Victory in Europe—Part One
Try to imagine, if you will, what it must have been like in your hometown on V-E Day—May 8, 1945—the day the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender during the Second World War. (I’m pretty sure most of my readers weren’t around then, or were too young to remember, but I could be wrong.) Maybe you’ve heard stories from relatives or friends. Sadly, I didn’t ask my mom or grandparents about V-E Day in Ottumwa when I had the chance. Dad was in California on May 8th, preparing to ship out for the Admiralty Islands in the western Pacific. But, thanks to a helpful librarian and the internet, I know a little about how Ottumwa (and other Iowa communities) commemorated V-E Day in 1945. And next week, in Part Two, you’ll learn a little about it, too.
The war in Europe had been raging since September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, Great Britain declared war on Germany, a war that lasted almost six long, devastating years. It was the deadliest military conflict in European history. Estimates of military and civilian losses vary widely, with numbers ranging from twenty to fifty million, considerably more than the number of losses in World War I. And the destruction of property, both public and private, was staggering. Entire villages were wiped out, many cities were largely destroyed, and at least sixty million European civilians were displaced, left homeless by the war’s destructive power.
There were two surrender signings in early May 1945. The first occurred at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force—General Eisenhower’s headquarters) in Reims, France, on May 7th at 0241 hours, when German General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German Army, signed the “Act of Military Surrender” (see above). Besides General Jodl, other signers were Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, SHAEF Chief of Staff; General Ivan Susloparov, on behalf of the Soviet High Command; and Major General François Sevez, on behalf of the French Army.
At the insistence of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, there was a second signing at the Soviet headquarters in Berlin the next day. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed for the Germans. Both Jodl and Keitel were later found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, and both were executed by hanging on October 16, 1946.
When Europeans heard about Germany’s surrender, they went berserk. Well, not all of them, but many did. And who could blame them. They had been in the thick of it for years and had witnessed the unimaginable. For millions, the war was literally in their back yards. They were tired and dirty and hungry and cold, and many were in mourning after losing loved ones in the war. By May 8th, they were ready to celebrate their survival in big and small ways.
Late in the day on May 7th, BBC Radio interrupted its regularly scheduled programming to announce that the war in Europe had ended and that Tuesday, May 8th, would be a national holiday in the UK. Within hours, newspaper special editions with blaring headlines were on the streets, and the celebrations were underway. Colorful flags and bunting lined streets across Britain, bonfires were lit, and pubs were packed with joyful revelers.
Millions of people packed the streets of London that night. At St. Paul’s Cathedral the next day, ten consecutive services of thanksgiving were held, each one attended by thousands. At 3:00 p.m., Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a national radio broadcast in which he stated, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead. Japan . . . remains unsubdued. The injuries she has inflicted against Great Britain, the United States and other countries and her detestable cruelties call for justice and retribution. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task both at home and abroad.”
The British royal family also took part in the celebration. From the balcony at Buckingham Palace, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, waved to the cheering crowds assembled around the Queen Victoria Memorial. They made eight appearances that afternoon and were eventually joined by the Prime Minister. The two princesses (ages 19 and 14 on that day) were allowed to leave Buckingham Palace so they could join the revelers outside the palace gates. Later, King George gave a moving radio address in which he paid tribute to those who had died in the war. “…let us turn our thoughts on this day of just triumph and proud sorrow, and tomorrow take up our work again, resolved…to do nothing unworthy of those who died for us and to make the world such a world as they would have desired, for their children and for ours. This is the task to which now honor binds us.”
In my novel, Jamie Swensson is the older brother of my protagonist Phee Swensson. Jamie is a trumpet player in The United States Army Band and was in Paris on V-E Day. I won’t say much about the band now because I intend to fill an entire blog with details next month. On my bookcase across the room are transcripts of two diaries that were written by two band members during their two-year deployment to North Africa, the UK, and France (June 1943 to June 1945). Harry Savage, a tuba player, wrote a wonderful description of his experience in Paris on May 8, 1945. I’ll let Harry be my “guest blogger” today.
