The end of the Second World War was a time of celebration. It was a time when people took to the streets and broke out in cheers now that the worst war in human history was over. In Halifax, thousands of people celebrated the end of the war but within a day, many of those people would leave much of Halifax in shambles.
Today, I am looking at the 1945 Halifax Riot. To look at the Halifax Riot though, we need to address Halifax during the war.
Throughout the Second World War, Halifax was bursting with people. The city had seen its population double but the facilities within the city had not increased. Halifax had seen a population increase of 60 per cent in five years, while Dartmouth had an increase of 73 per cent. Visiting workers and the servicemen in the city did not always have the ability to stay in facilities owned by the Royal Canadian Navy. Many men had to find homes in the city, but rents were sky high and landlords charged as much as they could, and many merchants would increase their prices when selling to someone in a uniform. Wartime rationing also put a serious strain on the people in Halifax. Many people dealt with shortages of water and electricity, which was diverted for military use. Blackouts and the threat of U-boats in the waters only added to the unease and anger of residents.
The restaurants in the city dealt with huge line ups and to get into a movie theatre you often stood in line for hours. That is not to say all merchants and landlords were like that, but the ones that were put a terrible strain on the city through their practices.
Even before the end of the Second World War, sailors on payday were known to break down awnings, streets signs and smash windows. As Canada increased the size of its navy from 3,500 regulars in 1939 to 96,000 in 1945, making it the fourth largest navy in the world, 18,000 of those sailors were station in Halifax.
With all the servicemen and women in the city, and tensions actually quite high between citizens and those who were just in the city temporarily, the decision was made that measures had to be put forward to prevent any trouble on VE Day. Halifax council would hear the committee plans for the celebration including entertainment and containment with a focus on thanksgiving. The police chief also stated there would be preparations and communication with the armed services and that the day would be a holiday.
Citizens had tried to warn Mayor Butler in 1944 that when the war ended, extra protection in the city would be needed and reinforced police protection should be called for. Police Chief Judson Conrod would meet with his service chiefs in April of 1945 and decided the best way to avoid trouble was to close all the liquor stores on victory day.
At 10:30 a.m. on May 7, whistles blew around Halifax announcing the war was over. Salesclerks left their work and went into the crowds; people began streaming into the streets and waitresses walked out of restaurants.
Tram service was stopped to prevent sailors from going downtown, while restaurants, movie theatres, retailers and liquor stores were closed to prevent any trouble. The Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army put strict schedules in place and rules of conduct for their personnel. They were provided with planned activities within their garrisons. The Navy, in contrast, took a different route.
Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray felt that his sailors had contributed heavily to the war victory and they deserved to celebrate their accomplishment. On May 7, 1945, the same day that the war in Europe ended, he overruled the advice of his officers and allowed 9,000 of his men to go ashore for the night. He told them, “be joyful without being destructive or distasteful.”
Not everyone took his advice.
Murray also believed that if locals in Halifax saw sailors being arrested, the locals would riot, which was a terrible misread of the future situation.
At first the men hit the wet canteens. On the HMCS Stadacona, the wet canteen ran out of its 6,000 bottles of beer within a few hours and closed at 9 p.m. At 9:15, Lt. Commander R.W. Wood, the chief of the navy shore patrol, looked out his office window on the Stadacona and saw a street car surrounded by sailors who were punching through the windows and scaring the hell out of the citizens inside. Wood would send 30 officers to go out and clear the area. He went back into his office and received a call from Warrant Officer John Barbour at City Hall. He said:
“The police have given up. There are 4,000 people jamming the streets. They are ripping down flags and having a hell of a time.” Wood left his office and came across a scene of 15 shore patrolmen and six police officers attempting to deal with 5,000 people on Barrington Street. Wood and the police were able to get all the street cars off the streets and into their barns, except one, which was trapped around a crowd.
