Countdown to VE Day: the week World War 2 ended in Europe
As we mark 75 years since the end of World War II, Gavin Mortimer recalls the momentous week that led to wild celebrations on Victory in Europe Day for BBC History Revealed
On 8 May 1945, millions of people took to the streets rejoicing following the news that Germany had surrendered, bringing an end to World War II in Europe – but not everywhere. Find out more in our ultimate guide to VE Day, and read on below for a closer look at events leading up to this momentous milestone.
“The amazing news is that Mussolini is dead,” wrote Vere Hodgson in her diary. The charity worker from war-torn London also noted that it was snowing in the capital. The Italian dictator had in fact been hanged by partisans two days earlier and, on 29 April, Italians had received more good news with the unconditional surrender of German armies in their country.
His dream of a 1,000-year Reich in ruins, Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, killed themselves in the bunker under the Chancellery in Berlin as Soviet troops closed in. In his last will and testament, the Nazi leader appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as head of state.
The Allies first heard of Hitler’s death when a Hamburg radio station announced that he died “fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism”. Dönitz addressed the nation and described the Führer’s death as “heroic”. He added: “I am taking over the leadership of the German people in this grave hour of destiny. My first task is to save the German people from annihilation.”
To this end, Dönitz would surrender northwest Germany to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, and instructed the Reichskommissars (Reich Commissioners) in Czechoslovakia, Holland, Denmark and Norway to bring hostilities to a peaceful conclusion. The realisation that the war was lost led Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, to kill himself and his six children.
The British press had no inkling of Dönitz's intentions and the front-page headline of The Daily Record for 2 May suggested that the war was far from over: "Death of Hitler, Dönitz says he'll fight on".
In reality, there was no fight left in the Third Reich and the Russians accepted the German surrender in Berlin, sending messages to all enemy troops to lay down their arms: "We promise honourable treatment. Each officer can keep his side arms. Each officer and man can take his luggage with him." Further west, Montgomery receives a message from General Günther Blumentritt, commanding all German land forces that remain between the Baltic and the Weser river, in which he offers to surrender.
Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was naturally in good spirits during dinner with celebrated playwright, actor and composer Noël Coward, as well as the society hostess Lady Juliet Duff. “A lovely evening,” Coward wrote in his diary. “There he was, gossiping away with us, the man who had carried England through the black years, and he looked so well and cheerful and unrestrained.”
At 9.25am, Lieutenant William Knowlton of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, in the US Army, encountered elements of the Russian 191st Infantry Division, some 85 miles north of Berlin. Knowlton and his Russian counterpart embraced, and then to mark the meeting of their two nations the officers drank toasts to Soviet premier Stalin and US President Roosevelt with a bottle of Knowlton’s cognac.
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One hundred miles to the west, Montgomery was beginning surrender negotiations with a delegation of Germans sent by Dönitz. “I kept them waiting for a few minutes, and then came out of my caravan and walked towards them,” recalled the Field Marshal. “They all saluted, under the Union Jack. It was a great moment.” Montgomery demanded the unconditional surrender of all German forces. “If you refuse,” he warned, “I shall go on with the battle.”
Dönitz accepted the terms laid out by Montgomery, who assembled the press corps and read the Instrument of Surrender applicable to all German forces in Holland, northwest Germany and Denmark.
The ceasefire is set to take effect at 8am the next day. Montgomery then drafted his final message to his armies: “Let us embark on what lies ahead full of joy and optimism. We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.” The first challenge of the peace is how to manage one and a half million German prisoners of war, and another million of their wounded comrades. “Germany surrendering in all directions,” wrote Noël Coward. “VE Day imminent.”
At 8am, the ceasefire came into effect. “I’d been sitting in a ditch watching a farmhouse where Germans soldiers were walking around and we could have done them quite easily,” recalled Bob Francis, an SAS soldier. “But I didn’t want to hurt anybody and I certainly didn’t want to get hurt. The war all sort of fizzled out.”
Not so in Czechoslovakia, where the Nazis showed no inclination to surrender. At midday, Radio Prague called on citizens to rise up against the German occupiers, but it would be another four days before liberation.
In Reims, in northeastern France, a German delegation led by General Alfred Jodl arrived in the late afternoon to begin negotiations with General Dwight Eisenhower’s senior commanders in Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force about the terms of an unconditional surrender.
After taking instructions from Dönitz, Jodl signed the terms of surrender at 2.41am: it would take effect at one minute past midnight the next day. A beaming Eisenhower and his staff posed for the cameras, with the commander-in-chief holding two gold pens in a ‘V for Victory’ salute. The Russians angrily demanded that a second surrender document be signed in their presence in Berlin. Churchill, however, seemed strangely underwhelmed. “The PM does not seem at all excited about the end of the war,” wrote his personal physician, Lord Moran, in his diary.
