The unfortunate odyssey of ‘Lord Haw Haw,’ the Nazis’ wartime voice in Britain
80 years ago, William Joyce fled the UK for Berlin to broadcast German propaganda. Bad luck and a series of poor decisions led to him being the last Brit executed for treason
LONDON — On August 26, 1939, William Joyce and his wife, Margaret, traveled to central London’s Victoria Station. In their hands, they clutched one-way tickets to Berlin. Catching sight of their clearly marked luggage labels, a station porter remarked: “Berlin! That’s a rum place to be going right now.”
But Joyce, a prominent fascist, pro-Nazi sympathizer and ardent anti-Semite, was making a last-minute dash from the clutches of the British authorities. He had been tipped off by a senior figure in the security services that he was on a list of potential fifth columnists who, with war just days away, the government planned to intern.
Within weeks, the sound of Joyce, transmitted from Germany in nightly propaganda broadcasts, would become familiar to millions of Britons. Eighty years after his escape, Joyce — or “Lord Haw-Haw” as he was christened by a British newspaper and was thereafter popularly known — is the country’s most notorious World War II traitor. For his crimes, in early 1946 he became the last person in the UK to be executed for treason.
Ironically, Joyce was, legally speaking, not a traitor to Britain at all. Born in New York, he was an American national who, therefore, owed no allegiance to the Crown and technically should not have been punished for betraying it. But, having been brought up in Ireland and lived all of his adult life in England, Joyce in 1933 falsely applied for a British passport, claiming he had UK nationality.
For that decision, driven by a belief that he was exempt from the niceties of the law, Joyce later paid a heavy price. As his biographer, Nigel Farndale writes: “Joyce had unwittingly signed his own death warrant. From this moment on, he was a condemned man.”
Ironically, too, the man whose broadcasts not only sought to depress morale and encourage defeatism, but frequently appeared to revel in the death and destruction being nightly visited on the UK by German bombers, went to his death utterly convinced of his love for the country he had betrayed.
When in doubt, blame the Jews
Joyce’s road to Berlin – and, eventually, death in a London prison – resulted from a mix of warped patriotism, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism. “From my earliest days,” Joyce later wrote, “I was taught to love England and her Empire. Patriotism was the highest virtue I knew.”
After the family moved to England in 1921, Joyce enlisted in the British army but was swiftly discharged when he was discovered to be underage. He then joined the University of London Officer Training Corps, his father falsely claiming the family to be British citizens.
Although he initially joined the Conservative party’s youth wing, Joyce soon tired of it, believing that in agreeing to grant southern Ireland independence in 1922, the British establishment had betrayed the United Kingdom. Thus, at the age of just 17, he became one of the earliest recruits to Britain’s first fascist organization, the Mussolini-admiring British Fascisti. As Martin Pugh writes in his book on British interwar fascism: “Increasingly consumed with a hatred towards Catholics, Communists and Jews, he saw fascism as the best means of prosecuting his crusade against his and the nation’s enemies.”
These hatreds were fueled by a powerful sense of resentment stemming from his own multitude of personal failures. Joyce blamed his inability to complete his masters degree, for instance, on a Jewish tutor who supposedly stole his research. His rejection for posts in the civil service and Foreign Office were similarly attributed to the malign power exercised by Jews and others.
And then there was the attack he suffered while campaigning in south London during the 1924 general election. During an altercation between communist and fascist supporters, Joyce was slashed with a razor. The resulting permanent scar, which extended from his right ear to his mouth, Joyce later dubbed his “Lambeth Honour.” He predictably later claimed that his attacker was a Jew who had attempted to cut his throat.
After a decade of drift, Joyce achieved a political breakthrough of sorts, joining Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), the most successful, though still marginal, extreme-right force of the interwar years. Joyce rose rapidly through the ranks, from an organizer in the home counties to director of propaganda, and, finally, Mosley’s deputy.
However, Joyce’s growing power — together with that of the former Labour MP John Beckett and journalist AK Chesterton — accelerated the increasing emphasis the BUF placed on anti-Semitism. The strategy, argues Pugh, led to tensions in the party. On one side stood those such as Joyce, who wanted the BUF to remain ideologically pure. On the other were those, including Mosley, who came to believe that the kind of vicious attacks on Jews in which the propaganda director excelled were limiting the party’s potential appeal.
The party’s failure to make an electoral breakthrough in municipal elections in London in 1937 provoked a parting of the ways between Joyce and Mosley. Sacked from his post, Joyce quit the BUF and founded the National Socialist League.
