I think it’s hard to understand now just how tenuous Britain’s hold on survival was before Lend-Lease was begun in earnest.
…Churchill’s relationship with Britons was based on the trust he asked them to place in him, and the symbolism he gave in return. During 1941 he had not much else to give but inspiring words, somber poses, and his most inspired gesture of all, the “V” for victory. The “V campaign” began in January when Victor de Laveleye, a Belgian refugee and head of the BBC Belgian section, made shortwave radio broadcasts from London in which he urged Belgians—who had been scrawling “RAF” on sidewalks and walls—to show their defiance of the Germans by marking the letter “V” in public places. The symbol caught on. In French it stood for Victorie (victory); in Flemish (the second major language in Belgium), Vrijheid (freedom); in Dutch it stood for Vryheid (freedom); in Serbian, Vitestvo (heroism); in Czech, Vite zstoi (victory). However, with predictable arrogance and astounding stupidity, the Nazis also adopted the symbol. Berlin radio claimed credit for the campaign, noting that the “V”—for victoria, the Latin word for “victory”—showed up wherever Germans went in Europe. Indeed it did, but by trying to appropriate the “V” as their own, the Nazis backed themselves into a corner: German soldiers could do nothing but smile and return the salute whenever a Belgian, Dutchman, or Frenchman proffered it. In July, a “Colonel Britton” (the broadcaster Douglas Ritchie) broadcast on the BBC a message from Churchill to occupied Europeans: “It is dark now. Darkness is your chance. Put up your ‘V’ as a member of this vast army. Do it in the daytime too.” They did. In short order, whenever Churchill flashed the “V,” flashbulbs popped. The symbol merged with his bulldog snarl into a single defiant entity. For the remainder of his life, he raised it on any occasion of national duress or personal ordeal.1
To his staff’s amusement and chagrin, Churchill, a cigar gripped between his index and middle fingers, often proffered the “V” with his palm facing inward—the British equivalent of the American raised middle finger—instead of giving the proper, palm-outward salute. Whether the nasty or the patriotic “V,” crowds howled with delight, for surely the P.M. was telling Hitler—one way or the other—to bugger off. So powerful was the connection, that had Churchill lost his voice, his two upraised fingers could have done his speaking, without diminution of his message. For the introduction of its nightly overseas programming, the BBC borrowed the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which corresponded to the Morse code designation for “V”—dot, dot, dot, dash. Colonel Britton encouraged the people of occupied Europe to tap the signal on wineglasses and coffee cups whenever Germans entered a room. The Germans were powerless to respond; they claimed to have invented the campaign, after all.2
When morale and dogged perseverance are all that is sustaining you, small victories can have an outsized impact. Small victories are also easier to find than decisive ones, especially at first. Remembering “V” for Victory helps me when I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
Manchester, William, and Paul Reid. The Last Lion Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm 1940-1965. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co, 2012. Kindle link ↩︎