5 Facts About V-E Day

1. It took 20 hours to complete the surrender documents

Following the suicide of Adolf Hitler on April 30 and the collapse of the Nazi Party, the end of the war in Europe was clearly in sight. Susan Hibbert, a British secretary stationed at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Reims, France, began working on a series of documents and cables to world leaders informing them of the impending surrender. On May 6, after the arrival of General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff to new German President Karl Dönitz, in Reims, Hibbert and other staffers knew the end was imminent. That morning, she began typing the English version of the Act of Military Surrender and, thanks to repeated changes in wording from all parties, didn’t finish until 20 hours later. Finally, at around 2:30 am May 7, Hibbert and other staffers crowded into a conference room to witness one of the most momentous events of the 20th century.

Curiously, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander and architect of the successful war strategy, didn’t attend the ceremony, and was instead represented by his chief of staff Walter Bedell Smith. He did, however, decide how the historic news would be relayed around the world. While many on his staff pressed for a strongly worded declaration of victory, “Ike” overruled them, instead crafting a far simpler message to announce the end of six deadly years of conflict: “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”

2. Joseph Stalin insisted on a second surrender ceremony

As the fighting neared its end, the post-war political wrangling had already begun. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin heard about the surrender ceremony in Reims, he was none too pleased. He declared that the U.S.S.R’s representative there, Ivan Susloparov, had not been authorized to sign the document and that the wording differed from a previous agreement Stalin had approved. Stalin, who ensured Soviet troops were the first to arrive in Berlin in an effort to secure control of the city before the Allies, also refused to accept a surrender signed on French soil, and declared the Reims document simply a preliminary surrender. Stalin’s remarks caused massive confusion; German radio announced that the Axis may have surrendered on the Western Front, but remained at war with the Soviets, and fighting continued throughout the day on May 8. Finally, just before midnight (in the early hours of the 9th, Moscow time), another hastily assembled ceremony got underway in Soviet-controlled Berlin. So, while much of the world would commemorate V-E Day on May 8, Victory Day in the Russia and its republics would be celebrated on May 9.

3. V-E Day sparked the deadly Halifax Riot

Unfortunately, not every V-E Day celebration ended peacefully. For six years tensions had been rising in the critical Canadian port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as thousands of sailors flooded the city, more than doubling its population. With housing, commodities and entertainment in short supply, prices were high and tempers were extremely short. On May 7, when word reached the city of the impending surrender, business leaders, fearing an influx of servicemen in search of a celebration, decided to close all liquor stores, restaurants and stores, while the city suspended local transportation. Despite these concerns, the nearby military base’s commander gave more than 10,000 sailors temporary leave to enjoy the end of the war downtown. Angered at what they considered gross mistreatment by city residents, and with little in the way of peaceful diversions, the men eventually began to riot, looting retail stores and liquor outlets and starting dozens of fires. The Halifax Riot continued into May 8, with another 9,000 sailors teeming into town. By the time order was restored and the looting had stopped late that afternoon, three servicemen were dead, 360 had been arrested and the city had suffered more than $5 million in damages—$62 million in today’s money.

READ MORE: V-E Day Around the World

4. It made for a fine presidential birthday present

On May 8, 1945, Harry Truman had been president for just 26 days—in fact, he had only moved into the White House the day before. Writing to his mother and sister, Truman informed them of the German surrender the day before (which he would announce to the country shortly after finishing the letter), and noted the day’s other, more personal, significance—it was his 61st birthday. When Truman met with reporters later that morning to discuss the surrender, he dedicated the victory to his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died less than a month earlier, then quietly slipped away to celebrate both his birthday and V-E Day with friends and aides.

5. The location of the surrender was known as France’s city of kings

The French city of Reims, like much of Europe, had suffered mightily in the early 20th century: Nearly 80 percent of the city had been destroyed during World War I and again during the second world war, when the Nazi-occupied city was heavily bombed by Allied planes. Located in the northeast part of the country, it is today probably best known for producing some of the best champagne in the world. But for hundreds of years, Reims played a crucial (if ceremonial) role in French history. Beginning in 496 with the baptism of Clovis, Rheims was where the coronation of 33 French kings were consecrated, all using anointing oil that according to legend, had been provided directly by God. During the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc liberated the city and had Charles VII crowned king in the city’s cathedral. The tradition continued until 1825, when Charles X became the last king to be consecrated in Reims.

World War II Ends: 22 Photos of Giddy Celebrations After Allied Victory

5 Facts About V-E Day - HISTORY

Celebrate and learn about special days
every day of the year!

VE Day marks a very important event in World War 2 - the end of the War with Germany on Tuesday 8 May 1945. For almost six years from 1939 to 1945 Britain fought the toughest war it had ever experienced. Six years of bloodshed that had killed approximately 382,700 members of the British Armed forces and 67,100 civilians were over.

For days people had been anticipating the news of the German surrender. They knew it was on the cards and had begun decorating their gardens with red, white and blue bunting and Union Jack flags.

