On 7 and 8 May 1945, riots broke out after poorly coordinated Victory in Europe celebrations fell apart in Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Several thousand servicemen (predominantly naval), merchant seamen and civilians drank, vandalized and looted.
Word of Germany’s surrender in World War II was met by celebrations across Canada, but in Halifax, Nova Scotia the VE-Day celebrations rapidly turned into riots. For two days, military personnel and civilians roamed the streets, drinking, smashing windows, looting businesses and setting fires.
A major North American port, Halifax had doubled its size during World War II, from about 70,000 people to 130,000.
The resulting overcrowding in Halifax, scarce food, and inadequate facilities had led to a buildup of tensions between military personnel and permanent residents of Halifax.
The planning for VE-Day in Halifax was poor. In meetings before VE-Day there had been an agreement that the navy, army and air force would look after their own personnel and the Halifax city police force would take care of civilians. In reality, the military and civilian police could not handle mobs of mixed military personnel and civilians, and nobody could control 25,000 servicemen on leave who wanted to celebrate, but had nothing to do, and nothing to drink.
When the news of the German surrender was announced on radio on Monday morning May 7, 1945, people in Halifax, as in many other Canadian cities, ran into the streets to celebrate.
Restaurants and liquor stores in Halifax were closed to let workers celebrate. There were no taverns in Halifax.
The navy wet canteens opened around noon and closed at 9 pm that evening. When the canteens closed, thousands of sailors streamed into the streets of Halifax, joining the throngs of civilians and other servicemen.
A group of sailors wrecked a tram car. When the police arrived, the sailors smashed the police van.
By midnight the Halifax liquor stores were being hit by rioters.
On the second day, VE-Day, it started all over again at about noon.
Civilians and other servicemen joined the mob as vandalism and looting broke out and spread.
A mob broke through the police cordon at the brewery – some even carted beer out in trucks. When the city and army police arrived, the mob had grown to thousands of civilians and military personnel, and the looting of the brewery went on unchecked.
Admiral Leonard Murray marched a parade of servicemen downtown to set an example for the looters. The marchers were jeered and shoved, and many joined the rioters.
Systematic destruction and looting continued as restaurants were looted and burned and all the businesses in the Halifax downtown district were looted and smashed.
Admiral Murray and Halifax Mayor Butler drove through the downtown wreckage of Halifax using a loudspeaker to announce an 8 pm curfew.
By midnight it had begun to rain, and the riots faded.
Three people died – two of alcohol poisoning, and one a possible murder.
More than 500 businesses were damaged.Over 200 shops were looted.
Thousands of cases of beer, wine and liquor were looted.
Admiral Leonard Murray was forced to retire.