Unhindered by Mosley’s more cautious attitude, Joyce was free in the National Socialist League to argue for an alliance with Hitler and war against the “twin Jewish manifestations” of Bolshevism and international finance. “If Germany needs help in hurling Orientals back to the Orient,” its manifesto proclaimed, “she is entitled to receive it from those who prefer white manhood and government to any other.”
The new party, with its revolutionary outlook and unadulterated admiration for the “achievements” of the Third Reich, proved a flop.
“Eighteen months after he set it up as a political party, William Joyce re-registers the National Socialist League as a drinking club. It is possible that by this stage police informers outnumber the organization’s genuine believers,” writes author Josh Ireland in his book “The Traitors.”
But, though he was later to be cast as a black sheep, Joyce was not entirely the political outsider he made himself out to be. Instead, he was involved with a string of shadowy groups, such as the Nordic League, the Link, and the Right Club, which were frequented by right-wing Tory MPs, members of the aristocracy and former military officers.
Nominally committed to the promotion of peace with Germany, in reality these were little more than gathering places for appeasers, Nazi sympathizers and, once war broke out, potential fifth columnists. Like many of them, as war approached Joyce was convinced that, for their own pernicious purposes, the Jews were leading Britain into a conflict with Germany that was most definitely not in the country’s national interest.
Joyce, unlike the British Jews whose loyalty he frequently maligned, was already in the pay of a foreign power and passing intelligence to it. The latter was certainly known to the secret services who, in the year before the outbreak of war, had been tapping Joyce’s phone and intercepting his mail, and were thus aware that he was in contact with German intelligence agents.
Joyce had been mulling even greater acts of treason for at least as long. During the 1938 Munich crisis, he suggested that, if war did indeed come, he would flee to Ireland and from there travel to Germany and enlist in its army. A year later, as the storm clouds of war gathered again across the continent, Joyce used his contacts in Berlin to inquire whether, if he left Britain, he would be granted German citizenship. Joyce also sought a way of justifying the treachery upon which he was to embark. “There has to be a loyalty even [bigger] than nationalism,” he told his wife. “Our war is with Bolshevism so if that means fighting on the side of Germany, so be it.”
Barely three weeks after they set sail from England, Joyce had joined the broadcasters on the Reichrundfunk’s English-language service.
Lord Haw-Haw is born
Although it was the name for which he will for ever be associated, the title Lord Haw-Haw was initially given by the Daily Express’ Jonah Barrington to another of the Reichrundfunk’s broadcasters to England, possibly the British-educated German Wolf Mittler or the former British army officer Norman Baillie-Stewart. “He speaks English of the haw-haw, damn-it-get-out-of-my-way variety,” the newspaper’s radio correspondent wrote.
Joyce’s accent, described as a mix of “Yankee twang and an Irish brogue,” was not particularly upper-class. But his distinctive way of announcing the start of programming — “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling” — seemed to fit the bill. Soon, mention of Lord Haw-Haw conjured up only the voice of Joyce. He happily adopted the persona, and was often introduced on air as “William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw-Haw.”
His broadcasts were an almost instant hit. In the early months of the war, and competing only with the highly deferential, heavily censored and staid programming offered by the BBC, Joyce was attracting audiences of around 9 million Britons. As Ireland notes, the British public were unused to hearing their leaders ridiculed and attacked in the manner Joyce deployed. Churchill became “the degenerate of Downing Street” and senior ministers such as Ernest Bevin “Mr. Bleeding Bevin” or “Hoary Ernie.”
A BBC listenership report commissioned by the government in December 1939 found that two-thirds of the British public listened to him at least occasionally. “I tell the Fuhrer about Lord Haw-Haw’s success, which is really astonishing,” Joyce’s ultimate boss, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary. He was, Goebbels would also suggest, “the best runner I’ve got in my stable.” A pay raise, promotion to chief commentator and his own program, “Views on the News,” all followed.
Initially, though, British listeners appeared to regard Joyce with a mix of curiosity and amusement. His broadcasts inspired a popular song — “Lord Haw-Haw, the Humbug of Hamburg” — and a musical revue.
But the authorities did not see the funny side, nor, once German bombs began to fall on British cities, did many of his listeners. Aylmer Vallance, a journalist who worked for the War Ministry, warned the BBC’s director-general in late 1939 that Joyce’s “ingenious” broadcasts were “a definite factor affecting public morale.”
“[His rumors] are spread by people who are normally responsible and sensible and cause genuine alarm,” wrote Vallance. The impact on soldiers who tuned into his nightly program was particularly concerning for the government. “[It] is a very grave danger to morale and may be in the future a very definite penetration point for enemy propaganda,” the director of home intelligence also warned.