Finally, in a school house in Rhins, Germany's unconditional surrender was signed at 2:41pm on 7 May. (Active operations by the German forces would cease by 11.01pm 8 May.) Church bells across the country pealed. A sea of red, white and blue erupted

At 3pm on 8 May, Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a radio broadcast announcing that war in Europe was finally at an end. He made the broadcast from the War Cabinet Office, the same room that in 1939 Neville Chamberlain had made a speech announcing that the country was at war.

Shortly after Churchill's speech King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses came out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the huge crowd below.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill joins Royal Family 1945 on the balcony
at Buckingham Palace on VE Day, end of WW2 in Europe

Street parties were held all over Britain to celebrate the end of the war. The photo below shows my mother, Jean Corri, enjoying a street party in Tooting. Notice the dining room chairs and tables.

Find out more about VE Day

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“Hooray! The war is ended”: 5 people’s recollections of VE Day

One of Vera Schaufield’s most vivid memories of VE Day was of getting into trouble with her schoolteacher. Six years earlier, Vera had bid her parents goodbye and become one of the 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia evacuated to England on the Kindertransport, organised by the British humanitarian Nicholas Winton. She was now a refugee suffering from homesickness. She had more reason than most to look forward to the end of the war.

“We were sitting in the classroom and the teacher was reading,” she recalled. “Someone came into the room and spoke to her and she said: ‘I have something to tell you: the war is ended!’ I said: ‘Hooray!’ She sent me out for causing a disturbance. I stood outside the classroom with all these mixed thoughts. My parents were going to be cross, because I couldn’t speak to them in Czech or German. Would I be able to take my school certificate? I just wanted to see my parents again. I just wanted to go home.”

Sadly, it was not to be. Schaufield’s parents had been transported to Auschwitz and were already dead.

David Elliot

One of the greatest days of David Elliot’s young life was almost the last. For David, it had been a long war. Despite some pacifist inclination, he had joined up as a stretcher-bearer and served in France until he was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940. He then served with the South Notts Hussars in north Africa, Sicily and north-west Europe. On VE Day, they had come to a halt near the town of Coesfeld in Germany.

David decided that the best way to celebrate would be to build a massive bonfire with an effigy of Hitler. “We were all mixed up, the officers and the ranks, all terrifically friendly and all very inebriated! I was very worried because it had been raining and everything was wet. It was 8 to 10-feet high and fairly large with this dummy of Hitler on the top. I’d kept a can of petrol to make sure the bonfire went well.” He then managed to put himself in great danger on that day of peace.

“I climbed up on top of this bonfire, the men were all surrounding it – and I noticed a lot of them had got lighted brands [flaming torches]. I started pouring this petrol down from the top, a good 10 or 12 feet up in the air.” It was at this point that Elliott realised how stupid he had been. “To get right through to the end of the war to go and incinerate myself on VE Day was the height of stupidity.” Luckily, the men heard his desperate shouts to “Wait!” while he climbed down. “Then with a great cheer they threw the lighted brands on the fire and it went up in a great whoosh! Everyone was madly cheering.”

Major Alan Hay

When Major Alan Hay’s men found out that the war was over, most had only one thing on their minds: “It was, ‘Get your hands on any vino!’”

Alan, a company commander with the 16th Durham Light Infantry, had had a tough war, serving with the Durhams in Italy and Greece since December 1943. They had been called back to Italy, where they were in reserve. The Germans were on the retreat, but Alan feared they might be planning a bloody last stand in the Alps. Little wonder, then, that when the good news arrived on 8 May 1945, the battalion was jubilant.

“We had a party, first of all firing off all the Very Lights [a type of flare], flashes and signal flares. I suppose some live ammunition went off – but not officially! All the lights were up in the air and we had quite a party.”

They organised a best-dressed jeep competition. “First of all, camouflage netting, but anything that would give a bit of colour. They got balloons from somewhere, went round the Italians and got some dresses from them. Two of the officers dressed up as women wearing frocks, with wigs and make-up to match. One of the jeeps was disguised as a gondola. It was just a huge laugh, drinking and absolutely relaxing. Anything that was stupid we were very good at – and I was right in the thick of it.”

Major Alan Hay

Born in London in 1928, Stan Suffling had been evacuated to St Albans and then Harpenden in 1939. As a pupil at the London Regent Street School, he was evacuated again with the school on its relocation to Minehead.

Stan returned to London in 1944, just in time to experience the stresses of the German V1 and V2 raids. On VE Day, he and a small group of friends went into the centre of London to revel in the celebrations: “We made our way down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. We saw members of the royal family it was the first time I’d ever seen them. At that time, they used to appear heavily made-up with powder and rouge – they looked like waxworks. That amazed me.”

They walked back to Piccadilly Circus and stood together on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. “It was an amazing scene. It was absolutely milling with people – it was an impossibility to move. We enjoyed the festivities everybody was talking to everybody. There were members of the forces, a lot of Americans being feted. There were people climbing up the top of lampposts, right up and sitting on the top. Many were drunk. We were not among that crowd – we were just school kids. Those that weren’t drunk with alcohol were drunk with excitement. It was the most exciting day of my life up to then!”

