Posteado por: crisdiaz24 | mayo 8, 2013

Victory in Europe Day – 8 May 1945

Unconditional surrender

Tuesday 8 May 1945 was ‘Victory in Europe’ (VE) Day, and it marked the formal end of Hitler’s war. With it came the end of six years of misery, suffering, courage and endurance across the world.

Individuals reacted in very different ways to the end of the nightmare: some celebrated by partying; others spent the day in quiet reflection; and there were those too busy carrying out tasks to do either. Ultimately nothing would be quite the same again.

The end of the World War One on 11 November 1918 had come as a shock to many soldiers and civilians because the collapse of the German army had been so sudden. By contrast, it was clear – since at least the beginning of 1945 – that the end of the World War Two was in sight following a series of capitulations. The German forces in Italy surrendered on 2 May. On the following day a high-ranking German delegation, including a senior admiral and a senior general, appeared at the headquarters of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, located near Lubeck.

Typically, Montgomery barked, ‘Who are these men? What do they want?’ They had come to surrender the German forces in Northern Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The final document of unconditional surrender was signed at General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims on 7 May. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI wanted Monday 7 May to be VE Day, but in the event, bowing to American wishes, victory was celebrated on 8 May. The USSR waited an extra day before beginning their formal celebrations.

The fighting, killing and dying went on up to the very last minute, and even continued into the immediate period of supposed peace. A German U-Boat sank two merchant ships on 7 May off the Scottish coast, and some Germans continued to fight against the Red Army for several days after VE Day.

A common reaction to the news of peace among soldiers in Europe was ‘I’ve survived’. Stuart Hills, a British officer with an armoured regiment, finished the war deep in Germany. On hearing the news he felt immediate exhilaration and marked the occasion with some ‘liberated’ champagne. But then ‘reaction set in’ as he thought of his friends who had been killed, and he no longer felt like celebrating.

A Scottish battalion let off some flares when the news came through. Later on rum was issued and one platoon held a sing-song. Otherwise, VE Day passed without much incident. For this unit, still in close proximity to German forces that refused to believe the war was over, it was business as usual.

The 8th Hussars (part of 7th Armoured Division), also known as the ‘Desert Rats’, celebrated VE Day in northern Germany with a church parade followed by rum punch drunk beside bonfires on which swastikas were ceremonially burned.

Elsewhere there were more riotous celebrations, with men going ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL) and even some alcohol-fuelled fatalities, but these tended to occur further back from the front line.

In general terms, the British army remained well disciplined. The fighting might have been over, but surrounded by a near-starving civilian population eking a living in the ruins of Germany’s towns and cities, everyone could see that there was still much to do. Moreover, the thought of the Far East was in the back of many minds.

For the Western Allies, of course, the conflict in Europe was only one half of the world war. At that stage, the atomic bomb was a secret known to a very few, and the end of the war with Japan seemed a very long way off.

Many soldiers, sailors and airmen in the European theatre anticipated being sent to fight the Japanese in the Far East. The men of the British Liberation Army serving in Germany interpreted the initials ‘BLA’ as meaning ‘Burma Looms Ahead’.

Not surprisingly, for some troops in action in Burma, or sailors of the British Pacific Fleet fighting alongside the US Navy, the news of victory in Europe seemed somehow unreal. As if to rub home the fact that there was still a war to be fought, the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious was hit by a Japanese kamikaze suicide plane on the day after VE Day.

For Far Eastern troops out of the line, there was an opportunity to celebrate in various ways. Some got hold of alcohol, while the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma), attached to 26th Indian Division, supplied mugs of tea to a race-meeting held on a beach. A surprising number of soldiers who served in Burma do not even mention VE Day in their memoirs and diaries.

One group in the Far East who did hear about the news from Europe were prisoners of war from Britain and other parts of the Empire, still held in terrible conditions in Changi Jail, Singapore, who picked up Churchill’s victory broadcast on clandestine radios.

VE Day and the Commonwealth

In Australia, the war with Japan was quite literally nearer to home, and Sydney Morning Herald posed the question, ‘Since when has it been customary to celebrate victory halfway through a contest?’ Subsequent VE Days were often quiet affairs in Australian towns and cities.

In New Zealand, victory was celebrated on 9 May in an orderly fashion – the government having made detailed plans months in advance – and the population quietly obeyed instructions.

This was in stark contrast to VE Day in the Canadian city of Halifax, where bars were unwisely closed, leading to the widespread looting of alcohol by servicemen, inevitably followed by riotous behaviour and the destruction of property.

Of course, other Canadians celebrated more decorously. The author’s father-in-law, undergoing flying training in Canada, spent VE Day in Moncton, New Brunswick, joining local civilians in driving their trucks around the town in celebration.

Many sailors of the Royal Navy discovered the news of VE Day through their ships’ ‘sparks’ (radio operator) as they picked up BBC broadcasts. Many ships’ captains celebrated the occasion by ‘splicing the mainbrace’ – a euphemism for issuing a rum ration.

For some, this was a pleasant interlude in what was otherwise a normal working day. A force of British and Canadian ships spent VE Day sailing to Jersey and Guernsey, occupied since 1940.

Although in his victory broadcast Churchill had announced that, ‘our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today’, it was unclear whether the defenders intended to fight or surrender.

In the event the liberation was achieved peacefully, with the Bailiff of Jersey leading the crowds in St Helier in a rendition of the National Anthem, which the Germans had banned for the duration of the war.

In much of Britain, VE Day was marked by street parties. The people of Britain badly needed to let their hair down. The country was war-weary by May 1945. There had been years of austerity and rationing: five inches of water to a bath, few eggs, no bananas and the motto ‘make do and mend’.

Half a million homes had been destroyed, and many millions of lives disrupted. Although the casualty lists from the battlefields were lower than in World War One, they were still terrible.

When in 1944 the primitive V1 ‘doodlebug’ missiles and V2 ballistic missiles began to rain down on south-east England, the morale of civilians who had already endured the Blitz of 1940-1 took a knock.

People were already on the streets celebrating on 7 May, and huge crowds gathered in London on the following day. At 3.00pm Churchill made a radio broadcast. In Trafalgar Square, an eye-witness noted, ‘…there was an extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude’, as Churchill’s voice was relayed over loudspeakers: ‘… the evil-doers lay prostrate before us … Advance Britannia.’

The King and Queen appeared eight times on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, while the two princesses – Margaret and Elizabeth (the present Queen) – mingled with the crowds. Churchill gave an impromptu speech on the balcony of the Ministry of Health, telling the crowds, ‘This is your victory.’

All over the country people held fancy dress parades for children, got drunk, made a din, sang and danced in the streets, and went to church to give thanks to God for victory.

For all too many people, mourning a loved one killed in service or in a German air raid, the moment of victory was bittersweet. For others, after the parties were over, there was a sense of anti-climax.

The tension that had been there for six long years was suddenly relaxed. Some found that they had lost a sense of purpose in their lives, a feeling exacerbated by the austerity to come. The war had been won, but the peace did not promise to be easy.

If VE Day drew a line under the past, the defeat of Churchill in the July 1945 General Election signalled a new beginning. On 15 August, victory in Japan read the last rites of the Second World War. Compared to VE Day, it was a subdued affair. Britain had already begun to move on.

Dr Gary Sheffield




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