellous dream …. I feel happy and so excited that I don’t know where I am”.

That evening he went ashore with some shipmates to enjoy the holiday atmosphere in the city:

“Everybody was dancing, singing, shouting and making a noise, celebrating the Victory (we of course joined in the fun with them). We went to a Salvation Army place and had big eats and a sing-song etc. Then we went to a local dance until midnight, with everything free. […] We eventually arrived back on board and felt as though we had all celebrated VP night in the right spirit!!!! (All through the night our ship had ` VP’ in big lights hung on the ship’s crane which could be seen for miles!!!)”

The VJ Day celebrations in Australia were amongst the more widespread and boisterous events of that day, as so many Australians had been directly involved in and impacted by the war against Japan. Of well over 50,000 casualties suffered as a result of enemy actions during the Second World War, a large number of these were sustained in the Pacific theatre of operations.

Of around 21,000 Australians taken as prisoners of war by Japan, some 7,000 died in captivity. Australians had also come under attack on home ground, with relatively frequent Japanese bombing raids along the northern coast – the city of Darwin was hardest hit, with a total of 64 air raids. The euphoria witnessed by Kenneth in Fremantle was replicated in towns and cities across the country as VP Day (as it was more commonly termed in Australia) brought this dark chapter to a close.

‘Work to be done’

An emaciated internee, Miss Wendy Rossini, at Stanley Civil Internment Camp in Hong Kong, photographed after liberation in 1945 and showing the small quantity of rice and stew which served as rations for five people.
An emaciated internee, Miss Wendy Rossini, at Stanley Civil Internment Camp in Hong Kong, photographed after liberation in 1945 and showing the small quantity of rice and stew which served as rations for five people.

Alongside his descriptions of the celebrations on 15th August 1945, Kenneth’s diary also makes reference to an important task that awaited HMS Belfast as soon as VJ Day was over:

“But there is still a lot of work to be done in Japan and China, so I guess we’ll have to stay around and clear the mess up and transport repatriated prisoners of war back to safety etc”.

At the time of the Japanese surrender, many hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees were being held in camps across the Pacific theatre of war. One of the main challenges facing their governments was to locate them, ensure their immediate safety, and bring them back home as quickly as possible.

The POWs in particular had suffered greatly at the hands of their Japanese captors, victims of often brutal ill-treatment and of the tropical diseases that had claimed the lives of so many.

The lead in this mammoth operation was taken by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, in the form of the Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (RAPWI) organisation. In a remarkably short space of time, between August 1945 and January 1946, RAPWI had substantially achieved its aims.

Party on deck

Some naval ratings entertain children aboard HMS BELFAST with a rope swing on the upper deck. © IWM A 30855
Some naval ratings entertain children aboard HMS BELFAST with a rope swing on the upper deck.

HMS Belfast played a part in this – Kenneth’s diaries recall how he met hundreds of British internees, including children. The ship’s company organised a party and built a makeshift playground on deck using ropes, crates and chairs. 70 years later, some of those children would return to the ship for a reunion, recalling their time on board and the kindness of sailors who gave their chocolate ration to the children.

The ship was part of British Naval Task Group 111.3. As indicated in Kenneth’s diary, this task force had particular responsibility for securing ports along the Chinese coast, especially Shanghai, and providing assistance to British internees, POWs and other groups there as part of the aid and repatriation process.

Kenneth Wiltshire left HMS Belfast upon her return to Australia in January 1946. He had witnessed the end of the war and joined in the VJ Day festivities as one of her crew, and with her had participated in the important but often overlooked task of re-occupation, rehabilitation and repatriation in the aftermath of the collapse of Japan’s power in South East Asia.

Kenneth’s war was finally over, but HMS Belfast remained in these waters until 1947, and was back again by 1950 when another war erupted in Korea.