This Day in History (8-May-1945) – World War II Officially Ends in Europe, Leading to Massive “V-E Day” Celebrations

Following the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, it seemed as if the Nazi war machine would be nearly unstoppable for almost four years. In battle after battle, Hitler’s soldiers vanquished every foe in front of them in every direction. Early in 1943, the Soviets began to roll the Germans back along the Eastern Front after the Battle of Stalingrad, benefitting from superior manpower and shorter supply lines, not to mention the foolishness of Hitler’s battle plans. By mid-April 1945, the situation was bleak for the Nazis: the Soviets had pushed to within a few dozen miles of Berlin and the Allies were moving rapidly through western Germany.

On April 30th, as the Red Army pelted the German capital, Hitler committed suicide in his personal bunker, leaving Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz to make the decision of when to begin negotiating peace. Seven days later, soldiers of the Third Reich were ordered to put down their weapons and surrender to Allied forces at Reims. On Monday May 7th at 02.41, German General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document at Reims, France; that formally ended war in Europe. At 19.40 the UK Ministry of Information made a short announcement: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday.”

After nearly six years at war, Europe was finally able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Millions of people gathered in cities all over the world to celebrate the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. With more than 16 million soldiers and at least 23 million citizens killed in Europe alone — approximately 1 of every 10 people — World War II had taken a tremendous toll. While Europe was awash with street parties and bonfires to celebrate VE Day, thousands of miles away, British and Commonwealth Armed Forces were still fighting in Burma, Singapore and Thailand. Japan finally surrendered on 15 August 1945 – VJ (Victory over Japan) Day.



This Day in History (31-Mar-1889) – The Eiffel Tower Opens

The committee, set up to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution in 1889, announced a contest to design and build a monument to the revolution. After a six-week competition, Gustave Eiffel’s design was announced as the winner. When plans were first unveiled based on Eiffel’s concept, the design was severely criticized by intellectuals and artists, calling the design a disgraceful skeleton . . . “a gigantic factory chimney whose form will disfigure the architectural harmony of the city.”

The Eiffel Tower rose at a rate of almost two feet per day, an astounding fact considering 18,038 pieces of iron were fitted together with 2.5 million rivets by more than 100 workmen who functioned almost like acrobats and stuntmen. Not one man lost his life during the construction. On March 31, 1889, just days after the final piece of the tower was put in place, Eiffel proudly led a number of government officials and journalists at the 980-foot-high upper level and unfurled the French flag to a 25-gun salute commemorating the completion of the tallest structure in the world at the time. When the tower opened to the public in May, 1889, it was an instant success. Eiffel was able to reimburse his creditors within one year, just through the admission ticket receipts from the 1,868,000 visitors.  The “Iron Lady” — the tallest manmade object on the planet for more than four decades — has had more than 250 million visitors since.

Twenty years later, however, the lease for the land expired, and Eiffel lost control of his tower to the City of Paris. The land was too valuable for such a frivolous structure, according to city council, and plans were made to turn the tower into scrap metal. Fortunately for the Eiffel Tower, the First World War came along, and the tower was transformed into a military radio and telegraph centre. Its lease was renewed for another 70 years, and the tourists continued to flock to the structure. While the Germans occupied Paris during World War II, legend has it Adolf Hitler refused to make the climb to the top, leaving some to say he “conquered France, but the Eiffel Tower conquered him.” With the Allies approaching in August 1944, Der Fuhrer ordered the landmark destroyed in order to damage French morale but General Dietrich von Choltitz — thankfully — ignored the Nazi leader.


This Day in History (24-Mar-1944) – A prison break at Stalag Luft III occurs, later providing the inspiration for the 1963 movie The Great Escape

Luft III was a World War II prison set up by Germans at Sagan, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, to hold 10,000 PoWs, It had a size of 59 acres, with 5 miles of perimeter fencing.  The Germans had planted seismographs in the ground every 33 feet so that they could detect the sounds of tunneling. They also had raised the prison huts off the ground on stilts so that they could observe suspicious digging activity. There was a huge trench around the entire prison to form yet another barrier between the prisoners and freedom. Despite all these measures, Stalag Luft III saw one of the biggest mass escapes of all time.

Among the inmates in 1944 were scores of talented miners, carpenters, engineers, even physicists and geologists, all of whom were willing to help execute an escape. The Escape Committee was run by a South African airman named Roger Bushell, who devised a plan in 1943 to dig three tunnels, “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry.” Fully 30 feet deep, each tunnel would lie beyond the reach of the listening devices. As they dug, the prisoners removed tunnel dirt by trolley, concealed it in the legs of their pants, and later dumped it inconspicuously around the prison grounds. Groups of prisoners took turns guarding the tunnels from the watchful eyes of the Germans and covering for “missing” prisoners when they were underground. Prisoners made escape kit such as compasses from fragments of broken Bakelite gramophone records, melted and shaped and incorporating a tiny needle made from slivers of magnetised razor blades. Real ID papers and passes were obtained by bribery or theft from the guards and copied by forgers. Service uniforms were carefully recut by prisoners. A surprising number of guards proved co-operative in supplying railway timetables, maps, and the bewildering number of official papers required for escapers.

On the 24th of March, 1944, 76 men were able to escape through Harry. Unfortunately, only three of them reached safety. Fifteen were captured and returned to the prison. Eight were sent to a concentration camp (though they ultimately survived the war). The remaining 50, Bushell among them, were rounded up and shot on orders from Hitler himself, who was embarrassed and infuriated by the mass escape.