By Bob Gordon
On May 8, 1945 a New York Times headline announced “The War in Europe is Ended.” Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London,” published in the New Yorker on May 10, 1945 recounted, “American sailors and laughing girls formed a conga line down the middle of Piccadilly and cockneys linked arms in the Lambeth Walk” on VE-Day. The Globe and Mail reported from Toronto that, “as night fell with its hint of spring chill, bonfires blazed skywards from city parks and fireworks illuminated the faces of youngsters and oldsters and the in-between.” Across the world, victory over Hitler’s Germany inspired jubilation. Only in Halifax did a drunken mob riot, destroying large parts of the city in a nightmarish carnival of mayhem. The Halifax Herald called it, “the maddest night perhaps old Halifax had ever seen,” in an article headlined, “Mobs Run Wild On Streets Of Downtown Halifax.”
A subsequent Royal Commission calculated Halifax property losses involved 564 firms, with 2,642 pieces of plate and other glass broken, 207 businesses looted and total damage in the range of $5-million. At least 7,000 cases and 35,000 quarts of beer, 65,000 quarts of hard liquor, 1,225 cases and another 1,700 bottles of wine disappeared during the two days of disturbances.
Three Canadians died during the debauchery. A young stoker, Vern Tucker, collapsed and died from alcohol poisoning. LCdr George Smith was found dead, possibly murdered, on the campus of Dalhousie College under circumstances that were never fully explained. Ernest Fitzgerald, a civilian, was also dead of alcohol poisoning. With complete justification based on the scale and duration of the havoc, the Hamilton
Spectator would describe the 48 hours of chaos as “one of the worst revolts against authority in the history of Canada.” These 48 hours also destroyed the heretofore distinguished career of RAdm Leonard Warren Murray, the only Canadian to command an Allied theatre of operations during either world war.
Historically, war has been very good to Halifax. Before the twentieth century it was the principal station of the Royal Navy in the north-western Atlantic and its fate was intimately linked to the demands of imperial strategy. According to author Stephen Kimber, “During the Seven Years War with France [1756-1763], Halifax became Britain’s prime North American naval and military depot. It played a similar role in every conflict that followed.” In the last century, it was the marshalling yard for the vital flow of men and munitions from North America to Great Britain and the Continent during both world wars.
In times of trouble, the Halifax economy booms and the population explodes. By 1945, after six years of war, 75,000 pre-1939 residents were sharing space with approximately 60,000 “uninvited guests,” as bitter, local scribes frequently referred to the numerous service personnel and merchant mariners, approximately one third of whom were Royal Canadian Navy personnel. The soldiers and sailors responded in kind with cockney rhyming slang referring to residents of Halifax as “slackers.” There was no love lost between the civilians and the sailors. The “uninvited guests” resented paying exorbitant rent for crowded accommodation and being dunned by local merchants. The locals, on the other hand, became leery of rowdy payday behaviour (of sailors in particular).
The Royal Commission that probed the riots concluded: “The breaking of plate glass windows and the tearing down of awnings and street signs, mostly by intoxicated naval ratings on paydays, was a usual and expected occurrence.” Drunken misbehaviour by sailors and merchant seamen was endemic in wartime Halifax, throughout the war. Residents were also fed up with comments from Upper Canadians and Westerners about how much better things were back home. In the 48 hours following the announcement of the German capitulation, all of this stress, tension and resentment exploded in an orgy of violent, drunken destruction. Sailors, civilians, soldiers and seamen — air force personnel were notably absent — all joined the mob, but sailors predominated.
In Halifax, news of the end of the war against Germany arrived on the morning of Monday, May 7, 1945. Radio broadcasts were followed by factory whistles announcing Germany’s surrender to the city at about 10:30 in the morning. There had been no official announcement from Ottawa, but news reports from Europe via New York were widely broadcast and a special edition of the Halifax Mail quickly hit the streets with the headline, “WAR END OFFICIAL.” Civilians were immediately sent home and told to take the following day off. Retail outlets, restaurants and theatres closed before noon and remained shut until Wednesday, two days later. Liquor stores, closed over the weekend as per usual, were scheduled to open at 12:30 on Monday. However, in line with the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission’s VE-Day policy they remained closed Monday and Tuesday, also not reopening until Wednesday.
The city shut down so civilians could welcome the end of the Battle of the Atlantic. Plans called for specified small ceremonial military units to participate in civil ceremonies. Otherwise, however, civilian authorities expected service personnel to celebrate separately, on base.
Initial reports indicated relative calm and an upbeat mood, quieter even than November 11, 1918, when spontaneous celebrations briefly threatened to immolate Halifax’s city hall. Civic authorities began to plan for fireworks in the evening and official celebrations on Tuesday May 8 at 2:30 pm. Service personnel remained on duty throughout the day. At the end of the workday, at 5:00 pm, Murray had an order read to all hands. It concluded: “I count on the common sense of all naval personnel and on their consideration for the feelings of those whose relatives will not return from this conflict to ensure that celebration will be joyful without being destructive or distasteful.”
