Everything you need to know about VE Day: rogue royals, bargain bunting and fiery street parties

It's 70 years since the first VE Day on May 8th 1945. Here's what happened when the allies finally defeated Nazi Germany...

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The first Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) was on May 8th 1945, officially ending World War II in Europe.

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On Monday May 7th at 2.41am, German General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document in Reims, France, which formally ended war in Europe. He did so on the orders of Admiral Karl Dönitz who had become the Third Reich’s president after Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30th, 1945.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was informed of the event at 7am. After hearing rumours, large crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King!” before an official announcement was made.

The delay in making the announcement was caused by the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. He didn’t have anyone senior enough to sign the treaty in Reims so held a surrender ceremony in Berlin the following day.

But by the evening of 7th, Churchill decided he was not going to allow Stalin to hold up proceedings any longer, and at 7.40pm the Ministry of Information made a short announcement: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.”

Within minutes of this announcement, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of central London to celebrate. People gathered in Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and boats along the Thames sounded their horns in celebration.

The celebrations only ended when a thunderstorm and heavy rain drenched the revellers – just before midnight.

Here are a few things you may not know:

Bargain bunting

The Home Office issued a circular (before any official announcement had been made) instructing the nation on how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” The Board of Trade did the same: “Until the end of May you may buy cotton bunting without coupons, as long as it is red, white or blue, and does not cost more than one shilling and three pence a square yard.”

Even Churchill let his hair down

Street parties were organised across the country; neighbours pooled food, which was still rationed. Churchill went to Buckingham Palace to have a celebratory lunch with George VI. “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing”. he said in his 3pm address on the day. “Advance Britannia. Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King! ”

….as did the Royals

In the late afternoon, the Royal family came out onto a balcony at Buckingham Palace where a crowd of 20,000 waited outside the gates for a glimpse of them. George VI wore his Royal Navy uniform, while Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform. They were joined by Churchill, who later spoke to those gathered outside the Ministry of Health. At the end of his speech, the listeners sang For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.

Princess Elizabeth, as she was called then, took the opportunity to meet ordinary folk. She and her sister Princess Margaret decided to wander incognito through the city streets in the evening. This unprecedented promenade inspired the upcoming film A Royal Night Out starring Bel Powley as Margaret and Sarah Gadon as the future Queen (in UK cinemas on 15th May).

St Paul’s saw the light

In the evening Buckingham Palace was lit up by floodlights for the first time since 1939 and two searchlights made a giant ‘V’ above St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a highly symbolic gesture for a city that had spent years in blackout.

It wasn’t an all-nighter

The police reported that there was barely any criminal activity throughout the day despite the boisterous behaviour of tens of thousands. In the early hours of May 9th, the celebratory illuminations in London were turned off. The war in Japan was still being fought and austerity was still the order of the day

But there were a few other problems…

People built street fires out of whatever flammable materials they could find. Witnesses reported that London had the same red glow it had during the Blitz – but for a positive reason. Some fires got out of hand and the Fire Brigade had to be called to put out the blazes. People also got hold of fireworks – prohibited during the war – to give the celebrations more colour.

Things were a little complicated in the US

In the United States, the victory happened on President Harry Truman’s 61st birthday. He dedicated the victory to the memory of his predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt who had died of a cerebral haemorrhage a month earlier, on 12th April. Despite the enormity of the day, flags in the US remained at half-mast for the day in honour of Roosevelt.

And in the Soviet Union as well….

The Soviets did not declare the end of war until May 9th. The reason for the Soviet delay was that the Russian representative in Reims had no authority to sign the German instrument of surrender, so the surrender ceremony was repeated in Berlin on May 8th. Russian Victory Day was held the following day.

And Japan was still at war

Victory in Japan Day (VJ Day) was not until September 2nd 1945.

Is it all over?

Japan and Russia never signed an official peace treaty so no formal written document to end the Second World War was ever signed.  And to this day there is still debate over who owns the Kuril islands in the Pacific between the two countries, partly because of this.

VE Day: Remembering Victory, narrated by Julie Walters and featuring some of Britain’s best-loved celebrities – including Sir Bruce Forsyth, Honor Blackman, Sir Patrick Stewart, Miriam Margolyes and Dame Cleo Laine  will air on BBC1 tonight at 8.30pm

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