Wednesday, 6 May 2015

VE Day. The celebrations after Germany surrendered                              

Excerpt from Volume 1 of Whistling in the Face of Robbers—The Memoirs of Dahn Batchelor

Victory in Europe Day, generally known as V-E Day, was  the public holiday celebrated on the 8th of May 1945 (7th of May in Commonwealth countries because if the various time zones)) to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender of its armed forces.  It thus marked the end of World War II in Europe. Upon the surrender of all of Germany’s armed forces, (Italy had previously surrendered), celebrations erupted throughout the world.                                          

As the Soviet representative in Reims had no authority to sign the German instrument of surrender, the Soviet leadership proposed to consider Reims surrender as a "preliminary" act. The surrender ceremony was repeated in Berlin on May 8, where the instrument of surrender was signed by supreme German military commander Wilhelm Keitel, along with  Georgy Zhukov and other Allied representatives. Since the Soviet Union was to the east of Germany, it was 9 May Moscow Time when the German military surrender became effective, which is why Russia and most of the former Soviet republics commemorate Victory Day on 9 May instead of 8 May 1945.

News of the German surrender broke in the West on May 8th, and celebrations erupted throughout Europe. In the U.S., Americans awoke to the news and declared the 8th of May V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). As the Soviet Union was to the east of Germany it was the 9th of May Moscow Time when German military surrender became effective, which is why Russia and many other European countries east of Germany commemorate Victory Day on May 9th.                                                         

The news flash reached Canada at 9:36 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on May 7th, 1945—“Germany has surrendered unconditionally.” British Columbia was three hours earlier than the east coast but for some reason which I cannot explain, those of us living in that small town of Wells in Central British Columbia didn’t now about the surrender until the earlier hours of the 8th. (It was by then the 9th in Europe)                                                     

At that time in my life, I was eleven years of age when I and the other 2,500 people living in Wells learned of the surrender. Someone very early in the morning had set off the air raid siren attached to the Community Centre building. The siren was also used to call the volunteer firemen to the fire station. Instead of it wailing up and down the register when there was a fire, it was a steady high-pitched wailing sound. Then I heard people shouting that Germany had surrendered.                                                                    

Later that day (Tuesday) we were told that there would be no school and the mines would be shut down for the day and in the afternoon, there would be a community celebration held in an open field below the hospital. There would be beer for the adults and speeches, soft drinks for the children and speeches and hot dogs for everyone and more speeches. That day was like no other day that anyone still living in Wells can remember. It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness one which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and danced against a background of trees on the mountain behind us and grass of the field we were on  and above us, the sun shining brightly. Many of my school chums were happy because this meant that their fathers, uncles, cousins and older brothers would be returning home. My father had already returned home from the Canadian air force because of a back injury he received when his bomber crashed in the desert in Egypt. Some of the people however were sad because their loved ones were killed in the war so they wouldn’t be returning.            

Of course, celebrations in the larger cities and towns were much greater. There were official celebrations across Canada, including a parade on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Crowds filled the streets of three of Canada’s largest cities—Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and there were even victory parades in small towns in Canada.                                      

In London, England, the streets were filled with people and there were street parties. Bands played, flags flew and the air was filled with fireworks. At Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared with the Royal Family on a balcony overlooking a huge ecstatic crowd that packed the square below. The city brimmed with unbridled joy. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were given permission by their parents to mingle with the crowd just outside of the gates of Buckingham Palace. Thousands of King George's subjects wedged themselves in front of the Palace throughout the day, chanting ceaselessly “We want the King!” and cheering themselves hoarse when he and the Queen and their daughters appeared, but when the crowd saw Churchill on the balcony, there was a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar. He later was at the head of a procession of Members of Parliament, walking back to the House of Commons from the traditional St. Margaret's Thanksgiving Service. Instantly, he was surrounded by people who were running or standing on tiptoe, holding up babies so that they could be told later they had seen him and shouting affectionately the first name of Winnie the Poon “Winnie, Winnie.”                                                                                                                                
The crowds milled back and forth between the Palace, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus, and when they got tired they simply sat down wherever they happened to be—on the grass, on doorsteps, or on the curb and watched the other people or spread handkerchiefs over their faces and took a nap. Everybody appeared determined to see the King and Queen and Prime Minister Churchill at least once during the day. By lunchtime, in Piccadilly Circus,( public square)  the buses had to slow to a crawl in order to get through the tightly packed, laughing and singing crowds. The Government decided against sounding the sirens in a triumphant ‘all clear’ for fear that the noise would revive too many painful memories. For the same reason, there were no salutes of guns however there was the pealing of the church bells. The whistles of tugs on the Thames River sounding the doot, doot, doot, dooooot of the letter V, and the roar of the planes, which could be heard everywhere, swooping back and forth over the city, dropping red and green fiery signals toward the blur of smiling, upturned faces. The police reported that there was barely any criminal activity throughout the day despite the boisterous behavior of tens of thousands of people.                                                                             

