70 years on from VE Day, the last witnesses remember

On 7 May, in a red brick school house in the French city of Reims, General Alfred Jodl signed an instrument of surrender on behalf of the German armed forces. The following day, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signed a another surrender document with Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov at Karlshorst in Berlin. A week earlier, on the afternoon of Friday 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his Führerbunker underneath the wrecked city of Berlin.

This is how the Second World War came to an end. It had lasted six years, left tens of millions dead and swathes of the continent in ruins.

Seventy years on, as the most destructive conflict in human history fades from living memory, Newsweek meets some of the survivors of "The Greatest Generation". We selected our interviewees from six countries with the most powerful reasons to remember May 1945: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the US and Italy. The youngest is 85 years old. They really are the last witnesses to an epoch. For some the war's end was a sudden event, a full stop. Elsewhere, the closure was less clear-cut. For many, even among the victors, the primary emotion was relief, rather than triumph.

Tom Renouf, Britain
Was nearly killed in northern Germany by his own artillery

As the Second World War in Europe drew to a close Scottish soldier Tom Renouf narrowly avoided death – at the hands of his own side.

The 20-year-old, then serving with the 5th battalion of Scottish infantry regiment the Black Watch, returned from home leave in the UK on 1 May 1945, rejoining his unit at Seedorf in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany.

"In those last few weeks we knew that we were getting near the end and we were all very, very jittery, hoping that we would not be a casualty at the very end of the war," recalls Renouf, now 90.

Several days later he and his comrades were dug into a farmhouse garden near the village of Horstedt. The ground was waterlogged and they could not sink proper slit trenches. The company sergeant major toured the positions. "He said 'just hold tight, we'll be making no more attacks. We are staying static and hope that there will be an armistice, very, very soon'," Renouf remembers.

Desultory mortar fire continued from the Germans. However, the shell that narrowly missed Renouf unmistakably came from the British lines. It was not the first time they had experienced friendly fire. "Our boys just let off," Renouf says. "Their reaction was verbal, and typical army language. They would chastise, condemn our own artillery in blue language."

Sixty years later Renouf received a letter from William Gibson, formerly of the Royal Artillery's 127th (Highland) Field Regiment, which was close to Renouf's position on 5 May 1945. Gibson explained that his unit's last fire mission comprised 24 guns firing a two-round salvo. The mass bombardment initially confounded a pack of reporters who wished to find out who had fired the last shot in the European theatre. But Gibson's 25lb howitzer had misfired. The faulty cartridge was removed, leaving a live shell "up the spout". A fresh cartridge was inserted and the shell was discharged "on the last range and target" after the others.

"That is how it came about that my gun was credited with firing the last shell in north-west Europe," Gibson wrote 10 years ago. Today, Renouf wonders if that delayed British shell could have nearly killed him.

After the German surrender Renouf's unit was screening refugees at a checkpoint on the River Weser. Among them came a disguised Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS. After he was unmasked Himmler bit on a cyanide capsule. Renouf acquired the senior Nazi's watch from a fellow soldier in exchange for several hundred cigarettes. He still has it at his home in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh.

Only later, billeted in an idyllic German village called Steyerberg, did Renouf and his comrades begin to register that they had survived the war. "We were beginning to see the flowers, instead of the snipers and the tanks," he recalls. "We were able to smell the beauty of the flowers and the countryside, instead of the cordite and the stench of death."

Anthony Duno, USA
Was 'tickled pink' in Germany but then heard he was to be sent to invade Japan

Bronx-born Anthony Duno heard the end of the war in Europe announced on a jeep radio in Germany. The American soldier was "tickled pink" but the good feeling was clouded. The authorities announced that his division, the 95th Infantry, was earmarked to return to the US prior to taking part in a planned invasion of Japan.

"It was kind of a shock to us because we were just getting finished with one war and all of a sudden we are told that [General Douglas] MacArthur [US commander in the Pacific] has selected four divisions, of which we were one, to go back and get reorganised and reclothed," the spry 89-year-old explains.

"I would say people in my outfit were a little bit annoyed about that; they felt we'd had enough."

Born to an Italian-American family, Duno was drafted into the army on leaving high school in 1943. He served in the 379th Infantry Regiment as it fought through Europe under the flamboyant General George Patton, who affected an ivory-handled Colt pistol. Duno remembers that Patton's arrival was a source of general terror. "If he happened to meet with a division commander the first thing the division commander said [was] 'he's here to fire me,'" he explains. When Duno heard Patton speak in person even a boy from the Bronx expanded his vocabulary.

