CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the Ottawa's history.
May 7, 1945
For over a week, it was apparent that a German surrender to Allied forces was imminent.
On Friday, April 27, 1945, newspapers reported that the American and Soviet armies had linked up at the Elbe River, cutting Nazi Germany in two. On Tuesday, May 1, the electrifying news that Hitler was dead came over the wire.
Finally, on Monday, May 7, The Evening Citizen’s headline screamed “It’s All Over In Europe!”
The instrument of surrender was signed by Generaloberst Alfred Jodl on behalf of Germany at 2:41 a.m., French time (8:41 p.m., May 6, Ottawa time) at Reims in the little school house used by General Dwight Eisenhower as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, signed on behalf of the Allies. France’s General François Sevez and Russian General Ivan Susloparov witnessed the document.
Owing to an Allied news blackout, it took more than twelve hours for word to reach Ottawa.
Unofficial reports of the surrender from German sources actually reached the capital ahead of the official Allied announcement. On that Monday morning, Mayor Stanley Lewis received telephone calls from neighbouring municipalities asking why Ottawa hadn’t started to celebrate. The mayor replied that he took orders from the Canadian government, not German sources.
An Associated Press report of the surrender broke the Allied news embargo when its Paris reporter telephoned the AP London office with the story.
After verification, the report was relayed across the Atlantic, and posted on the news wires at 9:34 a.m. EDT. The news flash, picked up by The Canadian Press, was immediately posted on the window of the Ottawa Citizen office on Sparks Street. It tersely read: “Allies Officially Announce Germany Has Surrendered Unconditionally.”
A young boy yelled out to passersby “It’s all over!” Seconds later, a fashion store across the street replaced the goods in its front window with pictures of Churchill, Truman, and Stalin, with the words “May we remain strong and united to ensure a lasting peace” posted underneath. A nearby electrical supply shop brought a radio out onto the pavement so that everybody could hear the news broadcasts.
Even anticipated, it took an hour or so for the momentous news to sink in. It was hard to process that after five years, eight months, and six days of hostilities the war in Europe was finally over.
The party started slowly, but as the news spread, the celebrations began in earnest.
First out of the blocks were the schoolkids from Lisgar Collegiate, Glebe Collegiate, and the Ottawa Technical High School. They poured into the streets at around 11 a.m., having been let out early by their principals. Hundreds paraded down Sparks Street on bicycles, hooting and hollering.
By lunchtime, it was pandemonium on Ottawa’s main thoroughfares as tens of thousands of typically reserved civil servants and service people took to the streets. As if by magic, the flags of Allied nations and bunting appeared on every office building and private home in the city as a wave of patriotic fervour and excitement swept the city.
From upstairs office windows along Sparks, Wellington, and Rideau Streets, office workers threw confetti and torn-up government forms that fluttered down to the pavement in a multi-coloured snow storm. Tickertape and rolls of adding machine paper were launched as ready-made streamers. At the Daly building, home of the Department of Veteran Affairs, at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, girl clerks leaned out of windows, and shouted the news to the crowds below while contributing their wastepaper and government forms to the swirling blizzard of paper.
At Parliament Hill, more than 10,000 students, cadets, soldiers, and civilians, all shouting and cheering, converged in front of the Peace Tower. Added to the cacophony was the skirl of bagpipes, firecrackers, and the sound of thousands of tin horns, whistles, and other noisemakers purchased from nearby department stores. Overhead, an RCAF airplane dropped paper over the city. Church bells rang out in celebration of the glad tidings.
The Ottawa Citizen reported that “WRENs, Quacks and WDs,” [Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNs), Women’s Canadian Army Corps (CWACs), and Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force] walked arm-in-arm down Sparks Street kissing uniformed men. Cars were commandeered to form an impromptu parade, with young people perched on their hoods, or clinging to the running boards.
Amidst the crowd, a colourful Victory Loan float slowly made its way along Sparks Street to Confederation Square. When it arrived, the crowd gave a spontaneous rendition of “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here.”
At the Rideau Canal, fireworks went off, sending dozens of Allied flags high in the sky which subsequently fell to earth under little parachutes to be picked up by school kids on Laurier Bridge.
