Remembering Victory in Europe Day 75 Years on
Friday 8 May marks the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), which was established to remember the five years of conflict in Europe during the Second World War.
Even with the tantalising prospect of some COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to have the yolk of war lifted after nearly six years, a war which had started (for many) on 1 September 1939.
Following successful D-Day landings in France on 6 June 1944, the Allied armies from Britain, Canada, France, the United States and many other nations, advanced on Berlin from the West while Soviet forces attacked from the East. With Berlin surrounded, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 and in the following few days his successor – Grand Admiral Donitz – looked to negotiate an end to the war. These negotiations concluded on 7th May and the unconditional surrender of German forces took effect the following day (8th May).
The news that the war in Europe was finally over spread quickly around the world – and celebrations started immediately. The 8th May 1945 was made a public holiday and millions of people took to the streets across Allied nations to celebrate and listen to addresses from their leaders. Russia did not celebrate until the 9th of May, when the German Army formally surrendered to it on the Eastern Front.
Before joining the British Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in front of a mass gathering, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had thanked everyone for their ceaseless efforts in a radio broadcast declaring “This is your victory!”, but also reminded them that, while the nation and the Allies should celebrate, the war against Japan continued. Sadly, that war did not end until 15th August with continued loss of life.
Although the war in Europe was over, fear, privations and uncertainty amongst all its nations were profound and long-lasting. It would take several years before a ‘new Europe’ would appear. This milestone anniversary of VE Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the impact of conflict on Armed Forces and societies. It also reminds us that by helping our nations prepare for war, we are helping them to maintain peace.
Juan Hernandez, VP Strategy and Business Development, QinetiQ US
Sergeant Jose M. Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who had grown up picking cotton and joined the Army in Brownsville, Texas, was assigned to the 23rd Infantry Regiment on the Elsenborn Ridge near Krinkelt, Belgium. On December 17th 1944, he manned a Browning .50 calibre heavy machine gun (58kg/128lbs) near Company K’s position. He had been fighting in Europe since he landed in Normandy the day after D-Day, June 7th, 1944.
As the German Army began the Ardennes Offensive two days earlier during that bitterly cold winter of December 1944, the American lines were being overrun by overwhelming numbers of German tanks and infantry. As the Germans attacked, Sgt Lopez, on his own initiative, carried his .50 Cal machine gun across the company front in deep snow, to occupy a shallow hole that offered no protection above his waist and quickly cut down 35 enemy soldiers attacking from various approaches.
Undeterred by the effects of artillery fire exploding nearby, he again repositioned himself with his machine gun, continuing this over multiple occasions that day in order to protect his comrades and Company K’s flanks until he ran out of ammunition.
Ultimately, Sgt Lopez's efforts on a seemingly suicidal mission were responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped, to withdraw successfully, and to give other forces coming up in support time to build a line which stopped the enemy attack. He was credited with killing almost 100 enemy soldiers that day. Sgt Lopez would survive the war and live until the age of 94. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Sgt Lopez embodies the traits of America’s “greatest generation” and reflects all that was good about this generation fighting a world war in which every citizen was affected. Loyalty to his comrades, duty to country, selfless service/sacrifice, courage, humility, perseverance, and teamwork are just some of the many of the traits that gave America and its Allies the foundation to achieve what that they did, and means as much to many of us today. As the son of a WWII veteran, I try to embody those traits as I live my life personally and professionally as well as inspire those around me in a way that the greatest generation would have lived theirs.
Russell Maddalena, Program Manager, QinetiQ Australia
Australia was among the first nations to enter WWII, declaring war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939. Australia’s efforts during the early years of WWII were focussed on the Mediterranean Theatre with the commitment of Major Fleet Units including HMAS Sydney, I Corps (consisting of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter squadrons that made significant contributions to allied operations in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria.
While Australia's major efforts from 1942 onward were directed at defeating the existential threat to the nation posed by the rapidly advancing Japanese forces, thousands of Australians continued to serve with the RAAF and Royal Australian Navy in Europe. As of 1 July 1944, there were some 14,000 Australian airmen in Britain and of the 5500 Australian airmen killed in the air war over Europe, over 1100 of them made the ultimate sacrifice in the period between D Day and VE Day.
