The BBC at War – 3 

9 August 2017

[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


From My Story of the B.B.C by Freddy Grisewood, published by Odhams Press in 1959

Besides passing the news, the B.B.C. began in 1941 to incite our friends on the Continent deliberately to bait their German oppressors by means of the “V Campaign”.

For some time it had been felt that those in the Occupied Countries should have some unifying, or rallying, symbol by which to express their disgust for the Germans and their confidence in ultimate victory for the Allies: a symbol that could be flaunted widely in a way calculated to unnerve the enemy.

The use of the letter V as this symbol was suggested by a Belgian broadcaster from England, M. de Laveleye, on the grounds that this was the initial letter for Victory, not only in English but also in French and other Continental languages; M. de Laveleye himself launched the campaign in a broadcast to Belgium. “All the patriots of Belgium,” he told his clandestine listeners, “must have a rallying emblem; let them multiply this emblem around them. Let them see it written everywhere; let them know that they are legion. Let 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 effect of this broadcast was electric. The following day, rudely chalked Vs appeared all over Belgium, and in many instances these were accompanied by a second, unrequested symbol: RAF. Within a few days they also began to appear in France. In town and village alike, the new symbol of freedom could soon be found on walls, pavements, lamps and trees all over Europe. The campaign spread with the rapidity of a forest fire — and the Nazis grew distinctly rattled.

Further dire threats ensued, but these merely served as a spur to greater action. A mysterious figure known as Colonel Britton began to broadcast regularly from England to the growing V Army; and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, went to the microphone to add his stirring challenge. “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the people of the occupied territories and of Britain—of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people of Europe continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader, it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.”

Before long a further development was introduced. The B.B.C. broadcasts to Europe began to open with a signature tune: the three dots and a dash representing the Morse signal for V, • • • ➖. To add insult to injury, this might sometimes be given a more musical rendering in the playing of the first strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, • • • ➖ • • • ➖.



In languages innumerable, messages of encouragement and incitement were relayed at all hours from London to the Continent — “Do not give way. Never despair. We’ll get them yet. Hitler beware!” … “Chalk up a V on every wall until you are free” … Don’t forget: chalk up a V …”

Messages were sent in all manner of ways, and there were occasions when the sender had not the vaguest notion as to the meaning of his message. Such was once my experience. I was reading the news on the European Service when a special messenger handed me a gramophone record with strict instructions to play this at the end of the bulletin. I did so. To my surprise, I found that the record was nothing better than a child playing a waltz on the piano in a remarkably laboured fashion, punctuated with mistakes. What was the significance? I never knew. It was not intended that I should know, but presumably it meant a great deal to some of those huddling in secrecy over their receivers across the Channel.

The messages were certainly answered in good measure. As Charles Rolo says, people of all ranks of society “made it their duty to draw, chalk, or even cut with glaziers’ diamonds large Vs on the bodies and windscreens of German cars. French villagers or workmen would affectionately pat a German soldier on the back and leave him displaying a large chalked V, which had been transferred from a chalk V on the palm of their hands. Parisian ladies in the Metro were known to use their precious lipsticks to write sprawling emblems of victory on the backs of the Wehrmacht.”


V . . . - badge

World War II-era ‘V for Victory’ badge – via Mpls55408 on FlickrCC-BY-NC


As the war progressed, the V Army came to do far more than chalk — for, of course, it was from their ranks that the great underground Resistance movements were recruited. Acting upon advice and instruction broadcast from London, they conducted a campaign of passive resistance to the Nazis: a campaign which eventually spread to Germany itself. “Lose as many man-hours as possible,” the Germans were urged by anti-Nazi broadcasters. “Pretend you are sick. Stretch your vacation a few days longer. Faint near your machine. Hold your breath and smoke a cigarette immediately afterwards; this will make you feel very bad. Forget to oil your machines. Throw file dust into their works. If you are in an air-raid shelter act as if you were afraid to go back to work. Simulate fear… Take more time for lunch. Find every excuse you can to work not at all or as little and ineffectively as possible…”

With the approach of D-day, passive resistance gave way to active resistance, until, by 1944, the men of the Resistance were blowing up arms dumps, mining bridges, setting booby traps, and undertaking manifold heroic acts — deeds which, unhappily, cost many of them their lives.



The way paved by the Resistance movements, the Allies returned to Europe in June, 1944, and the day of liberation, promised so constantly in the B.B.C.’s broadcasts, was at hand.

For eleven months the B.B.C. commentators accompanied the Allied armies from battlefield to battlefield, broadcasting their vivid war reports of the victorious drive through France, Belgium, Flolland and into the heart of Germany.

Then, at three o’clock on the afternoon of 8 May, 1945, came the historic broadcast for which men and women the world over had long been yearning: the announcement of final victory by the principal architect of that victory, Winston Churchill.

