“Splash the V from one end of Europe to another.”
– Col. V. Britton
On July 18, 1941, BBC radio host Col. V. Britton broadcast a special message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the occupied countries of Europe: “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Thus was launched the “V for Victory” campaign, the most successful propaganda campaign in history.
It was inspired by a Belgian refugee named (appropriately enough) Victor de Laveleye who, in his program broadcast to the Low Countries on the evening of Jan. 14, 1941, said, “I am proposing to you as a rallying emblem, the letter V because V is the first letter of the words ‘victoire’ [victory] in French.” He went on to add that it was also the first letter of the Flemish and Dutch word for “freedom” [vrijeid], and, of course, “victory” in English, thus making it a multinational symbol of solidarity for the oppressed. De Laveleye then called on the people in the occupied Low Countries to “multiply this emblem” by writing it everywhere so that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, understand that he is surrounded, encircled, by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.”
The suggestion took hold in Belgium and quickly spread to the Netherlands and northern France. Eventually word reached England about the widespread use of V graffito, inspiring what The New York Times called “a unique nerve war against Germany.” It began with a BBC radio show broadcast to the occupied countries hosted by Colonel V. Britton, the cover for individuals fluent in the native languages of the various audiences. In his broadcasts, Britton reminded his listeners to use the V as a means to fight “for your country’s independence and honor and that of the other nations enslaved by the Nazi regime.”
Not long after the July broadcast, an observation was made that the Morse telegraphic code for V was three dots and a dash (. . . —) which was also the beat of the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That passage was promptly put to a variety of propaganda uses, including the theme song for Britton’s program. Churchill began flashing the V sign with his index and middle finger, palm out, doing it so often that it essentially became his signature. The campaign, to use modern terminology, soon went viral.
The Morse code beat proved particularly versatile. People could pound it out with their feet, clap it with their hands, tap it out at work, school, restaurants – everywhere. And, since V was also the first letter of the German word for victory – viktoria – there was nothing the furious Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels could do to stop it. He paid the campaign the ultimate compliment by trying to usurp it – claiming that because the campaign used the notes from a symphony written by a German composer, it supported German victory. Didn’t work.
Even though still neutral, it caught on in the United States. As early as August 1941, envelopes appeared with “V for Victory” and the Morse code V printed on them. Posters, stamps, and other ephemera followed. The New York-based British American Ambulance Corps noted, “Never before in the world’s history has an inspiration like the ‘V for Victory’ idea been so universally accepted by freemen the world over.” Initially American use expressed support for England. After America entered the war, the campaign was officially made a part of the government’s efforts.
The campaign even lent its name to a new class of correspondence: V-mail, or “V . . . — MAIL,” as it was printed on the stationery. Essentially Eastman Kodak’s library microfilm system adapted for military use, V-mail was a photograph of a one-page sheet of special V-mail stationery reduced to 4-¼ inches by 5-¼ inches. By April 1944, 63 million V-mail letters a month were being shipped to military personnel around the world.
This article was first published online on July 24, 2011.