When ‘VE Day’ was officially confirmed on Tuesday May 8th, 1945, the news sparked a national outpouring of joy and celebrations.
The formal announcement of Victory in Europe came in a 3pm radio broadcast by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but Nazi Germany had capitulated the day before and the news was already out, splashed across the front pages of the morning papers and reported in radio news broadcasts.
Britain’s most popular newspaper at that time, The Daily Mirror, carried the front page headline “VE-DAY! It’s over in Europe”. It reported: “Today is VE-Day – the day for which the British people have fought and endured five years, eight months and four days of war. With unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allies, the war in Europe is over except for the actions of fanatical Nazis in isolated pockets, such as Prague.”
The report continued: “All today and tomorrow are public holidays in Britain, in celebration of our victory.” But it added, in a more sombre tone: “We also remember and salute with gratitude and pride the men and women who suffered and died to make triumph possible – and the men still battling in the East against another cruel enemy who is still in the field.”
While it would be another five months before ‘VJ Day’ – marking Victory over Japan and the end of the Second World War – VE Day was still a cause for celebration. Across the country, church bells silenced throughout the war and held in reserve to warn of imminent danger, now rang out in joyful celebration.
People took to the streets, their traditional British reserve for once relaxed as they laughed, sang, danced and embraced each other. Spontaneous celebrations were biggest in the cities, especially London, where huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square, along The Mall and outside Buckingham Palace. Some revellers dressed in red, white and blue and many waved the flags of Britain and its key wartime ally, the USA.
Cheers rang out as the King and Queen – who refused to desert London through the worst of The Blitz – came out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace, accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The young Princesses, one of whom would become our longest serving Queen, even slipped out of the palace to wander incognito on London’s crowded streets, joining in the celebrations.
The crowds fell largely silent at two points in the day – for Churchill’s radio speech at 3pm and another by the King at 9pm – both broadcast on loudspeakers and greeted with rapturous cheers and applause. Churchill sounded a note of caution, saying: “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.”
Across the UK, tables and chairs were carried out into the streets, bunting strung up and impromptu street parties hastily organised. Pantries, larders and kitchen cupboards were raided for scant rations, including alcohol long set aside for this long-hoped-for day. Many would go hungry over coming days and in fact it would be almost 10 years before all food rationing was lifted, but VE Day was not the day to think about that!
Celebrations continued well into the night, with blackout curtains torn down and lights left on. Bonfires were lit, many of them used to burn effigies of Adolf Hitler, who had killed himself in his Berlin bunker just over a week earlier. There were even fireworks in some places, while London’s great monuments were floodlit for the occasion. A nation plunged into darkness throughout the war was suddenly ablaze with light.
Celebrations continued the next day, which was also declared a public holiday, and even after most people returned to work on Thursday (some with thick heads!), plans were being made for more organised celebrations at the weekend, many held in village halls and churches. Underpinning all the celebrations was a tremendous sense of relief that the European war, which at times came perilously close to engulfing Britain, was finally over.
For many there was sadness too, at the loss of so many loved ones who laid down their lives to preserve our freedoms. Sadder still, there were those who would die after VE Day, fighting in the Pacific against the Japanese, and those who had died already or suffered horrendously as prisoners of war, yet whose fate was not yet known.
The suffering was not over, but VE Day was, as Churchill said, “a brief period of rejoicing”, and one which had never before been so richly deserved.
• To watch a Movietone News reel about VE Day in London in 1945, click here.