At 2.41am on 7 May 1945, at a schoolhouse near Reims in northern France, General Alfred Jodl, the German chief of staff, signed the unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces wherever they might be fighting. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, rang General Sir ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill’s chief of staff. “The war is over,” he said.
“But no official announcement could be made” said Juliet Gardiner, writing for BBC History Magazine in 2005. “Stalin insisted that victory should not be proclaimed until German troops on the eastern front had surrendered to the Soviet general Zukhov in Berlin and the long-awaited news could be proclaimed simultaneously in London, Moscow and Washington.”
Yet rumours that the war had finally ended soon began to filter through to the British public. “The newspapers are full of rumours of surrender… feeling almost excited… everyone is speculating,” wrote Lyn Murphy, who worked for the director of an electrical manufacturer engaged in war production, in her diary for 7 May 1945.
“They shouldn’t keep people hanging about waiting like this. The government needn’t be afraid of people going mad, everybody’s very sober about it,” complained a middle-aged man to a member of Mass-Observation, the organisation that compiled reports on British wartime attitudes and morale, which was out in force now that victory was in the air.
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. He announced that hostilities with Germany would cease at one minute past midnight, and that “our dear Channel Islands”, the only part of British territory to have been occupied, “are to be freed today”. After nearly six long years, the war in Europe was finally over.
Time to party
The celebrations began almost immediately. But there were no official plans for VE Day – notice of the public holiday had been so short that most weren’t sure how to celebrate. Gardiner, who later interviewed people who experienced VE Day firsthand, said: “A London window cleaner probably spoke for many when he declared ‘the holiday is the main issue… very few have any definite plans, and these almost exclusively consist of getting drunk.’”
Most people had expected the church bells to be rung: “I thought they’d be clanging all day long,” reported a Surrey woman, “but there was no signal. Just hanging around… No All Clears, no bells. Nothing to start people off.”
The weather looked set to be fair – though the papers forecast possible rain later. But even that was a novelty, said Gardiner. Throughout the war it had been forbidden to publish the weather forecast in the newspapers or broadcast it on the wireless, for fear of giving the Germans information that might be useful in planning bombing raids.
Some people went to church to give thanks for the peace at hastily arranged services, while others strolled around their local streets admiring the flags and streamers that had been hung out. Children set to work making Union Jack flags with cardboard and crayons.
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. The king’s daughters, Princess Elizabeth – the future Queen Elizabeth II (pictured far left) – and Princess Margaret, appeared alongside them. In Paris and New York, similar crowds gathered along the Champs Elysée and in Times Square.
Michael Mason, 13, who had been evacuated from his home in central London to a village in Hertfordshire in 1939 and was still there on VE Day, said: “I caught the early bus… to London. I wanted to spend the day with my mum and dad. The scenes in the capital were incredible. It was one huge celebration. A tremendous wave of pent-up feelings had broken loose. The streets were crammed with joyful revellers.”
The partying went on into the night: “Crowds surged back to Buckingham Palace to call for the king and queen again, lines of conga dancers wove along Piccadilly, revellers jumped into the fountains in Trafalgar Square,” wrote Gardiner. “The police were tolerant, instructed to intervene only when there was danger to life or limb, to let a war weary people go a little wild just for one night. In fact, there was remarkably little trouble or drunken behaviour – partly because most pubs had already run dry by eight o’clock.”
Majorie Cantwell, who was nine in 1945 and living in Ealing, west London, thought that “VE Day was the best day of my life. All morning we had been collecting things for the bonfire (including an old piano full of woodworm!)… when darkness finally fell we lit our bonfire and placed a Hitler “guy” on the top. It was in the middle of the road so we were all able to dance around it.
“Later two radios were placed side by side in the window of a nearby house and BBC dance music was relayed into the street. All the grown-ups danced and sang until they were exhausted. When the dance music went off the air, my dad entertained everyone with his banjo and people sang and danced some more. We all went to bed that night tired and happy and I felt that nothing could ever harm us again.”
Here, we look back at the 8 May 1945 celebrations in pictures…
Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra