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VE Day – or Victory in Europe Day

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We may not have felt it as acutely in Australia, but 8 May 1945 was a cause for huge celebration in Europe.

It was VE Day – Victory in Europe Day – and finally the five-and-a-half year bitter struggle across Europe was over.

German leader Adolf Hitler was dead; the Italian dictator Mussolini too, and Germany was invaded from two sides, with the Russians closing from the west, and the British and Americans from the east.

A shattered ruin, the Third Reich was to become a faded dream as millions of Nazis ran for cover, and the once mighty Wermacht – the German Army – lay in ruins.

The country’s U-boat fleet, which had nearly brought the Allies to their knees, was surfacing and surrendering across the Atlantic. The Luftwaffe’s aircraft were grounded, and even the wonder weapons which Hitler had thought would save his empire, the V2 rockets and the ME 262 jet fighters, were silent. 

On 7 May 1945 the German High Command authorised the signing of an unconditional surrender on all fronts: the war in Europe was over. 8 May was declared VE Day.

Even though celebrations in Australia were tempered with the knowledge that the war in the Pacific was continuing, Australians serving overseas were grateful that the battle appeared to be half won.

In the major Australian cities there were outbursts of rejoicing but, overall, the mood across the country was grim, as people reflected on lives lost, hundreds of thousands wounded and those still posted as missing. Would they be found in Prisoner of War Camps or would their final fate never be known?

Churches held thanksgiving services and 100,000 people attended the ceremony at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The Canberra Times wrote that the floodlights over the Australian War Memorial stood "in bright relief against the darkness which is now passing from Europe, and soon from the entire world".

In the Territory the mood was less accepting. It was business as usual in the massed aircraft squadrons the next day as the push against Japan was still gathering strength. Indeed it would be another three months before Japan was to surrender, but no-one knew of that possibility in May 1945. As far as the commanders of the millions of Service personnel engaged across the Pacific knew, the fanatically brave Japanese Navy and Army would fight on until annihilated.

The Allied General Slim had noted how formidable this obstacle was going to be: “If five hundred Japanese were ordered to hold a position, we had to kill four hundred and ninety-five before it was ours – and then the last five killed themselves.”

And so while the world rejoiced in Europe, in Australia there was a muted resignation that the war was still going to be fought, and it would demand even more of the nation.

In Europe there was by no means a sudden rush of escape from death and disaster.

There was chaos for weeks after VE Day with refugees trying to get home; prisoners freed from camps trying to reach Allied military camps; and a growing rage spreading amongst the Allied forces as they freed concentration camp prisoners. Talk about justice dominated and the hunt for those responsible intensified.

Germany had received around half the bombs dropped in the entire war, and in many places there was starvation and despair. It was just as well it was coming into the European summer or many more would have died.

Yet the new Europe was even in the first weeks of peace showing the signs of the Cold War which would grow between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – the Russian group of countries – and the West.

VE Day, while welcome, was not the end of trouble.

HMAS Shropshire in Melbourne on April 18, 1946. The cruiser was loading 255 military personnel for Britain to take part in the WWII Victory parade in London. (Courtesy RAN)
Ruined buildings at Whitechapel, London, left by the last-but-one V2 to strike the city on 27 March 1945; the rocket killed 134 people. The very last V2 to fall on London killed one person at Orpington later the same day. (RAF)
Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall, London on the day he broadcast the news that the war with Germany was over. (Public domain)