After more than five years of disruption, rationing and anxiety about loved ones overseas, New Zealanders greeted the coming of peace in Europe in May 1945, and then victory over Japan in August, with understandable relief and enthusiasm. Most people wanted to celebrate.
Yet by the end of the war New Zealand had become a highly regulated society. The authorities, both central and local, remained nervous about things getting out of control. The result on both occasions was a structured official celebration, though there was still some spontaneous fun in the streets.
Germany surrendered in the early afternoon of 7 May 1945, New Zealand time. The news became known the next morning, with huge headlines in the morning papers. But the acting prime minister, Walter Nash, insisted that celebrations should wait until British Prime Minister Winston Churchill officially announced the peace, which would not be heard in New Zealand until 1 a.m. on 9 May. So on Tuesday, 8 May, when everybody felt like celebrating, Nash told the country by radio that they should all go to work and that VE Day would be on the 9th.
Most New Zealanders accepted the edict. They were not 'inclined to let off steam without official authorisation'. Only Dunedin bucked the trend. There, the holding of the university's capping parade released the inhibitions. By midday the factory workers had downed tools. The town hall bells were rung, and the mayor held a short ceremony in the Octagon. Even then, this spontaneous celebration never exceeded the bounds of decorum. On VE Day itself weeks of official preparation rolled into action. Citizens were woken by bells and sirens, and flags quickly appeared. At the Government Buildings in Wellington there were speeches by the governor-general, the acting prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The American, Soviet and New Zealand national anthems were sung, and only then, after midday, did official local ceremonies start.
These local programmes of events, which generally extended over the next day, 10 May, which was also a public holiday, were highly orchestrated affairs. There were bands parading, community sing-songs, thanksgiving services (often held at the local war memorial), and, in smaller places, bonfires and sports programmes for the children and victory balls for the adults. In Wellington music was played at three sites, and there was a victory service at the Basin Reserve. In Christchurch the Trades Council organised a People's Victory March in which 25,000 paraded from Latimer Square to Cathedral Square singing patriotic ditties.
The organised ceremonies were in part designed to keep the lid on more spontaneous celebration. There was, of course, plenty of spontaneity – the pubs were full, and in Wellington there was broken glass in the streets, and government documents and confetti were thrown out of windows. There was singing and dancing in the streets and strangers kissing. People joined together in crocodile lines and took part in impromptu street theatre. But it never got out of hand. There was little damage to property, and in both Wellington and Auckland, there was just one case brought before the courts the next day. Elsewhere, citizens were complimented on their 'commendable restraint'.
What happened on VJ day?
VJ Day, like VE day, showed public regulation at work. Again the preparation had been considerable, and the celebration went more smoothly. The news of the Japanese surrender arrived in New Zealand at 11 a.m. on 15 August.
The sirens immediately sounded, a national ceremony was held, and the local celebrations followed. Once more there were parades, bands playing, thanksgiving services, bonfires, dances and community sports. Once more the beer flowed, and there were streamers, whistles and dancing in the streets. Again there were two days' public holiday.
There were also some revealing differences. In Auckland, where there were few organised events, the city went out to enjoy itself the moment the factory whistle sounded. At first it was simply people drinking, dancing and scattering confetti. Then some rowdy people began throwing bottles. Windows were smashed, and people were hurt. By the evening, 51 people had been taken to hospital and 15 tons of glass lay in the roads.