By midday on Victory in Europe (VE) Day, 8 May, large crowds were gathering in London’s West End to cheer Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Royal Family. Churchill was driven to Buckingham Palace to have lunch with the King and then broadcast his victory speech at 3pm.

That evening, he appeared on the balcony along with the King and Queen accompanied by Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Churchill returned to Whitehall to appear on the balcony of the Ministry of Health. Great crowds followed his travels around London. 

Victory in Europe

The Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day smiling and waving at the gathered crowds.
Royal Family come out on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. © IWM HU 65535

King George VI addressed the nation at 9pm and  the Royal Family returned to the balcony at Buckingham Palace, having made eight appearances that day.  

Parades continued throughout London and across Britain in the days and weeks that followed VE Day, such as the farewell parade held by former Civil Defence workers on 10 June, in Hyde Park, which was addressed by the King. 

VE Day marked the start of the political, economic and physical reconstruction of Europe.  The Atlantic Charter of 14 August 1941 between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill included ‘their hopes for a better future for the world.’ The third principle stated: ‘the right to respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them’. 

UN Charter and Post-War Reconstruction 

The United Nations Day parade in London in June 1943.
United Nations Day Parade in London, 14 June 1943. © IWM TR 1109

These aspirations inspired many across the globe, resulting in the establishment of the United Nations in January 1942. Organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation (UNRRA) followed, to give humanitarian aid to countries devastated by war.  

The conferences at Bretton Woods, Dumbarton Oaks followed by the San Francisco Conference beginning on 27 April 1945 resulted in 50 countries signing the United Nations Charter on 26 June. They pledged to maintain international peace and security with the US, the USSR, Britain, France and China as the big five powers.   

The future of post-war Britain was under consideration years before the end of the war was in sight.  The Beveridge Report, published in 1942, proposed the establishment of a national health service and laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. It became a bestseller with the Home Intelligence morale reports reporting it was ‘the most discussed topic in recent times’. 

Labour Victory in The 1945 General Election

Nurses in uniform queuing in front of a table at a polling station waiting for their ballot papers. © IWM D 25103
A group of nurses from the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital arrive at the polling station to cast their vote in the General Election. © IWM D 25103

Pledging to act on the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, Labour gained a clear lead in opinion polls and  won a number of by-elections in the intervening years. The 1945 general election was called on 5 July, the first for nearly ten years. No-one under the age of 31 had voted before in a general election.  Those serving in the Armed Forces were entitled to a postal or proxy vote; less than half cast their votes. However 73% of the electorate did vote on 5 July but the results had to wait for the collection of the service votes from overseas. The Labour Party overwhelmingly won the election on 26 July. Clement Attlee became Prime Minister with a mandate to ‘win the Peace for the People’. 

Between 17 July and 2 August, the leaders of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union met at Potsdam to confirm the division of Germany and the nature of its occupation. The same day as the British General Election result on 26 July, the Potsdam Declaration stated to: ‘the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces…. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction’. Two days later the new British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, flew back to resume negotiations. The conference was instrumental in shaping Europe for the remainder of the twentieth century. 

The Potsdam Conference Shapes the Post-War World

Clement Attlee, President Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in Berlin, 1 August 1945.
© IWM BU 9496
Clement Attlee with President Truman of the United States and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference in Berlin, shortly after winning the British General election in 1945, 1 August 1945.

The optimistic spirit of Potsdam and the UN Charter led to the creation of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Big Five Powers with the aim to agree the peace treaties to end the Second World War. However the first meeting on 1 September ended in disaster as Bevin and James Byrnes, the US Secretary of State, refused to recognise the Soviet-backed Communist regimes in Romania and Bulgaria. 

Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, confirmed by the Berlin Declaration on 5 June 1945. The four powers of Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Russia worked together under the auspices of the Allied Control Council.  

The Occupation of Germany

Victory parade in Berlin, July 1945. Mr Churchill about to set off in brake to inspect troops before Victory parade in Charlottenburgerchausee.
© IWM A 30121

The 21st Army Group was dissolved and became the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) with the 2nd Tactical Air Force becoming the British Air Force of Occupation (BAFO). Two operations were put into practice: Operation Barleycorn involved thousands of former German prisoners of war working on the land to bring in the harvest and Operation Coalscuttle saw a further 30,000 prisoners released to work in the Ruhr coal mines. Both were very necessary to kick start the economy but it remained very hard for the German population – during the summer the maximum ration for an adult was 1550 calories a day which was reduced the following year in the British occupied zone. Otherwise the main mission in the British zone were the 3 D’s – Demilitarisation, Denazification and Democratisation. 

British and Commonwealth troops were still fighting the Japanese in South East Asia. On 14 August Japan surrendered following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced the news of Japan’s surrender at midnight GMT and a two-day national holiday, beginning with VJ (Victory over Japan) Day on 15 August.   

Japanese Surrender

Prime Minister Clement Attlee (right) and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin at 10 Downing Street at midnight on 14 August 1945. They had just announced, in a speech broadcast to Britain and the Empire, the news of the Japanese surrender. © IWM H42138
Prime Minister Clement Attlee (right) and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin at 10 Downing Street at midnight on 14 August 1945. They had just announced, in a speech broadcast to Britain and the Empire, the news of the Japanese surrender. © IWM H42138

A number of surrender ceremonies took place across South East Asia culminating on 2 September when the formal instrument of surrender was signed by Allied and Japanese representatives on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. 

On VE Day more than 13,000 prisoners of war (POW) who had been held in camps in Italy and Germany were brought home in 200 Lancaster bombers. By the end of the month, around 156,000 POWs had been repatriated.  

In September it was the turn of those 200, 000 prisoners and internees in South East and East Asia to be returned home. This operation was undertaken by the Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees organisation.  

Prisoners of War

Emaciated former prisoners sitting on the steps of an ambulance in Singapore following their release from captivity in Sumatra.
Emaciated former prisoners sitting on the steps of an ambulance in Singapore following their release from captivity in Sumatra. © IWM HU 69972

For many of the former prisoners of the Japanese, the process was made even more difficult by what they had endured during captivity, both in terms of ill-treatment by their guards and as a result of tropical disease. Many died shortly after their return home, or suffered serious ill health for the rest of their lives. Almost 30% of Japan’s Allied POWs had died in captivity, compared to around 4% of those in German camps. 

Military and civilian deaths caused directly by the war totalled some 50 million. Disease, famine and starvation made the situation worse. The war caused the exile and uprooting of populations across Europe and Asia. Millions of refugees and displaced persons, whose lives had been violently uprooted by the war, began the long and difficult process of recovery and repatriation. As late as 1948, 850,000 people still lived in refugee camps across Europe.  


The Cost of War

A Displaced Persons camp in the grounds of Hamburg zoo. People queue to register at a table.
A Displaced Persons camp in the grounds of Hamburg zoo. © IWM BU 6634

In Britain, 264,443 British servicemen and 63,635 civilians had been killed during the war. The transition of those who survived back into peacetime life could be hard with severe shortages of many essential goods and housing. Rationing of bread only began after the war. Many of those returning home were physically and mentally traumatised by their war experiences and sometimes found it difficult to pick up their former lives again. 

On 20 August President Truman ended the lend lease programme which had supplied Britain with much needed food, oil and equipment since 1941. By the end of the year the British government had accepted a $3.75 billion loan from the United States repayable at 2% interest over 50 years from 1951 onwards. It was described at the time as ‘an economic Dunkirk’. 

The crowds of smiling faces in the photographs and footage of VE Day belie the economic and emotional struggles that lay ahead. 

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