Day-by-day, the lead-up to VE Day in Europe and Hartlepool




DAY 5 - Tuesday 8 May 1945 - Victory in Europe Day

The morning of VE Day 1945 in the Hartlepools started with the raising of the flags of the united nations on the Municipal Buildings in West Hartlepool and the flying of the Union Jack on public buildings, including on the Central Post Office on Whitby Street. In Hartlepool the Borough Hall was decorated with old bunting originally bought for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937, enhanced by two new flags and a few streamers bought locally.

There was, however, a scarcity of bunting across the borough with which to decorate homes and shops. This of course did not stop people from 'making do' as they had throughout the war. For example, one elderly retired sailor living in Foggy Furze raided his old sea chest and strung up Victorian-era signal flags and an ancient Red Ensign instead. Other people across the borough did the same by reusing old Christmas decorations or faded bunting, with the occasional USA and Soviet flag thrown in wherever one could be found. A few ships in the Hartlepool docks were also quickly decorated, while local motor buses and the rare taxi flew small Union Jacks.

While the borough did its best with decorations that morning, down in London crowds started gathering at Buckingham Palace and other important buildings from almost first light. Despite a series of thunderstorms before the sun came out at noon, these crowds grew into the tens of thousands.

People also started gathering early in Church Square and outside the Borough Hall in Middlegate, despite the dull and overcast weather. At 10am a programme of recorded music began to be played from a gramophone over loud speakers from the Municipal Buildings in West Hartlepool. The first song played was The Lambeth Walk sung by Gracie Fields which, according to the Northern Daily Mail, “Did not produce the response it might have done elsewhere.” The rest of the programme, which comprised of music and songs by military bands, popular dance numbers, and the national anthems of the Allies, was reported to have been better suited to the mood of the crowd and passers-by.  

Shops were busy in both Hartlepool and West Hartlepool during the morning, as housewives queued to buy food for street parties. The biggest queues were outside bakers, as people waited patiently to obtain a celebration cake.

Big Ben

Big Ben at 3pm on VE Day 1945

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

At 3pm that afternoon, Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the nation on BBC radio to officially announce the end of the war in the west. As he began his speech, broadcast live from the radio over the speakers in Church Square, the Union Jack was raised on the tower of Christ Church. Churchill noted that “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead,” a reminder that the war against Japan was still going on despite the victory celebrations.

When he had finished, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, came out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet the crowds, accompanied by their family. After a while Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret slipped out of the palace and joined the crowd incognito.

Buckingham Palace

The Royal Family and Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill greet the crowds from Buckingham Palace

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

After listening to Churchill and a speech by Mayor Williams of West Hartlepool, the crowd in front of the Municipal Buildings started dancing. Mary Forcer later remembered that "On VE Day everybody just went mad. All the church bells were ringing and everybody was out on the street singing and if you saw somebody in uniform people were throwing their arms round them and just generally dancing and singing in the street.” 

Dancing and singing continued into the late evening in Church Square by the glow of the floodlights lighting up Christ Church for the first time in over five years.

More formal victory dances were also held that evening in the Town Hall, where people were entertained by Charles and his Dance Band, and at the Queen’s Rink, where local musicians Benny Nelson and his Full Orchestra performed until midnight, accompanied by local swing singer Lil Gardner on vocals. Dancing continued the next day, with the Borough Hall sold out for appearances by the famous Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson and his dance orchestra and by Albert Flush and the Firecrackers Dance Orchestra.

Between 3.20 pm and 4pm that VE Day, a third of the British adult population was tuned in to the radio to listen to the victory programme 'Bells and Victory Celebrations', which was enjoyed by audience across the county who "…found that this broadcast exactly fitted their mood and taste – it was vivid, noisy and inspiring; it brought invalids, and those who lived in remote corners of the country, in touch with the spirit of festivity in the capital and other cities visited."

VE Day Sheriff Street

VE Day celebrations in Sheriff Street

While there was a blanket ban on bonfires across the borough, a number were still constructed by groups of youths that afternoon and lit once it was dark. At West Hartlepool a procession of children were seen carrying an effigy of Hitler dressed in set of painter’s overalls. Burning an effigy of Hitler was common in towns and cities around the country on VE Day, with similar effigies being reported by the Northern Echo to have been burnt in Fishburn village and in Barnard Castle.

