VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, is celebrated on 8 May as the day the Second World War came to an end in Europe in 1945. Writing now, 75 years on in 2020, most people have no memory of the event, many will have limited understanding of it and some won’t even have heard of it. You wonder whether VE Day still has any relevance, why it is still marked and whether, by 2045, it will be any more than a historical note.
Of course, the war did not end with VE Day; it carried on in the Far East for another three months, until Japan capitulated on 15 August (VJ Day). But victory in Europe was a watershed, an ending and, for many, a beginning too. We may be familiar with scenes of jubilation associated with VE Day, but the people in the fading photographs were not so much celebrating a happy event, as celebrating deliverance – together with some expectation that modest hopes for a better future were not futile. Many would also be remembering those they had lost, individual lives among the millions that had perished.
Let’s put this in context. The Second World War in Europe lasted some five and a half years from September 1939. It was a devastating time for all participants, hard for us to comprehend now. Most European nations were aggressively overrun by, or allied to, Hitler’s Germany. Others were occupied by the USSR. It was a dark chapter in history, a time of unimaginable terror, deprivation and human tragedy. Nazi Germany was one of the most odious, brutal, frightening, regimes in modern times. Only six countries – Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Portugal, Spain and Ireland – remained officially neutral and unoccupied. German occupation was that of a conqueror subjecting the defeated and innocent; it was not only alien, but also harsh and restrictive. For strategic reasons, but hopefully rather more benignly, the United Kingdom occupied Iceland. The UK, though it enjoyed the support of its Empire and Dominions, provided the only national opposition to Hitler’s brutal regime in Europe until Germany invaded its erstwhile ally, the USSR, in June 1941. This event, followed by the USA’s entry into the war later that year, made Hitler’s defeat inevitable. But it took until 1944 before the pincers inexorably closed in on Germany, from east and west. Meanwhile, the occupied nations of Europe endured until being gradually liberated – though some, like Poland, would not be free for another forty years. However, by April 1945, Soviet forces had surrounded Berlin and on 25 April US and Soviet forces met near Torgau, on the Elbe. On 30 April, the Americans entered Munich and Turin. In Berlin that day, the Red Army fought its way through the Reichstag, floor by floor. That afternoon, less than a mile away in his bunker, Hitler committed suicide with his new wife, Eva Braun. The architect of so much misery was dead and a line could finally be drawn under the already doomed Thousand Year Reich. But the fighting and cruelty went on, with sometimes fanatical German resistance (including on the part of boy soldiers) and the piecemeal capitulation of German forces on all fronts. To the very end, the Allies maintained their policy of unconditional surrender, rejecting any form of negotiated peace. On 4 May, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in the Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark at Lüneburg Heath, east of Hamburg. In the early hours of 7 May, Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz authorised the final and complete surrender of all German forces on all fronts. The surrender was signed in Rheims at 0241 that day and took effect at fifty-nine minutes to midnight on 8 May. The killing continued in the meantime; in Prague, German forces fought on until the morning of 8 May. For the benefit of the sceptical Russians, a further surrender ceremony took place in Berlin just before midnight on 8 May.
Thus it was done. But though VE Day is characterised by those images of joyful celebration in London, and elsewhere, how people marked the event at the time obviously depended on their personal circumstances. Many Germans shared their former enemies’ relief that it was all over. But many committed suicide – through despair, or fear – of retribution for crimes committed, or of maltreatment at the hands of victorious Allied soldiers, particularly Russians. Millions of people of all nations across Europe – civilians, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates as well as service personnel – had to find their way home. Some, understandably, got drunk; others, equally understandably, were bemused, or reflective. Lieutenant Cross of the 2nd Ox & Bucks wrote to his parents, “I suppose I should feel elated. But I feel tired and disgusted.” The news was heard farther afield too, of course, all over the world, at sea or in the air; and it was listened to in jungles and on islands where men and women would continue to die.
In Britain, the population had been expecting to hear any day that hostilities had ended in Europe. Rumours flew about and some found it hard to settle into work. In London, crowds gathered outside Downing Street, waiting for news. Later on 7 May it was announced that the next two days would be holidays. Tuesday 8 May would be VE Day and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, would address the nation then, at 3pm. Always mindful of the bigger picture, he said “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.”
Later, speaking to crowds in Whitehall from the balcony of the Ministry of Health, he said:
“God bless you all. This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.”
Ecstatic crowds gathered in public places all over the land – Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square in London, and outside Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen made repeated appearances on the balcony. Nineteen-year old Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, went out with her sister, Margaret to secretly mingle with the heaving throng. She later recalled it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life.” Bunting and flags decorated towns and villages all over Britain; people partied, danced in the streets, climbed on buses, kissed and hugged complete strangers and filled the pubs. Though they had escaped invasion, and the widespread destruction visited upon large parts of continental Europe, 450,900 Britons perished in the war, more than 67,000 of them civilians. Many cities needed substantial rebuilding, there was an acute housing crisis and money was short. As well as the dangers from bombs and missiles, the people of the United Kingdom had endured years of restrictions, limitations on travel, blackout and rationing; they were entitled to let their hair down. Like everywhere else, there were also mixed emotions. The King, George VI, in his radio broadcast at 9pm picked up on that, saying:
“Let us remember those who will not come back, their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the Services and the women in all the Services who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulation, and they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.”
