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'The nightmare is over': VE-Day as seen at home and abroad

May 8, 1945 was the official day to commemorate victory in the European theatre of the Second World War, but Canadians at home and abroad got the news - and celebrated - days earlier.

As the Allies advanced in Europe, expectation of victory there meant early celebrations at home

Canadian soldiers celebrating V-E Day, Piccadilly Circus, London, England, on May 8, 1945. (Lieut. Arthur L. Cole/Canadian Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-176695)

After five and a half years of fighting, Canadian servicemen and their families back home were glad to see the end of the war that had taken so much.

But even for those who had the horrors of the war firsthand, it was hard to believe that the fighting in Europe could end.

"The German war is over — five little words that one hardly dares to speak," the CBC's Matthew Halton told CBC Radio listeners on May 5, 1945, a few days before the formal celebrations of VE-Day celebrating victory in Europe.

"During long, weary years, enduring hours that seemed like years, one sometimes wondered if the carnival of death wasn't a nightmare from which one would happily wake. And now that the nightmare is over, one has to wonder if it isn't to find the usual mad mornings of war and blood."

End hard to accept for some

Halton reported on "staggering events" of the past two weeks — including the death of Adolf Hitler — that left Germany as "a melodrama of disintegration, hysteria and surrender."

"Today the sun rises, as it hasn't risen for nearly six years," he concluded, and "soldiers I've talked to," he said, were finding it "hard to believe ... that the nightmare is over."

Canadians learned from the war reporter how the end of the war was received in Europe. 4:29

Under the headline "Black Friday for Germans," the Globe and Mail had reported on May 5, 1945 that "Germany had agreed to surrender ... all Northwestern Germany, Holland, Denmark, Heligoland, and the Frisian Islands."

And when news broke early two days later that Germany had surrendered unconditionally, many Canadians were ready to hit the streets — a day ahead of what King George VI proclaimed would be the official holiday to celebrate the victories won so far.

From coast to coast, Canadians thronged the streets, with news that the war was ended in Europe. 1:46

'Some were weeping'

A CBC Radio special on May 7, 1945 featured a roundup of reports from across Canada, as people rejoiced.

The report from Vancouver featured the sounds of joyous revellers in the background. 

Reporter Dick Halhed recounted that "news of the German surrender reached Pacific coast residents just after 7 o'clock this morning," and thanks to the air raid sirens that sounded, no one missed the news.

A CBC Vancouver reporter described how news of victory was received in that city. 3:05

Halhed described the city as "gaily hung with flags of the united nations, bunting and paper streamers hung from all the buildings," within the hour of the news, as people were expecting it.

But the reporter also described seeing "a goodly number of middle-aged women ... some were weeping," likely, he believed, the "mothers of boys who would not be returning." 

And, he cautioned, there was still "war work" to be done, as the Pacific conflict continued.

Military personnel and civilians celebrating VE-Day on Sparks Street, Ottawa, May 8, 1945 (Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-114617)

Although a number of stories of towns and cities were presented like Vancouver's, with the sound of noise and celebrations in the background, also told was the story of Sackville, N.B., which the reporter described as quiet and subdued.

In all, he explained, 350 men had enlisted from that town, 10 per cent of the town's population at the time. With the recorded death of 33 of them, the town felt a keen loss.

'Good straight fun'

Toronto celebrated victory in Europe, May, 1945 (Ronny Jaques/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-114626)

On the steps of Toronto's City Hall, reporters spoke to some of the people who had congregated on the streets to mill about and join the throng.

Included was a soldier home on leave for the first time since 1939, and a lieutenant who had been in London for the 1918 armistice.

CBC reporters spoke to people out to celebrate the news of the end of the war in Europe. 2:26

"I think today the crowd is well behaved ... a good time, and good straight fun," the lieutenant said, when asked to compare the two experiences.

The same could not be said for Halifax, where rioting marred the celebrations beginning on the evening of May 7.

'When all the boys come back'

Crowds of men, women and children hit the streets of Montreal, to celebrate the announcement that the war in Europe was over. (Montreal Star/Library and Archives Canada/PA-152318 )

In Montreal, the city's Ste-Catherine Street was awash with revellers.

One sailor, exuberant with joy, announced that he was getting married that week, and another soldier spoke of his thoughts on his comrades still overseas.

CBC reporters roamed the streets in Montreal to speak with men and women happy to see the war's end in Europe. 2:35

"I'm glad this nightmare's over," he said. "And all I can say is that I'll be anxious when all the boys come back here. I'm only sorry that they're not on Ste-Catherine Street this very moment to see how the people are taking this victory."

Post-war coverage

CBC war correspondents (l to r) Marcel Ouimet, Peter Stursberg, Matthew Halton (Ashley and Crippen Studio/ Library and Archives Canada)

Overseas, Halton, along with CBC Radio correspondents Marcel Ouimet and Peter Stursberg, continued to report back on the events in Europe.

In Holland, Ouimet reported on the moment that the newly liberated citizens of Utrecht greeted the first Canadian arrivals — officers in staff cars and correspondents like the CBC reporter.

Dutch civilians and Canadian Army troops celebrating liberation. (Alexander M. Stirton/Canadian Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134377)

"I don't think you can hear — you can hear what I say, but this gives you an idea," he said, pausing to let listeners hear the loud joy of the Dutch people who could be heard singing Dutch and English songs, cheering and shouting "Canada."

The CBC war reporter brought the sounds of Utrecht as people celebrated liberation. 4:20

He noted that all sense of danger seemed to have dropped away, in spite of shots fired as they drove into the town. No one minded that, as "people can become so enthusiastic, that they come to forget ... about danger."

Dutch civilians loading a Canadian-supplied truck with food, following agreement amongst Germans, Dutch and Allies about the distribution of food to the Dutch population. (Alexander M. Stirton/Canadian Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134417)

Danger remains

Stursberg soon reported on the dangers of continued fighting by the German militia, which was present in the Dutch towns and cities even as the Allied forces entered.

The CBC war correspondent brought the sights and sounds of Amsterdam to Canadian listeners in May, 1945 3:59

His May 10, 1945 report from Holland gave an account of what he described as the "greatest and the strangest and the most fantastic liberation scenes of this war."

Privates J.A. Taylor and J.D. Villeneuve of the Royal Canadian Regiment stacking rifles turned in by surrendering German soldiers, IJmuiden, Netherlands on May 11, 1945. (Capt. Alexander M. Stirton/Canadian Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-15)

He described crowds "almost hysterical with joy" and being showered with flowers and confetti.

Nothing compared with the entry into Amsterdam, he said, where they "gasped at the thousands which packed the wide boulevard," where "our jeep was like a ship, moving through a sea of humanity."

They took in the view of the damage, where wooden streetcar tracks and houses had been torn apart by the occupying Nazis for firewood.

As they approached an area known as the Dam, they were greeted by "white-faced men and women" who told them there was shooting nearby.

On their way out of town, they reported to the Canadian armoured cars entering the city what was happening.

"Let's get cracking, boys," the officer in charge said.