‘Decided to cancel at last minute to save snarl from Uncle Joe’: How VE Day became VE Day

Friday 8 May marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day – celebrating the unconditional surrender of the German military to the Three Great Powers (the UK, the Soviet Union and the USA).

The surrender, however, actually took place in the early hours of 7 May, and the Russians (among others) celebrate VE on the 9th. So how did VE Day become VE Day? Like the D-Day landings, its exact date was subject to weather conditions, although in VE Day’s case the climate in question was the political, not meteorological, one.

To Victory Together! Propaganda poster showing bayonets adorned with the Union Jack and Soviet Hammer and Sickle spearing a skull with Hitler's hair and moustache, c.1945.
To Victory Together! Propaganda poster showing bayonets adorned with the Union Jack and Soviet Hammer and Sickle spearing a skull with Hitler’s hair and moustache, c.1945. Catalogue ref: INF 3/306

Hitler’s suicide on 30 April made the unconditional surrender demanded by the Three Great Powers distinctly possible. Indeed on 5 May, just days before surrender was agreed, Churchill was preparing his monthly joint statement with President Truman of U-boats destroyed, but hoping that ‘the very rapid movement of events…[mean it will be] outdated before 10th May’. His hopes were well-founded 1.

General Eisenhower, the supreme commander in Europe, received the German High Command’s surrender at 02.41 on Monday 7 May, as did his Soviet counterpart. Formal articles of surrender were signed later that morning 2.

The victory was to be announced then the next day, on 8 May (as it was, in the end). The timing had been agreed by Churchill, President Truman and Marshal Stalin, part of the delicate balancing act to maintain cordial relations as tensions over the division of influence in the liberated territory of the continent increased. To ensure that none of the three nations lost face by being last to announce, the three men would broadcast news of the victory simultaneously: at 09:00 in Washington, 15:00 in London, and 16:00 in Moscow. ‘This is the same moment for all three of us, owing to the world being round’, remarked Churchill to Stalin 3.

Churchill, Truman and Stalin photographed at the Postdam Conference, 26 July 1945.
Churchill, Truman and Stalin photographed at the Postdam Conference, 26 July 1945. Catalogue ref: CO 1069/892 (1)

But the careful choreography was nearly thrown off course by the German high command’s lack of regard for careful public relations coordination of the Powers. Early in the morning of Monday 7 May Eisenhower explained that German high command were broadcasting to their troops informing them of their surrender. Even in the wartime state of press censorship, this news spread through unofficial channels like wildfire.

Churchill telegrammed Truman, it was ‘hopeless’ to try and keep the news secret until the next day, he said. They must abandon the simultaneous broadcast on the Tuesday ‘as now agreed with UJ’ [‘Uncle Joe’, Stalin] and tell the world the news as soon as possible. Churchill proposed a new time: 12:00 in Washington, 18:00 in London, 19:00 in Moscow. He also wired Stalin, imploring him to agree, ‘otherwise’, he said ‘it will seem that it is only the Governments who do not know’ 4.

Winston Churchill, photographed giving his famous 'v for victory' hand gesture, c.1944.
Winston Churchill, photographed giving his famous ‘v for victory’ hand gesture, c.1944. Catalogue ref: INF 1/244

Churchill began to prepare for the earlier announcement, the BBC were readied. But Stalin’s concern about whether the surrender sufficiently covered the Eastern Front, and Truman’s desire to maintain the careful détente he had with the nation he was about to negotiate the divide of the world with, meant these plans came awry. Truman would not move unless Stalin agreed, even when Churchill pointed out that CBS Radio in the US was broadcasting the news 5.

Just before 18:00 London time a telegram from Washington arrived saying that Stalin emphatically disagreed with Churchill’s earlier time. Regretfully, the Prime Minister told his War Cabinet half-an-hour later, he had ‘decided to cancel at last minute to save snarl from Uncle Joe’. This meant too that the British government would have to gently request that the equally prickly French leader, de Gaulle, pull his own victory broadcast that night at 20:00 (he agreed).

Cabinet Secretary's notes of War Cabinet discussion of Victory in Europe Celebrations, 7 May 1945.
Cabinet Secretary’s notes of War Cabinet discussion of Victory in Europe Celebrations, 7 May 1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 195/3/33

However, while the Cabinet agreed to Churchill’s pulling of the earlier announcement, they did not want people going to work the next day. Minister for Labour, Ernest Bevin, had an immediate question to Churchill’s proposal – ‘Workpeople?’. Churchill concurred, he didn’t want people to go in.