Harold Fine

“As you can imagine we were highly delighted. We’d survived!” That was Harold Fine’s overriding memory of VE Day. Fine was a wireless telegraphist who had served aboard HMS Calder since its commission in 1943. The ship had been busy on convoy escort duties in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, before carrying out anti-submarine patrols off Ireland and Scotland. That night Harold went ashore with a bunch of his shipmates. They got drunk and returned to the ship the worse for wear. But that wasn’t the end of their evening.

“Somebody said: ‘Why waste the night?’ About six of us decided to go ashore again. I don’t think there was any jetty sentry, things were very relaxed to say the least!” They forced a pub landlord to serve them – even though it was by then getting late – then moved further into town clutching various bottles. “Somebody dared us to climb up Queen Victoria’s statue outside the City Hall in Belfast. A dare in those days was like red rag to a bull. Up we went! We were knocking the heads of these bottles and drinking. It was decided – very stupidly – to drop these on the crowd gathered underneath. I’m glad to say we didn’t hit anybody.

“It didn’t take very long before two RUC men clambered up behind us and said: ‘Come on Jack, you’re causing trouble, you’d better come down.’ We went down very quietly and peacefully. As our feet hit the deck we were physically thrown into the back of a Black Maria and whipped off to Crumlin Road Jail!”

Come the dawn, they were woken up with a cup of tea and released without charge. “The state of my head!” Their VE Day was over.

Peter Hart was the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum. His new book, At Close Range: Life and Death in an Artillery Regiment, 1939–45, is due to be published by Profile in May

V-E Day Was 75 Years Ago. How Relevant Is It Today?

May 6, 2020

Four MPs take a break along a German road to read in the newspaper Stars and Stripes about the Nazi surrender. (Photo Courtesy of the US Army)

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The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945 ought to prompt thoughtful reflection. For Americans, V-E Day, as it was then commonly called, marked the beginning of “our times.” The Covid-19 pandemic may signal that our times are now coming to an end.

Tom Engelhardt, editor and proprietor of TomDispatch, was born less than a year prior to V-E Day. I was born less than two years after its counterpart, V-J Day, marking the surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945.

Tom is a New Yorker, born and bred. I was born and raised in the Midwest.

Tom is Jewish, although nonobservant. I am a mostly observant Catholic.

Tom is a progressive who as a young man protested against the Vietnam War. I am, so I persist in claiming, a conservative. As a young man, I served in Vietnam.

Yet let me suggest that these various differences matter less than the fact that we both came of age in the shadow of World War II—or more specifically in a time when the specter of Nazi Germany haunted the American intellectual landscape. Over the years, that haunting would become the underlying rationale for the US exercise of global power, with consequences that undermined the nation’s capacity to deal with the menace it now faces.

Tom and I both belong to what came to be known as the baby boom generation (though including him means ever so slightly backing up the official generational start date). As a group, boomers are generally associated with having had a pampered upbringing before embarking upon a rebellious youth (Tom more than me), and then as adults helping ourselves to more than our fair share of all that life, liberty, and happiness. Now, preparing to exit the stage, we boomers are passing on to those who follow us a badly damaged planet and a nation increasingly divided, adrift, and quite literally sick. A “greatest generation” we are not.

Current Issue

How did all this happen? Let me suggest that, to unpack American history during the decades when we baby boomers sashayed across the world stage, you have to begin with World War II, or more specifically, with how that war ended and became enshrined in American memory.

Of course, we boomers never experienced the war directly. Our parents did. Tom’s father and both of my parents served in World War II. Yet neither were we boomers ever truly able to put that war behind us. For better or worse, members of our generation remain the children of V-E Day, when—so we tell ourselves—evil was finally vanquished and good prevailed.

Never Forget

For Tom, for me, and for our contemporaries, World War II as history and as metaphor centers specifically on the Nazis and their handiwork: swastikas, mammoth staged rallies, the Gestapo and the SS, the cowardice of surrender at Munich, the lightning offensive campaigns known as Blitzkrieg, London burning, the Warsaw Ghetto, slave labor, and, of course, a vast network of death camps engineering the Holocaust, all documented in film, photographs, archives, and eyewitness accounts.

And then there was der Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, the subject of a fascination that, over the decades, proved bottomless and more than slightly disturbing. (If your local library ever reopens, compare the number of books about Hitler to those about Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini or wartime Japanese emperor Hirohito.) Seventy-five years after his death, Hitler remains among us, the supreme villain routinely pressed into service by politicians and media pundits alike intent on raising the alarm about some imminent danger. If ever there were a man for all seasons, it is Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s centrality helps explain why Americans typically date the opening of World War II to September 1939, when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Only in December 1941 did the United States (belatedly) join the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other American installations in the Pacific forcing Washington’s hand. In fact, however, a full decade earlier Japan had already set out to create what it would eventually call its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1931, its forces invaded then Chinese-controlled Manchuria, an undertaking that soon enough morphed into a very large and brutal armed conflict with China proper in which the United States participated on a proxy basis. (Remember the Flying Tigers?) In other words, World War II actually began in Asia rather than Europe, with the first shots fired years before the Nazi attack on Poland.