(Photo from the Jack Koman Collection)
Well, it’s over. And somehow I can’t get very excited. I’m just a little bit too tired, I think, and I’ve waited for it too long. But Paris has gone mad. The phony rumors of a week ago haven’t dampened today’s celebration one whit. Traffic almost everywhere was at a standstill, people by the millions thronged the streets, shouting, singing, popping firecrackers. It took—I should say takes because at midnite nobody seems to have gone home!—an hour to go a block. Getting into the Underground is next to impossible. Ordinarily they only run until 11:30. Tonight they’re to operate until two. But they can’t possibly get all these people home by 2—or by 10 tomorrow morning. There’s a lot of walking in store for a lot of people! Everywhere the crowds can muster an accordion there’s a dance going on the street. There are more flags and bunting displayed than I ever saw anywhere—even at the World’s Fair—NY 1939-40. Somewhere in town somebody is shooting a cannon. Every five minutes there’s a burst—almost like a buzz bomb exploding. And at 3 this afternoon when the announcement was to be official the air raid sirens wailed—the last air raid signal these people are ever to hear—and the town simply had epilepsy! I was talking to an old lady at the time (as well as two people can talk who don’t speak the same language) and she burst into tears when the siren sounded. I don’t think her feelings could be described yet I think I could feel how she felt. For almost 6 bitter, humiliating yrs. she’s listened to those same sirens knowing that they were to be followed by death & destruction. Today’s siren meant peace—peace forever. I cried too. People who haven’t lived for a long time in a blacked out world can’t imagine how lovely it is to see flood lights on Sacre Coeur, Madelaine, Notre Dame, the Arc. They can’t know what it means looking at a shop window that hasn’t had a light turned on it in almost six years—suddenly become so bright it hurts your eyes. They can’t know how you feel walking after night on a brilliantly lit boulevard. That boulevard should be dark so that you have to feel your way! But it isn’t—it’s bright, bright, bright! And pray God may it remain that way forever.
By May 8, 1945, conditions in Berlin were terrible, with major food shortages, hundreds of bombed out buildings, and severely damaged infrastructure. Disease was rampant. In many ways it was a wasteland. Most of those who had survived had no way of making a living. Shops that hadn’t been destroyed were closed because they had nothing to sell. Transportation lines, rail and canal, had been demolished, inhibiting food and other life-saving items from being moved to the city. Public gardens and parks were turned into communal gardens so people could grow vegetables to supplement their meager food rations. Before the war, the average Berliner was living on 3,000 calories a day. After the war, they were lucky to get half that, and often consumed less than 1,000. Fortunately, the weather had improved some, with temperatures becoming more tolerable for those who had to survive without adequate shelter.
Like the revelers in London and Paris on May 8, 1945, I suspect most of the citizens of Berlin were just as relieved, if not more so, that the war was over.
When Joe and I were in Berlin in 1991, we walked around the outside of the Reichstag and couldn’t help but notice the pock marks (from shrapnel) that were still evident on the sides of the structure. The building dates from 1894, and it housed the Imperial Diet until 1933 when it was severely damaged by fire. During World War II, it was briefly used as a hospital and a radio tube manufacturing facility. Further damaged by Allied bombings near the end of the war, it sat idle for years. Restoration efforts were completed in April 1999, and it became the meeting place for the reunified German Parliament.
In 2001, Joe and I returned to Berlin, this time with my brother Chris. We got inside the Reichstag and found our way up to the huge glass dome. Initially, I thought the dome looked out of place on top of that Neo-Renaissance building, but after I got inside and walked around, I changed my mind. It was way cool! Today, the Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most prominent tourist attractions, hosting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. (I’m sure that was true pre-COVID, at any rate.)
During my research for this blog, I happened upon a BBC recording of the reflections of several people who had been in London on V-E Day. I’ll close with some their remembrances.
“This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news. During the first few moments of this bulletin, the war in Europe is coming to its official end.”
“You suddenly felt that everything was going to be beautiful tomorrow. It took an awful long time, actually. It was definitely a feeling of lifting, you know, to start to live again.”
“We fished out a Union Jack which we had. It had survived the bombing. We hung it outside. There were bonfires outside. People were dancing in the street and cheering. The relief was unbelievable. The relief was incredible, to think that we were no longer having the bombing, we were no longer fighting in Europe.”
“Everybody was happy to be alive. Women were crying. They were going to see their husbands they hadn’t seen for two years. It was jolly, jolly, jolly!”
“And everybody was shouting “we want Winnie [Winston Churchill]!” It was fantastic. He came out to the balcony, he saluted with his cigar, and he went back in and came back out. We got to Buckingham Palace, and it was “We want Liz! We want George!” Oh, it was absolutely fantastic! There were people on lamp posts, singing, there were Yanks there. Everybody, everybody, it was marvelous!”
“It was a wild and happy day. We had something like two days of it. Crazy people, crazy people.”
“A really good crowd has collected already. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered to share this historic day with the king and queen. The entire space, the whole scene, is one dense mass of people, people in the gayest colors, red, white, and blue rosettes, red, white, and blue hats, streamers, flags.”
“Here they come. First her majesty the queen, then the king in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, standing on the balcony, listening to the crowd.”
“It was great that the killing had come to an end in Europe, but for me, it was really a depressing moment because I suddenly felt all the awful things that had happened to my family and to me. It came very much to the surface.”
“I seemed to be on my own. I listened to the radio. I managed to get something of BBC. They were sending a program from Piccadilly or somewhere in the middle of London. I felt rather alone and quite emotional. In fact, I know I wept.”
“After all, the end of the war wasn’t really the end until V-J Day. Then one realized it was over. But on V-E Day, you still had the feeling you had Japan. It wasn’t really quite over for everybody.”
May 8, 1945 was President Harry Truman’s 61st birthday. (I had to get that bit of trivia in here at the end.)
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her (as yet unpublished) debut novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.