At 324 McLaren St., an effigy of Hitler was burnt on the front lawn to the cheers of the crowd that chanted “We want Tojo,” the Japanese prime minister.
The partying went on well into the night; people didn’t want the celebration to end.
Bars, taverns and liquor stores did a booming business. Men, women, boys, and girls continued to stroll down the middle of Sparks Street, or sat on the curb eating ice cream or drinking pop.
For the first time since the beginning of the war, Parliament Hill was lit up, the official blackout lifted. With Prime Minister Mackenzie King and many of his cabinet ministers in San Francisco for the international meeting that was to launch the United Nations, it was up to Acting Prime Minister James Ilsley to make the official announcement that the next day, Tuesday, May 8, 1945, had been designated Victory-In-Europe Day, and would be a public holiday. He also announced that the following Sunday, May 13, would be a national day of prayer, thanksgiving, and remembrance.
Virtually simultaneously, there was an official announcement from Labour Minister Humphrey Mitchell that compulsory military service had ended, and that recruitment would begin for volunteers for the Pacific War against Japan. Munitions and Supply Minister Clarence Howe appealed to munitions workers to appear for work promptly on Wednesday, as their job “would not be completed until the last gun has been fired in the Pacific.”
The official programme for the V-E ceremonies began the following afternoon.
Following an address by George VI speaking from London to the British Commonwealth and the world, Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke to the nation via radio link from San Francisco. In his fifteen minutes speech carried live over CBC radio, he thanked God for victory over Nazi Germany, and paid tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives, as well as to those wounded or maimed during the war, and those who had suffered in prison camps. He also underscored his hopes for the future, saying that “out of the fires of war, the San Francisco conference has begun to forge and fashion a might instrument for world security.” His speech was repeated in French by Justice Minister Louis St-Laurent.
At 5 p.m., the official ceremonies began on Parliament Hill.
A massive crowd of 40,000 people watched service men and women and cadets march in the Victory parade, and listen to music played by massed military bands. After the singing O Canada, Mayor Lewis, Acting Prime Minister Ilsley, and representatives of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths gave thanks for the victory at a special Thanksgiving service in front of Peace Tower. Ilsley also read out a statement sent by British Prime Minister Churchill expressing “the heartfelt thanks of the people of the United Kingdom to the government and the people of Canada for the Dominion’s magnificent contribution to our common victory.” To the sound of the Parliamentary carillon, the Canadian Red Ensign, the flag under which tens of thousands of Canadian service men had fought, flew for the first time from atop of the Peace Tower.
In the streets of Ottawa, the partying continued.
As reported by the Citizen, “residents of the Capital tore aside what remained of the cloak of staidness and gave full vent to their feelings.” Impromptu dances were held throughout Ottawa and Hull. People jitterbugged and square danced at the intersection of Rochester and Arlington Streets to music provided by two violins and a guitar. The Ottawa Fire Department responded to a number of street bonfires where the “Beast of Berchtesgaden” was burnt in effigy.
On Sparks Street, firemen extinguished a fire in front of the Laura Secord candy store, and another at the intersection of Sparks and Bank Streets. The latter was sufficiently serious to ignite the road’s asphalt. A third fire was put out on the Elgin street side of the Toronto General Trust building, located on the corner of Sparks Street.
With a public holiday declared, most of the city’s restaurants closed for the day so that staff could join in the festivities. There was one problem, however. Thousands of service people and civilians who lived in rooming houses depended on them for their meals. Where to eat was a big problem on V-E Day.
Amidst the jubilant music, there were discordant notes. The war in the Pacific was yet to be won. Those who had lost loved ones contemplated the high cost of victory.
As well, the end of the fighting did not mean a return to normal living. Shortages of staples continued. The same day victory in Europe was announced, the individual sugar ration for the coming six-month period was reduced by more than a third to nine pounds. Gasoline rationing would also continue “for some time.”
As a postscript to history, watching the victory festivities from his suite at the Château Laurier Hotel was General Fulgencio Batista, the president of Cuba from 1940-44. The general and his brother, Mario Batista, were touring Canada. Seven years later, General Batista was to lead a military coup in Cuba and seize back power. His larcenous, corrupt, and repressive regime was toppled in 1961 by Fidel Castro.