Yet launching the narrative in September 1939 has the effect of keeping the primary focus on Germany. From a moral perspective, there are ample reasons for doing this: Even in a century of horrendous crimes—the Armenian genocide, Stalin’s extermination of Ukraine’s kulaks, and Mao Zedong’s murderous campaign against his own people—the sheer unadulterated evil of the Nazi regime stands apart.

From a political perspective, however, intense preoccupation with one example of iniquity, however horrific, induces a skewed perspective. So it proved to be with the United States during the decades that followed V-E Day. Subsumed within the advertised purposes of postwar US policy, whether called “defense,” “deterrence,” “containment,” “liberation,” or “the protection of human rights,” has been this transcendent theme: “Never Again.” That is, never again will the United States ignore or appease or fail to confront a regime that compares to—or even vaguely resembles—Nazi Germany. Never again will it slumber until rudely awakened by a Pearl Harbor–like surprise. Never again will it allow its capacity for projecting power against distant threats to dissipate. Never again will it fail to lead.

Of all Donald Trump’s myriad deficiencies, large and small, this may be the one that his establishment critics find most difficult to stomach: His resurrection of “America First” as a primary principle of statecraft suggests a de facto nullification of “Never Again.”

To Trump’s critics, it hardly matters that “America First” in no way describes actual administration policy. After all, more than three years into the Trump presidency, our endless wars persist (and in some cases have even intensified) the nation’s various alliances and its empire of overseas bases remain intact US troops are still present in something like 140 countries Pentagon and national security state spending continues to increase astronomically. Even so, the president does appear oblivious to the historical antecedent—that is, the imperative of standing ready to deal with the next Hitler—that finds concrete expression in these several manifestations of US national security policy. No one has ever accused Trump of possessing a profound grasp of history. Yet here his apparent cluelessness is especially telling.

Not least among the unofficial duties of any president is to serve as the authoritative curator of public memory. Through speeches, proclamations, and the laying of wreaths, presidents tell us what we should remember and how. Through their silence, they give us permission to forget the parts of our past that we prefer to forget. Himself born barely a year after V-E Day, Donald Trump seems to have forgotten World War II.

New Signs for a New Time?

Yet let’s consider this admittedly uncongenial possibility: Perhaps Trump is on to something. What if V-E Day is no more relevant to the present than the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812? What if, as a basis for policy, “Never Again” is today just as outmoded as “America First”? What if clinging to the canonical lessons of the war against Hitler impedes efforts to repair our nation and our planet?

An abiding problem with “Never Again” is that US policy-makers have never applied it to the United States. Since V-E Day, individuals and regimes deemed in Washington to be the spawn of Hitler and the Nazis have provided justification for successive administrations to accumulate arms, impose punishments, underwrite coups and assassination plots, and, of course, wage war endlessly. Beginning with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, the list of malefactors that US officials and militant journalists have likened to Hitler is a long one. They’ve ranged from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the 1960s to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. And just to bring things up to date, let’s not overlook the ayatollahs governing present-day Iran.

Two decades after V-E Day, a succession of presidents deployed lessons ostensibly derived from the war against Hitler to justify the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy described South Vietnam as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike.” Failing to defend that country would allow “the red tide of Communism,” as he put it, to sweep across the region much as appeasers had allowed the Nazi tide to sweep across Europe. “Everything I knew about history,” Lyndon Johnson reflected, “told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did in World War II,” a reference, of course, to the Munich Agreement with Hitler, which the British prime minister so infamously labeled “peace in our time.” Even as late as 1972, Richard Nixon was assuring the public that “an American defeat” in Vietnam “would encourage this kind of aggression all over the world.”

Vietnam provides but one example among many of how viewing problems through the lens of World War II in Europe has obscured real situations and actual stakes on this planet. In short, the promiscuous use of the Hitler analogy has produced deeply flawed policy decisions, while also deceiving the American people. This has inhibited our ability to see the world as it actually is.

Overall, the approach to statecraft that grew out of V-E Day defined the ultimate purpose of US policy in terms of resisting evil. That, in turn, provided all the justification needed for building up American military capabilities beyond compare and engaging in military action on a planetary scale.

In Washington, policy-makers have shown little inclination to consider the possibility that the United States itself might be guilty of doing evil. In effect, the virtuous intentions implicit in “Never Again” inoculated the country against the virus to which ordinary nations were susceptible. V-E Day seemingly affirmed that America was anything but ordinary.

Here, then, we arrive at one explanation for the predicament in which the United States now finds itself. In a recent article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold wondered how it could be that when it came to dealing with Covid-19, “the country that defeated fascism in Europe 75 years ago” now finds itself “doing a worse job protecting its citizens than many autocracies and democracies” globally.

Yet it might just be that events that occurred 75 years ago in Europe no longer have much bearing on the present. The country that defeated Hitler’s version of fascism (albeit with considerable help from others) has since allowed its preoccupation with fascists, quasi-fascists, and other ne’er-do-wells to serve as an excuse for letting other things slip, particularly here in the homeland.