That evening the King gave a speech on the radio: "... Let us remember those who will not come back … let us remember the men in all the services, and the women in all the services, who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulation and they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.

For many, though, the highlight of their VE Day was the opportunity to let their hair down and enjoy a street party with their friends and neighbours. There were victory parties right across the Borough during the later afternoon and early evening, mostly attended by women and children, as most working-age men were still far away from home serving with the military.  

Mozart Street

The residents of Mozart Street, West Hartlepool, enjoy their VE Day street party

Local man Ray Cummings later recalled “I can remember on VE Day we listened to the radio and I remember Winston Churchill making his great speeches. And this man with a big drum and all the people with young kids behind him singing and shouting and going round the town, on the Headland, banging this great big drum because the war was over. They had street parties and all the kids were invited. And again the mothers found food, they made cakes and puddings and things like that. Jelly and custard and stuff. We were stuffing ourselves with food which we had never seen.

VE Day 1945 was a day of mixed emotions; relief at the end of the war in the west, eagerness to finish the war in the east, a pause to remember all those who had made the ultimate sacrifice, but above all, a time to look forward to peace and better days.


DAY 4 - Monday 7 May 1945

At 2.41am on the morning of 7 May 1945, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at his headquarters in an old schoolhouse in the town of Reims, France. This unconditional surrender to the western allies was signed by Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, head of the German armed forces, and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg of the Navy. The agreement was to come effect the next day.

Initially information about this unconditional surrender was embargoed, in order that it could be also signed by the Russians in Berlin the next day, as their leader Stalin desired. However, an unidentified journalist found out and leaked the news before this could occur. This resulted in a third surrender well after victory celebrations had already started in the west, this time jointly to the western allies and the USSR. This was written in English, Russian and German and was signed at Berlin by Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel on 8 May.

German U-Boat

A German U-boat surrenders to the Royal Navy

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

By a twist of fate this third surrender required the end of hostilities to start at 11:01pm Central European Time. However, as Russian time was an hour forwards from this, by their reckoning the surrender occurred at one minute past midnight on 9 May. This time difference explains why today Russia commemorates the end of the War in Europe on 9 May, rather than on 8 May as in most other countries.

At 7.40pm on the evening of 7 May, BBC radio interrupted its scheduled programming with a news-flash that the war in Europe was over, and that tomorrow would be the long awaited VE Day national holiday.


(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

Newspapers across the country quickly started working throughout the night to get the news out in their next editions. The National Board of Trade also immediately issued reassurances via BBC radio that despite rationing there was enough food and beer available to celebrate, and authorised that red, white and blue bunting could be bought without the use of a ration coupon.

The general public also instantly reacted, with some people starting to celebrate a day early. Bonfires were lit in some towns, bunting began to be put up, while in some place pubs opened without permission to serve the revellers. Locally, on hearing the news some ships in the Hartlepool docks sounded their hooters, while a few armed merchantmen shot off bursts of tracer bullets into the sky from their anti-aircraft guns. This unauthorised gunfire alarmed people who had not yet found out about the victory, but due to the situation no-one was ever prosecuted by the military authorities.

Trafalgar Square crowds

As 8 May dawned, crowds were already starting to gather in Trafalgar Square

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

On the whole though, life across the borough seems to have continued normally that evening. Maybe the lateness of the news, the continuing blackout conditions and essential war work kept many revellers off the streets?

For example, at 8pm that evening the Mayors of West Hartlepool and Hartlepool - Mayors Williams and Pailor - continued with their ordinary duties and presided over a business meeting at the Grand Hotel, West Hartlepool, to arrange a programme of boxing matches in aid of the forthcoming Navy Week. 


DAY 3 - Sunday 6 May 1945

The 6 May 1945 was the final major day of combat in Western Europe during the Second World War. That Sunday the 16th Armoured Division of General George S. Patton's American Third Army captured the Czech city of Plzeƈ, close to Prague, having got the furthest east of any of the Western Allies. Much to Patton's disgust, his soldiers were prevented from advancing any further eastwards due to the occupation agreement between the Americans and the Russians.

Many local soldiers from the Borough of Hartlepool, serving with the British 2nd Army which had captured Hamburg, or the British 8th Army on the northern border between Italy and Austria, also stopped advancing that day. From later oral histories we know that many soldiers were looking forward to the imminent victory against the Germans, but were also worrying about being subsequently transferred to the Far East to reinforce the ongoing fighting against the Japanese.

