75 years ago, jubilation swept the world. With Hitler’s suicide on April 30 and the unconditional surrender by Germany’s Karl Dönitz on May 7, May 8 marked Victory in Europe Day.
From New York to Belarus, celebrations erupted—the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse was taken on this day. But despite the joy on that day, and the celebrations we mark today, the war was not over for many an Allied soldier—nor their Axis enemies. Join us as we explore what happened after V-E Day, from generals to privates and Prime Ministers to civilians.
Europe after V-E Day
War continued after V-E Day. Japan had not yet yielded, and the Far East front was filled with turmoil, from Burma (modern Myanmar) to the Pacific Ocean. Even in Europe, small skirmishes erupted in the days and weeks after Germany’s surrender—U-Boats off the coast of the Channel Islands didn't surrender until May 9, and a battle on Czechoslovakia that claimed about 1,000 lives raged for over a day, ending in the wee hours of May 12.
Dönitz, who had taken leadership of Nazi Germany after Hitler’s suicide on April 30th, formed a new government, which became known as the Flensburg Government. Despite his surrender, Dönitz was a loyal follower of Hitler’s and an avid believer in the Aryan State. His government included a number of men who had directly served Hitler and the SS, but were not known as Nazi officers.
This followed the overall tone of the short-lived Flensburg Government—lip service to leaving behind Hitler’s politics, all while a bust of the former Fuhrer remained in Dönitz’s office. Allied forces gave the group no recognition, but left them unharassed for a few weeks, hoping that leaders would eventually settle into a more tempered approach.
Realizing that this hope was unfounded, future President Eisenhower and key Soviet leaders began to pressure Winston Churchill to withdraw even tacit support from Dönitz and his regime. On May 21, the leaders of the Flensburg Government were arrested for war crimes, spelling the end of the line for the Hitler followers.
An Allied Control Council was installed in Germany on June 5, although its first proclamation would not come until the end of August. That summer was filled with the last gasps of violence, a readjustment to peacetime life for both soldiers and civilians.
Even after the Nazi regimes had been toppled, echoes of their oppression continued as Soviet forces occupied Baltic states across Eastern Europe, setting the stage for the Cold War.
The Pacific Theater after V-E Day
Once the pockets of resistance in Europe had capitulated, Allied service members in sound health frequently faced redeployment to the Pacific theater, where Japanese forces continued to resist Allied victory. Captain Tom Moore, who recently made the news for his NHS fundraising efforts across the pond, was one of those redeployed men.
Burma Campaign Continues
Moore and other British soldiers were sent to Burma, where they joined forces with the Republic of China to fight against Japanese, Thai, and even Burmese forces to overturn Japanese rule.
Although the Burma campaign had begun in 1941, it was marked by fits and stops due to the local monsoon climate, an inability for any of the major combatants to align strategically, and, in 1945, the shift of Burmese support from Japan to the Allied Forces. As Burmese hopes of freedom given by the Japanese faded, their allegiance faded too.
By March 1945, the Burma Independence Army had revolted against Japan and joined the Allied Forces, newly christened the Patriotic Burmese Forces. This was the beginning of the end for Axis forces in Southeast Asia, though months of warfare lay ahead to ensure a full Japanese defeat.
To this day, a debate over the importance of the Burma campaign continues—neither the Japanese nor the Allied forces were particularly invested in winning, yet it was one of the longest campaigns in World War II. What is certain is that these battles claimed some 300,000 lives and further complicated Indian and Burmese attempts to achieve self-governance.
Ocean Warfare After V-E Day
Outside of the Burma campaign, warfare in the Pacific Theater was primarily fought via air and sea. Imperial Japan had a massive advantage in its naval strength—one it attempted to cripple the United States with during the Pearl Harbor and Midway attacks.
Much like Britain, the tiny island mainland had led Japan to focus on its naval capabilities. As it successfully expanded out into the Chinese mainland during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Imperial Japan focused on its goal: Asian unification. Of course, their unification efforts had the (intended) side effect of enforcing Japanese domination over neighboring countries.
By 1945, the Imperial Japanese troops were in dire need of resources and men. They had hoped to conquer Siberia and the South Pacific to access the oil and other natural resources found there. Their Siberian quest was quickly realized to be futile, while expansion to island nations like Malaya and Singapore was increasingly thwarted by US and British troops.
By V-E Day, having pulled off bloody victories in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, American Marines were attempting to occupy the Northern Marianas. Taking these islands would put paid to Japanese supply pipelines.
On June 19, the final major carrier-to-carrier battle of WWII began. The Battle of the Philippine Sea chased Japanese forces from the waters completely and caused irreplaceable losses, primarily in the form of Japanese carriers and aircraft.
At the time, the decisive win was seen as a lost opportunity to completely destroy the Japanese Fleet. Despite the loss of over 500 aircraft, the Japanese Fleet managed to escape. It would soon become clear that despite their evacuation, the Fleet was so damaged as to be nearly useless in the weeks to come.
In late July and early August, the Marines recaptured Guam, which had been in Japanese hands since 1941, and took Tinian. Reclaiming Guam cost the US nearly 3,000 lives—but put our troops in position to end the Pacific War.
Meanwhile, General MacArthur and British Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead were liberating Dutch and British Borneo. By late August, the South Pacific had been liberated. Allies began preparing to make amphibious landings in Malaya, where they could then join forces with those who had made it to Rangoon in the Burma campaign, bringing an end to Japan expansion on both land and sea.