The United States is fully capable of protecting its citizens. Yet what the present pandemic drives home is this: Doing so while also creating an environment in which all citizens can flourish is going to require a radical revision of what we still, however inaccurately, call “national security” priorities. This does not mean turning a blind eye to mass murder. Yet the militarization of US policy that occurred in the wake of V-E Day has for too long distracted attention from more pressing matters, not least among them creating a way of life that is equitable and sustainable. This perversion of priorities must now cease.

So, yes, let’s mark this V-E Day anniversary with all due solemnity. Yet 75 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, the challenge facing the United States is not “Never Again.” It’s “What now?”

For the moment at least, Tom and I are still around. Yet “our times”—the period that began when World War II ended—have run their course. The new times upon which the nation has now embarked will pose their own distinctive challenges, as the Covid-19 pandemic makes unmistakably clear. Addressing those challenges will require leaders able to free themselves from a past that has become increasingly irrelevant.

Andrew J. Bacevich Andrew J. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

3. Bomber crews spent hundreds of hours in combat fighting the Nazis but many never stepped foot on the European continent.

Up until the invasion of Italy and D-Day shortly thereafter, American air bases were located in England as part of the 8th Air Force.

By war’s end, a bomber crew had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour of duty and earn their ticket home. Thirty-five missions amounted to 200+ hours in combat over Fortress Europe clashing with Germans. Completing a tour spanned many months, sometimes taking an entire year.

If an airman was lucky, he never stepped foot on the ground where his war was fought. For bombers of the 8th Air Force, nearly every mission began and ended in England. In most cases, only if a crew was shot down, and survived the crash, did they touch down on the European continent.

VE Day Facts: rogue royals, bargain bunting and fiery street parties

The first Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) was on May 8th 1945, officially ending World War II in Europe.

On Monday May 7 th at 2.41am, German General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document in Reims, France, which formally ended war in Europe. He did so on the orders of Admiral Karl Dönitz who had become the Third Reich’s president after Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30th, 1945.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was informed of the event at 7am. After hearing rumours, large crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King!” before an official announcement was made.

The delay in making the announcement was caused by the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. He didn’t have anyone senior enough to sign the treaty in Reims so held a surrender ceremony in Berlin the following day.

But by the evening of 7th, Churchill decided he was not going to allow Stalin to hold up proceedings any longer, and at 7.40pm the Ministry of Information made a short announcement: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.”

Within minutes of this announcement, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of central London to celebrate. People gathered in Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and boats along the Thames sounded their horns in celebration.

The celebrations only ended when a thunderstorm and heavy rain drenched the revellers – just before midnight.

Here are a few things you may not know:

VE Day means Victory in Europe

VE Day stands for Victory in Europe Day – 8th May, 1945 – the very moment when the German armed forces signed an unconditional surrender, and WW2 in Europe came to an end.

Bargain bunting

The Home Office issued a circular (before any official announcement had been made) instructing the nation on how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” The Board of Trade did the same: “Until the end of May you may buy cotton bunting without coupons, as long as it is red, white or blue, and does not cost more than one shilling and three pence a square yard.”

Even Churchill let his hair down

Street parties were organised across the country neighbours pooled food, which was still rationed. Churchill went to Buckingham Palace to have a celebratory lunch with George VI. “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing”. he said in his 3pm address on the day. “Advance Britannia. Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King! ”

….as did the Royals

In the late afternoon, the Royal family came out onto a balcony at Buckingham Palace where a crowd of 20,000 waited outside the gates for a glimpse of them. George VI wore his Royal Navy uniform, while Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform. They were joined by Churchill, who later spoke to those gathered outside the Ministry of Health. At the end of his speech, the listeners sang For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.

Princess Elizabeth, as she was called then, took the opportunity to meet ordinary folk. She and her sister Princess Margaret decided to wander incognito through the city streets in the evening. This unprecedented promenade inspired the upcoming film A Royal Night Out starring Bel Powley as Margaret and Sarah Gadon as the future Queen (in UK cinemas on 15th May).

St Paul’s saw the light

In the evening Buckingham Palace was lit up by floodlights for the first time since 1939 and two searchlights made a giant ‘V’ above St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a highly symbolic gesture for a city that had spent years in blackout.

It wasn’t an all-nighter

The police reported that there was barely any criminal activity throughout the day despite the boisterous behaviour of tens of thousands. In the early hours of May 9th, the celebratory illuminations in London were turned off. The war in Japan was still being fought and austerity was still the order of the day

But there were a few other problems…

People built street fires out of whatever flammable materials they could find. Witnesses reported that London had the same red glow it had during the Blitz – but for a positive reason. Some fires got out of hand and the Fire Brigade had to be called to put out the blazes. People also got hold of fireworks – prohibited during the war – to give the celebrations more colour.

