After almost six years of warfare, loss and destruction, in early May 1945 the fighting in Europe was finally over. The guns fell silent on the 8th of May, a date that would be known from that day to this as VE Day. It marks the formal acceptance by the Allies of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the definitive end of the war in Europe.
The Road to Victory
With the tide of war turning significantly in 1943 and throughout1944, by the beginning of 1945 it was becoming increasingly clear that the Allies were closing in on victory. On January 16th 1945 Adolf Hitler took up full-time residence in his bunker near the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, known as the Führerbunker, and from that command post he witnessed his forces crumble across Europe. In mid-February, Dresden was heavily bombed by Allied air forces and German troops were coming under heavy and unrelenting fire from all sides. By late March, the Red Army were on their way to Berlin.
In April 1945, the forced labour and concentration camps at Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau were liberated by the British and the Americans and the Russians closed in on the Berlin suburbs. While the Allies were weeks away from a crushing victory, the high command of the Third Reich was reduced to nothing more than a desperate and ill-equipped gang of hardliners and Nazi fanatics.
On Hitler’s 56th birthday on April 20th, it was reported he was nervous, depressed and generally in a state of unease. The Battle of Berlin, the war’s final major offensive, was imminent. Hitler’s orders to SS-General Felix Steiner to attack and destroy the Russians were ignored and came to nothing, as did similar orders to the German Twelfth and Ninth Armies.
At the same time, Hermann Göring was stripped of all powers and expelled from the Nazi Party for asking to be declared Hitler’s successor; Albert Speer visited the Führer to tell him that another order, this time to destroy the Third Reich’s infrastructure, had also been ignored.
In another fatal blow to Hitler’s authority, Heinrich Himmler – one of the Führer’s closest allies and man most directly responsible for the Holocaust – made a secret offer to the Allies for Germany’s surrender. When Hitler found out, he dismissed him of all posts and issued orders for Himmler to be arrested. Himmler eventually committed suicide with a cyanide pill on May 23rd after being detained by British forces.
On the 29th April in their bunker, Hitler married Eva Braun and the following day, they both committed suicide.
With the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the remnants of the German army finally admitted defeat. At 2.41am on May 7th 1945, Germany officially surrendered unconditionally to the Allies at the Allied Headquarters in Reims. The war in Europe was over.
Since the German capitulation was staggered – starting on May 2nd in Italy – there was some confusion in the UK (and presumably elsewhere in Europe) as to whether the war was actually at an end. Despite the Nazi surrender in France on May 7th, the British public had to wait a full day for confirmation from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This was delivered in a radio address to the nation which took place on May 8th from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.
The ceasefire took effect at one minute past midnight on May 8th 1945, a day that will forever be known as ‘Victory in Europe Day’, or simply VE Day.
Peace on all Fronts
As most of the Allied nations marked VE Day on 8th May, for most of the former Soviet republics it was recognised the day after. The Soviet representative in Reims had no authority to sign the German Instrument of Surrender so the ceremony was repeated the following day in Berlin where it was signed by Wilhelm Keitel, the German military commander as well as Georgy Zhukov, his Soviet counterpart. By the time the surrender became effective, it was actually May 9th.
A Time for Celebration?
While the end of the war came as a colossal relief across Europe and the rest of the world, the British people were tired. They were tired of rationing, tired of five years of bombardment from the German war machine, tired of hiding in shelters and tube stations and tired of what seemed like permanent shortages of everything. It’s worth noting that the last German bombs were dropped on London only six weeks earlier so it was understandable that the festivities were less rowdy than those of Armistice Day – the 11th November 1918 – which marked the end of the First World War.
There were reports in the suburbs beyond central London of ‘restrained and orderly’ behaviour with people busily decorating their houses but it seemed the people of Britain were waiting for some sort of signal to finally celebrate.
In a tranche of dialogue overheard in a London newsagent by social research organisation Mass Observation – who paid ‘investigators’ to record and document anthropology of everyday life in Britain – one woman said “[there were] people waiting and waiting and nothing happened, no church bells or nothing”. A man with them said “yes, what ‘appened to them church bells, I’d like to know,” while another man said “no church bells, no All Clear, nothing to start people off.”
VE Day at Long Last
After the Prime Minister’s confirmation and a radio address from the King, the business of marking VE Day began. In typical British fashion, the public finally took to the streets. There was conga-dancing up and down The Mall and Piccadilly Circus, while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were even allowed – with a police escort – to wander among the gathered crowds since, in the King’s own words ‘they had never had any fun yet.’
Interestingly, with the Prime Minister somewhat busy with diplomatic matters, he had time to nervously enquire whether London’s pubs had enough beer and the Board of Trade announced that people were allowed to buy bunting without the need to use ration coupons.
VE Day in the UK was marked up and down the country joyously but the day belonged to one man more than any other – Winston Churchill. His radio address brought a nation decimated by war, death and acute shortage together as one again. On arrival at the House of Commons, he was greeted with ‘great enthusiasm’ by members from all sides and was cheered wherever he went.
The British public were thankful. They were thankful to be finally free of the incessant bombing, thankful to be relieved of the constant worry and uncertainty that war brings and thankful to be released from the tyranny threatened by the Nazis.
Don’t forget to tune in to Discovery on Friday May 8th at 9pm to see the UK premiere of Tony Robinson’s Victory in Europe for never-before-seen archive footage telling the story of the final days of the Nazi regime. Tony explores life in Europe before the outbreak of the war looking at the German propaganda machine including the 1936 Olympics, leader’s books and Munich, ‘the city of Nazism’.
Covering key events of their 12 year rule, Tony delves into incredible secret operations like the infamous Operation Market Garden, bloody final conflicts like the Battle of the Bulge and the final liberation of Auschwitz. The photographs from this time provide an exclusive and unique record of the rise and fall of the Nazis and give Tony an opportunity to look at this well studied time in history with fresh eyes.