The commitment and sacrifice of Australia’s contribution to victory in Europe is no more evident than in the history of No. 460 Squadron RAAF. Raised in the UK in November 1941, No. 460 Squadron flew the most sorties of any Australian bomber squadron, 6,262 sorties, and dropped the highest bomb tonnage of any squadron in Bomber Command, 24,856 tons. No. 460 Squadron was effectively wiped out five times during the war losing 188 aircraft and suffering 1,018 combat deaths (589 of whom were Australian).
Richard Powell, Strategic Engagement Director (Maritime)
At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Navy (RN) was the largest and most powerful navy in the world. Throughout the war the UK and Commonwealth nations built an additional 65 aircraft carriers, 19 battleships, 264 submarines, 1210 escorts, and over 22,000,000 tons of commercial shipping. But the losses were considerable as well. Over 50,000 men and women of the RN were killed on active service, with 5 battleships and battlecruisers, 8 aircraft carriers, 132 destroyers and 74 submarines lost to enemy action. For those that survived, the cost was significant after VE/VJ Day with years of separation from families on continued operational service in some of the most challenging environments on the planet.
But the scale of these losses was mitigated by the RN’s willingness to embrace technology, which gave it a battle-winning edge, particularly in the battle of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean campaign. Advances in communications, sonars, radars, weapons and naval aviation, as well as the outstanding code breaking work at Bletchley Park, all contributed to the success in the maritime campaigns in the Second World War. That spirit of innovation and willingness to embrace technology continues today, and we can be very proud of both the role played by our forbearers in supporting the RN in the Second World War as well as our ongoing contribution today.
Doug Gale, Strategic Engagement Director (Air)
By May, 1945, the Royal Air Force (RAF) comprised some 9,200 aircraft and over 1,079,835 British, Dominion and Allied officers and airmen, of whom no less than 193,313 were aircrew. The contribution of the RAF to the war effort in Europe spanned all air power roles but, alongside the iconic Battle of Britain in 1940, it was perhaps the RAF (and allied forces) bomber offensive in Europe that is of greatest significance – both in terms of its effect on the outcome of the war in Europe and the enormous sacrifice that it represented. RAF Bomber Command suffered over 125,000 casualties during the war, including over 55,000 aircrew killed. In all, over 60% of operational Bomber Command airmen were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
There are of course many stories of the people that sit behind these humbling statistics, but one example provides a graphic illustration of the heroism of a typical bomber crew and the resilience of the aircraft (an Avro Lancaster).
Flt Lt Bill Reid, a pilot with 61 Squadron based at RAF Syerston, Nottinghamshire was flying his tenth Lancaster operational sortie on the night of 3rd November 1943 - a raid on Dusseldorf. Almost as soon as the aircraft crossed the Dutch coast, it came under attack by a Messerschmitt 110, cannon shells ripping through the aircraft and shattering the Perspex canopy, damaging the flying controls, both gun turrets, the instrument panel and the hydraulic system. Reid was seriously wounded, his head and shoulders full of shell fragments and his face lacerated by Perspex fragments. Not wanting to undermine the morale of his crew, Reid did not say he was wounded, and simply asked the navigator for a new course to Dusseldorf. His head was bleeding badly, but the -20C air blast through the shattered windscreen froze his face and stemmed the bleeding.
A few minutes later, the Lancaster was attacked again, this time by a Focke-Wulf 190 fighter. Cannon shells again exploded all over the aircraft. Reid was hit again, his flight engineer was badly injured, and his navigator and wireless operator were killed. With the aircraft intercom inoperative, the oxygen supply cut, the gyro compass blown apart and the port elevator destroyed, Reid and the surviving crew had to use small emergency oxygen bottles to continue. Yet he still refused to turn back. Without a navigator or a compass, Reid used the Pole Star to navigate to his target where he was able to release his bombs. He then coaxed the heavily damaged aircraft back to Britain, eventually crash landing at a USAAF base in Norfolk.
Reid was awarded a Victoria Cross for his exploits, one of ten Bomber Command airmen to receive the honour. His citation read:
“Wounded in two attacks, without oxygen, suffering severely from cold, his navigator dead, his wireless operator fatally wounded, his aircraft crippled and defenceless, Flt Lt Reid showed superb courage and leadership in penetrating another 200 miles into enemy territory to attack one of the most strongly defended targets in Germany, every additional mile increasing the hazards of the long and perilous journey home. His tenacity and devotion to duty were beyond praise”
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