Things were a little complicated in the US

In the United States, the victory happened on President Harry Truman’s 61 st birthday. He dedicated the victory to the memory of his predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt who had died of a cerebral haemorrhage a month earlier, on 12th April. Despite the enormity of the day, flags in the US remained at half-mast for the day in honour of Roosevelt.

And in the Soviet Union as well….

The Soviets did not declare the end of war until May 9th. The reason for the Soviet delay was that the Russian representative in Reims had no authority to sign the German instrument of surrender, so the surrender ceremony was repeated in Berlin on May 8th. Russian Victory Day was held the following day.

And Japan was still at war

Victory in Japan Day (VJ Day) was not until September 2nd 1945.

Is it all over?

Japan and Russia never signed an official peace treaty so no formal written document to end the Second World War was ever signed. And to this day there is still debate over who owns the Kuril islands in the Pacific between the two countries, partly because of this.

There’s a whole host of programming to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, check out our TV Guide for more or our special VE Day Timetable for a breakout of the special events taking place.

VE Day facts for kids: Important things they need to know!

This year marks the 76th anniversary of Victory in Europe. Annually, May 8th is heralded as the day Great Britain and its allies triumphed over Nazi Germany.

While our homes may still be closed for family and friends, there are different ways we can mark the occasion and celebrate the anniversary.

Here are some important facts about VE Day if you need some inspiration and ideas on how to homeschool your kids over the weekend.

What is VE Day?

VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day, is the day when the Allied Forces won over Germany.

On May 8th, 1945 at 15:00, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Germany had finally surrendered and the fighting across Europe had finished.

VE Day: Facts for kids

Here are some important facts for children to learn about VE Day:

  • VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, marks the defeat over Germany by the Allied Forces during World War II. Part of the Allied Forces were Britain, France, Russia, and the US.
  • VE Day doesn’t mark the end of WW2 – the end is considered to be on September 2nd, 1945 after the defeat of Japan.
  • VJ Day stands for Victory over Japan Day which was on August 15th, 1945 after Japan got defeated.
  • In 2020, as in 1995, the early May Bank Holiday was moved to 8th May to celebrate the 50th anniversary of VE Day.
  • In 1945, millions of people in the UK took to the streets for parties. Even the Royals joined in with the public celebrations.

VE Day: Activities for kids

If you're after more activities for your kids on VE Day, don't you worry, we've gathered more ideas for you to try out this weekend!

For instance, BBC Bitesise offers useful and illustrated guides on important facts about WW2. There's also a quiz from the BBC to test the whole family's knowledge.

And if you've become a star baker during the past year's lockdown, you can make these Union Jack cookies with your children or friends.

Plus, you can learn how to make your own bunting at home with our tutorial here.

The Germans surrender

After the suicide of Hitler on 30 April 1945, it was left to Grand Admiral Donitz, who had been President of the Third Reich for a week, to surrender. Donitz travelled to General Eisenhower's HQ at Reims in France, and, in the presence of senior officers from Britain, America, Russia and France, surrendered unconditionally to the Western and Russian demands on 7 May 1945.

The war-weary British began to rejoice straight away rather than waiting for the official day of celebration on the 8th. There had been years of austerity and rationing: five inches of water for a bath, few eggs, no bananas and the motto 'make do and mend'. Half a million homes had been destroyed, thousands of civilians had been killed and many millions of lives disrupted. And although the casualty lists from the battlefields were lower than in World War One, they were still terrible.

All across the nation people turned on the wireless to find out more. People were out on the streets, hanging bunting and banners and dancing. The famous World War Two diarist Nella Last recorded the scene in her diary:

'. All the shops had got their rosettes and tri-coloured button-holes in the windows and men putting up lengths of little pennants and flags. Till at three o'clock, the Germans announced it was all over. As if by magic, long ladders appeared, for putting up flags and streamers. A complete stranger to the situation could have felt the tenseness and feeling of expectation. Like myself, Steve [Howson, a wartime friend] has a real fear of Russia. He thinks in, say, 20 years or so, when Nazism has finally gone, Germany and not Russia will be our Allies.'

Huge crowds gathered in London on the following day. At 3pm Churchill made a radio broadcast. In Trafalgar Square, as his voice was relayed over loudspeakers, an eye-witness noted that 'there was an extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude'.

King George VI and the Queen appeared eight times on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, while the two Princesses - Margaret and Elizabeth (now Her Majesty the Queen) - mingled with the crowds. Churchill later gave an impromptu speech on the balcony of the Ministry of Health, telling the crowds, 'This is your victory!'

All over the country people held fancy dress parades for children, got drunk, made a din, sang and danced in the streets, and went to church to give thanks to God for victory.

However, for the many people mourning a loved one killed in service or a German air raid, the moment of victory was bittersweet. For others, after the parties were over, there was a sense of anti-climax. Some found that they had lost a sense of purpose in their lives, a feeling exacerbated by the austerity to come. The war had been won, but the peace did not promise to be easy.

If VE Day drew a line under the past, the defeat of Churchill in the July 1945 General Election signalled a new beginning. On 15 August, victory in Japan read the last rites of World War Two. Compared to VE Day, VJ Day was a subdued affair. Britain had already begun to move on.

