Column: Gratitude still strong 70 years after peace comes to Europe

While the lights lit homes and streets they bathed the world in an illumination of peace and renewed hope.

September 3, 1939.

“I remember that day,” said my mom, Irene Harris. “It was Tuesday. I was babysitting our two-year-old nephew and we had to go up to Kentish Town in London to pick up his tricycle. But my brother John warned me to get out of London straight away. War with Germany had been declared.”

Almost six years and over 60 million lost lives later, mom, who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force, remembered another day.

May 7, 1945. Victory in Europe.

“The Germans had surrendered. The war was over. Everyone was in the streets dancing, singing, partying. The church bells tolled. There was so much excitement, camaraderie, jubilation!”

A few days earlier on April 30, Hitler had committed suicide during the final days of defeat by the Soviets in the Battle of Berlin. On May 5, German forces in northwest Europe surrendered. But while the war was over in Europe it would rage on for a few more months in the Pacific.

In the U.K., over a million people poured into the streets and Canadians and Americans joined the Brits and the French in London and Paris, dancing in the streets. Untold thousands filled the streets in every city in Canada, work forgotten as hugs, high five’s and tears of happiness united strangers. Lancaster planes droned overhead, releasing bags of scrap paper that merged with reams of ticker tape that had been thrown from office windows. The Toronto Stock Exchange called it quits after 35 minutes of trading.

The balancing act of negotiating the surrender that lit up the world lasted just hours. Hitler’s successor, President Karl Doenitz, instructed German General Alfred Jodl to agree to surrender his western front forces to the Allies but refused to surrender to the Soviets in the east. The Allies put pressure on Jodl by threatening not to accept their surrender and to leave the Germans to the mercy of the Soviets. Jodl, out of military wiggle room, surrendered unconditionally.

It all came down to just 20 minutes around a long wooden table in a red brick school house in Reims, France. The building had become the map-lined war room and headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. At 02:41 Jodl signed the documents that laid out the terms of the surrender of Germany’s land, sea and air forces. Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff General Walter Bedell Smith signed on behalf of the Western Allies, General Ivan Susloparov signed on behalf of the Soviets, and French Major-General Francois Sevez signed as the official witness.

But when it was noted that the signed document contained text that was different to an earlier agreed-upon draft, the Soviets insisted on a second signing, this time in the heart of German aggression, Berlin. The second Military Act of Surrender was signed shortly before midnight on May 8.

By now, worldwide celebration was well underway. Over 1.1 million Canadians had served, over 45,000 died and there were more than 54,000 who were wounded. Canada had been the first Commonwealth country to send troops to Britain in 1939. Throughout the war, more than 40 per cent of Canada’s male population between ages 18 and 45 enlisted and Canada’s industrial production of war materials was valued at $10 billion (over $100 billion in today’s values).

“The blackout curtains came down and, for the first time in years, the lights went on,” recalled my mom. “I remember the lights. Hampstead Heath (near London) was ablaze in red and white lights. It was so amazing…”

While the lights lit homes and streets they bathed the world in an illumination of peace and renewed hope.

Seventy years on and our gratitude to our veterans remains endless.

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