V for Victory: the Wireless Campaign that Defeated the Nazis by David Boyle briefly tells the tale of an almost forgotten piece of World War Two history. In the dark days of 1941 journalists Noel Newsome and Douglas Ritchie took up “the weapons of responsible journalism and the instruments of the clever advertiser” to promote British ideals and explain the nation’s war aims to the peoples of occupied Europe. Together they forged the BBC’s European Service that proved such an effective foil to Joseph Goebbels’ black propaganda.
The Stay-at-Home Hour, New Year’s Day 1941, helped test the idea of a sustained campaign of honest or “white” propaganda and gauge how many people were listening to the BBC’s Foreign Service broadcasts. Nazi black propaganda in the sinister voice of William Joyce or Lord Haw Haw had certainly captured the imagination of British radio listeners during the early months of the war. On June 6th 1941 Douglas Ritchie in the mysterious guise of Colonel Britton launched the V Campaign on the ears of Europe. The audience included 15 million German citizens who risked imprisonment and even death if caught listening to the BBC.
The BBC European Service and V for Victory campaign upset just about everybody from the established political parties and security services to the Civil Service because it cut through bureaucracy. The European Service was enthusiastically adopted by political and military leaders of foreign governments in exile. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was quick to see the many possibilities of the V for Victory campaign, making the V-sign a popular gesture of defiance.
The V Campaign called for small acts of disobedience and sabotage by the people of Nazi-occupied Europe. As distinctive as any brand logo, the V-sign was daubed on walls and buildings across the continent. Ritchie made the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony the sound of European resistance and the theme tune of his broadcasts. In one of the worst periods of all human history the V for Victory campaign became a symbol of hope and solidarity.
Although David Boyle has produced a well-researched exposé of the V for Victory campaign, the book is very short and leaves the reader with more questions than answers. After all, the V-sign has its origins in the Hundred Year’s War and has continued in popular culture from the Vietnam War and Arab Spring to movies, graphic novels and popular TV mini-series. The book could have looked at the various resistance movements that emerged during World War Two, the work of the clandestine SOE (Special Operations Executive), the various aspects of psychological warfare or even Douglas Ritchie’s personal battle to recover from a stroke aged just 50. For me, V for Victory: the Wireless Campaign that Defeated the Nazis is a book that only tells half the story, maybe less, and leaves you wanting to know a lot more.