By midnight of that day, 12,000 people were downtown celebrating with no place to go to eat or geta drink. With no bars, the sailors began to riot instead, setting tramcars on fire, as well as a police wagon. They then began smashing windows, looting liquor stores, and taking goods from shops. On Barrington Street alone it was said there was so much broken glass on the street it spilled over the top of the curb
The Halifax Herald would report:
“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 or four quarts in their arms.”
Several weeks after the riot, Lucy Van Gogh would write about what caused the riot:
“Halifax was full of men who had been doing their bit in the war, who had helped finish off the war, and who thought they were entitled to have a day’s celebration, complete with food, when it was announced that the war was finished. When they found they could not buy food, it occurred to them that they might as well take it, and they began to do so.”
Donald Albert Douglas, who was in Halifax, would write a letter home to his family and I am going to use snippets from this letter throughout this episode.
“At 3:30 in the afternoon we were notified at the RCNH that the crowd was out control and to prepare for emergencies and we set up an emergency ward. The first came in at 4 and there was no let up all night. The three liquor commissions were broken into and the entire contents released to the use of the people.”
“Every store on Barrington street, the main street, was almost demolished. There wasn’t a window left and the contents were either looted or thrown out in the street…there were shoes, boots, chesterfields, clothes, cash registers, pots, pans and nearly everything you could imagine on the street.”
Flags were snatched off poles, and sailors took over the driver’s seat of a tramcar, smashed out its windows and set it on fire. When the fire department arrived to put out the fire, the sailors disconnected the fire hose, then cut it to pieces. When another fire hose was connected, sailors grabbed it and turned it onto the firemen.
Throughout the night, the partiers would continue to destroy windows and other landmarks downtown. One liquor store had its windows broken and a security guard called police to protect the business. Police arrived but a mob of sailors threw bricks and stones, overcame the police, and went into the liquor store to steal all the alcohol.
The Alexander Keith’s brewery was soon hit by sailors and civilians, who overpowered the guards at the brewery and started to steal case after case of beer.
One fire was started at People’s Credit Jewelry store, which then spread to the D’Allaird’s Women’s Wear Store and another fire destroyed Fader’s drug store. The fire department cut power lines so they could fight another blaze, leaving parts of the city without light or power for an hour.
At 11:30 p.m., a patrol wagon arrived, and 50 sailors quickly seized it and tipped it on its side. They then lit it on fire as people ran for safety.
By the morning, many hungover sailors and civilians stumbled home with their stolen items, to sleep off the night before.
The Halifax newspaper reported the following:
“The destruction is the worst visited on Halifax since the great explosion of 1917 when buildings were flattened, and thousands of windows smashed. No buildings were flattened in the victory riot but there is scarcely a window in the city’s main business section that has not been smashed.”
The newspaper stated that men and women walked down the streets with their arms full of shoes, clothing, and other items, while only one store front, the barber shop of Jack Sutherland, did not have its windows broken. The newspaper relates:
“Mrs. Emma Mackay was responsible for the comparative miracle. She owns the building. She stood in front of the store for 15 long and tiresome hours today, diplomatically talking at least a dozen people out of breaking her window. ‘This store has been here for 56 years,’ she said, ‘and it wasn’t even broken in the Halifax explosion of 1917’”.
At that point, Rear Admiral Murray, who had slept all night and had not been awakened by his officers, opened the paper, and saw the newspapers reporting about the carnage the night before. Instead of dealing with the situation, he assumed that the newspapers were blaming his sailors for something civilians did and he believed that no more than 200 of his sailors were involved, and only after being instigated by civilians. He took no steps to prevent another 9,500 sailors from going ashore for the official VE Day celebration on May 8.
Murray is reported to have said “if the civilians are allowed downtown to celebrate, why not the navy?”
That was a mistake.
Most thought that there was little danger of further rioting and the Stadacona canteen was opened again, and again ran out of beer just after noon. Hundreds of sailors began to go back out into the Halifax once again.