Germany was one of the countries which lost the First World War. The war took place between 1914 and 1918.

As a result, the winning countries - including Britain - made Germany sign an agreement that said they were to blame for the war.

They also had to pay significant fines and were allowed to build just a small army.

However, when Adolf Hitler was elected in July 1932 by a huge margin, his Nazi party ignored the agreement.

They secretly started building up their army, before beginning to invade other countries and take back lands they had lost after World War One.

On September 1 1939, after warnings from other countries not to do so, Germany invaded Poland.

Great Britain and France supported Poland and declared war on Germany, sparking the start of World War Two.

A brief guide to VE Day

On 8 May 1945, millions of people rejoiced in the news that Germany had surrendered: after nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over. Second World War historian Keith Lowe brings you the facts about this momentous day in history…

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Published: May 8, 2021 at 7:55 am

What does VE Day stand for?

VE Day – which stands for ‘Victory in Europe’ Day – is the day in 1945 when the German armed forces signed an unconditional surrender, and the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end.

When is VE Day?

On the afternoon of 8 May 1945, the British prime minister Winston Churchill made the radio announcement that the world had long been waiting for. “Yesterday morning,” he declared, “at 2.41 a.m., at General Eisenhower’s headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Dönitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe.” After nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over.

The celebrations began almost immediately. However, there was still one last technical detail to be taken care of. Since the Soviet authorities had not yet given their approval to the surrender document, a second, definitive document was signed in Berlin.

The official time when this final document was signed was 23.01, Central European Time (although in reality it was not signed until almost a quarter to one the next morning). By Moscow time, however, the official time of signing was already after midnight. As a consequence, America and western Europe consider VE Day to have taken place on 8 May, while Russia and some eastern European countries celebrate it on 9 May.

Where did VE Day take place and how was it celebrated?

Although VE Day was strictly speaking a continental European event, it was celebrated all over the world. In London, more than a million people took to the streets and huge crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace to see Churchill standing on the balcony alongside King George VI. In Paris and New York, similar crowds gathered along the Champs Elysée and in Times Square. According to Alexander Werth, the Moscow correspondent for the BBC and the Sunday Times, the fireworks display over the Kremlin on 9 May “was the most spectacular I have ever seen”.

Not all of the celebrations went exactly as planned. In the Canadian city of Halifax, for example, riots broke out when thousands of soldiers and sailors began looting liquor stores. In Australia and New Zealand, the celebrations were a little more sober: such countries were glad to know that their soldiers would soon be coming home from Europe, but were more concerned about the war in the Pacific, which was still going on.

What events led to VE Day?

The final collapse of Nazi Germany began in January 1945, when the Soviet Red Army launched a series of offensives across a front that ran all the way from the Baltic Sea to the borders of Yugoslavia. By the end of March they had reached the River Oder, just 60km from the German capital. At around the same time, British and American armies also began crossing the Rhine.

By the end of April Berlin was encircled, and the situation looked hopeless for Germany. In Italy, Hitler’s ally Benito Mussolini was captured and executed, and his body put on display before jeering crowds. In order to avoid the same fate, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, along with his wife, Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before.

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, whom Hitler had nominated as his successor, began negotiations with the Allies just a few days later. A series of partial surrenders took place at Lüneberg Heath in northern Germany, and at Haar in southern Germany – but in the east, the fighting would continue right up until VE Day itself. Indeed, in some places – for example in Prague, and in parts of northern Yugoslavia – German troops would continue fighting even after the final surrender had been signed.

What is the difference between VE Day and VJ Day?

While VE Day marked the end of the Second World War in Europe, fighting in the far east would continue for another three-and-a-half months. As a consequence, there was always a slightly solemn undercurrent to the celebrations of VE Day. “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” said Churchill during his VE Day broadcast, “but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.”

Japan was not finally defeated until after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. On 15 August 1945, the Japanese emperor announced his unconditional surrender – and this date is remembered in the UK as VJ [Victory in Japan] Day. However, the official surrender documents were not signed until 2 September, which is considered VJ Day in the USA.

Did the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret attend VE Day celebrations?

King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, made a total of eight appearances on the balcony at Buckingham Palace on VE Day. Their daughters, Princess Elizabeth – the future Queen Elizabeth II – and Princess Margaret, appeared alongside them.

That evening, however, in an unprecedented and spontaneous breach of protocol, the two young women slipped out of the palace in order to join the revellers. They were accompanied by two Guards officers, but in the darkness easily blended in with the crowds. Princess Elizabeth was a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and like many others on the streets that night was dressed in uniform.

Later, she recalled: “We stood outside and shouted ‘We want the King’… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.”

Is VE Day still celebrated today and why? How do the different countries celebrate?

Most nations in Europe still celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in one way or another. The war was probably the most destructive event in European history. It involved the devastation of hundreds of cities, and the deaths of at least 35 million people, most of them civilians. The end of this conflict, and the dawn of a new era of peace, are universally considered events worth celebrating.