So while the announcement didn’t go ahead – there was a ‘pre-announcement’ – normal programming was interrupted to inform the nation that there would be an announcement at 15:00 the following day (Tuesday 8 May), and that it would be treated as Victory in Europe Day and therefore it and the 9 May would be a holiday, with the King making a radio broadcast at 21:00. This effectively confirmed what many people knew – the war was over.

We can only imagine, today, the relief and joy people must have felt, when they had their suspicions confirmed by the Prime Minister’s short broadcast the next afternoon 6.

However, for all the trepidatious efforts Truman and Churchill made to avoid upsetting Stalin by de-synchronising announcements, they ended up doing so anyway.

Propaganda depicting the landing of 'Ducks', amphibious fighting vehicles used by the British forces, landing in the Mediterranean, with the legend 'Victory of the Allies is Assured', 1944.
Propaganda depicting the landing of ‘Ducks’, amphibious fighting vehicles used by the British forces, landing in the Mediterranean, with the legend ‘Victory of the Allies is Assured’, 1944. Catalogue ref: INF 2/4 (5)

Stalin did not consider the instruments of surrender signed initially to either properly cover the Eastern Front, nor to have been signed by a senior enough German officer. Nor did he consider Reims in France, instead of Berlin, to be the appropriate place for signing it. So other instruments were made to meet his requirements. As a result, he decided to delay the USSR’s Victory Day until Wednesday 9 May, the day it is still celebrated today. Stalin requested his allies delay as well, but Churchill politely telegrammed him this time to say that he would not wait any longer 7.

On 8 May 1945 the UK, and indeed much of the world, broke out in spontaneous celebration. As Churchill telegrammed Eisenhower the following day, ‘there is great joy here’ 8.

Please note: Due to the Coronavirus measures currently in place that mean The National Archives is closed, this blog was researched entirely using digitised Cabinet records. To find out more about how you can use these records for your own research, please see our Cabinet Papers website.

Notes:

  1. Telegram from Winston Churchill to President Truman, 05/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/4
  2. Conclusions of a Meeting of the War Cabinet held on Monday 07/05/1945 at 18:30. Catalogue ref: CAB 65/50/22
  3. Telegram from Winston Churchill to Marshal Stalin, 06/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5
  4. Telegrams from Churchill to Truman and Stalin, 07/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5
  5. Ibid
  6. Cabinet Secretary’s notebook for War Cabinet meeting on 07/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 195/3/33
  7. Telegram from Churchill to Stalin, 08/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5
  8. Telegram from Churchill to General Eisenhower, 09/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5

11 comments

  1. Edvinas says:

    This day was not victorious for Center and Eastern European countries. You forgot to tell another side of this story. War was still ongoing against totalitarian Soviet union in many European states. At least mentioning it, would be nice.

  2. Paul Coughlan says:

    Great story, thanks for sharing.

  3. Maureen Smith says:

    The blog is very interesting. I will use some of the details in a family quiz. Thank You

  4. Firuza Melville says:

    It’s a shame that the countries still cannot agree about celebrating the common victory together

  5. Doreen Agutter says:

    Interesting. I did not wake early and atb7 shouted to my mother. ‘Why have you not woken me for school ?’i often wondered how she knew as she answered, ‘ No school today. The War is over’. She had not gone to work. I don’t know about my father. So this clarifies my knowledge this despite being a History graduate but I never studied this era at that level. Fascinating as I am collecting information for an Exhibition when Lock Down is over for my village.

  6. Joe Hawkins says:

    I always felt that Winston Churchill was an Imperialist. He wanted to use the
    United States to resuscitate the UK empire. We intervened only because we were
    attacked by the Nipponese Empire in 1941. Your poster just showing The UK and
    USSR bayonnetting Hitler was probably insulting to America. Without the USA, the U.K. would be speaking German.

  7. Paul Smith says:

    VE Day: May 8, 1945 – I sure wish May 8 2020 would be VC Day (Victory over Coronavirus)

  8. Malcolm says:

    I can remember that day as if it were yesterday. We actually went to school to find that it was closed. We didn’t have flags etc but ran around with a stick on which we had tied a piece of cloth. Later the tables appeared in the street and we had a communal meal with items I had not seen before. Some time later not sure how long, a part of a banana was a massive treat – crushed on a piece of bread and sprinkled with a bit of sugar. Still my favourite way of eating that fruit.

  9. Janet Haigh says:

    Thank you for the historic National information.

  10. Langton Wildman says:

    Excellent blog – well researched.

  11. john melville says:

    loved the info, but I strongly disagree with joe Hawkins saying without the usa we would be speaking german, what did Churchill say , we will never surrender!!.

    john Melville.

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