On 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied forces in the ruins of Berlin, ending the Second World War in Europe. After five years of death and destruction, bombs and blackouts, the British people could finally begin to rebuild their lives. The news prompted millions into the streets up and down the country in celebration.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we delved into the National Science and Media Museum photography collection and found these riotous photographs of the original celebrations in London. Step back in time to 1945, when bunting hung from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, the Union Jack and Allied countries’ flags flew proudly, and crowds flooded the city centre by the tens of thousands to usher in peacetime.
Although 8 May was designated official VE Day, many Londoners kicked off wild celebrations the night before. ‘London skies glowed last night—with the bonfires of peace’, The Daily Herald reported.
‘It was a capital in the grip of V-fever […] There were fantastic ‘mafficking’ scenes in the heart of the city as cheering, dancing, laughing, uncontrollable crowds mobbed busses, jumped on to roofs of cars, tore down a hoarding for causeway bonfires, kissed policemen and dragged them into the dancing.
’It was a city ringed by bonfires—bonfires often of scrap on bombed sites, where the glare showed flags draping glassless windows and skeleton walls. Night became day as floodlights were turned upon public buildings, as fireworks spluttered, rockets soared. Verey lights went up from river boats and searchlights crisscrossed the night skies, and low-flying planes with navigation lights on occasionally dropped coloured flares.
‘Police from all over London were rushed to the West End to try and control the crowds. In Piccadilly Circus a vast crowd whistled, shouted, and hooted around the boarded-up Eros. They formed huge “crocodiles” and marched round the fountain dragging people out of cars and forcing them to join in.’1
The Daily Mirror wrote about Londoners ‘there by the acre’ for VE-Hour, one minute past midnight, ‘when the cheering, singing crowds so filled the West End that there was not even standing room for another one within a mile of Buckingham Palace’. On 8 May they flooded Whitehall to greet Prime Minister Winston Churchill after his 15.00 VE Day radio broadcast from 10 Downing Street, welcomed returning soldiers at Charing Cross with champagne, and filled The Mall to witness the royal family make several appearances from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.2
Here in Yorkshire the crowds were no less enthusiastic. ‘Heavy rain could not damp VE-Day enthusiasm in Leeds,’ wrote the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury. ‘True, it caught the morning crowds napping and drove them off the streets, but they were out again in their thousands in the afternoon, clad in mackintoshes, carrying umbrellas and wearing red, white and blue favours on their coats and hats.’ In Bradford people gathered outside the Town Hall to listen to Churchill’s speech and danced and sang along to popular songs played by the Police Band. An estimated 3,000 residents filled Manor Square in Otley to sing with the town’s choirs and a band led by the Durham Light Infantry. A Thanksgiving service followed at the Parish Church before revellers led by the Civil Defence Services hiked to the top of Otley Chevin to light a ceremonial bonfire.3
It may seem difficult for us today to imagine the elation and relief people must have felt when Victory was announced 75 years ago. Our generation has never quite known anything like it. Today, with COVID-19 forcing much of the world into isolation, comparisons have been made to wartime mentality and the need to ‘keep calm and carry on’. VE Day celebrations this year will take place from our homes and computers. The BBC reports that the commemorations will include a two-minute silence to remember those who lost their lives in the war as well as those we’ve lost recently to coronavirus; the Nation’s Toast to the Heroes; a message from the Queen; and a singalong to the Dame Vera Lynn classic ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
While we may not be able to join our families and friends outside this VE Day bank holiday, hopefully we can collectively conjure up the same fighting spirit exhibited by our grandparents to see us through to a brighter tomorrow.
1 Daily Herald, 9 May 1945
2 Daily Mirror, 9 May 1945
3 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 9 May 1945