May 8, 1945 is a day that will live forever in the memories of those that lived through perhaps the greatest outpouring of joy the world has ever seen.
After a radio address from Churchill and King George VI, the party could begin. For those who had lived through the Armistice Day celebrations at the end of the First World War, VE Day seemed a little more restrained. Six years of fighting had taken its toll. The British people suffered huge losses on the battlefields and in the cities. Homes and lives were destroyed, and Britain was tired -tired of rationing; tired of the incessant bombing and threats from Hitler; tired of air-raid sirens; and tired of hiding in tube stations. However, upon finally hearing the news that the war was at an end, they marked VE Day as only the British know how.
Plenty of people didn’t wait for the official announcement on the 8th. When the news broke on the 7th, festivities began. The Board of Trade announced that people were allowed to buy bunting without the need to use ration coupons (as long as it was red, white and blue and cost less than one shilling and threepence), people lit bonfires for the first time in years and the pubs filled with people.
Even Churchill – though preoccupied with the complex business of ending a war – still found time to enquire whether there was enough beer in Britain’s pubs. The Ministry of Food assured him there was. Restaurants hastily prepared special VE Day menus and some entrepreneurial types even produced commemorative items!
Street parties and parades were organised, and thousands attended 10 consecutive services at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Later in the day, Churchill appeared on the balcony of the Ministry of Health and proclaimed ‘this is your victory’ to the gathered crowds, to which they responded as one ‘no, it’s yours!’
As thousands of people danced their way down The Mall towards Buckingham Palace, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth – with daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret – as well as the Prime Minister, waved to the throngs from the balcony. In all, they came onto the balcony eight times, and the last one was minus the two princesses. They had been allowed, under heavy police escort, to anonymously mingle with the crowds.
Fifty thousand were in Piccadilly Circus, and social convention was disregarded. People were hugging and chatting to strangers and there was camaraderie only the bringing together of a nation after a time of such hardship can affect. Dance halls stayed open late, licensing hours were extended, effigies of Hitler were burned, and there was a collective sigh of absolute and utter relief.
English novelist Molly Panter-Downes, writing in the New Yorker, captured the zeitgeist perfectly:
‘When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember. It had a flavour of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a slimmer background of trees, grass, flowers, and water…Apparently the desire to assist in London’s celebration combusted spontaneously in the bosom of every member of every family, from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the streets arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats. Even the dogs wore immense tricolored bows…’
Across the Atlantic, while there was no fighting on the mainland, VE Day came as equally a relief to the Americans. May 8th was President Harry Truman’s birthday and he graciously dedicated the victory to the memory of President Roosevelt who had died of a brain haemorrhage less than four weeks earlier with Truman wishing ‘that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day’. VE Day was marked in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and in Times Square, the heartbeat of New York City where 15,000 police officers were mobilised to control the crowds.
Similar scenes erupted in Paris with one eye-witness recalling ‘on the ChampsÉlysées they were singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,’…in the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe in the Place de l’Étoile, there was hardly any place to breathe and no place at all to move.’
The British public were thankful to be free from the threat of the Nazi war machine and the constant worry and hardship war brings, and the relief on the streets was palpable. For many, however, VE Day was bittersweet. Britain suffered to the tune of 450,000 dead and for many of the widows, parents, friends and siblings of those who perished, rejoicing seemed too much to bear.
As the parties died down over the next week, the British people realised that decades of rebuilding was nigh. The war had all but bankrupted the country, and the return to some semblance of pre-war normality was going to be a long and arduous process.
Armed with endless cups of tea and a bulldog spirit, Britain would rebuild.