VE Day 75th anniversary:It was the moment that people across Europe had long been waiting for.
War had raged for nearly six years, but by now the Western Allies had swept into Germany, and the Red Army had taken Berlin. Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered.
Vast crowds gathered outside the British Parliament and all over central London to hear the prime minister’s speech relayed by loudspeaker, officially announcing the end of the war in Europe.
The Movietone Newsreel images show scenes not of jubilation at this stage, but a sea of faces listening calmly.
“Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight, Tuesday the 8th of May (1945),” Winston Churchill declared. “The German war is therefore at an end… We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Today is Victory in Europe Day”.
VE Day came 11 months after D-Day when Allied forces landed in Normandy on the northern French coast. London and southern England had been under German bombardment until close to the end.
“No wonder people went a bit crazy,” said the Movietone commentator, to images of people climbing lamp posts and jigging in the streets. “All over the capital, as indeed in towns and cities throughout the country, it was the same story”.
The British royal family appeared eight times on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, joined by Churchill before a joyous mass which stretched all the way down the Mall. Later, the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would mingle unnoticed in the same crowds.
Nighttime images show a man waving a Norwegian flag from the top of a lamp post. A reminder that this was not just about celebration in Britain, but across the continent.
The previous months had seen cities and countries liberated from the Nazis. General de Gaulle had arrived from London to take control of Paris towards the end of August 1944. Brussels followed in September, with the whole of Belgium declared free in early 1945. Denmark and the Netherlands celebrate Liberation Day on May 5; in Italy the date is April 25.
Further east, Soviet troops took control of a devastated Warsaw in January 1945. A continent exhausted by occupation and war was relieved the fighting was over. But it was also in ruins, and bitter divisions were barely concealed.
In France, recriminations were swift as collaborators were sought out and humiliated, many were killed. Tensions soon boiled over in Greece, which descended into civil war that killed more people than had World War II.
“Those who actually lived through 1945 remember how morally complicated life was at this time. Their generation understood that war was not something glorious, but something terrible from which no nation emerged with its morals intact,” Keith Lowe, author of “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II”, wrote recently in The Guardian.
Admiral John Roberts is now 96 years old but he was just 13 when he joined the Royal Navy in January 1938 and he went to sea during the war in 1941.
“One of the momentous things I suppose I do still remember hearing is Neville Chamberlain saying that there’d been no reply from the Germans and consequently we were at war with Germany. And I heard that coming over the radio,” he says.
“I was only 17 when I went to sea and at the end of the war I was 21. And when you’re as young as that it’s exciting and you wouldn’t want to be missing it.”
During the war, Roberts sailed aboard HMS Renown, to areas including Iceland and North Africa, before transferring to a Destroyer called HMS Tartar. He also took part in D-Day.
In 1945 Roberts volunteered to join the Navy’s aircrew and was in Montreal, Canada, learning to fly when Victory in Europe was announced:
“V.E. Day I’d arrived in Canada and I was based at a Royal Canadian Air Force training station which was about 20 miles south of Montreal. Canada is 5 hours behind us, so people knew here that the war had ended, and Montreal went wild just as London did. But I think that my thoughts probably were centered on the fact that although the war in Europe was over, that I wasn’t going to be fighting Germans, as soon as I completed my flying training I’d be fighting the Japanese, and that wasn’t going to be any easier than fighting the Germans.”
Roberts admits to having mixed feelings on VE Day in 1945 as although there was Victory in Europe, the war against Japan had not yet been won.
“Certainly mixed feelings because the war wasn’t over as far as I was concerned. As I said aircraft carriers were very much a part of the Pacific war. So when I completed training I would have gone to one of those carriers. And at that particular time the atomic bomb hadn’t been dropped and we all felt that Japan was going to have to be invaded, and the casualties for that would have been terrible.”
The 96-year-old finally left the Royal Navy in April 1978.
“Victory in Europe brought wild rejoicing throughout the allied world as the big three (the ‘Grand Alliance’ of the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain) announced the downfall of Nazi Germany,” proclaims the Universal Newsreel commentator to scenes of confetti-filled streets and waving crowds in New York. “There is a hard road ahead before we bring Japan to her knees.”
It would be another three months before the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally brought Japan’s surrender. In Europe, as the “big three” marriage of convenience crumbled, competing world powers and ideologies once again stood off against one another.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill told an audience in Missouri in March 1946. The Cold War had begun.