Sixty years ago next month, the war in Europe ended. Martin Bowman describes the scenes as the survivors celebrated and looked forward to a new life
At 2:41am on May 7 at a little red schoolhouse in Reims, which was Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight D Eisenhower accepted the German surrender. Allied leaders received a simple cable from Eisenhower which announced: "The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 3am, local time, 7 May 1945. Eisenhower".
It was the end to what Edward Kennedy of Associated Press summed up as "five years, eight months and six days of bloodshed and destruction" in Europe. Sixteen war correspondents witnessed the German surrender. All except one of them agreed to a press embargo until an official announcement of the war's end could be made simultaneously by all combatants, including the Soviet Union, which was planning a surrender ceremony of its own in Berlin. But Associated Press man Edward Kennedy, known as a hard-nosed wire service correspondent, telephoned his report to his Paris office, which relayed it to New York via London. Within the hour, news of the surrender broke. In Britain, people had been looking forward to "getting lit up when the lights go on in London", in the words of a popular song, but no one knew whether it really was time for celebrations to begin.
King George VI noted "a terrible anti-climax!". In America, all bars were closed for 24 hours and flags were kept at half-mast in deference to the late President, Franklin D Roosevelt, who had died in office in April.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had urged all the people of New York who had "thoughtlessly left their jobs" to go home and be patient. In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill used the secret line to the White House, asking President Harry Truman to bring forward the official announcement. Truman refused to do so without the approval of Joseph Stalin, who "wanted time to give further consideration to the surrender terms". Churchill knew the Soviet dictator was playing politics and he felt he could delay no longer.
Tuesday, May 8, would be Victory in Europe Day and a holiday, as would Wednesday. Whether the term was first coined by Churchill himself or maybe someone in the British Ministry of Information, "VE Day" was proclaimed.
In the early hours of May 8, Truman held a news conference to announce the German surrender. Up to 30,000 New Yorkers gathered in Times Square but the President's victory proclamation went largely unheard, because no one had thought to have it relayed over loudspeakers. The Soviet Union finally celebrated "Victory Day" on May 9.
In Germany, VE Day found many of the occupying forces still in a sombre, reflective mood. Censorship delayed word to the public and as a result there were no scenes of wild elation among the American troops. At least ordinary Germans could now walk the streets without fear of being fired at, but that was about the limit of their emotional response to VE Day.
In Paris, however, the bells pealed and cannons roared and the Parisian streets were fully lit for the first time since 1939. A victory V shone over Les Invalides and another in red, white and blue above the Arc de Triomphe. Everywhere the streets disappeared under a surge of humanity. At 3pm, General Charles de Gaulle spoke over the street loudspeaker system.
Thousands, shouting and singing snatches of "La Marseillaise", marched down the Champs-Elysees and along the city's avenues and boulevards. They were still marching at dawn the next morning. Pistols were fired into the air from moving cars, aircraft overhead dropped multi-coloured flares and fireworks boomed in all directions. "Paris was Bedlam" wrote a Herald Tribune correspondent.
In Italy, American war correspondent Philip Hamburger observed: "Rome has accepted the news of peace with the helpless and tired shrug of the defeated. My guess is that few cities are sadder today." Meanwhile, in Belgium, Brussels was a mass of streamers and banners and a profusion of Allied flags appeared from every doorway, window and balcony. Throughout the night, rockets and flares lit up the sky, confetti showered from windows and hooting vehicles edged their way along crowded streets.
American "trolley" missions, in bombers crammed with ground personnel, were flown at heights ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet over bombed-out cities to show them the results of Allied bombing. Walt Cranson was "really glad" to see "so many miles of celebration". "VE DAY! Hurray!!" he wrote. "Took along three rolls of toilet paper... really makes confetti when unwound and thrown out in bunches. We flew high - sorta scaring the guys... still saw lots! Circled Brussels three times... shooting flares and me kicking off the toilet paper like mad. Everybody celebrating below ... Flags everywhere and people waved like mad! Later we took off to see another big Capital - London! celebrating. We found it, circled down to 400ft... and I really dumped a lot out over Piccadilly... the streets were packed; flags bonfires everywhere. So low - could see the mob waving and climbing up on the lions of Trafalgar Square."
London crowds gathered early, encouraged by the warm sunshine. Bells pealed; flags flew from all the buildings. Shop windows were filled with red, white and blue clothes, flowers and materials. Aircraft flew overhead and streamers, ticker-tape and paper poured out of every window and balcony. Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly, looking out from the fourth floor at the Air Ministry in Adastral House, Kingsway, thought that it was "a brilliant time" to throw some of Air Marshal Slessor's "more boring papers" out. She peeled the canvas off one window and emptied the contents of five waste paper baskets onto Kingsway. She eased her way into the Strand and progressed at "snail's pace" towards Trafalgar Square. "It was a good-natured multitude and except for the sounds of feet and voices there was a silence over London - a silence loaded with emotion. A few people were crying and a few were laughing but the majority trudged forward silently." In Trafalgar Square, the steps, lions and lamp-posts were "coated with people". Whitehall appeared to be "paved with heads".
