Rugby league legend Johnny Whiteley can vividly remember the jubilation in Hull on VE Day exactly 75 years ago.
Then just 14, the Hull FC icon and last coach to lead Great Britain to an Ashes win in 1970, had seen his home devastated by a German bomber, having helped look after his siblings while his dad was away with the Navy.
“VE Day was mayhem – everybody was dancing and kissing each other,” the 89-year-old recalled this week.
“There was sheer ecstasy at knowing that my dad, uncles and their friends were coming home and life would be getting back to normal.
“No more sleeping in air raid shelters or carrying my sister in a clothes basket every time the buzzers blew from the school yard.
“We had managed to survive everything and it had brought all the community together, a bit like the current situation is doing.
“Everybody was dancing and rollicking around just grabbing each other as an expression of thankfulness that things were going to get back to normal.”
It would be impossible to overstate Whiteley’s stature in the game, his high-pedestal place in the pantheon of rugby league.
In 15 years with his home-town club, he played 417 times and scored 156 tries. In all his time there, he was never dropped from the side.
And as an international, he had the Australians’ number in particular.
He touched down against them in the third Test of the successful 1958 tour and scored the try that beat them in the second Test the following year, the last time GB won a series against the Aussies on home soil.
But if that became normal in his playing days, things had been far from normal for Whiteley – awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to rugby league and the community – during the six years of the war.
His home was struck by one of a series of German raids on the east coast city in 1942, turning the family’s life upside down.
He explained: “We were in the air raid shelter in the school yard at the time.
“All the windows and the roof and chimney pot of our house blew off – the blast came straight down the street and tore everything down.
“All the gas and electric was down, and it’s strange what you remember but every day there used to be a big lorry that came down the street with a boiler on it.
“It had 12 shower heads on it and there was a little area you could strip off in, take your towel and have a shower.
“Sometimes we used to sneak down to the next street and have another one because you were only allowed five minutes in there.
“We had to sleep on sacks full of straw in the church hall or air raid shelters until the houses were ready again. But everyone took it in their stride.
“I was the oldest of the siblings so from 11 onwards with my dad away I was responsible for the other two.
“As soon as that buzzer went you had a drill with baskets of food ready. You never knew when it was coming and had to be on alert 24 hours a day.”
Despite being just six months short of his 90th birthday, Whiteley continues to work for the Hull FC Foundation in the local community.
He has been heavily involved in the club’s Old Faithful scheme, which visits care homes, dementia cafes and veterans’ hubs in the city.
He added: “Because of my age and the fact I was born in the city and brought up during the war, I’ve a lot to offer in relation to people of that age.
“We’ve been doing it for a few years now and we get invited back everywhere we go, which is wonderful.
“When people are in solitude and have lost their relations and friends they just want somebody to talk to.
“There might be somebody who’s not spoken a word for ages, and me telling a story about rugby prompts something.
"You can see the spark in them return and by the end you can’t get a word in edgeways.
"You see how much it means to people and it does me a favour as well, it’s something that makes me smile.”
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