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.
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with President Truman of U-boats destroyed, but hoping that ‘the very rapid movement of events…[mean it will be] outdated before 10th May’.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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
- Telegram from Winston Churchill to President Truman, 05/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/4 ↩
- Conclusions of a Meeting of the War Cabinet held on Monday 07/05/1945 at 18:30. Catalogue ref: CAB 65/50/22 ↩
- Telegram from Winston Churchill to Marshal Stalin, 06/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5 ↩
- Telegrams from Churchill to Truman and Stalin, 07/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5 ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Cabinet Secretary’s notebook for War Cabinet meeting on 07/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 195/3/33 ↩
- Telegram from Churchill to Stalin, 08/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5 ↩
- Telegram from Churchill to General Eisenhower, 09/05/1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 101/251/5 ↩