"He had a high-pitched voice, which surprised us, but when he got through with his words I picked up at least 25 new cuss words which I never knew about before."

Duno participated in the liberation of Metz and the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive in the West in December 1944. His awards included a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman Badge, which accorded its wearer an extra $10 per month.

"Put your hand behind this lump here, feel that lump," he says today, leaning forward to show the result of an injury that won his Purple Heart. "That is the result of a tiny piece of shrapnel that got lodged into my head."

In Germany the Americans were faced with the challenge of administering a ravished territory. "We did not have the expertise to take care of these people," Duno explains. "They needed food, water, utilities and all the rest of these things, and our authorities decided to give the German police organisations complete authority." Trucks with loudspeakers conveyed news to the local population.

Back in the US Duno prepared for the proposed invasion of Japan – codenamed Operation Downfall – at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. Seventy years on Duno dates the start of his hair loss to the sweltering southern climate. In August 1945 though, following atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan capitulated. Downfall – which some estimated could cost half a million American casualties – was called off.

Duno left the army but struggled to find a job. He re-enlisted and ended up building a career with the US Air Force in Europe, marrying a German woman. Today, in his tenth decade, he is still employed at Ramstein Air Force base.

Leonid Finkelstein, Russia
Celebrated on Moscow's streets as crowds kissed and embraced soldiers and threw them in the air

By the time the instrument of German surrender was signed in Berlin late on 8 May 1945 it was already the following day by Moscow time. For Russians therefore VE Day took place on 9 May rather than the 8th.

One of those in Moscow was 20-year-old Leonid Finkelstein. He saw the state paper Pravda at a stand on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street. The headline was a single word: "Pobeda." Victory.

"I remember exactly where I was standing," recalls Finkelstein, now 90. "My first thought was – survived."

Loudspeakers broadcast ecstatic speeches. "Thousands of people surrounded me," Finkelstein remembers. "People embraced, they kissed, when they found a military man they take him and throw him into the air."

The exhilaration of the Russian celebrations matched the severity of the country's and Finkelstein's own experiences. He was born in Cherkassy in Ukraine in May 1924 into a Jewish family, but moved to St Petersburg when he was less than one year old. As a teenager he was fascinated by flight, and in June 1941 was attending an open day at the Moscow Aircraft Institute. "Suddenly some man was running wildly in the corridor shouting 'war, war, it is war'," he recalls. Hitler had invaded. Finkelstein's higher education went on hold.

Finkelstein had completed four parachute jumps with a Moscow club and the Soviet authorities sent him to a paratroop unit, where he made incursions behind German lines. In the winter of 1941-2 he jumped from a primitive Polkarpov Po-2 biplane at a mere 200m, narrowly missing capture by the Germans. Later he lived for 10 months with partisans. They made shirts from the close-woven Percale parachute fabric.

"This 10 months was, I may say, exciting, because we did our small operations, we never fought the Germans face to face, because we were guerrillas."

After besieged Leningrad was relieved Finkelstein entered the city. A grim notice was scrawled on a wall: "Citizens, citizens, during bombardment this side of the street is most dangerous." Only at the end of the war did he discover that his father had starved to death there.

Finkelstein was injured in the leg when one of his group's explosives detonated mistakenly. In 1943 he capitalised on a decree that allowed injured partisans to return from the front line. In Moscow he enrolled at the Aircraft Institute. By May 1945 he was living close to Pushkin Square, married with a baby and combining study with parachute-related work at the No 82 aircraft factory.

The day of victory was "unimaginable". Yet euphoria would not linger. In 1947 Finkelstein remarked to a fellow student that anti-Semitism was increasing. "Poor boy went to the KGB and reported me," he remembers. "He was frightened, he thought that I was provoking him."

Finkelstein spent five and half years in the gulag. Released after Stalin's death, he wrote for Soviet magazines. In 1966 he snared a place on a literary tour of England. Finkelstein walked into a British government office and deployed a carefully learned English phrase. "I am a Russian journalist seeking political asylum in Britain." He has lived in the UK ever since.

Erich Bissoir, Germany
A prisoner of war already, his main clue war had ended was that the camp guards' behaviour worsened

Erich Bissoir is 90 years old but the Waffen-SS tattoo, indicating his blood type, is still clear on his upper left arm. Born in March 1925, the German grew up in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse now in Rhineland-Palatinate. At 10 he joined the Deutsches Jungvolk, a Nazi youth organisation; from 14 to 18 he was in the Hitler Youth proper.

