Though a subsequent federal inquiry blamed naval authority, the true causes lay in bureaucratic confusion, insufficient policing and antipathy between the military and civilians, fuelled by the presence of 25,000 servicemen who had strained Halifax wartime resources.
Halifax in Wartime
Halifax was a bustling port city during the Second World War. Massive transatlantic convoys carrying troops, munitions and supplies were assembled there and joined by armed naval escort and aircraft protection (see Battle of the Atlantic). As a result, the city’s population increased by nearly 60 per cent between 1939 and 1944 — nearby Dartmouth ballooned by just over 73 per cent — with temporary government and military jobs created to keep local war industries moving. All the while, tens of thousands of troops, airmen and sailors filed in and out of town.
As the families of visiting workers and stationed servicemen moved to town, it became clear that the city was not prepared to serve and house so many people. This lack of infrastructure placed strain on the city and bred contempt among the civilian and service populations. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) itself could not host all of its personnel, and many men had to find billets in the city. While many Haligonians took in boarders and treated them fairly, some were known to inflate their rates at the sight of newcomers or servicemen who crammed into overstuffed quarters.
When the Wartime Prices and Trades Board was established in October 1941, food and fuel rationing increased in Canada. Halifax residents were more severely affected by rationing due to the onslaught of service personnel in the city, where civilians often complained that servicemen and departing ships cleaned them out of supplies. Residents experienced shortages of such basic services as water and electricity, which were diverted for military use. Blackouts and living in the constant threat of U-boat or air attacks also frayed nerves.
Halifax residents grew weary of the city’s transient population. According to the Royal Commission report on the VE-Day riot, “vandalism, including the breaking of plate glass windows and the tearing down of awnings and street signs, mostly by intoxicated Naval ratings on paydays, was a usual and expected occurrence [in wartime Halifax].” The RCN had expanded rapidly during the Second World War — from 3,500 regulars in 1939 to some 96,000 by 1945 — and personnel training suffered as a result, particularly “discipline ashore.” Over 18,000 Navy personnel were stationed in Halifax in May 1945.
Restaurants and hotels were not permitted to sell liquor in Halifax, and though private clubs could, servicemen were unable to join. The only place to purchase alcohol was from government stores; however, servicemen were not permitted to keep alcohol in their barracks. Illegal clubs and brothels were the only places, other than the wet messes on base, where sailors could drink.
Planning for VE-Day
Though its announcement came without warning on 7 May 1945, Allied victory in Europe had been anticipated for some time. Municipal and military officials in Halifax had begun to prepare for victory celebrations as early as September 1944. Official plans were made for thanksgiving church services and remembrance ceremonies at the Halifax Cenotaph, as well as parades, street festivals and fireworks to commemorate six years of service and sacrifice. Liquor stores were to be closed in order to prevent trouble.
After experiencing the unruly behaviour of sailors on shore leave over the course of the war in Europe, it was understood that service personnel would likely riot unless otherwise distracted. This feeling, coupled with antipathy between military and civilians, resulted in muttered threats among service personnel and Haligonians that the city would have a rough time on VE-Day. The mayor of Halifax, Allan Butler, and concerned citizens wanted to know what protections the armed services could provide against damage to the city.
Plans to curb mob mentality were formulated by local units of the Armed Forces as Allied forces closed in on Berlin in April 1945. The Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Navy each developed plans for the day. The RCAF and Army imposed strict schedules and rules of conduct on their personnel and provided them with planned activities and events set within the confines of their garrisons. Measures set in place by the Navy were, by contrast, relaxed.
The understaffed Halifax police service and the Navy Shore Patrol also set forth policies that permitted crowds to form and curbed arrests for public intoxication. It was thought that arresting a sailor might cause a “serious riot.” RCN Rear Admiral Leonard Murray also argued that many in Halifax would say, “Here is a man who helped win the war and you are going to arrest him for being a little tight on VE-Day.”
