The BBC and World War 2
WW2 BBC newsreader Alvar Lidel
- A BBC Belgian programme organiser, Victor de Lavelaye came up with the idea of using the letter “V” as a resistance symbol in WW2. Belgium, occupied by the Germans, had both French and Flemish speakers. V stood for Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish. In a BBC broadcast on January 14th 1941, he encouraged his compatriots to show their defiance to the Germans by painting V's wherever they could. From there it spread to other BBC European services that broadcast to occupied areas. In addition the BBC adopted the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – da-da-da-DA – for its news broadcasts in that in Morse Code, dot dot dot dash stood for the letter V. Churchill also joined the campaign with his famous V finger sign.
- The BBC reported honestly and without bias. Defeats were reported as openly as victories. For that reason German officers and military advisers listened secretly to the BBC during WW2 to obtain accurate information, the BBC’s truthful accounts being more reliable than the intel and propaganda provided to them by their own HQ and radio broadcasts.
- From The BBC Story at www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/rsources: "Throughout the 1930s, as the Nazi threat was looming over Europe, then Director-General John Reith was in secret discussion with the Cabinet over broadcasting arrangements in the event of war. It was agreed that the BBC should seek to report events truthfully and accurately, but not in such detail as to endanger the civilian population or jeopardise operations. The result was that the BBC did report setbacks as well as successes. It would say, for instance, that bombs had fallen and that there were casualties. But precise number of casualties and the location and time of a bombing would often be withheld, so that the enemy would not know which of its missions had found the target."
- One of the BBC’s programmes was to broadcast the names of German prisoners of war. From 1943 a quarter of an hour each night was spent relaying messages recorded by PoWs to their families. On one occasion a family in Germany arranged a Requiem Mass for a soldier believed to have been killed. When they heard over the BBC that he was alive, their first thought was to cancel it, until they realised this would let the authorities know they had been listening to illegal broadcasts. The family went ahead with the service but when they got to the church, nobody was there because others had heard the broadcast too.
- As shown in many movies, the BBC broadcast messages to the resistance in Europe. The messages themselves were nonsense - “Le lapin a bu un apéritif” (The rabbit drank an aperitif), or “Mademoiselle caresse le nez de son chien” (Mademoiselle strokes her dog’s nose) – but to the recipients they were signals as to whether an operation was to proceed or be cancelled. They also indicated whether documents and personnel had arrived safely. (Movie buffs may recall that in the flick The Longest Day, the code expression "John has a long mustache" is used to signal the French Resistance, the Maquis, that the Normandy invasion - Operation Overlord - is to begin the next day. That is a factual reference.) One coded message caused particular confusion back in Britain: “Courvoisier, nous vous rendons visite” (Courvoisier, we’re coming to visit you). The confused head of the Courvoisier brandy firm, who lived in the UK, contacted the BBC to ask what the message had to do with him; and a Mrs Courvoisier asked if this meant her sons were coming home from France. However, for security reasons, the BBC staff who broadcast the messages were never told what the messages meant.
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