He enlisted in June 1943 and was posted to the 12th Panzer Division ("Hitlerjugend") of the Waffen-SS, the politically driven organisation that fought alongside the German army. The Hitlerjugend division comprised teenage former Hitler Youth members.

Before D-Day in June 1944 Bissoir's regimentwas based at Acquigny in France, billeted with local families. He was a member of the reconnaissance squadron, trained to drive a BMW motorbike and attach signs bearing the surname of his commanding officer Max Wünsche to intersections to guide the following tanks.

After the allies landed fighting was intense. "For one unit there were eight British or Canadian units, we were outnumbered," Bissoir explains. "We had no air force, the German air force didn't exist any more." On 10 August 1944 a grenade blast embedded shrapnel in Bissoir's arm and chest. He was released from hospital in early 1945 and from his family's home travelled to Paderborn to join a replacement SS unit.

In April 1945 the Americans captured him. Thousands of prisoners of war were cordoned in an open cage at Rheinberg. Conditions were grim, with no shelter and raw beans for food. "People died like flies," he says.

Later Bissoir transferred to a US-run camp at Le Mans in France, where there was American white bread and tents for the inmates to sleep in. Chocolate and cigarettes served as currency.

Though rumours flew, on May 8 there was no official announcement the war had ended. The major indication came from the behaviour of the guards, which deteriorated now Germany was defeated.

After the war the commander of the 12th SS Division, Kurt Meyer, was convicted of the murder of Canadian prisoners in his unit's custody. Bissoir remained in French captivity until 1949. He considered joining the Foreign Legion, an option chosen by some former Waffen-SS members who found themselves reviled in the post-war world. Eventually he returned to Neustadt, where he built a career as a machine fitter.

"I am proud to have been in the SS but I am ashamed of the crimes that were committed on the behalf of the German people," he says. "I would lie if I said I didn't like the time in the Hitlerjugend and the Jungvolk, because I did. It was all fun, I was raised like this. But after the war, all the things I learned about: I said, these were crimes."

Serge Mendjisky, France
The teenage Resistance fighter was 'shown off like a monkey at the fair' as France's youngest war veteran

In May 1945 Serge Mendjisky was 15 but he had already had a busy war.

He was born in Paris, the son of painter Maurice Mendjisky. After the German invasion in 1940 his mother printed copies of an inflammatory speech by Charles De Gaulle. "The Gestapo came at eight in the morning and took my mother," Mendjisky recalls. "She spent five years in camps."

Warned by a neighbour, Mendjisky's father fled to the south of France with Serge and his 17-year-old brother. In hiding they adopted the name "Le Sage", meaning "the wise".

Mendjisky's father and brother entered the Resistance. However, his father deemed his second son too young and sent him back to Paris. The intention was for him to lodge with friends but he arrived at the Gare du Lyon unmet. The Gestapo had swooped three days earlier.

"I had almost no money. I had no other address of members of the family, so I slept in doorways," Mendjisky says. "After that I slept under a bridge, under the Austerlitz Bridge. It was a very difficult time." A feral existence continued for nine or 10 months, until he ran into another friend of his father's, also in the resistance. "He said listen, Serge, you can do one service, because you are young, the Germans won't pay any attention to you. You can carry suitcases."

Soon Mendjisky was ferrying valises crammed with contraband across Paris. One day in 1943, toting six revolvers and 200 false identity cards through the Métro, he ran into a Gestapo checkpoint. The Germans beat him for four days and five nights.

"I had 28 fractures," he recalls. "I had two broken arms, eight ribs, the clavicle, the leg, a fractured jaw." He did not talk. Mendjisky was destined for Drancy, an internment centre north-east of Paris that served as a clearinghouse for grimmer Nazi camps further east. However, he escaped en route. Although he received further injuries during the liberation of Paris, and in an attack on La Rochelle in October 1944, Mendjisky survived the war.

In May 1945 he was lauded as France's youngest war veteran and "shown off like a monkey at the fair". He recalls the atmosphere of VE Day as distinct to the frenzied joy of the Parisian liberation the year before. In between collaborators were hunted. Food was scarce.

From January 1945 survivors of Nazi camps flooded the rail stations. "They weren't men, they were ghosts," Mendjisky recalls. "The mood, the ambience, it was very special. It was an ambience of joy, but equal parts sadness."