Yesterday morning at 2.41 a.m. at General Eisenhower’s Headquarters, General Jodi, the representative of the German High Command and of Grand Admiral Doenitz the designated Head of the German State, signed the Act of Unconditional Surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command.

General Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and General Francois Sevez, signed the document on behalf of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and General Suslapatov signed on behalf of the Russian High Command.

Today this Agreement will be ratified and confirmed at Berlin, where Air Chief Marshal Tedder, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and General de Lattre de Tassigny, will sign on behalf of General Eisenhower, General Zhukov will sign on behalf of the Soviet High Command.

The German representatives will be Field-Marshal Keitel, Chief of the High Command, and the Commanders in Chief of the German Army, Navy and Air Forces.

Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight, Tuesday, 8 May — one minute after midnight tonight, Tuesday, 8 May — but in the interest of saving lives, the Cease Fire began yesterday to be sounded all along the fronts, and our dear Channel Islands are also to be free today.


A man at a desk with a large microphone suspended above it

Mr. Winston Churchill first broadcast as Prime Minister on 14 July 1940


The Germans are still in places resisting the Russian troops but should they continue to do so after midnight they will, of course, deprive themselves of the protection of the laws of war, and will be attacked from all quarters by the Allied troops. It is not surprising that on such long fronts and in the existing disorder of the enemy the Commands of the German High Command should not in every case have been obeyed immediately. This does not, in our opinion, with the best military advice at our disposal, constitute any reason for withholding from the nation the facts communicated to us by General Eisenhower of the unconditioned surrender already signed at Rheims, nor should it prevent us from celebrating today and tomorrow, Wednesday, as Victory-in-Europe days.

Today, perhaps, we shall think mostly of ourselves; tomorrow we shall pay a particular tribute to our heroic Russian comrades whose prowess in the field has been one of the grand contributions to the general victory.

The German war is therefore at an end. After years of intense preparation Germany hurled herself on Poland at the beginning of September, 1939, and in pursuance of our guarantee to Poland, and in common with the French Republic, Great Britain, the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations declared war upon this foul aggression. After gallant France had been struck down, we, from this island, and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle, single-handed, for a whole year, until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia and later by the overwhelming power and resources of the United States of America. Finally, almost the whole world was combined against evildoers, who are now prostrate before us.

Our gratitude to all our splendid allies goes forth from all our hearts in this island and throughout the British Empire. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead. Japan with all her treachery and greed remains unsubdued. The injuries she has inflicted upon Great Britain, the United States and other countries, and her detestable cruelties, call for justice and retribution. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task both at home and abroad.

Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of Freedom! God Save the King.



That evening, as crowds forgathered in their thousands outside Buckingham Palace to cheer the King and Queen, the floodlights went up on Broadcasting House, displaying the flags of twenty-two nations: nations that had heard, drawn comfort from, and acted upon the voice of Britain.


Two men shake hands over a table with plaques lying on top

Replicas of the plaque given to the BBC by the ‘Netherlands Thanks the BBC Committee’ being presented to staff in 1946


“With the end of the war,” it could well be said, “a whole phase of broadcasting, we may hope, has ended: that phase in which deliberately false and misleading propaganda has been loosed upon the world with the express purpose of enslaving public opinion, and causing strife among nations. Broadcasting in Germany was consciously used to mutilate the soul of the German people… Against this, broadcasting from Britain played a mighty part in helping to liberate Europe. It refused to use the weapon of the enemy. It stood by its standards. Today we can point to the history of broadcasting in Europe and say that certain good principles in broadcasting have defeated the worst possible principles.”


A bulbous vase with lid

A porcelain vase specially made for the BBC and presented by a Danish Radio Delegation


That nobody felt more grateful to the B.B.C. than the people of the Occupied Countries was to be seen in the showers of letters and gifts that poured into Broadcasting House from all over Europe after VE-day. On the wall opposite the studio lifts there now hangs a tapestry presented by the French Government “as a tribute to the aid which broadcasting from Great Britain brought to the people of France during the Second World War”. There are, too, a plaque from Norway, and a vase from Holland: many simple tokens with which to keep the memory green.


[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


You Say

2 responses to this article

Paul Mason 10 August 2017 at 10:07 am

I wasn’t around during WW2 but the Morse V signal was still being used by the BBC World Service into the 1970s during the Cold War.

A percussionist called James Blades beat out the Morse V on a drum. The same James Blades sounded the Rank Films gong. Later on a synthesizer took over the Morse V signal.
It may have continued into the 1980s until Mr Gorbachev became USSR president.

Andy Walters 26 October 2021 at 1:33 pm

Still being broadcast in 2000 when I worked there

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