Unbeknownst to those on the ground, however, something much more destructive was brewing.
The Manhattan Project
As early as 1942, the United States had begun its attempts to create a successful atomic bomb. J. Robert Oppenheimer and a team of scientists were hard at work in New Mexico, perfecting nuclear fission.
Two months and eight days after word of Germany’s surrender traveled the world, the first mushroom cloud boomed over a desert. The Manhattan Project had successfully detonated a nuclear bomb.
On July 17, leaders of Soviet Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States gathered in Potsdam, Germany. Much was discussed during the Potsdam Conference, including what assistance newly-liberated nations would receive from the Allies. But the decision that would arguably have the greatest global impact was made on July 26th—the day the United States formed an ultimatum for Imperial Japan.
The Japanese were to either immediately surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction”. Although this threat was not specified, US forces meant to use the atomic bomb on Japan should they not promptly make peace.
11 days later, one of the Manhattan Project’s bombs, the “Little Boy”, was dropped over Hiroshima. By August 9, three days later, with still no word of surrender, the “Fat Man” was dropped over Nagasaki.
Both cities were utterly leveled, and some 100,000 people were killed. The Japanese forces, now certain that they couldn’t withstand further attacks, announced their intention to surrender. On August 14, 1945, their formal surrender was accepted, marking Victory over Japan Day.
The decision to use atomic bombs on Japan is contentious to this day. Some historians call those bombs as much the opening shots of the Cold War as the final blow of WWII.
An ethical debate rages over the loss of civilian lives as well. Some claim that the bombs caused less damage than the proposed Operation Downfall, which would have had Allied forces physically invading Japan in November 1945. Others say that Japan was already on its knees, and that the bomb was unnecessary—a naval blockade would have brought about the same surrender with much less loss of life.
The debate will likely continue for centuries, but the immediate effect of the Manhattan Project is inarguable. The bombs were the final act of WWII.
Returning to Normalcy in the United States
Once Japan had surrendered, soldiers were finally able to begin returning home. Some lessons from WWI had been learned in preparing for their return—President Roosevelt had passed the GI Bill in 1944, before any surrenders, and greater understanding of shell shock, now known as PTSD, helped soldiers re-adjust more easily than before.
Roosevelt’s GI Bill offered returning veterans educational opportunities, loan guarantees, unemployment, and assistance in finding a new job. It also prioritized the building of VA hospitals.
Each vet would receive 20 dollars a week for as long as a year until they found a job. That may not sound like much in today's world, but average monthly rent in Manhattan at the time was only 50 dollars—a vet could cover rent in New York City without starving on those wages. But even more important than the unemployment entitlement was the tuition coverage for all veterans.
In 1947, some 49 percent of new enrollees in colleges were veterans. Accessing free tuition allowed vets to attain comfortable lives in middle-class, white-collar jobs. Others attended trade schools, also covered by the GI Bill.
Sadly, not all veterans benefited equally from the G.I. Bill. Although according to the letter of the law, women of all races and African American men were to be given the same opportunities, they often faced discrimination when attempting to claim their entitlements.
Red-lining barred African Americans from purchasing homes in desirable locations, or even at all. Black vets were also frequently steered towards trade schools rather than college or university. Even if those vets managed to convince their job counselors to let them apply to universities, they then faced racial quotas that meant a cap on the number of black students.
Women experienced similar quota issues—universities were giving preference to veterans, whom they perceived as male. Female enrollment was limited in the late 1940s and 1950s to allow vets more access. But this left behind women who had served bravely during World War II.
These unequally enforced benefits would become one of the major rallying points of the Civil Rights Movement, 20 years in the future. But for now, Americans resettled into the relative calm of the 1950s.
Changing Tides in Europe and Asia
The conquering and liberation of countries across Europe and Asia led to decades of change after the end of WWII. By crossing Europe with their regime changes galore, Germany had upset delicate balances in small nations.
Some of those nations were usurped into Soviet Russia during World War II, like the Baltic States of Latvia and Lithuania. The Soviet Union would continue to expand after WWII, making a desperate attempt to reestablish its population—approximately 27 million people died in its bounds.
Nearly 20 million deaths were of Soviet civilians—the siege of Leningrad along with the scourge of concentration and prison camps left large marks. Even with Germany and other Axis Powers paying reparations to the Soviets, their economy was devastated.
Related: 10 Must-Read Cold War Books
Although initial negotiations called for no assistance to Germany in rebuilding its nation, leaders soon came to realize that without Germany’s stabilization, Europe could not thrive. CARE packages were again sent to Germany and West Germany began to receive government aid in 1946.
Borders, especially in Eastern Europe, would continue to shift over the coming decades as regimes propped up by the Nazis or Italian forces disappeared and Soviet regimes came into power and eventually dissipated.
Meanwhile, in Asia, China was regaining its lost territories, and colonies—whether of Japan, England, America, or the Dutch—were starting to gain independence. Although most territories returned to their former owners, some, like Indonesia and India, fought for their freedom.
Within each country, citizens struggled to return to normal life—the citizens of the United States were uniquely free from many of the terrors visited upon civilians of the other main combatants in WWII. Women and children had been frequently subjected to rape and battery, by troops on all sides. Even after the war ended, women who were accused of being German lovers in Allied countries were beaten, raped, and tortured, most infamously in France.
Although the war was over, resentment bred across Europe, becoming visible as the Cold War, Korean War, and even the Vietnam War. Our world continues to be shaped by the results of World War II to this day.