On 8 May 1945, Victory in Europe Day (or VE Day) was observed for the first time following the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, which brought World War Two to an end in Europe.
By the spring of 1945, the end of the war seemed to have been a very long time coming. With the announcement of Hitler’s death in a news flash on the General Forces Programme on the evening of 1 May, Britons’ long-deferred expectations of a victory celebration rose to fever pitch.
British troops hear news of victory
In Germany the reaction of British troops, many of whom had seen much hard fighting, was more laconic. Men of the of the 6th Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were then outside Hamburg, heard the original German announcement of the Fuhrer’s demise huddled around their command radio set in a captured farmhouse.
The next morning they left behind a memento of the occasion on a village monument which commemorated a visit by Hitler in 1935. One of the Fusiliers, a stonemason in civilian life, chipped out the end of the story: “KAPUT 1945.”
Agonising wait on the Home Front
In Britain there was an agonising hiatus while people were kept waiting. The reason for this was that there was an agreement between the Allies not to announce the peace until the Germans had signed instruments of surrender in Rheims, in France, and in Berlin.
Tight control was maintained over Allied war correspondents in Rheims who were hungry for leaks. But this did not prevent an enterprising Associated Press man breaking the story.
News of the German surrender of their forces in Holland, north-west Germany and Denmark, signed in Field Marshal Montgomery’s tent on Luneburg Heath at 6.30pm on 4 May, reached New York on 7 May.
General Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, was furious, but the news was greeted with universal rejoicing in New York. That night it was announced on British radio, at 7.40pm, that 8 May would be Victory in Europe Day and a public holiday.
VE day in Britain
As midnight approached, a young London housewife went up to the roof above her flat in the Edgware Road, “from which my husband and I have so often watched fires flaring up in a ring around London as far as we could see, and seen explosions, listened to bombs falling and planes and guns during the ‘Little Blitz” of spring 1944; also watched the buzz bombs [V-1 missiles] with their flaring tails careering over the houses before the final ‘bang’ […]
“As I looked,” she continued, “fireworks began to erupt around the horizon and the red glow of distant bonfires lit the sky – peaceful and joyous fires now, in place of the terrifying ones of the last years.”
As midnight struck, the big ships riding at anchor in ports from the Firth of Clyde to Southampton opened up their sirens in deep-throated booming V-signals. Smaller craft followed them with a cacophony of hoots and whistles and searchlights flashed out a V in Morse across the sky.
The noise could be heard for miles inland. People living on the coast, thrilled by the din, defied the continuing black-out regulations by throwing open their curtains and letting their lights blaze into the night.
In London on the night of 7 May, there was a violent thunderstorm. The morning of 8 May found many people in a subdued, reflective mood.
A London woman noted: “May 8, Tuesday, a thunderstorm greeted VE-Day, but was over before I went to join the longest fish queue I can remember.”
The writer John Lehmann, meanwhile, recalled: “My chief recollection of VE-Day is of queuing for a bus to Paddington which never came, and finally having to walk across Hyde Park with a heavy suitcase, pouring with sweat.
“The crowds were more dazed than excited,” he remembered, “good-tempered, a little bewildered and awkward about celebrating, like cripples taking their first steps after a miraculous healing […]”
Churchill makes his speech
In the afternoon the pace picked up. At 3pm came Winston Churchill‘s speech from Downing Street. This was relayed by speaker to the crowds in Parliament Square, as well as across the nation.
There was a huge cheer when the Prime Minster announced the liberation of the Channel Islands, which had been occupied since 1940. A flurry of flag-waving followed his announcement that “the German war is therefore at an end”.
As Churchill finished, the buglers of the Royal Horse Guards sounded the Cease Fire. As the notes faded away in the warm summer air, soldiers and civilians in the crowd stood to attention to sing the National Anthem.
Churchill was the man of the moment: he addressing the House of Commons, attended a thanksgiving service in Saint Margaret’s Church in Westminster, and spoke to a huge crowd from the Ministry of Health building in Whitehall, telling them: “This is your victory. It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land.”
Mastering his painful stammer, King George VI spoke to the nation in his longest broadcast speech – all of 13 minutes. With Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, and the Prime Minister, he made numerous appearances on the balcony at Buckingham Palace.
The king wore his naval uniform and Princess Elizabeth that of a subaltern in the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Shadows of war
As darkness fell in London and across the nation, the night sky was lit by thousands of bonfires, long in preparation, at the top of which were perched effigies of Hitler and his henchmen. At 11pm in the village of Stoke Lacy, a reporter on the Hereford Times witnessed the immolation of the late Fuhrer:
“At that hour the excitement was intense when Mr W.R. Symonds called upon Mr S.J. Parker, of the local Home Guard, to set the effigy alight,” reported Lacy. “In a few minutes the body of Hitler disintegrated as his 1,000-year empire had done.”
“First his arm, posed in the Hitler salute, dropped as smartly as it ever was raised in life … Then a leg fell off and the flames burnt fiercely to the strains of ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘There’ll Always be an England and ‘Roll out the Barrel’.”
The crackling fires spoke of victory and release from fear. But they could not banish the shadows of the recent past. The novelist William Sansom, who had served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz, found himself recalling those days.
He recalled how “Pinpointed across the city [of Westminster] appeared the first urgent firebursts, ever growing, as though they were in fact spreading, as each bonfire reddened and cast its coppery glow on the house rows, on glassy windows and the black blind spaces where windows had once been.”
“Alleys lit up, streets took on the fireset glare – it seemed that in each dark declivity of houses there lurked the old fire. The ghosts of [fire] wardens and fireguards and firemen were felt scurrying again down in the redness.”
“Fireworks peppered the air with a parody of gunfire. The smell of burning wood charred the nostrils. And, gruesomely correct, some of the new street lights and fluorescent window lights … glowed fiercely blueish-white, bringing again the shrill memory of the old white thermite glare of the bursting incendiary.”
Those with less painful memories were happy to sing along with a song of 1943 which had anticipated the end of the war:
“I’m going to get lit up when the lights go up in London,
I’m going to get lit up as I’ve never been before;
You will find me on the tiles,
you will find me wreathed in smiles;
I’m going to get lit up,
so I’ll be visible for miles.”
Robin Cross is an author and journalist specialising in military history. His book VE Day, a panoramic picture of the closing days of World War Two, was a bestseller in Britain when it was published by Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd in 1985.