Eighty years ago, at its darkest hour British propaganda launches its best campaign


The hugely successful British comic author P.  G. Wodehouse, creator of idiotic socialite Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, made a fateful mistake. He had been interned by the Germans when his home in Le Touquet was overrun in 1940 but had just been released when eh reached the age of 60. Naïvely he accepted a German request to make a series of radio broadcasts. These were light-hearted, humorous and in no way propaganda, but the mere fact he was willing to speak on German radio appeared deeply suspect. He was abused as being practically a traitor, most venomously on the BBC by the Daily Mirror journalist William Connor (“Cassandra”). Connor’s attack was so unbalanced that it provoked severe criticism of the BBC.

The “Cassandra” affair created an elegant opportunity to shift MP Harold Nicolson from the Ministry of Information to the BBC as a governor without consulting the existing governors. Nicolson was disappointed at what he recognised as a demotion but he was at best and indifferent minister. The affair  also served as a final nail in the coffin of Duff Cooper as Minister of Information, although the patent failure of the ministry had been obvious for months. Duff Cooper was sent to the Far East on a nebulous mission. There was little confidence in his replacement Brendan Bracken, who was one of the tiny band of MPs who had supported Churchill through his “wilderness years” and was still his parliamentary private secretary. He was still viewed with hatred and suspicion by traditional Conservatives. In fact Bracken who was tough-minded and familiar with the press world as the proprietor of the Financial News newspaper, made a success of the job, but at the time it seemed just another step towards a Churchillian state.

At its darkest hour politically, British propaganda began arguably its most successful campaign. “Colonel Britton” (in fact, the journalist Douglas Ritchi”) broadcast an appeal to the citizens of European countries occupied by the Germans to adopt the simple letter “V” as the symbol of the fight against Nazism. It stood for the Dutch word for freedom and for victoire in French (and victory in English). Vs were soon daubed on walls throughout Europe. The icing on the cake came shortly afterwards, when it was spotted that the morse code for V dot-dot-dot-dash was the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, providing both an unmistakable sound signature and an elegant way of playing great German culture back against the Nazis. The V symbol was equally potent in domestic propaganda and was enthusiastically adopted by Churchill; according to legend he had to be told delicately to hold his palm outwards when he made the V gesture with his fingers.

The other main feature of the ministerial reshuffle was to promote R. A. Butler from  junior minister at the Foreign Office to, after years of waiting, a ministry of his own, the Ministry of Education. As one of the most enthusiastic appeasers who had exercised a malign influence over British diplomacy from 1938 onwards, Butler was lucky to have survived the arrival of Churchill in power in 1940. Butler’s new post was clearly not going to be of great power in wartime, but he as able to use it as a springboard to a post-war career as a Tory reformist.

The Soviet regime meted out vengeance to its scapegoats for the collapse in the defence against the German invasion. The dominant true reasons were Stalin’s stubborn unwillingness to accept that Hitler would renege on the non-aggression pact and his terror that serious military preparations against an invasion would be seen as provocations by Hitler. The former commander of the Red Army on the western front together with his deputy were court-martialled and swiftly shot. The only concession to any form of justice was that they were convicted of failing in their duty rather than treason. At least another eight generals suffered the same fate.


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