VE Day 75th Anniversary – Churchill’s bittersweet victory

We explore Winston Churchill’s last moments in the war room and his concerns for the future amid celebration

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Victory in Europe meant that the British public could finally breath easy again and while Prime Minister Winston Churchill was hailed as a hero, his time in office would not be lasting much longer. Professor Richard Toye takes us behind the scenes in the aftermath of VE Day.

Expert Bio
Professor Richard Toye is Head of History at the University of Exeter. He’s written three books on Winston Churchill, and other works on British politics, economics and empire. His new book, Winston Churchill: A Life In The News, is available from 14 May from Oxford University Press.
Image source: University of Exeter

When Churchill awoke on 7 May, Captain Richard Pim, the naval officer in charge of his map room, told him that the Germans had surrendered. “For five years you’ve brought me bad news, sometimes worse than others,” Churchill remarked. “Now you have redeemed yourself.” 

Churchill broadcast at 3pm the following day, designated VE Day. Crowds in Whitehall, listening to the speech on specially erected loudspeakers, hung on his every word. There were whoops of joy and the waving of flags and hats at the moment in his speech when he declared that the German war was at an end.

According to the BBC’s Listener Research Department, Churchill’s speech was heard by 71.5 per cent of the potential audience. Having promised “a brief period of rejoicing” Churchill noted that the war with Japan was not yet over.

Mary E Lelean, a clerk in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, observed the scene: “Personally, I have no great admiration for the man Churchill, but as a war leader he has been unsurpassed, and his command of the language is wonderful. He recited the verse of Rule Britannia, then lifted his hand, and with a tuneless voice roared out the first notes of the chorus: ‘R… Rule…’ And the crowd took up the refrain. It was impossible not to be moved.”

These, of course, had been the hours of Churchill’s greatest ascendancy. But it had not been without its cares. Churchill knew that he could never expect to experience such a high-point again. Equally importantly, the war was not yet finished, as he had striven to remind the British people amidst their rejoicing. And in the aftermath of the European victory, Labour and the Liberals withdrew from Churchill’s coalition; he then formed a new caretaker government to run the country until the general election. When the votes were counted, it was revealed that the Conservatives had suffered a spectacular defeat. His day of triumph, then, contained the seeds of his forthcoming tragedy.

Banner image source: wiki/Imperial War Museums

Read Richard Toye’s full report of VE Day through Churchill’s eyes in All About History 89, available now from our online store

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