Victory in Europe was announced the morning of 7 May 1945 on civilian radio in Halifax, and residents were given the rest of the day off. Armed Services personnel continued to work through the day. However, trouble started that evening during a fireworks display. “Open gangway” (i.e., a holiday) was declared for Navy personnel for reasons that remain unclear.
General drunkenness and rowdy behaviour ensued, but violence soon erupted. Sailors and civilians began to snatch flags from their poles and smash windows, before sailors took over the driver's seat of a tramcar, smashed its windows and set it on fire. When firemen came to put out the fire, sailors disconnected their hose before cutting it completely.
After three men were caught breaking into a liquor store and fled, the police called to protect the shop. However, a mob of sailors hurling projectiles overcame the police and looted the store along with civilians. Two more liquor stores were ransacked late into the night, with looters making off with over 2,000 cases of beer, wine and spirits.
[Footage shot during the VE-Day Riots in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1945 (courtesy Nova Scotia Archives)]
Open gangway continued the next day. Though sailors had access to “wet canteens,” they emptied them of beer by 1 p.m. and went out looking for more. Along with civilians, they overpowered guards at Alexander Keith’s brewery and passed out cases to passersby. As crowds spilled downtown, window displays and store interiors were either vandalized, looted or both. People took whatever they could — including mannequins, with which they danced in the streets — but mainly clothes, jewellery and shoes (perhaps the most popular item).
Vandalism and theft aside, the general atmosphere in Halifax was described as convivial rather than criminal.
In many instances, sailors reinforced police and shore patrol by holding back crowds at liquor stores and department stores. In the end, downtown Halifax descended to mob rule. By 5 p.m., the mayor declared VE-Day over; however, as rioting subsided in that city, it was taken up to a lesser scale across the harbour in Dartmouth. A military curfew was in force by 11 p.m. and the streets cleared.
Outcome and Investigation
The Toronto Star front page on 9 May 1945 reported that “the [Halifax] business area looks like London after a blitz” and that two sailors had died (the official number was three), including one 18-year-old who “succumbed to over-intoxication,” one found on the Dalhousie campus and another “killed in the rioting.”
Damages to property were assessed along with losses and casualties in the immediate aftermath, and a Royal Commission was appointed by order-in-council on 10 May 1945. The report, filed by Justice R.L. Kellock, tallied the damages in both Halifax and Dartmouth. Over 200 people were brought up on charges (117 civilians, 41 soldiers, 34 sailors and 19 airmen), either for being in possession of loot, drunkenness, being AWOL or other reasons. A total of 564 businesses were damaged, 207 shops looted and 2,624 windows smashed.
The federal government provided just over $1 million in compensation to businesses affected by the riot. The Nova Scotia Liquor Commission alone received $178,924 in reparations.
The Commission report laid blame squarely on Royal Canadian Navy Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, the only Canadian to command an Allied operational area during the Second World War. He was relieved of command and later retired from the Navy. In September 1945, he left for England, where he went on to practise law. Murray died in 1971.
The true causes of the riot were much broader than outlined in the Royal Commission, stemming from years of antipathy between the military and civilians in wartime Halifax. While this was due to exponential growth in the Royal Canadian Navy and the sheer scale of the Second World War effort, it should also be noted that Halifax already had a 200-year relationship with the services. The City and Armed Forces thought they were doing their best to prevent a riot when they decided to curb arrests in 1945. They looked back to a riot that had broken out on 25 May 1918 following the arrest of a drunken sailor. On that occasion, soldiers, sailors and civilians made a wreck of City Hall, where the police department was headquartered, and overwhelmed a significantly understaffed police force.
The VE-Day riots provided a lesson in planning when it came time to celebrate Victory over Japan in August 1945. VJ-Day celebrations in Halifax were low-key given what had happened months earlier.
The military, particularly the Navy, is still an important and respected element of Halifax's society and economy today. The VE-Day riots are remembered as a black mark on the city's otherwise proud contribution to the Second World War.