VE Day

In May 1945, the war that had ravaged Europe for five and a half years finally came to an end. Thirty-two and a half million men, women, and children were dead, and of those, roughly half had been civilians. Cities had been destroyed, and thousands of villages laid bare, yet when the end finally came, it did so falteringly, amid confusion and misunderstanding.

Medals

Compared with most countries in mainland Europe, Britain had suffered less, but by May 1945, she was the only Allied nation to have been fighting since the very beginning of the war. These had been long, bitter years and had taken their toll. By the beginning of May, when news reached a war-weary nation that Adolf Hitler was dead and that Berlin and Italy had fallen, Britain was more than ready to hear the news they had been waiting for five-and-a-half years.

Berlin surrendered

Very few at home, however, knew what was really happening on the continent. There is little doubt Germany would have surrendered earlier had it not been for their fear of the Russians. As the Red Army had cut a swathe through Poland and eastern Germany, it had become clear that they were intent on revenge for the Germany invasion of 1941; by the time Berlin surrendered, a staggering two million German women had been raped. It was this fear that drove the Nazi High Command to desperately try to surrender their forces to the Western Allies only.

This was an entirely false hope, but ensured the Germans strung out negotiations in an attempt to play for time and move as many of their troops into the British and America sectors as possible. Not until the early hours of May 7, a week after Hitler shot himself, was the unconditional surrender finally signed at Allied Supreme Headquarters in Reims. It was still not the end, however: because of ongoing fighting, particularly along the Eastern Front, it was agreed that the surrender would not come into effect until one minute into the new dawn of May 9, and Stalin was insisting that no announcement of victory be made until that moment.

Unfortunately, first German radio, and then an American journalist, leaked the news on May 7. Up and down Britain, the news was greeted with unrestrained relief. 'Germany Surrenders' ran the headline in the Evening Standard. Crowds started gathering, the celebrations began, and everyone waited for an official announcement.

Two days of celebration

But it was an official announcement that never came. Throughout May 7, the Prime Minister repeatedly tried to persuade both Stalin and President Truman to bring forward the declaration of victory. The news was out, he argued, and his nation needed to be told. Stalin refused to budge. Having cancelled three planned victory broadcasts, Churchill eventually decided that evening to make it known to the British people that the following day, May 8, would be regarded as VE Day and that he would make an announcement in the afternoon. He would wait for Stalin no longer.

And so VE Day finally dawned. Across the country, the relief was palpable and for two days Britain celebrated - partying, singing, and cheering. Pubs were drunk dry and secret stashes of food were consumed as the nation rejoiced.

All too soon, it was over, however. The dark clouds of war still hung heavy in the Far East, while the mounting tensions between the Western Allies and the Russians created a sense of uncertainty for the future that had not been quelled with Victory in Europe. In Britain, rationing would continue for many years to come; the country was in economic ruins. Yet the crusade that had begun in September 1939 was finally won, and Nazism vanquished forever.