Prime Minister's Address at VE Day Commemoration
Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland 3 pm Sunday, 8 May 2005
Sixty years ago today, on 8 May 1945 at 3 pm, Rt Hon Winston Churchill announced the end of the war with Germany.
The day before, the final document of surrender had been signed at General Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims in France.
News of Germany’s surrender had reached New Zealand in time for the morning papers on 8 May.
The next day, after Churchill’s formal announcements, huge crowds gathered in the vicinity of Parliament and the old Government Building in Wellington, and late that day an RSA parade marched to the Basin Reserve where there were more large crowds. In Auckland there were no organised events, but we are told the city went out to celebrate from the time the factory whistle sounded.
This was not the end of the war for New Zealand. Victory in the war in the Pacific was still three months away. In Europe itself, there were still our prisoners of war to be located and brought home, and news of missing loved ones was still to be confirmed.
Even so, there can be no question about the sense of relief in New Zealand which greeted the news of Germany’s surrender.
For New Zealand, as for so many other nations, World War II had seen a huge mobilisation in support of the war effort; significant loss of life and sacrifice; injuries, disabilities and trauma with a life long impact; and for the community at home, rationing and shortages as we made a supreme effort to support Britain and the total war effort.
From a population of 1.6 million, New Zealand sent 140,000 men and women overseas in World War Two. We suffered 11,625 deaths – the highest ratio of those who were deployed of any Commonwealth country.
As well, we devoted a very high proportion of our resources to the war effort. Overall through the war, our effort consumed around thirty per cent of our national income, and that figure rose to fifty per cent between 1942 and 1944.
These bare facts alone explain why the anniversary of this day, sixty years ago, must be commemorated.
For my parents’ generation, the memories of what happened are still very much alive.
For my generation, the post war babies, we grew up with the stories of sacrifice, hardship, and heartache of World War Two told by our families.
These events had a profound impact on our small country. They helped shape the nation and the people we are today.
Over the past four years we have commemorated the sixtieth anniversaries of critical engagements which New Zealanders were involved in in the European theatre in World War Two.
We have remembered the Battle of Crete in 1941.
We have remembered the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, where the defeat of Rommel’s army marked a turning point in the war.
We have remembered the battle of Cassino in May 1944.
We have remembered all these engagements because we wish to honour all who took part for their courage and their service to New Zealand; because we wish to honour those who never came home; and because we wish to recognise the impact these tragic events had on our people, our families, our communities, and our nation, and on the peoples, families and communities of many nations.
Two weeks ago I visited the sites of the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Standing now as they did in 1945, they are a stark reminder of what was at stake in World War Two. It was a war against fascism and genocide. Its victims must never be forgotten. World War Two brought human tragedy on an unprecedented scale. In the concentration camps and across civilian populations, many, many millions of people died.
VE Day when it came brought mixed emotions. There was great relief that the war in Europe was at an end, but there was also great sorrow at its huge cost in human life and suffering.
Today we honour all whose lives were ended or were touched by this tragedy. Let us not forget the civilian populations of Europe who lived through the bombings, the invasions, the privations, and the destruction of their homes, villages, towns and cities.
On VE Day 1945, the New Zealand Division was in Italy. One of our “Tuis”, Pat Hamilton, said that the next day:
“We had a big dinner and a dance on the roof of one of the clubs. Everyone tried to be bright and gay, but it was a very sad occasion. I can remember Peter sitting on the ground with his head in my lap, crying. It was an enormous reaction. He just felt and remembered all the boys that he had known and liked so much who were not celebrating with him.”
Pat’s words sum up what many must have felt – relief and jubilation, mixed with grief and sorrow.
Ahead of all those who served was the move back home to rebuild their lives and be reunited with their families, while still living with painful memories.
That is why on VE Day we remember all those who gave so much in the service of New Zealand, and whose own hopes and dreams were subsumed in the interests of our nation and world peace for six years of their lives.
May those who never returned rest in peace. To all those who served we pay tribute on this sixtieth anniversary day of the end of the war in Europe. We hope to never see its like again.