Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) was on May 8th 1945. VE Day officially announced the end of World War Two in Europe. On Monday May 7th 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 8th, 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.