On May 8 1945, more than a million Londoners flooded the streets. The war in Europe was officially over. That morning, Winston Churchill had addressed the nation to confirm what many had already anticipated: the formal act of military surrender had been signed by German forces. He declared that May 8 was to be an official day of ‘rejoicing’: Victory in Europe Day.
But the party had really begun the night before, VE Day eve. Around 10,000 Londoners went out in the darkness. Soldiers, students and civil defence workers made their way down the Mall to Buckingham Palace in a procession that was reportedly more than a mile long. Young people with smiling faces were photographed climbing over Victoria Memorial statue.
The next day the Daily Mirror ran with the headline, ‘London had a joy night’, featuring a story from a reporter who had phoned in from the scene: ‘We are dancing the conga and the jig and Knees-Up Mother Brown… The idea is to make noise, and we are. Even above the roar of the motors of low-flying bombers “shooting up” the city.’ He described how the crowds followed the light of a bonfire on Shaftesbury Avenue, and the sight of ecstatic young soldiers swarming cars and jumping on bus tops.
On VE Day, the crowds continued to gather in central London, singing, dancing and blowing paper trumpets. Hordes squished together in Piccadilly Circus beneath signs advertising cigarettes and Guinness. Some marched to Whitehall, where Churchill addressed them from a balcony. Thousands waited outside Buckingham Palace screaming ‘we want the king’, waving their tiny Union Jacks as the Royal Family appeared.
People crammed themselves into cars, climbed lampposts and skipped through the street in linked arms. Sailors waded through the fountain in Trafalgar Square.
All that happened 75 years ago this week. Now we remember it through photographs showing moments of real happiness, exhaustion, amazement and relief. All the images below capture just how London looked on that first VE Day, May 8 1945, when a shared struggle became a shared celebration.
Although the outdoor seventy-fifth anniversary events planned for VE Day 2020 can no longer go ahead, there are still plenty of activities planned online. The Royal British Legion is encouraging people to participate from home with a two-minute silence and a mass singalong of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The Imperial War Museum will be releasing ‘Voices of War’, a four-minute soundscape featuring audio accounts from those who experienced the war first hand: army nurses, prisoners of war, a Jamaican aircraftsman. And the Museum of London site has released rare photographs of the east London Docklands during the Second World War in honour of the anniversary. If you don’t feel like doing a Lambeth Walk-style celebration for the VE Day of the present, you can delve into the past instead.
Want to help document the lockdown for future generations? Take part in this project with the National Portrait Gallery and Kate Middleton.
Not really into celebrations of wartime? Find out what else is happening this weekend.