This year’s celebration marks 76 years since the end of the war in Europe, a war that had prevailed for almost six years and taken the lives of millions.
On the 7th May 1945, many people heard whisperings that the Germans had surrendered and the war in Europe was finally over. On that same day, General Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at his HQ in Reims, France.
Later that day, the BBC interrupted its scheduled programme with a news flash announcing the news that Victory in Europe Day was to be a national holiday. Newspapers ran the story and the news spread like wildfire.
On the 8th May 1945, Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation stating that at 02:41 am the previous day, General Jodl had signed an unconditional surrender of the German Forces which would be effective as of 11:01 pm that day, May 8th. He added cautiously, ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ Across the waves the war still raged against the Japanese in the Pacific and would continue until August.
Bells that had stood silent now peeled out all around the country and boats honked their horns while fighter aircraft performed victory rolls overhead.
On the other side of the Atlantic, President Harry Truman gallantly dedicated the victory to his predecessor, President Roosevelt, who had died a few weeks earlier on the 12th April.
People immediately rejoiced and celebrations began which were to last for two whole days all across the country, across the Channel and throughout Europe, Canada and America. In Britain, people celebrated with their neighbours in the streets, hung bunting and waved flags. Years of rationing, of making do and mend, of the mandatory and meagre five inches of bathwater, all faded into the background as people seized this moment; their moment, their freedom now secured.
In London, large crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and in the Mall as people made their way to Buckingham Palace where thousands staggered shoulder to shoulder and chanted, “We want the King!” At 3pm, Churchill made a radio broadcast which could be heard over the loudspeakers, and a hush descended over the large crowd of people as they listened to the Prime Minister.
Over the course of two days, the 8th & 9th May, people celebrated and embraced loved ones and strangers in the street, carried away on a euphoric tide. Who can forget this picture, one of many which captured the mood so evocatively on that day, May 8th?
War songs played out, including many of Dame Vera Lynn’s as the crowds sang along. In the evening, fireworks streaked through the sky, replacing searchlights and bombers. In France, similar mass celebrations played out.
Sadly, it wasn’t all rejoicing. For scores of people who had lost loved ones it was a bitter-sweet time. Today, we remember all those who lived through such incredible, dark times and survived, and all those who did not. Lest we forget.