Victory in Europe — the official end of the fighting in Europe in the Second World War — was celebrated on 8 May 1945, after Germany's unconditional surrender. In cities and towns across Canada, a war-weary nation expressed its joy and relief at the news. In Halifax, the celebrations erupted into looting and rioting. The war was not over, as conflict with Japan continued.
Ready for Peace
Canadians had been at war since September 1939. Over the course of the Second World War, the country's economy had been transformed, a generation of young men had been mobilized to defeat the Axis powers, and since 1942 a debate over conscription had divided both Canadians and the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
By the spring of 1945, Canadians had waged war against a relentless enemy on the North Atlantic, at Dieppe, Hong Kong and Normandy, in the air over Germany, and most recently, in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. More than a million Canadians had served in the armed forces — 42,000 had been killed and tens of thousands more were wounded or awaiting liberation in prisoner of war camps.
The country was in an expectant mood — eager for victory and ready for peace.
(See also Victory in Europe (VE-Day) Remembered.)
Two early reports of a German surrender had primed people for celebration. The first, on 28 April, was erroneous; the second, on the morning of 7 May, was merely premature.
The military surrender agreement for the German forces was signed in Rheims, France, at 2:41 a.m. local time on 7 May 1945 by Colonel General Gustav Jodl, the German army's chief of staff; Lieutenant-General Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff for the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower; General Ivan Susloparov for the Soviet Union; and General François Sevez for France. Allied headquarters ordered the news to be withheld for 24 hours, although Germany announced the surrender.
A week earlier, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.
"A Good Day"
Mackenzie King, who was in San Francisco on 7 May attending the founding conference of the United Nations, wrote in his diary: "This has been a good day — a happy day [...] one in which the burden has been greatly lightened from the knowledge that Nazi militarism has, at last, been destroyed." In a radio address the next day, Mackenzie King told Canadians, "You have helped to rid the world of a great scourge."
The celebrating started across North America on 7 May, but subsided when people learned it had not been confirmed. When confirmation did come at 9 a.m. EDT on 8 May, celebrations resumed, in many places even more fervently than the day before.
Among the first Canadians to celebrate were the sailors on naval and merchant ships on the Atlantic, and soldiers and airmen based in Europe. Their long ordeal would soon be coming to an end, although many would still be tasked with providing security to occupied Germany, and bringing aid to the Netherlands, where the Dutch were desperate for emergency food and medical supplies distributed by Canadian forces. Across the Netherlands, Canadians were cheered and welcomed as heroes.
At home in Canada, massive crowds filled city streets. There were parades, band concerts, tickertape dropped from the sky by aircraft, and spontaneous singing, dancing and exuberance. Offices, stores and some factories closed for the day, while other factories remained open, churning out war material for the ongoing battles in the Pacific.
Canadian students also left their classrooms to take part in the festivities, or to attend special religious services of thanksgiving. In towns and cities and rural villages there were prayers and tears of relief, as well as music, happy shouting and, for the most part, good-natured partying.
"The silencing of the guns in Europe," said The Globe and Mail, "brought release from bondage of the spirit."
Many cities had prepared for the surrender announcement by ordering that liquor stores and drinking establishments be closed when the announcement came. In Halifax and Dartmouth, however, the celebrating got out of hand, resulting in the VE-Day riots. Widespread looting, violence and vandalism were seen in both cities, which were equally exhausted by their wartime role. The events marred an otherwise joyful day for most Canadians.
Canada's third war in less than half a century was nearing its end. The atomic bomb and victory against the Japanese in the Pacific were only four months away. Meanwhile, a new role awaited Canada — as a middle power of the NATO alliance in the coming Cold War.