With that, 9,000 men left the base and the remainder headed straight for the wet canteens. At HMCS Stadacona the wet canteen ran out of its inventory of 6,000 bottles of beer and closed at 9:00 pm. The Joint Services Committee had foreseen this problem, but determined that it was not logistically possible to procure extra stock for VE-Day on such short notice.
Within a half hour, naval ratings, in varying states of intoxication, were filling the adjacent streets looking for excitement. Outside Stadacona a streetcar had its windows smashed before the operator got free of a crowd of naval ratings. The Shore Patrol watched the incident from their HQ, only arriving after the driver and streetcar had fled. Further north on Barrington Street a second streetcar was put to the torch. Responding police had their police vehicle overturned and destroyed. The chagrined constables were forced to retreat to the police station on foot. Firemen had their hoses hacked apart when they tried to turn deploy. They also retreated.
At this point, alone on the streets as symbols of authority, the Shore Patrol had their hands cuffed. In late March 1945 LCdr Reg Wood, CO of the Shore Patrol, issued an order, pursuant to Murray’s directive, stating that no service personnel were to be arrested on VE-Day: “No person is to be apprehended . . . unless absolutely necessary and it cannot be stressed too strongly that the success of the patrol on V-Day will rely solely on tact.” The rationale for this bizarre policy was stranger still. Murray would later claim he believed civilians would riot against the arresting authorities if they saw service personnel being apprehended during hard-won VE-Day carousing.
Heading into the central business district the mob turned its attention to vandalism, and plate glass windows on shops proved an inviting target. Opportunists quickly grabbed merchandise in window displays. The boldest in the crowd actually ventured into the stores and hundreds of retail establishments were looted. Eventually the upheaval expanded to encompass the blocks from Barrington Street east towards the harbour and from Bishop Street north, past Duke Street.
Donald Albert Douglas, on duty at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital during the rioting, was sent out Monday evening with an ambulance to bring in the injured. Writing to his parents a day later, in the wake of the violence, he described the scene: “about 100,000 people on a minimum all so drunk that they are worse than wild beasts …” His first patient “was out cold and someone had taken the jagged end of a broken bottle and just slashed his face to pieces.” Douglas was so upset by the rampage he misdated his letter April 9, a month before it was written and averred that many scenes he witnessed were so shocking and sordid he could not commit them to paper. He went so far as to confess that, after what he had seen, “I’m ashamed that I’m in the services and that I am a Canadian.”
Around midnight the mob turned its attention to booze and began looting liquor stores, starting with the Sackville Street location. The Halifax Herald reported: “The mob smashed the plate glass windows in the store, rushed in oblivious of the jagged glass edges and came out with many bottles of liquor … Amid cheers of onlookers, the mob members brandished the bottles in hilarious joy, some carrying three and four quarts in their arms.” The Herald’s photographer told the Royal Commission that the looters threatened him when his camera flash revealed his presence.
The Hollis Street Retail and Mail Order Store, and the Buckingham and Agricola liquor stores were subsequently ransacked. Liquor flowed freely. The Globe and Mail reported that the crowd “smashed and looted virtually every store in the downtown business section” and described the violence as “a scene of drunkenness and destruction that is rarely equalled in a city outside a war zone.” The havoc finally died down at approximately 3:00 am.
Incredibly, despite the drunkenness, vandalism and violence, Murray, released another 8,500 naval personnel on shore leave
on the morning of May 8. Violence flared up again that afternoon. With more care, crowds rifled the liquor stores first ransacked the night before. Others proceeded further afield. Some took the ferry across the harbour and emptied the only liquor store in Dartmouth. Going straight to the source, personnel raided Keith’s and Oland’s breweries. Both were breached and relieved of thousands of cases of beer.
The Hamilton Spectator described the events of May 8 as “an orgy of drunken smashing and looting.” In Cornwallis Park, Frank Doyle of the Mail reported men and women, civilian and service, “drinking, singing [and] intermingling ale with fighting and sex … The scenes of debauchery were rivalled only by those on Citadel Hill and Grafton Park.”
On the morning of May 9 the city fell silent. The final toll of destruction was staggering. Over 2,600 panes of glass had to be replaced, while more than 200 businesses had been looted. Thousands of cases of beer, wine and liquor were “liberated” and broken glass in the streets was piled higher than the curbs. Innumerable carousing civilians and service personnel were cut when they fell drunkenly onto the streets. Ambulance attendant Douglas wrote that “a good foot of glass over the whole of the street [Barrington] and it nearly cut the tires off our big army ambulance.”
Reaction to the debacle was swift. A sailor and a civilian had died from alcohol poisoning and a Canadian naval officer was dead. The riots had garnered cross-country and even international attention. On May 10 the federal government ordered a Royal Commission and the RCN convened a naval board of inquiry. The Herald and other local newspapers featured front-page editorials demanding explanations and the fixing of blame.