On occasion, Joyce’s words had a direct impact. Warning that a factory in Peterborough, a city in the east of England, was to be hit by the Luftwaffe caused terrified workers to stay at home and production to grind to a halt. Most of the time, however, the rumors which spread throughout the population that Joyce knew the precise location of bombing raids had little basis in fact. Nonetheless, Joyce’s joyful recitation of Allied defeats — often reported before the BBC released the news — provided an anxious public with information they feared was being withheld from them in the early months of the war.
Joyce proved a master at stoking and exploiting those anxieties. He harangued his audience with dire warnings: “annihilation,” “starvation,” and “a terrible retribution” were threatened upon England. For all this, they had only themselves to blame. “The people of England will curse themselves for having preferred ruin from Churchill to peace from Hitler,” he announced.
While portraying German civilians as innocent victims of Allied barbarity, he reveled in the death and destruction raining down on his former countrymen and women. “Just retribution has befallen Britain,” he told listeners at the height of the Blitz. That retribution claimed his father’s life in 1941.
Downfall of the ‘lord’
During these months Joyce and his wife Margaret — as “Lady Haw-Haw,” she also broadcast to England — cheered on the German conquest of much of Europe and awaited the day when they could return home to a Nazi Britain. There, Joyce believed, a high-ranking cabinet job would await him.
Those who worked to further that goal at home attempted to pass information to Joyce. In one case, for instance, a prosecution was brought against two fifth columnists who sent letters to Joyce via the Spanish Embassy’s diplomatic bag updating him on the impact of air raids and suggesting targets that had not yet been hit.
But, as the tide of the war turned, the Joyces’ lives began to fall apart. Their heavy drinking became an addiction and they divorced in August 1941. Margaret cited her husband’s cruelty, he her adultery. Less than a year later, though, the couple remarried.
As German cities were heavily bombed, even the awarding of the Third Reich’s war merit cross first class in September 1944 and Joyce’s continuing faith in Hitler could not lift their growing sense of doom and foreboding. His on-air performances, often delivered through a haze of alcohol, were a shadow of their former selves. In March 1945, Joyce and Margaret – together with the Rundfunkhaus’s remaining staff – were evacuated from Berlin.
Joyce delivered his final, drunk and rambling words on air from Hamburg on April 30, the day his beloved Fuhrer committed suicide. A few days later, Geoffrey Perry, a British soldier with a unit assigned to capture infrastructure, sat behind Joyce’s microphone and read an Allied broadcast to the German people.
Joyce and Perry’s fates would become intertwined once again less than a month later, when Joyce and his wife were in hiding close to the Danish border. On May 28, he approached two British soldiers who were looking for firewood and, speaking to them in English, offered to show them where they might find more.
Perry instantly recognized the voice which addressed him. “You wouldn’t be William Joyce by any chance, would you?” he replied. Joyce reached inside his pocket — probably to show his false papers — causing Perry to fire a bullet which hit Lord Haw-Haw in the thigh.
But, in a delicious twist of fate, Joyce’s captor was, in fact, a German Jew. Born Horst Pinschewer, Perry and his brother were sent to Britain in 1936 by their anxious father. Their parents joined them after Kristallnacht. Although officially classed as enemy aliens, both brothers volunteered to join the British army soon after the war broke out, Horst changing his name to the quintessentially English Geoffrey Howard Perry. Perry’s unit joined in the effort to liberate Europe soon after D-Day in July 1944.
Joyce had long harbored the hope that, in becoming a naturalized German in 1940, he would escape charges of treason. But the courts disagreed. It took a jury just 23 minutes to convict him in September 1945 of having “adhered to the King’s enemies” by broadcasting for them from September 18, 1939 to July 2, 1940 — the date on which his falsely obtained passport expired.
In many ways, the verdict was unsurprising. As Ireland writes of those broadcasts: “Every word, every syllable that emerges from his mouth will forever remind people of the bleak months in which they stared defeat in the face.”
Appeals refused, Joyce went to the gallows less than four months later. Postwar justice, as Tim Tate argues in his book “Hitler’s British Traitors,” was “often rough at best.” Of the 14 British citizens tried for making broadcasts for the Nazis, only Joyce and one other — John Amery — were executed. Former British officer Baillie-Stewart, for instance, received a five-year sentence; others escaped with less.
But, on reading Joyce’s last words, many will find it hard to summon much sympathy.
“In death, as in life,” he wrote, “I defy the Jews who caused this last war and I defy again the power of Darkness which they represent.”
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