Back at home, this day was just like any other Sunday during the war. Many people attended church. There had been few Sunday newspapers for years, as shortages of paper meant that most newspapers could only be printed every other day. There were no National League football matches. Instead football was arranged on a regional and local basis, with limited crowd sizes, and professional matches played mainly to keep up public morale rather than for commercial gain. Football was, however, encouraged as a way for soldiers, sailors and public employees to keep fit.

Sunday wasn’t, however, a day of rest for Hartlepool’s war workers.

Throughout the war the Hartlepool shipyards and engineering works continued operating at full capacity for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For example, Hartlepool shipbuilders Gray and Company were a major builder of the “Empire” class of armed merchantman, adapted merchant ships for the cold weather they would encounter on the Arctic Convoys, and acted as major repair facility for Royal Navy warships. Many young women joined the shipbuilding workforce during the war, being employed as riveters, electricians, crane operators, and as lorry and train drivers. Other women worked in the steelworks at Seaton Carew, including operating the furnaces and pouring the molten metal.

Munitions workers at Aycliffe

Munitions workers at Aycliffe

Women also worked in making munitions. Unlike during the First World War, there were no munitions factories located in the Hartlepools. Instead, every day of the week a fleet of buses collected women from across the borough to take them to work at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Aycliffe, near Darlington. Even in 1945 the exact location of this factory was kept top secret to avoid it being attacked by the Luftwaffe. Here, alongside some 17,000 other women from across Teesside and County Durham, the “Aycliffe Angels” worked constantly for the war effort. Records show that between 1941 and 1945 they manufactured an amazing 700 million bullets at the factory, as well as millions of other munitions.

One thing local people were less concerned about in 1945 was the danger of air raids, as the Germans had ceased attacking the borough from the air from the summer of 1943.

Bomb damage

The Edgar Phillips shop in Church Street was one of many buildings in the Hartlepools damaged by bombing during the war

Between June 1940 and March 1943, however, there had been 43 air raids over the Hartlepools, resulting in a total of 70 people being killed and over 6,000 buildings damaged. The worst raid was on the night of 19 August 1941, when a single 1000 kg German “Luftmine Bparachute mine missed the docks and landed instead near the junction of Elwick Road and Houghton Street. Twenty-three people were killed by the explosion.


DAY 2 - Saturday 5 May 1945

Following the partial surrender, a multinational Allied army comprising of Canadian, British, American, Polish, Czechoslovak, and Free Dutch soldiers liberated the Netherlands on the morning of the 5 May. Today the Dutch remember and honour their war dead on 4 May, and celebrate their “Liberation Day” national holiday every 5 May. 

Denmark received the news of the German’s partial surrender late on the evening of the 4 May, but had to wait until 8am on Saturday 5 May for the surrender to become active. Later that same afternoon the first Allied forces entered Denmark, and were greeted by throngs of people celebrating in the streets. When Field Marshal Montgomery came to the capital a week later, the Danes honoured him with a victory parade through Copenhagen. The Danes still light candles in their windows every 4 May as a reminder of the five years under German occupation, when Danish towns and cities spent their nights in total darkness.

HMS Birmingham in Copenhagen

The crew of HMS Birmingham throw cigarettes to the citizens of liberated Copenhagen

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

With a partial surrender achieved, Grand Admiral Dönitz now sent a message by radio to all German submarines to cease combat operations, and return to their home bases. Most complied, although a handful either didn’t get his order or refused to obey it and kept fighting. Representatives from his new government, based in the northern German town of Flensburg, were also sent to start surrender negotiations with the Americans.

This day saw the liberation by American forces, from the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron, of the last remaining Nazi Concentration Camp at Mauthausen in Austria. A total of just under 6 million Jewish people died in the Holocaust. In addition some 11 million other victims, including prisoners of war, the disabled, political prisoners, and LGBTQ+, Roma, and Black people, were also murdered during the Nazi genocides. Contemporary newsreel footage of the liberation of the Concentration Camps was widely shown in cinemas and theatres across Britain, including in the Hartlepools. Letters from local eyewitnesses were also published in the papers. Both caused considerable public revulsion and anger.

