EIGHTY years ago, in the late winter and early spring of 1941, the plan for the V-sign campaign was hatched in London.
The craze that emerged from this swept through occupied Europe and became one of the most well-known and widespread examples of European resistance in the 20th century. The Guernsey police, deported in 1942 for their acts of resistance, also played their part.
The idea for a resistance movement throughout German-occupied Europe, to be coordinated by BBC broadcasts from London, was first mooted by Douglas Ritchie. Ritchie was assistant director of the European News Department of the BBC. He put forward his ideas in a document titled Broadcasting As A New Weapon Of War. That document can be read in the Churchill Archives in Cambridge today.
In this article, Ritchie proposed that London would take a central role in uniting occupied peoples throughout Europe, encouraging them to sabotage the German war effort by all means possible. This would involve populations in different countries carrying out synchronised acts which would make things difficult for occupying troops. The use of the V-for-victory sign was to be used as a symbol of allied victory and freedom. It worked in many languages, such as victoire in French and vrijheid in Dutch.
A ‘V-Committee’ was set up in London, with Ritchie as chair. Their function was to encourage a feeling of solidarity among the occupied peoples of Europe so that they would feel united as an underground army. This ‘army’ would act in unison as a way of boosting morale and causing economic difficulties to the Germans. It was also decided that the V-sign should be central in uniting Europe through weekly broadcasts in a synchronized anti-German campaign.
Douglas Ritchie wrote and delivered the weekly radio broadcasts under the guise of ‘Colonel Britton’. These were then translated and broadcast in other languages. The first broadcast introduced listeners to the V-sign and V-sound (V in Morse code) and the way that it could be written, scratched, planted in flower beds, saluted through hand gestures, tapped, clapped, played and generally used all over Europe in order to make the Germans nervous.
Although the BBC directed its broadcasts to occupied peoples, there is no archival evidence to suggest that Channel Islanders were considered as possible conscripts to the ‘V-army’, perhaps because of the precariousness of their position as sitting ducks. Despite this, islanders heard the broadcasts and joined in the campaign wholeheartedly.
From the beginning of July 1941, islanders began to paint V-signs on street signs and walls as ‘Colonel Britton’ had requested. His regular broadcasts caused great excitement and there is ample reference to them in the Occupation diaries of most islanders. Ken Lewis, a clerk of the Controlling Committee in Guernsey noted that ‘latterly in Guernsey the “V” campaign was in full swing, everybody giving the V-knock, that is, three soft and one hard knock, and also on all the walls one could see the “V”-sign chalked up’.
A group of schoolboys at the Castel school were accused of painting Vs across the parish and were reported to the Germans, via their headmaster, by John Leale, president of the Controlling Committee. The Germans gave them sweets and let them off with a warning; their parents were lectured by the Geheime Feldpolizei.
Three other islanders were not so lucky. Xavier de Guillebon and Winifred Green were deported to Caen Prison for several months after their particular V-related offences. Roy Machon spent five months in Munich Stadelheim prison for making V-sign badges. All three people had been informed upon. Their stories can be read in www.frankfallaarchive.org.
At least five of the Guernsey policemen – men deported to Nazi prisons, labour camps and concentration camps the following year – also joined in the V-sign campaign. Having been prevented from enlisting in the armed forces in 1940 by their superior, Inspector Sculpher, the men in Guernsey’s police force felt frustrated at their powerlessness. However, by joining Colonel Britton’s underground army, they felt that they could still fight the enemy.
The five men were Jack Harper, Frank Tuck, Kingston George Bailey, Charles Friend and Archibald Tardif, who were later to experience a total of 38 Nazi prisons and camps between them. As Harper later wrote, ‘I welcomed the opportunity of banding together to take subversive action against the enemy and of forming one more link in the great chain of underground forces being set up all over Europe and receiving guidance from London. We received much inspiration from Col. Britton’s broadcasts and felt that he was talking to us and inciting us to action… We conducted a V-sign campaign with energy.’
In his memoirs, Bailey wrote that ‘In July 1941, we spent a whole night plastering V signs all over the Island in places where they would most be seen by the Germans’; ‘we felt that we were part of his “V” army, and we were indeed very proud to do our small part for the war effort.’
A year later, the policemen were caught taking food from German stores to redistribute to hungry islanders. This, too, was encouraged by Colonel Britton as an act of sabotage, as seen in surviving radio scripts. And yet, at their trial, they were warned that they were liable to be shot for the offence of sabotage. Knowing that carrying out this threat went against Hitler’s wish that the Channel Islanders be treated with ‘the utmost tact and leniency’, the Germans instead decided to destroy the men’s reputations. They pressured the Royal Court into trying the policemen for stealing from civilian stores, framing them as thieves and criminals rather than as latter-day Robin Hoods. The local authorities carried out the Germans’ wishes and irreparably blackened the policemen’s names in the process. Attempts at rehabilitation after the war were blocked. Today, the German version of events – propaganda – is still recited by many. After nearly 80 years, there has still been no rehabilitation.