Finest Hour 158, Spring 2013
By Douglas J. Hall
It became his symbol, his salute, his hallmark, his talisman. He did not invent it. He just turned it inside out and cleaned it up.
As a former soldier—and indeed as a former Harrow schoolboy—Churchill knew early on that the original gesture, knuckles facing out, had for more than 500 years been used around the world as a crude expression of disrespect, insolence, defiance and vulgarity.
It has been said that when wars were fought by soldiers armed with bows and arrows, after an archer had emptied his quiver he would continue to raise his first two fingers—as if to draw back his now-impotent bow string—in a gesture of contempt and provocation towards the enemy. Churchill was careful (mostly) to give his version of the V-sign with the knuckles facing in. The gesture was to acquire a whole new meaning—defiance, yes, but also hope, determination and victory—and was to go down in history not only as the trademark of the man but a symbol of the resolution of a whole nation.
When did Churchill first use the V-sign? His son Randolph, in his documentary Churchill: His Life in Photographs (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1955) writes in the caption to picture 203: “Shortly after his return from the United States [he meant Newfoundland] the Prime Minister…gives the first of his innumerable and famous V-signs—August 1941.” But two weeks earlier, before WSC left for Placentia Bay, the Daily Express captioned a photograph: “The V-sign: this novel salute made by the prime minister at the conclusion of his interview.”
Let us not quibble over a fortnight. Churchill was first seen to use the V-sign in August 1941. It did not gain immediate acceptance. Jock Colville wrote in his diary-memoir, The Fringes of Power, of Churchill’s visit to Coventry in September 1941: “The PM will give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of the representations made to him that this gesture has quite another significance.”
But Churchill persisted and, brushing aside all objections, thereafter used it frequently and extensively. As often as not it was returned with great joy and enthusiasm. It became the symbol of the “V for Victory” campaign.
The publishers of Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Embattled Hero (1995) picked their cover illustration from the Hulton Deutsch Collection—one of the rare “knuckles out” variety and, I suspect, deliberately chosen to match the author’s text, which responded to attacks by Churchill critics.
The late Mr. Hall, author of the comprehensive book Churchilliana, was for years a contributor and our bric-a-brac columnist. He left us a considerable backlog.