On 8 May 1945, the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies came into effect. The day was declared as Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) across the west, and in Britain the day was made a national holiday by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
This year will mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
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Surrender was declared unconditional
On 4 May 1945, a German delegation arrived at the headquarters of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath, east of Hamburg. They signed an instrument of unconditional surrender of the German forces in the Netherlands, north west Germany and Denmark.
Three days later, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces. Eisenhower had made it clear to the German negotiator, General Jodl, that Germany would have to agree to the surrender of all forces east and west or he would break all negotiations and seal the western front. This would have prevented Germans transferring from the east to the west to give themselves up.
Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Dönitz, authorised Jodl to make the final and complete surrender of all German forces on all fronts.
At 1:41am General Jodl signed the document of surrender. The surrender was to come into effect at fifty-nine minutes to midnight on 8 May 1945.
Fighting continued until the end
Fighting continued in Europe throughout 7 May. Just off the coast of Scotland, in the Firth of Forth, one mile south of the Isle of May, the German submarine U-2336 sank two merchant ships, the Norwegian Sneland I and British Avondale Park. Nine merchant seamen died; the last Allied naval deaths of the European war.
VE Day celebrations started early
The announcement that the war in Europe had ended was broadcast in Britain over the radio late on 7 May. The BBC interrupted its schedule with a newsflash declaring the following day Victory in Europe Day, and that it would be a national holiday.
However, news of Germany’s surrender was known before the official announcement. During the day people put up flags in the streets and traders began to shutter their shops against the expected crowds.
The Ministry of Food assured Churchill there were enough beer supplies in London for the celebrations on 8 May and the Board of Trade announced that people could purchase red, white and blue bunting without using ration coupons.
Events were organised to celebrate, including parades, thanksgiving services and parties in the streets. London’s St Paul’s Cathedral held ten consecutive services giving thanks for peace.
At 3pm on 8 May, Churchill made a national broadcast, announcing the news that the war in Europe had ended. However, he struck a sombre note when he cautioned: “we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”. Churchill recognised that there were still many British service personnel fighting abroad.
According to historian Angus Calder, immediately after his broadcast Churchill travelled from Downing Street to the House of Commons. His car was pushed down Whitehall by the weight of the mobbing crowd. He later appeared on the balcony of the Ministry of Health building in central London and gave an unplanned speech to the crowds.
Huge numbers of people were also in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace, where King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret appeared on the balcony to greet them. Later, the princesses secretly joined the crowds during the evening celebrations.
VE day was celebrated throughout the west. According to the historian Martin Gilbert, across the “once captive capitals of western Europe—the Hague, Brussels and Paris—there was a renewal of excitement and relief of their days of liberation”.
Surrender of German forces continued
VE day also saw the surrender of more German forces across Europe. In Copenhagen and Oslo, the Germans gave up the fighting, and the last of the German forces in eastern Germany surrendered to the Russians near Berlin. German troops in northern Latvia also surrendered. Although German troops continued fighting in Olomouc and Sternbeck, they both fell on VE day.
According to Martin Gilbert, at 2pm on 8 May the German garrison at St Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast, surrendered to the Americans. At 3pm the small Channel Island of Sark raised both the British and US flags, even though there were still 275 Germans on the island and not a single Allied soldier. The British Army arrived two days later.
There was a second VE Day on 9 May
In Moscow, victory day was not 8 May, but was the following day instead. Antony Beevor argues that Stalin could not let the final ceremony of surrender take place in the west.
Stalin insisted Germany sign another surrender in Berlin at one minute past midnight on 9 May. Churchill cabled Stalin to explain that since crowds were already gathering in London to celebrate, VE day would take place in Britain on 8 May, as with the US. In response, Stalin highlighted that Soviet troops were still fighting. German troops were still fighting in east Prussia, Courland peninsula, Czechoslovakia and many other places.
On 9 May 1945, Stalin declared in a national broadcast that the “age-long struggle of the Slav nations for their existence and independence has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over”.
VE Day was not the end of the war
VE day did not mean the end to the conflict; war with Japan continued. In May 1945, thousands of Allied forces were still fighting in the pacific and the far east, and thousands more were still prisoners of war. Japan did not surrender until 14 August and the act of surrender was signed on 2 September.
It was not just in the pacific where the conflict continued; there was still fighting in Europe after VE day. German troops in Slovenia, east Prussia and northern Latvia were refusing to surrender. On 11 May 1945, Soviet troops defeated German resistance east of Pilsen. According to Gilbert, on 14 May, six days after Germany’s formal surrender to the Allies, 150,000 Germans finally surrendered to the Soviet army in east Prussia and a further 180,000 in northern Latvia.
Only one German force, around 150,000 men in Yugoslavia, was still under arms on that day. On 15 May it surrendered to the Russians and Yugoslavs. For Yugoslavia, VE day was on 15 May 1945.
For more, read: Martin Gilbert, The Second World War, 2009; Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Triumph and Tragedy, 1954; Antony Beevor, The Second World War, 2012; Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939–45, 1992; and Richard Overy (ed), What Has Britain Done, 1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures—Issued by the Ministry of Information, 2007.
Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division photographer (public domain) from Wikimedia.