The BBC 'V' Sign Campaign

To mark the 76th anniversary of the BBC’s “V for Victory” campaign, Society Archivist Colin Isherwood has provided the following report, which we hope you will enjoy.

On January 14th, 1941, Victor de Laveleye, the former Belgian Minister of Justice and director of the Belgian French-speaking broadcasts for the BBC (1940–1944), suggested in a broadcast that Belgians, French and Dutch use a V for victoire as a rallying emblem.

Within weeks after Laveleye’s broadcast, ‘V’ signs began appearing on walls throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France.

Buoyed by this success, the BBC set out a plan, the “V for Victory” campaign, for which they put in charge the assistant news editor Douglas Ritchie posing as “Colonel Britton”.

Ritchie suggested an audible V using its Morse code rhythm (three dots and a dash). Having the same rhythm, as the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This was then used as the call-sign by the BBC in its foreign language programmes to occupied Europe for the rest of the war. The irony is that it was composed by a German!

The BBC thus encouraged the use of the V gesture introduced by de Laveleye.

By July 1941, the use of the letter V had spread through occupied Europe, and on 19 July, Winston Churchill put the British Government’s stamp of approval on the ‘V’ for Victory campaign in a speech, from which point he started using the V hand sign.

Other allied leaders used the sign as well; since 1942, Charles de Gaulle used the V sign in every speech until 1969.

Channel Islanders took part in the V sign campaign, as part of the resistance movement that had taken place across Europe.

“V” signs were painted over German signs and on walls: The symbol was incorporated into art and everyday objects as well. It was engraved in cups, stitched on to clothes and embroidery, and hidden in paintings.

In 1941, Edmund Blampied designed banknotes issued by the States of Jersey. When folded in a specific way, revealed a V symbol. He also created a series of postage stamps which hid a ‘V’ sign and the initials “GR” symbolizing loyalty to Britain and King George VI.

The campaign in Jersey although did no harm to the Germans, did infuriate the Occupying Forces immensely and rewards of £25 were offered for any information leading to the arrest of the culprits.

On 1st July 1941 (after exactly one year of Occupation) ‘V’ signs were painted in and around the Rouge Bouillon area, including the German road sign at the bottom of Queens road, which bore the slogan ‘Victory is British’

The Germans were furious and immediately issued three ultimatums if the perpetrators did not hand themselves in:

  1. All radio sets held by persons in the Rouge Bouillon are will be confiscated
  2. A fine imposed on the inhabitants in the area
  3. A civilian guard will be required nightly to prevent a recurrence.

On 10th July 1941 persons living in the Rouge Bouillon area did indeed have their wireless sets confiscated as form of punishment and guards were place at the bottom of Queens road.

However, on 28th July 1941 the confiscated radios were returned, the reason for this being two women, (sisters) Kathleen le Norman and Lillian Kinnaird were arrested and subsequently sentenced to nine months imprisonment which was served in Caen. This despite Lillian having a young baby. Both women were under 20 years of age.

Around this time, it is alleged Guernsey Jurat John Leale said to the German authorities: “If you don’t like people putting up ‘V’ signs, why not put some up yourself?”

The Germans indeed put up their own ‘V’ signs: Their ‘V’ being for Viktoria, mounted with oak leaves.

The soldiers of Frederick the Great shouted ‘Victory’ after they had won the Battle. Proud of the victories gained by their comrades on the Western Front, the German soldiers had now begun to display the ‘V’ sign.

Whether Leale actually helped with this German ‘V’ campaign is unclear, but from 21st July 1941 the Germans began their own ‘V’ campaign in earnest – Leslie Sinel noted “The Germans have put up ‘V’ signs on the dwellings and their cars!”

The German campaign was successful not just in Jersey and the Channel Islands, but also across France and Europe, and gradually the British ‘V’ sign campaign died away.

CIOS Archives, Colin Isherwood