Different countries mark the anniversary in different ways, and on different days. In Italy, for example, ‘Liberation Day’ is celebrated on 25 April – the day in 1945 when Italian partisans proclaimed a general uprising against the German occupiers of their country. In the Netherlands, Liberation Day falls on 5 May, because this is when the German forces capitulated there. But VE Day on 8 May is generally recognised as the single day that unites the vast majority of countries in Europe.

What is the significance of VE Day?

VE Day signified several things at once.

First and foremost, it brought a symbolic end to organised violence across the continent. Europe remained in turmoil for many years after May 1945, but at least the era of pitched battles between huge armies was over. In Britain it meant the end of bombing, and the return of hundreds of thousands of servicemen to their loved ones.

Secondly, it marked the liberation of several countries from foreign occupation. Although France had already been liberated many months earlier, most of Europe was not finally freed from Nazi rule until the spring of 1945. Many countries, including Norway, Denmark, and parts of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were occupied right up until VE Day itself.

Finally, in western Europe at least, VE Day marked the end of totalitarianism, and the beginning of a new era of democracy. With the Nazis gone, European countries were free once more to choose their own governments. In eastern Europe, which fell under communist rule after 1945, the people would have to wait a further four decades before democracy was restored.

Does Germany recognise or celebrate VE Day?

For many years after the war, VE Day was regarded by many in Germany as a day of shame rather than one of celebration. In East Germany, which became communist after 1945, ‘Liberation Day’ was a public holiday for many years, but it was not generally celebrated with much enthusiasm.

Today, however, VE Day is remembered in a much more favourable light. Germans suffered terribly during the war, not only beneath Allied bombs, but also at the hands of their own rulers. Tens of thousands of Germans were imprisoned or executed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, often for the most insignificant misdemeanours. As a consequence, the defeat of the Nazis is now universally regarded as a blessing.

In Germany, VE Day is not a day of celebration as it is in other countries. Rather it is regarded as a day of sombre commemoration, when the dead are remembered, and the promise is renewed never to allow such terrible events to repeat themselves.

Keith Lowe is the author of the international bestseller, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize in 2013 and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize in 2015. His latest book is Prisoners of History (HarperCollins, 2020)

VE Day

Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) was on May 8 th 1945. VE Day officially announced the end of World War Two in Europe. On Monday May 7 th at 02.41. German General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document that formally ended war in Europe. Winston Churchill was informed of this event at 07.00. While no public announcements had been made, large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace and shouted: “We want the King”. The Home Office issued a circular (before any official announcement) instructing the nation on how they could celebrate:

“Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.”

The Board of Trade did the same:

“Until the end of May you may buy cotton bunting without coupons, as long as it is red, white or blue, and does not cost more than one shilling and three pence a square yard.”

However, even by the afternoon there was no official notification even though bell ringers had been put on standby for a nationwide victory peal. Ironically the Germans had been told by their government that the war was officially over. Joseph Stalin, who had differing views on how the surrender should be announced, caused the delay. By early evening, Churchill announced that he was not going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everybody knew. At 19.40 the Ministry of Information made a short announcement:

“In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.”

Within minutes of this announcement, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Central London to celebrate. People gathered in Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and boats along the Thames sounded their horns in celebration.

The celebrations only ended when a thunderstorm and heavy rain drenched those still celebrating – just before midnight.

May 8 th , Victory in Europe Day, saw the celebrations continue. Street parties were organised across the land neighbours pooled food, some of which was still rationed.

At 13.00, Churchill went to Buckingham Palace to have a celebratory lunch with George VI.

At 15.00, Churchill spoke to the nation from the Cabinet Room in 10, Downing Street. He reminded the nation that Japan had still to be defeated but that the people of Great Britain:

“May allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Advance Britannia. Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King! ”

Three Lancaster bombers flew over London and dropped red and green flares. 50,000 people gathered between Trafalgar Square and Big Ben.

After addressing the nation, Churchill went to Parliament to address the Commons. After this he led some MP’s to a thanksgiving service.

In the late afternoon, the Royal Family came out onto a balcony at Buckingham Palace. In front of them were 20,000 people. George VI wore his Royal Navy uniform while Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform. They were joined by Churchill. He later spoke to those gathered outside the Ministry of Health. At the end of the speech, the crowd sang ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’.

The last official event of VE Day was a broadcast to the nation by George VI at 21.00. Buckingham Palace was lit up by floodlights for the first time since 1939 and two searchlights made a giant ‘V’ above St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a highly symbolic gesture for a city that had spent years in blackout. People built street fires out of whatever flammable materials they could find. Witnesses reported that London had the same red glow to it as during the Blitz – but this time it was in celebration. Some fires got out of hand and the London Fire Brigade had to be called to put out the blaze – something they were very experienced in doing. People got hold of fireworks – prohibited during the war – to give the celebrations more colour.

The police reported that there was barely any criminal activity throughout the day despite the boisterous behaviour of tens of thousands. In the early hours of May 9th, the celebratory illuminations in London were turned off. The war in Japan was still being fought and austerity became the norm for very many people. But for one short day people could afford to let their hair down.