By the end of the day, three men were dead. Vern Tucker had collapsed and died from alcohol poisoning, Lt. Commander George Smith was found dead, possibly from murder, on the campus of Dalhousie College, and Ernest Fitzgerald was dead from alcohol poisoning. In total, 363 people were arrested, 654 businesses were damaged, 207 were looted, 65,000 quarts of liquor, 8,000 cases of beer and 1,500 cases of wine were stolen, 2,624 sheets of plate glass were destroyed and $5 million in damages had been done.
Some of the injuries are related in the letter by Douglas:
“The first fellow I got to was out cold and someone had taken the jagged end of a broken bottle and just slashed his face to pieces. We got him in the ambulance and went for the next one…we got three that trip and the next two patients were just about as bad. One had his arm cut at an artery and was nearly gone and if I had not stopped the bleeding then couldn’t have lasted much longer. The third was a cut hand but wasn’t too bad and only need a few stitches.”
Douglas would work through the night helping people. He continues in his letter:
By the end of his shift, Douglas would say “I handled broken bones, cuts, gashes, concussions and nearly everything imaginable.”
Sailors and civilians looted everything, including mannequins, which they danced with in streets. In an empty lot on Hollis Street, couples were openly having sex and at least one woman is described as walking around the street celebrating wearing nothing but the Union Jack flag around her.
It was not all sailors who caused problem. Some sailors helped the shore patrol and police with holding back crowds at liquor stores and department stores.
By that evening, Admiral Murray and Alan Butler, mayor of Halifax was driving through town on a sound truck ordering everyone back to their homes and barracks and a curfew was put in place.
Navy Minister Douglas Abbott would say “that many of the naval ratings who took part in these unfortunate disturbances are the same men who have earned their country’s gratitude for their courage and endurance in the long and arduous Atlantic campaign.”
On May 9 at 5 p.m., an emergency meeting of city council was held with a resolution being adopted to call for an investigation to find out who was responsible and to gain compensation from the federal government. By July 26, the city put forward a claim of $4.5 million for the riots.
Katherine Stevens, who was with the Women’s Royal Navy Service, would relate after:
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again. After everything was over, we weren’t allowed into some of the restaurants.”
A Royal Commission was put together and it put the blame of the riot directly on the admiral, stating:
“The disorders which actually occurred on May 7 and 8 owe their origin, in my opinion, to failure on the part of the Naval Command in Halifax to plan for their personnel…Once stated, the development and continuance of the disorders were due to the failure of the Naval Command to put down the initial disorders on each of the two days, May 7 and 8.”
A naval board of inquiry, chaired by Rear Admiral V.G. Brodeur, found that the riot was caused by many causes. The report stated:
“The disorders of 7th and 8th May cannot be attributed to one cause but rather to a series of events which led a normal body of men, prepared to celebrate in an innocuous manner, to disorders of a serious nature.”
The report continued:
The board also placed blame on the leadership of the sailors for not taking any steps. Rear Admiral Murray would resign in protest of the findings of the board of inquiry. Murray would say “I am satisfied that through service personnel were present during the whole afternoon, in almost all cases civilians led the assault and encouraged service personnel to take part.”
He left Canada completely in September 1945 and practiced law in England, where he lived until he died in 1971.
The federal government would provide $1 million in compensation to businesses that had suffered in the riot, with the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission receiving $178,924 alone.
By Oct. 4, 12 of 16 men who had been given jail sentences for participation in the riot had been released after a review of their sentences by the Justice Department. Among those who were released on the advice of Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent on the recommendation of John Diefenbaker for clemency, both future prime ministers, were three members of the navy, two from the merchant navy, four from the army and three civilians. According to Minister St. Laurent, the offenses arising from the riots had been on a special basis. One petty officer from Regina would receive five years in prison for stealing, while another from Saskatoon got three years.
Information comes from CBC, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Forprosterityssake.ca, the Canadian War Museum, Halifax.ca, Canadian Military Magazine, CTV News, MacLeans, Legion Magazine,