On 8th May 1945, the Allied Powers formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the Armed Forces of Nazi Germany and the end of the Third Reich. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a radio broadcast at 3.00pm announcing that the Second World War in Europe was at last at an end. This was VE – or Victory in Europe – Day.
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More than one million people poured onto the streets of the United Kingdom in celebration. In London, huge crowds, many dressed in red, white and blue, thronged the city’s monuments and gathered outside Buckingham Palace to cheer as the King and Queen appeared eight times on the balcony over the day and into the evening.
In the suburbs, street parties were thrown, fancy dress parades were held for children, and many people went to church to thank God for victory.
In the evening, many London landmarks, such as the Houses and Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Nelson's Column, were floodlit specially for the occasion. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret - escorted by Guards Officers - left the palace and mingled anonymously with the great crowds outside, joining in the celebrations.
The exuberance of the day was though tempered by the fact that, for many, this would be a time of sadness and reflection. Because of the ongoing war in Japan, many other parts of the world would not be able to join in the celebrations. It would not be until the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on 15th August that the Second World War would finally come to an end.
Westminster Abbey played its full part on VE Day.
After making his broadcast officially announcing Germany's surrender, Winston Churchill went to the House of Commons to make a short address and then moved that the House attend St Margaret's Church, Westminster - the parish church of the House of Commons. The House then rose and followed the Speaker to the Church.
Sir, with your permission to move 'That this House do now attend at the church of St. Margaret, Westminster, to give humble and reverent thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination.'
In the Abbey church itself, short services of ‘thanksgiving for victory’ were held every hour from 9.00am to 10.00pm. An estimated 25,000 people attended during the day, with the Lord Chancellor and the House of Lords attending at 3.00pm.
Let us therefore offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which He has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through the years of danger and suffering; for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen; for the hope that we are about the enter upon a righteous and abiding peace; for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.
Members of the congregation were invited 'to join heartily in the responses'.
A service was also held in the Abbey the following Sunday, 13th May, when the standards of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were laid on the High Altar to symbolise the loyalty of the whole Empire during the war.
Westminster Abbey has continued to mark VE Day regularly. Special services of remembrance were held on the 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries, with thanks given for the reconciliation of former enemies and prayers said for lasting peace.
Most recently, the service in 2015, marking the 70th anniversary, was attended by HM The Queen, accompanied by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and members of the Royal Family, alongside veterans and their families, representatives of Allied nations and Commonwealth countries, and government and military representatives.
Actor Simon Russell Beale read an extract from the VE Day Speech of His Majesty King George VI, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, gave an address recalling the ‘long, hard and perilous' years of war and giving thanks for the reconciliation in Europe that followed.
As the Royal Family and members of the congregation departed at the end of the service, the Abbey’s ten bells were ‘fired’ – or struck simultaneously – 70 times, in an echo of the firing of church bells in celebration across the country on VE Day.
The Abbey had itself endured considerable disruption throughout the years of conflict. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, preparations were made to protect the church, and many of its treasures were evacuated for safety to country houses. These included the 13th century Westminster Retable (England's oldest altarpiece), gilt bronze and oak tomb effigies, tapestries, manuscripts and statues. The Coronation Chair was sent for safety to Gloucester Cathedral and the Abbey's unique collection of funeral effigies was stored in Piccadilly tube station. Some 60,000 sandbags were used to protect royal and medieval tombs which could not be moved.
The Pyx Chamber, in the cloisters, was used as the Abbey ARP [Air Raid Precautions] headquarters; College Hall and the Library were used by teams of fire watchers; and the museum in the Undercroft was made ready as a dressing station and dispensary.
The worst air raid at the Abbey was on the night of 10th-11th May 1941. Clusters of incendiaries fell on the roof of the Abbey and in the precincts. Most were quickly put out by the fire watchers and volunteers but one on the lantern roof, in the centre part of the Abbey, burned through the lead and lodged in a beam and could not easily be reached. By this time water supplies were very low. Flames shot up 40 feet into the sky. Fortunately the burning timbers and molten lead fell into the mostly open area below (where monarchs are enthroned at a coronation) and the fire was more easily extinguished. Lead splattered on the pulpit and choir stalls, but the medieval Cosmati pavement and tombs in this area had been boarded over earlier in the war so were undamaged.
Central to the Abbey’s commemorations of those who died in the service of their country is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought home from the battlefields of northern France and buried in the nave in 1920. His grave stands as a remarkable tribute to the fallen of both World Wars and conflicts since.
At the eastern end of the Lady Chapel is a chapel dedicated to the men of the Royal Air Force who died in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The chapel was unveiled by King George VI on 10 July 1947.
The magnificent stained glass window, by Hugh Easton, contains the badges of the fighter squadrons that took part in the Battle. In the central section are the Royal Arms, the badge of the Fleet Air Arm and the badge and motto of the RAF:
Per Ardua ad Astra
(Through struggle to the Stars)
In two of the bottom panels are words from Shakespeare's Henry V:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
A Roll of Honour, illuminated by Daisy Alcock, contains the names of 1,497 pilots and aircrew killed or mortally wounded during the Battle. The names include those of 47 Canadians, 47 New Zealanders, 35 Poles, 24 Australians, 20 Czechoslovaks, 17 South Africans, 6 Belgians and one American, as well as those from the United Kingdom and Colonies.
The civilians of the Second World War are remembered with permanent memorials in the Abbey, too. On display in the nave are three rolls of honour to those whose lives were lost.
The Civilian War Dean Roll of Honour 1939-45 records the names of those killed by enemy action during the Second World War. The seven original leather-bound volumes contain printed details of 66,375 fatalities. At a service on 23rd May 2017 to mark the centenary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission two supplementary books were processed through the Abbey and presented to the Dean at the High Altar. These contain several hundred new names uncovered by recent research, many of whom died overseas and had been missed from the original listings.
The Women's Voluntary Service roll of honour lists the names of 244 members who died during the war. This illumination by Claire Evans illustrates the various aspects of work carried out by the Service during the conflict.
Finally, the Metropolitan Police Roll of Honour was dedicated by King George VI at a special service on 27th July 1950. It contains the names of 1,076 officers who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars, either whilst serving in the Forces or as a result of enemy action at home. The dedication on the title page reads:
To the Glory of God and in proud Remembrance of Members of the Metropolitan Police, Metropolitan Special Constabulary and Metropolitan Police War Reserve who lost their lives on active service or by enemy action this Book is humbly dedicated.
Tributes to those who sacrificed so much during the war can be found elsewhere at the Abbey, too. In the Chapter House, windows damaged during the war were re-glazed by stained glass artist Joan Howson in 1951. Included in the south west window are small quarries depicting wartime scenes and activities such as falling bombs, aerial combat, firefighters, WVS workers, the Home Guard, air raid wardens, telephone operators and surgeons at work.
It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.