Each nation made its announcement in its own way. People all over much of the world were taking to the streets in an outpouring of emotion. In New York City, especially in Times Square, two million people gathered onto the streets leading into and out of the Square. The streets were packed right against the buildings. The crowds were still there long after the sun went down.
As I said earlier, Russia normally celebrates VE day on May 9th because of the time change, but there was no celebration in May of 1945. The first Victory Day parade was held at the Red Square on June 24th, 1945 under the order of Joseph Stalin. Perhaps he gave that order so that the soldiers who fought in the war that were still in Germany and other European countries could return home to enjoy the celebration. Moscow’s Red Square filled with veterans, soldiers, dignitaries and special guests in honour of Victory Day on May 9th. Though civilians were not allowed inside the Red Square, they were able to view Russian soldiers and cadets march into the Square along with a parade of tanks and they heard an address from the Russian leaders from various vantage points around the Kremlin. That night a massive firework display drew a close to the victorious holiday.                  

Unfortunately, the VE celebration in Halifax, Nova Scotia rapidly turned into a rampage by several thousand servicemen, merchant seamen and civilians and some of them looted the City of Halifax.
By 1945, Halifax had become a bustling, overcrowded, underserviced port city. During the war, Halifax’s population doubled; its facilities did not. Landlords charged top rents for what amounted to large closets. Merchants would take one look at a man in uniform and jack up their prices. There were huge lineups to get into the city’s few restaurants, several-hour waits outside movie theatres. There was no legal place anyone could go to buy a drink, but there were dozens of illegal ones. For their part, the locals claimed there was never anything for them to buy on store shelves anymore because ungrateful come-from-far away sailors had bought it all, or the military had commandeered it to supply a departing convoy. Organizers decided that on VE Day tram service would stop for the day, to discourage sailors from going downtown. Liquor commission outlets, restaurants, retailers and movie theatres all decided to shutter their premises for the day ostensibly to prevent trouble.                                                                    
Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray believed his sailors had won the peace and deserved their chance to celebrate. Late on the afternoon of May 7, 1945, the day Germany surrendered, he overruled the advice of his senior officers and allowed more than 9,000 of his men to go ashore for the night, with the mild admonition that their celebration “Be joyful without being destructive or distasteful.” By midnight, downtown Halifax was filled to bursting with more than 12,000 celebrants who had no place to eat or relax. Without licensed bars to go to, they rioted instead, setting ablaze to tramcars and a police paddy wagon, smashing windows, looting liquor stores and denuding shops of merchandise. On Barrington Street, there was so much broken glass in the street; it spilled over the top of the curb. One reporter who wandered through the downtown devastation the next morning compared it to “London after a blitz.”                                          

The riots might have ended that morning as sailors and civilians alike with hangovers and many clutching their ill-gotten booty would have stumbled home or to their ships to sleep off their drunkenness they got their night before.  Unfortunately Murray took no steps to rescind the standing order that allowed another 9,500 sailors to go ashore to join the official VE Day festivities on May 8th. Admiral and Mayor Butler drove through the city in a sound truck ordering everyone to return to their homes and barracks, and imposing a curfew on the city. The mayhem finally ended later that day.  

There were three sailors dead (two from alcohol poisoning, and one a possible murder), 363 arrested, 654 businesses damaged and 207 establishments looted to some degree. Sixty-five thousand quarts of liquor, 8,000 cases of beer and 1,500 cases of wine had been ‘liberated’ from liquor commission shelves. The total price tag was more than $5 million, including the cost of replacing 2,624 sheets of plate glass. In 2012 money, the cost of the damages and thefts would have been at least $30 million dollars.                                   

A hastily convened Royal Commission chaired by Justice Roy Kellock blamed the riots on the failure of Naval command to control the sailors, and particularly on the Admiral: It was determined that once the rioting started, the development and continuance of the disorders were due to the failure of the Naval Command to put down the initial disorders on each of the two days, May 7th  and 8th . Subsequently the insufficiency of the police forces, service and civilian, employed, as well as their faulty direction on both days, and the passive conduct of the Naval Command in allowing naval personnel to continue unchecked on the afternoon of May 8th without taking any steps to deal with the situation until a very late hour, when the disorders had begun to play themselves out was the reasons for all the mayhem and damage. 
On the 12th of May, Admiral Murray was abruptly removed from his command; and the next day a separate Naval Board of Inquiry under Admiral Brodeur was appointed to investigate naval participation in the disorders. The Kellock Commission placed considerable blame upon the Navy and in particular upon the Admiral, for not having exercised better control over the sailors’ celebrations ashore. The admiral asked for a court martial to clear his name, but this was never brought about by the government that chose instead to leave the Admiral with his honour intact. The Admiral was never assigned another command.                                                           

The war that Germany began in 1939 when it first attacked Poland brought about an enormous amount of military and civilian casualties throughout Europe. As many as 24 million soldiers and 49 million civilians lost their lives on both the sides in which included many soldiers and civilians who were also killed in the Soviet Union (Russia) and 6 million Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis. Germany lost between 7 million and 9 million soldiers and civilian lives. The total loss of lives in that war was as many as 73 million.  

This enormous human tragedy brings a nagging question to mind. “If there really is a God, then where was God during those years if God truly loved all his children?”

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