Updated: Oct 16, 2020
On Monday 7th May 1945 news emerged, via a radio broadcast, of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies in the Second World War. The radio broadcast advised listeners to stand-by for further information, which never came, however the good news spread as the day progressed and the people of Belfast took to the streets in celebration.
It had been a long 6-or-so years for Belfast folk during the war. They had endured social restrictions such as food rationing and black-out, not to mention the devastating German air raids on the city, while many also had family members in the armed forces, some never to come home. Consequently, there was a palpable sense of relief and an outpouring of joy and emotion when it was clear that victory in Europe had been secured.
Spontaneous celebrations broke out across Belfast on Monday 7th May, the day before VE Day proper. The lack of follow-up from the radio broadcast meant that there was some confusion about what would come next, and when it would happen, with regards to a VE celebration. Others hadn’t heard the news and were carrying on with their business unaware of the unfolding situation, those that did, however, were taking no chances and ensured that the party began with immediate effect. Crowds of civilians and soldiers gathered to sing and cheer and dance on the streets, bands formed up to play, bonfires were stacked and lit, and street decorations appeared out of nowhere. There were renditions of “Tipperary”, “Blighty” and a new favourite, “Hitler thought he had us with a yah yah yah” Indeed, there had been nothing quite like this in Belfast since the Peace Night celebrations in 1918 which, of course, marked the end of the First World War.
At Rathmore Street off the Ravenhill Road, crowds danced and sang to music provided by 3 youths with guitars, while at My Lady’s Road a shopkeeper erected a loud speaker outside his premises and played dance music (some things never change eh…) On the Beersbridge Road, slogans appeared on gable walls which read ‘Long live Churchill, Stalin and Truman’, while on the air raid shelters someone had painted ‘Welcome Home Boys’.
Up the Shankill there was an all-nighter (again, some things never change…) described as an ‘unofficial Twelfth on an official scale’. Every street was a mass of flags and streamers, kerbs and window-sills were chalked red white and blue, while large street arches were erected to welcome home the Shankill’s own servicemen. “We’ll not go home till morning” chanted the crowds on the Shankill, and they didn’t.
VE Day itself, Tuesday 8th May, began without the familiar scene of men streaming to the shipyards and aircraft factory, though the confusion from the previous day meant that many did mistakenly head out for work, though they were soon on their way home again once they learned they had been given two days off. Likewise, thousands of girls and women had turned up for work at the factories and mills only to discover that they were closed. Instead, they decided to link arms and march to the city centre, singing all the way. School children were also given the 8th and 9th off school and for some this freed them up to collect for bonfires and on door-to-door collections for street decorations and treats. One Belfast Telegraph reporter walked around some of the districts early on VE Day to get a feel for the public mood: ‘There was a profusion of flags bunting and streamers’ said the reporter, ‘children danced round the smouldering embers of last night’s bonfires besides which large stocks of fuel were being built in preparation for tonight’s merry-making. Air raid shelters in which so many of the dwellers had taken refuge during raids on the city, were gaily painted and patriotic slogans printed in huge letters on walls and gables. Brightly garlanded photographs of the King and Queen, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were to be found everywhere. Effigies of Hitler, Mussolini, Himmler and others, swayed grotesquely on improvised gallows ready for tonight’s cremation ceremonies.’ It was said that preparations for this had begun months previously but that efforts were intensified when the announcement was made to lift the black-out.
The festivities commenced properly on 8th May with the ringing of church bells and the sounding of ship’s sirens for 15mins before Winston Churchill’s much-anticipated broadcast. Crowds had been gathering for hours at Belfast City Hall where Churchill’s statement would be played on loud speakers. At 3pm the Prime minister formally announced the end of the war in Europe with a speech broadcast from Downing Street.
View Winston Churchill's VE Day broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efvwJjzqKUk
Services of thanksgiving were held in many churches across Belfast, the main one being at St. Anne’s Cathedral, but also at Belfast City Hall, Parliament Buildings Stormont and at the Belfast Synagogue where a service was conducted by Rabbi Shachter. These were often timed to fit around the speeches of Wintson Churchill and of the King who also gave a broadcast later in the day from a bomb scarred Buckingham Palace. Not only had the crowds waited around at Belfast City Hall for this, they had actually swelled in number, as the Belfast Telegraph described it as one of the largest crowds to have gathered in the city.
Later in the evening, for the first time in 6 years, the City Hall was illuminated again by floodlights at 10.40pm, much to the joy of those who had remained, and it seems to have prompted the beginning of the VE Night party. More effigies of Adolf Hitler were burned, just as they had been the day before. On the Shore Road people were attracted to the sound of a bugle band leading a procession of youngsters in the midst of whom was an effigy of Hitler wearing a swastika and hanging from the gallows.
Meanwhile back at the City Hall, further amusement was caused when a British sailor climbed on to the statue of Queen Victoria and placed a cigarette between Her Majesty’s lips. At midnight the National Anthem could be heard over the loud speaker with the crowds joining in. There were calls for three cheers for Winston Churchill “the man of the moment”, prompting deafening roars which only subsided when the voice of Tommy Henderson was heard on the speakers. Tommy was an independent unionist from the Shankill Road, but he appears to have been a bit of mood killer on VE night, reminding the cheering crowd that they still had to win the war in the Pacific and how it was important for them to return to work on Thursday. He then called for a one minute’s silence in memory of those who had lost their lives during the war, which eventually ended with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Thus, VE Day in Belfast had started to wind down to a conclusion.
Not everyone had been able to take part in the celebrations though. Key municipal workers were still required to provide services, for example the gas, electricity and transport departments. The city’s street sweepers, who had turned out to a man in the early hours of the morning, had the streets clean and tidy again by 9am.
On Thursday 10th May, the people of Belfast returned to work, albeit tired and presumably with a few hangovers. The Belfast Telegraph reported that there were a few VE Day ‘casualties’ who had celebrated a bit too well and had to spend the Thursday in bed recovering.