“Thunderstorm in the night,” wrote Vere Hodgson in her diary. “No one slept much for excitement.” Dawn brought a change in the weather and Noël Coward “went wandering through the crowds in the hot sunshine. Everyone is good-humoured and cheerful”.
Yet on his way to the House of Lords, Lord Moran noted “bread queues everywhere” – a reminder that while war in Europe had ended, rationing had not.
Churchill lunched at Buckingham Palace while crowds gather outside, among them a correspondent from The Times: "Every other woman seemed to be wearing a rosette or a ribbon in her hair, and seen from above they by no means corroborated the gloomy report that London had become a place of tired-looking people wearing tired-looking clothes."
The PM returned to Downing Street and, at 3pm, addressed the nation. Neither Lord Moran nor the peer next to him thought much of the speech, describing it as “tinny”, but Coward, listening on one of the loud speakers in London, branded it “a magnificent speech, simple and without boastfulness”.
At 3.30pm, Churchill was given a rousing reception on entering the House of Commons and he in turn praised Parliament, calling it, “the strongest foundation for waging war that has ever been seen in the whole of our long history”.
There were similar scenes of jubilation in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast, but it was London that hosted the biggest party. So vast were the crowds that it was impossible to enter Underground stations, so people walked, cycled or improvised. “Cars passed us with people riding on the hoods and the bonnets,” wrote Hodgson of her walk down Pall Mall. “Everyone was just letting themselves go!”
By the time Churchill returned to the palace with his War Cabinet, the crowd was enormous. The king and queen, having already made one appearance – alongside the two princesses with the future Elizabeth II in her army uniform – reappeared, this time with a cigar-waving Churchill, prompting “a great outburst of cheering, which continued for at least five minutes... afterwards the crowd began community singing.”
The PM’s next stop was Whitehall and, from the Ministry of Health balcony, he told the crowd below: “My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole.” The Royal Family, still on their balcony, were “looking enchanting” when Coward arrived in early evening. “We all roared ourselves hoarse,” he reported. “This is the greatest day in our history.”
In Vere's flat, as in many homes, the party continued. She turned on the radio just as Churchill took a final bow at Whitehall. "Mr Churchill came out in his siren suit and conducted Land of Hope and Glory," she wrote. "What a lad! He was cheered to the echo. God bless him!"
The ecstasy of the Allies: what happened on VE Day?
On 8 May, the scenes of celebration witnessed in London were repeated around the world, even as the war continued against Japan
In Paris, occupied during the war, there were salvoes of artillery and an address by General Charles de Gaulle. The correspondent for The Times described "beflagged streets filled with cheering people" and said that the partial blackout had finally been lifted. "All public monuments are floodlit, Paris is the City of Light again."
The bells in Vatican City pealed, while in Brussels a final all-clear of the air raid sirens sounded. In Moscow, reported the Associated Press, "Russians swarmed through Red Square shouting 'Long Live Stalin' and 'Hurrah for Victory'."
Across the Atlantic, New Yorkers gathered en masse in Times Square, dancing, singing and throwing torn up newspapers as a storm of celebratory confetti. Yet the mayor, Fiorello La Guardia – in a more sombre mood – asked people to return to work, saying: “Remain on the job as a token of respect and support for the men dying at this very moment in the Pacific.”
Australians similarly felt the burden of the ongoing war, but still celebrated. The country heard of Germany’s surrender on the evening of 7 May, and, reported one newspaper, “those still in the city night clubs and theatres took up the revelry, cheering and yelling”.
Even neutral countries saw scenes of jubilation, including in Sweden. Stockholm had a “carnival night” as exiled Danes and Norwegians danced on taxis, while in Iraq – the scene of heavy fighting in 1941 – parliament proclaimed five days of holiday to celebrate war’s end.
What happened next...
When US Marines fighting on the Pacific island of Okinawa were told of the German surrender, the response could be summed up as ‘so what?’ One of them, Eugene Sledge, remarked: “We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction... Nazi Germany might as well have been on the Moon.”
The British 14th Army, engaged in a similarly brutal campaign in Myanmar (Burma), echoed that sentiment in a terse communiqué on 8 May: "The war is over. Let us get on with the war." But the war in Europe was over, and the most urgent challenge was how to manage the estimated 11 million people displaced by six years of conflict.
It was a daunting task – made all the more difficult by the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the Soviet Union and their Western allies. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had been formed to oversee the refugee crisis. With millions of ‘displaced persons’ needing to be resettled, a new type of battle was now underway in Europe.
Gavin Mortimer is an author and historian who specialises in World War II history