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VE Day 1945 hero ;

Victory in Europe Day 1945

In May 1945 Britain triumphed in Europe. It’s easy to forget the taste of victory and the sense of relief that followed sixty-nine months of war, because looking back across the decades the moment is usually cast as an equivocal, even a gloomy, one.

As television documentaries show images of VE Day revellers in Trafalgar Square and Churchill and the Royal Family on the Buckingham Palace balcony, narrators  habitually make reference to the travails that lay ahead as Britain entered the post-war world. Popular memory of the end of war moment is soured by hindsight and the haste to declare it one of only Pyrrhic victory. 

But at the time, victory had a quality all of its own for those who had been through the long years of war and knew what it was to fear for national survival, for civilization, and for their very lives.


‘Last night’, wrote Churchill to his wife Clementine shortly before VE Day,  

I gave a dinner… of thirty-five people in the big dining room of No.10 to the Dominions representatives, War Cabinet, Chiefs of Staff and others. There was the greatest good temper . . . There is no doubt that victory is an intoxicating draught. All these men from all over the Empire arrive with eyes glowing with admiration, and have nothing but praise for our conduct during these terrible years. 

From the pinnacle of summer 1945, it is to imperial strength and confident hopes that the eye is drawn, not decline. The bunting went up in Tasmania and Northern Rhodesia as well as at street parties across Britain, every corner of the Empire celebrating the end of an unprecedented period of hardship and sustained emergency. Some celebrations got out of hand, as in the Nova Scotian port of Halifax, where a swollen wartime civilian population augmented by 25,000 service personnel went on a VE Day binge that left 200 shops looted and several people dead from alcohol poisoning.


In the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Ntsetsane Kgabi remembers the bells of St Joseph’s College on Alban Hill overlooking Gaborone ringing out for victory. Nearby there was an enormous celebratory bonfire, said to be ‘burning Hitler’s head’. 

Forty miles west in this distant quarter of the Empire, the local district commissioner observed a throng of people at Chief Bathoen II’s compound in Kanye, gathered to hear King George VI broadcast news of victory to the Empire.

‘It was an interesting sight’, he wrote, ‘to see so many radiant faces amongst the women folk and men on receiving the news of the surrender of the Germans’.

Elsewhere in Bechuanaland, Mmatsheko Pilane of Mochudi, wife of a soldier serving with the British Army in the Middle East, recalled that ‘we were very happy when we heard that the war was over so much so that we couldn’t sleep’. At this same moment, a couple of thousand miles east across Africa and the Indian Ocean, Sir Donald Mackenzie-Kennedy, Governor of Mauritius, announced a two-day public holiday to mark VE Day. Cannons in the capital Port Louis fired a salvo, church bells pealed across the island, and the Champ de Mars racecourse pulsed to the sound of fireworks and music played by the police band. The town hall and Majestic Hotel were illuminated and bonfires blazed on Signal Mountain and at the Citadel fortress, while a Chinese dragon procession lit up the city’s streets. 

In his monumental History of the Second World War, Churchill characterized the moment of victory thus: 

The unconditional surrender of our enemies was the signal for the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind. The Second World War had indeed been fought to the bitter end in Europe. The vanquished as well as the victors felt inexpressible relief. But for us in Britain and the British Empire, who had alone been in the struggle from the first day to the last and staked our existence on the result, there was a meaning beyond what even our most powerful and most valiant Allies could feel. Weary and worn, impoverished but undaunted and now triumphant, we had a moment that was sublime. We gave thanks to God for the noblest of His blessings, the sense that we had done our duty. 

General Sir Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s principal military assistant, wrote that there was:  

None of the unrestrained enthusiasm which had broken all bounds on 11 November 1918 [when the First World War had ended]: the general mood seemed to be one of immense relief and infinite gratitude, tempered by the realisation that Japan was still unconquered, and the feeling that all our troubles might not yet be over [a reference to the worrying spectre of Soviet military power in Europe as the war ended]. 

In that wet and stormy May of 1945, there was still a war to be won in the east, the British Empire standing shoulder to shoulder with its American and Chinese allies against Japan.

Yet there was no question of if the Allies would win - it was now simply a question of when.” 

Ashley Jackson is Professor of Imperial and Military History in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He is the author of numerous books addressing the experiences of the British Empire during the two world wars. 


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Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

Professor of Imperial and Military History

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