Back at home, Maurice Mell, the Town Clerk of Hartlepool, issued a press release that Saturday morning informing the public that there would be a victory parade and thanksgiving service on the first Sunday after the forthcoming VE Day. This parade was expected to form up in the High Street at 10.20am on the Sunday, then proceed past the Borough Buildings to St Hilda’s Church. The Mayor of Hartlepool, P. M. Williams, invited all local organisations, including youth groups and war veterans, to attend by sending an RSVP to the Chief Constable, who was in the process of arranging the events.

Olive Tennick

Victory was the result of a great team effort on the home front too - here's Land Army girl Olive Tennick hard at work in Elwick

The Northern Daily Mail’s edition of Saturday 5 May also looked forward, carrying numerous notices and adverts from various churches announcing that they would be open for services and prayers on the forthcoming VE day. These included St Hilda’s Church, both Grange Road and Park Road Methodist Churches. St George’s Congregational, the Wesley Methodist Church, Burbank Central Hall and the York Road Methodists.

As things turned out, the Hartlepool Civic Parade and civic church service at St Hilda’s took place exactly as planned on 13 May 1945.  Despite the torrential rain that Sunday, large crowds turned out, for both this, and the Civic Parade held the same day in West Hartlepool. The latter moved off from Ward Jackson Park at 3pm to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”, played by the West Hartlepool Mission Silver Prize Band. The crowds in Victoria Road, waiting for the parade to arrive for the Thanksgiving Service in Victory Square, were so large that they closed the road to bus traffic. 


DAY 1 - Friday 4 May 1945

With the news that Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April and the city of Berlin had fallen to the Russians on 2 May, people across Britain were confident that the war in the west was finally coming to an end.

No-one, however, knew when victory would be declared.

In the power struggle after Hitler’s death, his appointed successor Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz of the German Navy became the President of Germany. He immediately sought to negotiate a surrender with the western allies, hoping that as many German servicemen and women and civilians as possible could avoid having to surrender to the Russians.

In the early morning of Friday 4 May, a German delegation arrived at Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters at Luneburg Heath, near Hamburg, seeking to meet with the famous British commander. Monty, as he was nicknamed, listened patiently to Dönitz’s messengers before accepting the unconditional surrender of German forces in the Netherlands, North-west Germany and Denmark. This partial surrender was signed at 2.42 am.


The German delegation arrives to surrender to Field Marshal Montgomery (second left)

(Image reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum. Copyright IWM)

The greatest concern of Hartlepool people on this day, however, wasn’t for the official negotiations taking place in Europe. Instead, they were concerned with the availability of food for any forthcoming victory celebration.

Since 8 January 1940 bacon, butter and sugar had been rationed, with meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, and both canned and dried fruit subsequently being added to the list. By 1945 the public had become reluctantly used to the rationing of some basic foods and a monotonous diet, but the promise of the end of the war raised hopes that this might soon be a thing of the past.

In early May the Ministry of Food reacted to these concerns by issuing a series of press releases reassuring the British public that adequate supplies of food would be available for any forthcoming victory celebrations. They advised that shop owners should remain open for a few hours during “The V Holiday,” whenever that day finally arrived. Bakers, however, were only allowed to sell bread, while retailers of perishable goods had to stay open until they had sold all their stock.

Printed in every newspaper, including the West Hartlepool-based Northern Daily Mail, the Ministry of Food’s constant statements had the opposite effect to reassuring the public, as they were taken by many to confirm the rumours then going around about future storages of food, especially milk, eggs and cakes.


There had been a massive push to victory by everyone on the home front too - here are women riveters at Hartlepool's Gray's shipyard

Despite these worries, many organisations started planning their activities for the forthcoming celebrations over “the Victory Holiday”. Town and parish councils across the borough started preparing for civic parades and church services of thanksgiving, while many local churches planned to be open whenever the news of victory came through.

In West Hartlepool, the town clerk, Eric Waggott, started organising a “Victory Tea Party” for returning ex-prisoners of war and their families.

Music performances and dance halls also began to be booked in readiness. For example, Hartlepool’s “Bands and Recreation Committee” approved a request from music promoter Mr Fred Mcloughlin to reserve the Borough Hall for dancing and entertainment on VE Day and the following three nights, whenever those days might come.