The beginning of the end: What happened on VE Day?

Churchill shows the 'Victory' symbol to the crowd on VE Day
Winston Churchill waves his iconic 'Victory' symbol to the large crowd in Whitehall on VE Day

On 8th May 1945, millions took to the streets to celebrate the end of World War Two in Europe. VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) marked the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and commemorated the Allied victory. Although it didn’t officially mark the end of the war, as fighting continued in the Far East, the day was seen as the beginning of a new chapter for the European continent.

By the spring of 1945, victory against Hitler’s Third Reich was no longer a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Things had been going badly for the Wehrmacht for several months and by April 1945, Soviet forces loomed from the east whilst Western Allied forces descended from the opposite side.

On 28th April, Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator and architect of fascism, was shot and hung upside-down in a square in Milan alongside his mistress. Unwilling to face a similar fate, Hitler and his new wife, Eva Braun, committed suicide in the Führerbunker in Berlin a couple of days later.

Hitler’s named successor was Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who swiftly began negotiations to end the war with the Allies. On 7th May, in the French city of Reims, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces with General Alfred Jodl (Dönitz’s chief of staff) signing the document on behalf of his defeated nation.

As soon as the fighting ended, many German soldiers tried to evacuate from the east to avoid falling into the hands of the Red Army. Despite their efforts, the Soviets took around 2 million German troops as prisoners in the days leading up to and after VE Day. However, thousands of British POWs held in prison camps throughout Europe began the repatriation process to finally return home.

Many European countries such as Norway, Denmark, and parts of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were still occupied by the Nazis right up until the German surrender. For those countries, VE Day marked their liberation and the reclamation of their freedom.

Although the German surrender document was signed on 7th May, it came into effect the following day. Eager British journalists had already begun spreading the news back in Britain, sparking a joyous and party-like atmosphere not seen in the country for many years.

On 8th May, a national holiday was declared and celebrations across Britain reached their climax. Pubs flung open their doors whilst street parties erupted up and down the country. Red, white and blue bunting was everywhere as people quite literally danced in the streets.

Millions poured into London to gather around Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Buckingham Palace. St Paul’s Cathedral held ten services throughout the day whilst the Royal Family appeared several times on the palace balcony to wave to the crowds.

King George, Queen Elizabeth, and their two daughters Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret were accompanied on the balcony at one point by Winston Churchill. Elizabeth and Margaret were even permitted to mingle amongst the crowd anonymously, with the future Queen later recalling, “We stood outside and shouted, ‘We want the King’… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life”.

At 3pm, Churchill gave a radio address to the nation in which he announced the end of the war in Europe. Although there was much to celebrate, he added a cautionary note.

“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad.”

The King also spoke to the nation, paying tribute to the endurance of the British people and remembering those who had fallen.

The partying continued well into the night with pubs granted extended licensing hours. During the Blitz and for most of the war, London had been plunged into darkness. Now the night’s sky was illuminated with fireworks and light displays shone above St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

For many, however, the day was not so celebratory. Families had been torn apart by six years of conflict, lives had been lost, and others shattered and broken. War had taken its toll on Britain and many simply couldn't muster the strength to celebrate the bittersweet day. The British servicemen in Europe shared the same feeling since the war still raged in the Pacific. They knew they could soon find themselves re-deployed and fighting elsewhere.

Many back at home also knew that the hard times were far from over. A bankrupt Britain would take years to recover from the financial strain of the war, with austerity setting in and food rationing lasting until 1954.

Although the day was marked with celebrations in other countries, the fact that Japan had yet to surrender meant that VE Day was a rather muted affair in places such as the US, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada, the day ended on a sour note as riots broke out in Halifax leading to several deaths.

In the Soviet Union, people marked ‘Victory Day’ a day later on 9th May. Why? Stalin refused to accept the surrender agreement signed at Reims, insisting that his representative there wasn’t authorised to sign it since it differed from an earlier agreement that he’d approved. This refusal meant another surrender agreement was organised in Soviet-occupied Berlin.

The delay cost around 600 Soviet lives as confusion over the surrender led to the continuation of fighting around Silesia. By the time the agreement was finally signed, the clocks declared it was 9th May back in the Soviet Union. Stalin addressed his people stating, “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations…has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

Of course, the war was not officially over and wouldn’t be until Japan finally capitulated. After two American atomic bombs landed on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Stalin declared war on Japan, the Japanese finally surrendered on 14th August 1945. Britain declared that date to be VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) whilst America marked it when Japan formally signed the surrender agreement on 2nd September.