What is VE Day and why do we celebrate it?

5 May 2020, 19:36 | Updated: 6 May 2020, 12:23

VE Day celebrations in London's East End on the 8th of May 1945
VE Day celebrations in London's East End on the 8th of May 1945. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Victory in Europe Day, more commonly known as VE Day, will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Friday. But what is it and why do we celebrate it?

Every year on the 8th of May, the UK comes together to celebrate VE Day.

In usual circumstances, people hold street parties and hang up bunting, the military put on parades, and there is a special silence held to commemorate fallen soldiers.

But with the coronavirus pandemic bringing the country to a standstill, this year the celebrations will be significantly different.

So what is VE Day? Why do we celebrate it? And what did the first VE Day mean for Britain?

What is VE Day? And when was it first celebrated?

On the 8th of May 1945, Britain and its Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender following roughly six years of brutal warfare during the Second World War.

The historic moment saw spontaneous celebrations and relief break out across the country as the second bloody global conflict in 30 years officially drew to an end.

Even the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, ventured out with a group of friends and her sister Princess Margaret to experience the excitement, with the events forming the basis of the film A Royal Night Out.

Huge crowds at Trafalgar Square in London celebrate VE Day on the 8th of May 1945
Huge crowds at Trafalgar Square in London celebrate VE Day on the 8th of May 1945. Picture: PA

Then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared the day a public holiday and took to a balcony at Whitehall to join in the revelry by waving at gathering crowds below.

Staring into the jaws of defeat, Adolf Hitler took his own life on the 30th of April during the Battle of Berlin and was replaced by naval commander Karl Dönitz.

The temporary leader authorised Nazi Germany's surrender on the night of the 8th of May following an initial act of military surrender first signed in Reims, France, in the early hours of the 7th.

However, it did not mark the official end of the Second World War, with fighting continuing against the Japanese in Asia and the Pacific. On the 15th of August, Japan surrendered after being devastated by two US atomic bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why do we celebrate VE Day?

We celebrate the 8th of May in order to remember the lives lost and the efforts made to liberate Europe from oppressive Nazi rule.

The tradition began in 1945, with millions of Brits taking to the streets to rejoice at the news that the Second World War had ended.

And so, every year since people have repeated the celebrations to acknowledge and honour the freedoms protected by soldiers and citizens alike.

Princess Elizabeth at the wheel of an army vehicle on the 1st of January 1945
Princess Elizabeth at the wheel of an army vehicle on the 1st of January 1945. Picture: PA

Whether it is commemorating those who died on the frontline or those who worked tirelessly on the home front to keep the war machine rolling, VE Day is an opportunity to show our gratitude to everyone who played their part in the victory.

British troops, French troops, US troops, Russian troops, Polish troops and many, many others were all vital in the Allied effort to defeat the Axis powers and are all remembered on the day.

Former Soviet states, including Russia, Belarus and Serbia, recognise VE Day on the 9th of May. This is due to how late Germany's surrender was authorised and the time difference between the Soviet Union and Berlin, where the surrender act was signed.

Assembled commemorative "Tommy" figures are prepared for shipping at the Royal British Legion Industries
Assembled commemorative "Tommy" figures are prepared for shipping at the Royal British Legion Industries. Picture: Getty

What did victory mean for Britain?

Victory came at a bittersweet cost to the UK. Though it was a moment of celebration, it was also an opportunity to remember close friends and family who had perished in the Second World War.

Wartime had brought the nation together in a united effort against a common enemy. While soldiers were fighting on the frontline, people at home worked round the clock to ensure the country did not grind to a halt.

But once the conflict officially drew to an end, Britons far and wide, exhausted by wartime working hours, could let out a collective sigh of relief.

A war memorial "Tommy" statue is pictured outside of the Royal British Legion Industries
A war memorial "Tommy" statue is pictured outside of the Royal British Legion Industries. Picture: Getty

Victory meant Brits could finally leave their houses safe in the knowledge there was no threat of an aerial attack, people could look forward to their loved ones finally returning from the frontline, and the nation could begin to rebuild after years of terror and destruction.

However, it also came at a cost. The country became utterly dependent on US economic aid - it paid its final loan to the states in 2006 - and had huge debts to pay off to the likes of India and Egpyt who it had borrowed from in order to fight the war.

Nonetheless, in the months following the conflict, a general election saw Labour sweep aside the Conservatives in a surprise landslide which paved the way for the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service which we routinely applaud during the current coronavirus pandemic.

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