In Sheffield, accountant George Taylor* and his wife listened to Churchill’s speech on the radio and went for a short walk after tea. They removed part of the blackout, not quite believing the news, and opened a tin of chicken they had been saving since January 1941. The following day, George removed the rest of the blackout and put it in the loft, ready for the next war. Also in Sheffield, Edie Rutherford* listened to Churchill on a neighbour’s portable radio “He spoke well and seemed in good form. Everyone agreed that we have been well blessed in having such a leader. I felt once again great gratitude for being born British.” Thousands were in the town centre, some attending a service, some simply wandering about. Side streets had been decorated. In the evening she took a walk with her husband: lights showed, music blared and most people were clearly the worse for drink. They returned home and, like the Taylors, sought out reserve food they had put by earlier in the war. In their case, it was tinned asparagus tips, tinned tomatoes, cheese, water biscuits and margarine. In south-east London, retired widower and keen gardener Herbert Brush* “nearly swore” when he found almost all of his “runner beans had been eaten before they put their tips above the ground.” He listened to Churchill at 3pm, and the King in the evening, then went down the road with a friend to see a bonfire someone had lit. It was one of many burning in Britain that night: bombs had made plenty of firewood available; some burned effigies of Hitler.
In Field Marshall Lord Alan Brooke’s war diaries (Chief of Chief of the Imperial General Staff 1941-46), he starts the entry for 8 May by writing, “A day disorganised by victory!” He took the following day off and went home to his wife in Hartley Wintney, spending “a happy and peaceful afternoon together looking after goats and chickens etc.”
VE Day in 1945 was a hugely important event, a moment of national thanksgiving after coming through almost six years of adversity – the blood, sweat and tears, if you like. But it was also an expression of relief and hope for the future. It has been marked since, though not in any great coordinated manner that I am aware of, except for the 50th and 70th anniversaries in 1995 and 2015, big government-supported commemorations, which brought crowds to Buckingham Palace again and included thanksgiving and remembrance services, concerts, fly-pasts and parties and flag-waving all over the country. Generally speaking, most Brits are not great flag-wavers – except on special occasions. A full programme of events was also anticipated for the official 75th anniversary in 2020, the last significant anniversary in which service veterans, by now in their 90s, would be able to participate. Services of remembrance and thanksgiving, processions and 1940s themed events were planned. Communities all round the country were intent on organising street parties and participating in a nationwide lighting of beacons. Why was this? Is something that happened so long ago, when the world was so different, still relevant? It is of course important to ensure that the service and sacrifice of the WW2 generation is not forgotten. Further, VE Day is still close to those who were there, or are aware of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences, at home or overseas, during those long war years. We might add that it is always wise to celebrate and remember the defeat of tyranny and the freedoms we consequently enjoy. Of course, some will disagree, or feel disengaged from this aspect of Britain’s history.
The advent of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) changed everything, and everyone’s plans. Because the country was put in lockdown on 23 March, it was no longer possible to contemplate street parties and parades. Even so, VE Day will still be remembered, starting at 11am with a 2-minute silence. Churchill’s 1945 victory speech will be re-broadcast on TV at 3pm, and Her Majesty the Queen will address the nation at 9pm – just like her father did. Following that, everyone can join in a national sing-along of force’s sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn’s anthemic ‘We’ll Meet Again’. In between times, people are encouraged to mark the day at home, and on their doorsteps.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a terrible thing. Many wonder whether VE Day 2020 will engage more and different people, because of it. Battling adversity, honouring the ordinary brave who have contributed to overcoming a common evil and remembering those we have lost, actually chimes with the moment. Our society is under threat. There are parallels with the past, attributes some are nostalgic for – the community spirit, volunteering, looking out for one another. Make do and mend. Is your journey really necessary? And then there’s the fear. That is certainly a common factor, though battling an unseen foe might be even more frightening than a tangible opponent who can be physically grappled, or shot at. I have often wondered how people did what they did during World War Two, and how we, more privileged, pampered, self-indulgent and emotional folk, would cope with something similar. The quality of life and standard of living for most people during Britain’s 21st century lockdown is infinitely better than it would have been in the 1940s. Being mostly confined to your home and not being able to go out with your friends for 2 or 3 months is difficult, very difficult for some, but the benefits outweigh the alternative. The economic consequences of the Corona crisis might turn out to be worse than those of WW2. However, the most sobering thought is that, currently, on a proportional basis from March to date, the UK death-rate from COVID-19 significantly exceeds the number of civilians killed by Hitler’s bombers between 1939 and 1945. Let’s hope that VE Day in 2020 will be a coming together, applying the lessons of the past to the present. But whereas VE Day in 1945 was an ending, Coronavirus (COVID-19) is not done with us yet.
This article will be updated as appropriate.
* Fictional name, but a real person. From ‘Our Hidden Lives’ by Simon Garfield.
Further reading (links to Amazon)
Read the story of the girls in the fountain and other material on the IWM website