A Brief History
On May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe was declared by the victorious Allied Powers, which included Canada and Nova Scotia. The Port City of Halifax, Capital of Nova Scotia, was the scene of the Halifax Riot, an event simmering just under the surface waiting for the War to end in Europe for the War to begin at home.
Nova Scotia, Canada’s second smallest province, is on the Atlantic Coast and its Capital, Halifax, served during World War II as the important Western terminus of the vital ship lanes to and from England. The influx of about 25,000 military personnel strained the meager resources of the Wartime economy of the city, infringing greatly upon the populace, and taxing relations between locals and “come from aways” as the locals called the servicemen and outsiders. The servicemen, in turn, referred to the locals as “slackers” and vowed some sort of reckoning once the war was over.
Wartime shortages were aggravated by the tremendous need and priority of the military and merchant marine to be fed, housed and supplied, leading to severe shortages for locals. Resentful locals jacked up prices for men in uniform, blatantly so, causing deep resentment. Stores had empty shelves, businesses, restaurants, movie theaters and the like had long lines or could not accommodate everyone and the tension grew throughout the war.
When the German surrender was announced on May 7, 1945 and that May 8, 1945 would be VE Day, the British Admiral in charge decided he owed his men the opportunity to celebrate (they had earned the victory, after all) and allowed 9000 of them shore liberty to do just that. Despite no legal place to buy a drink, plenty of illicit alcohol was available and long held feuds spilled into the open, with looting of businesses, vandalism, and fighting between civilians and military men. Arson lit up the night.
Admiral Murray, either an idiot or somehow delusional, heard of the riot on the morning of May 8, and decided that the fault surely lay with the civilians, not his men, and released another 9500 men on liberty to celebrate! The 8th of May saw continued rioting until the problem became apparent even for Admiral Murray, who ordered a sound truck to broadcast a return to quarters message, finally ending the riot.
The damage and bill for the riot amounted to 3 men dead (2 from alcohol poisoning), almost 900 businesses damaged or looted, 1500 cases of wine, 8000 cases of beer, and 65,000 quarts of liquor looted from alcohol stores! Over 2600 sheets of plate glass had been broken, and 363 arrests had been made. The cost was estimated at over $5 million.
The inquiry into the riot found Naval Command negligent in properly preparing for the victory celebration, as well as failing to take corrective action after round 1 of the riot, a finding that enraged Admiral Murray who resigned in protest of the finding.
Question for students (and subscribers): Why do victory celebrations turn into riots, with damage and injury? We never could figure out that particular phenomenon, but it happens. If you have opinions or theories on the subject, please share them in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Redman, Stanley R. Behind open gangway: The Halifax riots, 1945. Lugus, 1999.
The featured image in this article, a photograph from BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada of V-E Day Riots, east side of Gottingen Street between Falkland and Cornwallis Streets, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.