A Daily Mirror reporter wrote: "This is it - and we are all going nuts.
There are thousands of us in Piccadilly Circus. The police say more than 10,000 - and that's a conservative estimate. We are dancing the Conga and the jig and 'Knees Up Mother Brown' and we are singing and whistling and blowing paper trumpets. The idea is to make a noise. We are. Even above the roar of the motors of low-flying bombers 'shooting up' the city... We are dancing around Eros in the blackout but there is a glow from a bonfire up Shaftesbury Avenue and a newsreel cinema has lit its canopy lights for the first time in getting on for six years. A huge V sign glares down over Leicester Square. And gangs of girls and soldiers are waving rattles and shouting and climbing lampposts and swarming over cars that have become bogged down in this struggling, swirling mass of celebrating Londoners."
Crowds waited patiently for Winston Churchill. Then people shouted: "We want our king." At 3pm Churchill's voice came over amplifiers announcing that Germany had surrendered and that hostilities would end at midnight.
There were resounding cheers and many people stamped their feet, applauded, waved and threw hats in the air. Around 5pm the royal family and Winston Churchill came out on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Churchill drew an almost reverent roar and the crowds cheered themselves hoarse as the royal family disappeared and reappeared on the balcony eight times in all.
American servicemen were mostly restricted to base. One wrote: "No reason was given. Possibly the rationale was that until Japan was defeated, we in the military had no business celebrating; or since the war in the Pacific was going so well, perhaps the big brass thought that we could wait and do all our celebrating at once when Japan surrendered."
At Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, the 306th Bomb Group was ready to celebrate, but the final arrival of VE Day left the men "somewhat subdued, as there had been so many premature declarations of peace" and a "brown haze" settled over Thurleigh. It was only lifted after supper when kegs of beer were rolled out on the baseball diamond. One ordnanceman, directed to get suitable fireworks, recalled: "The road was filled with men and women celebrating and the girls dashed up to our Jeep to kiss us. You'd never believe the offers we had and I am not talking about the fine wine and Scotch they so generously supplied!"
Bomber pilot Robert H Tays was on leave in London when VE Day arrived.
"Lights came on (the blackout had officially ended on April 24, but the lights-out after dark rule remained in force until May 10) and thankful prayers were said. London went wild and we partied for several days and nights."
Earlier that afternoon the Thurleigh base restriction was lifted and most of the men headed for Bedford. What they saw amazed everyone. The English had taken "every bloody light bulb in town and strung it up outdoors. The streets were filled with a blaze of lights that hurt your eyes and people, old and young, danced and sang 'Roll Me Over And Do it Again' at the tops of their lungs." There had been "great fear for the conduct of the Yanks but the spectacle of the staid and reserved English letting their hair down as it had never been down before so startled the Yanks that they were left without a leg to stand on. For once the British 'out-hollered' and 'out drank' the Americans."
The average GI mirrored the confusion of the world outside. Pearl Harbor had yet to be avenged and rumours of redeployment to the Pacific and arguments about a new points system for discharge abounded. It was "Two Down and One to Go". Italy and Germany had been "licked" and while Japan was heading for defeat, nobody was sure how long it would take.
Redeployment of 300,000 personnel had already begun. Pat Everson, a 12-year-old Norfolk schoolgirl, sat at the bedroom window crying as the Americans at Seething, who had brought colour and excitement to the children around the base, fired flares and rockets to celebrate VE Day. "I could not remember fireworks. Usually if any light were seen in the sky or bangs heard it was something to do with searchlights or guns but my mother explained that the war was over and that they were so happy to be going home."
In the United States, VE Day was not a public holiday, but even so, in New York an orgy of paper and cloth-throwing began as paper in every possible form and description cascaded from thousands of windows. Within the hour, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Avenues and Broadway were 20cm deep in multi-coloured fabrics. Opposite Macy's, women hung from windows waving bottles of liquor and screamed: "Hey soldiers, hey sailors, come on up and get a drink!" By the evening the city had erupted in a glittering, dazzling, exuberant, singing and dancing party.
VE Day, with all its victory bonfires, street parties and merrymaking, was a party of mixed emotions. There were those who were just relieved it was all over and many others who were overwhelmed by sadness. Though Allied servicemen were glad that the "whole dirty business" was over, many, like Warrant Officer Arthur "Spud" Taylor, who had flown a tour on Lancaster Bombers, were in limbo. "The war had lasted so long that I could hardly believe it was over. I couldn't remember very clearly what it was like to live without a war; it seemed so long ago."
Annette June Coppard, a cockney girl in the Elephant and Castle, later reflected that there was pain as well as joy after May 8: "Women went back to their homes to await their husbands' return from overseas. Those whose husbands had been killed had no such reunion to anticipate. The future was uncertain."
On July 25, the Labour Party would sweep into power in Britain, with Clement Atlee as Prime Minister. People respected Churchill for his leadership, but now they were looking for a better life after the war, with employment for everyone and houses of their own, and they saw the Labour Party as the means to achieve their aspirations.
Martin W Bowman is the author of more than 70 books on military subjects