Mendjiksy's mother gave him the denim shirt she had bought for his 16th birthday. He bought red tulips, and with Resistance friends travelled to Mont-Valérien, a fort where the Germans shot members of the Resistance. They laid flowers. Later, in a city where food remained closely rationed, his mother found pasta and tomatoes. They ate a great meal.

Today Mendjiksy admits that collaborators vastly outnumbered the Resistance, but he insists on the movement's importance. In later life, like his father, he became a painter. His pointillist canvases and photomontages are bright and cheerful. His work, he claims, is the one area of his life unaffected by his war experience.

Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori, Italy
In the countryside found it impossible to tell when exactly the war was over as the shooting continued

In early 1945 Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori had one overriding objective; to see again her father, who had spent years away in British captivity.

"You want your people to be secure," the octogenerian recalls. "He left when I was 11, 12, and till I was 16, 17 he didn't come back. It's a long time to be alone, completely alone."

Von Rezzori was born in 1926 to an Italian aristocrat and a 19-year-old Armenian beauty whose family had fled Constantinople after the First World War. Her mother died when she was six. Her father fought as a cavalry officer in Mussolini's Abyssinia campaign. Later, in the Second World War, he was taken prisoner by the British and held in Kenya. Communication with his daughter was scarce; six months could pass between letters.

Back in Italy, von Rezzori spent much of the war in her family's 16th-century house in Lombardy. Existence with her stepmother was isolated; the daughter of the big house did not play with village children.

The allies invaded Sicily in 1943 and fought their way up Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III ousted Mussolini, bringing a civil war between the north, occupied by Germans, and the south, which sided with the allies. For a time German troops lodged at von Rezzori's house.

German forces in Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945. Isolated in the countryside though, there was for von Rezzori no instant when it was clear the fighting was over. "It came little by little," she says. "It's not that one moment there was war and afterwards no war. People were shooting; it wasn't so simple. There were the partisans."

Later von Rezzori travelled south to find what had happened to a house her family owned at Capri. She found that American soldiers had requisitioned the house, plastering chewing gum under the tables. But the Americans were not regarded as enemies, rather as "distributor of chocolate and goodies".

Some months later von Rezzori was in Rome when a telephone call announced her father had returned. They met at Capri. He had lost 30kg. "He did not recognise me," she said, "because he left a child." Von Rezzori was now a woman.

In later life she ran a gallery in Milan and married novelist Gregor von Rezzori. After his death in 1998 she converted their house in Tuscany into a writers' retreat.

Was it worth it?

Tom Renouf – British

It was very, very worth it. Oh yes, it was essential, there was no other way, it had to be done, it was the right thing to do, it will be remembered as a great achievement, yes, no doubt in my mind ... it was a personal sacrifice, in a way, but never grudged ...You were glad to serve your country, you thought it was your duty to do so, and I'm very proud to do it.

Anthony Duno – American

Oh I think so. The situation was such, I mean let's face it, Hitler was monopolising everything he could get his hands on and something had to stop this. I absolutely believe he had to be stopped. But I think the price to be paid was very heavy and if it had not been for a guy like [US President Harry] Truman I'm not quite sure where we'd be today.

Erich Bissoir – German

Being a soldier I cannot judge if the war was necessary or not, but I believed everything that Adolf said, all the slogans, for example that the German people in the Sudetenland had been prostituted. I didn't know if he was lying. It's just the same in the UK or the US. People believe what they are telling them. It's just the same in the Ukraine crisis right now.

Serge Mendjinsky – French

The Second World War gave us our life and health. It was a war against Hitlerism, against fascism. It was necessary to fight it. It was necessary to stop Hitler. It was a war we had
to fight. I gave a lot, I lost a lot of my youth, but I don't regret anything. If I could do it again I'd do the same thing.

Leonid Finkelstein – Russian

Oh, Second World War, Second World War was sheer disaster for humanity. So many millions perished. God forbid anything like that again. But I cannot exclude it. Putin is
a madman. He just mentioned nuclear weapons. Just mentioned, it's enough to mention. It's unmentionable, and yet he mentioned it.

Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori – Italian

I don't think Mussolini should have gone to war with Hitler ever. That was a huge mistake ... there was great correspondence with Churchill. Churchill liked Mussolini. He should have gone with the French and the English but he was scared to. Hitler was going to conquer the world. He wanted to have a little bit, you know.