William Joyce, an American anti-British propaganda broadcaster of Irish descent who had taken German citizenship during World War II, was hanged on January 3rd, 1946 in London, making him the last person to be executed for treason in the United Kingdom.
Joyce was born in New York on April 24th, 1906 to Michael Francis Joyce (1866-1941), a US farmer of Irish Catholic origin, and Gertrude Emily Brooke (1878-1944), from a well-off Anglican Anglo-Irish family of medical practitioners.
Since the age of three he lived in Galway, Ireland, where he attended a Jesuit institution, the Ignatius College (Coláiste Iognáid), a bilingual secondary school founded in 1645.
Due to his Unionist upbringing, during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) he was recruited by the British Army Intelligence Corps as a courier.
After being almost assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann, IRA), his commanding officer sent him out of the country to Worcestershire.
Discharged a few months later when it was found out that he was under age, Joyce remained in England and briefly attended King’s College School in Wimbledon.
He then applied to London’s Birkbeck College, where he joined the Officers’ Training Corps (OTC), military leadership training units similar to a university club but operated by the Army.
Although Joyce graduated with a First Class Honors degree in English, he failed to secure the intended position at the Foreign Office and took a job as a teacher.
At the time he started developing an interest in Fascism. On 22 October 22nd, 1924, while stewarding a meeting in support of a Conservative Party candidate, Joyce was attacked by Communists and received a deep razor slash across his right cheek. The incident left a permanent scar from his earlobe to the corner of his mouth.
While Joyce himself insisted that his attackers were Jewish and cemented his hatred of Communism, his first wife Hazel said that it was actually an Irish woman who disfigured him in a brawl between English and Irish Nationalists.
In 1932 Joyce joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF), run by Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), distinguishing himself as a brilliant speaker, praised for the power of his terrifying, vituperative and vitriolic oratory.
Promoted to the BUF’s Director of Propaganda and Area Administrative Officer for the West Sussex division in 1934, Joyce was later appointed deputy leader despite his reputation as a savage brawler and willingness to physically confront political enemies head-on.
During those years, one particular concern for Joyce was the 1935 Government of India Act, designed to give a measure of autonomy and develop limited self-government, which he vehemently opposed.
Eventually, Joyce was sacked by Mosley in 1937 due to a drastic staff reduction and founded his own political party, the even more virulently anti-Semitic National Socialist League (NSL).
Immediately after the dissolution of the NSL and shortly before World War II began on September 1st, 1939, Joyce travelled to Germany with his second wife, Margaret, as he had been tipped off that the British authorities intended to detain him under Defense Regulation 18B.
By falsely claiming that he was a subject of His Majesty George VI (1895-1952), Joyce had obtained a British passport in 1938, which was renewed a year later and remained valid until he became a naturalized German citizen in 1940. This move ultimately sealed his fate.
In Berlin, Joyce found employment by chance through an audition at the Rundfunkhaus («Broadcasting House«) arranged by Dorothy Eckersley (1893-1971), wife of former Chief Engineer of the BBC, Captain Peter Eckersley (1892-1963), both of whom were frequent guests in Germany.
Despite having a heavy cold and almost losing his voice, Joyce was recruited immediately for radio announcements and scriptwriting at the English Language Service, which he would later head.
He replaced Officer Norman Baillie-Stewart (1909-1966), who had taken the place of journalist Wolf Mittler (1918-2002), as host of Germany Calling, a program directed at audiences primarily in Britain, but also in the United States.
These broadcasts, well known for their jeering, sarcastic and menacing tone, urged the British people to surrender, focusing on inciting distrust within the oppressed working class the public towards their government, portrayed as a nefarious alliance between the middle and the upper class.
After Germany invaded Denmark, Norway and France in the spring of 1940, Joyce emphasized Germany’s military might, threatened Britain with invasion and urged the country to capitulate. His British listeners came to see him as a legitimate threat to their homeland and he lost his almost comical popularity.
In a segment called “Schmidt and Smith”, a German colleague and Joyce himself would engage in discussions about Britain’s future under German rule.
While Joyce initially broadcast from studios in the capital, because of the growing number of Allied bombings he was later transferred to occupied Luxembourg and finally to Apen near Hamburg, relying on an extensive radio network all over Germany and German-dominated Western Europe.
Joyce also worked extensively for the Büro Concordia organization, which ran several black propaganda stations, intended to create the impression that it has been created by those it was supposed to discredit, many of which pretended to broadcast illegally from within Britain.
His role in writing the scripts increased over time and the Germans capitalized on his public persona. Initially anonymous, Joyce eventually revealed his real name to his listeners; and he would occasionally be announced as «William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw-Haw».
Notwithstanding that it was Joyce who became famous under this curious nickname due to «the sneering character of his speech», it’s unclear to whom it initially referred to.
Thanks to Joyce’s dramatic, fiery and caustic rhetoric, British audiences initially were attracted in large numbers by Germany Calling, finding it much more entertaining than the somber, dry programming of the BBC.
It was estimated that the show had six million regular listeners and 18 million occasional listeners, which astonished even German Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945).
In the winter of 1941-42, Heinrich Himmler’s (1900-1945) Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA) commissioned Joyce to give university lectures for SS members on the topics of English Fascism and the British Empire.
Joyce’s duties also included writing pamphlets for distribution among British prisoners of war to convince them to join the Axis’ side, achieving very little success among White soldiers, but some among colonial troops.
His book published in early 1940, Twilight over England (Dämmerung über England), compared the evils of Jewish-dominated capitalist Britain with the wonders of National Socialist Germany.
While Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) apparently never met Joyce, he awarded him the First and Second Class War Merit Cross (Kriegsverdienstkreuz) for his relevant contributions to the German cause.
One day before Hamburg was seized by British forces, Joyce recorded his final broadcast on April 30th, 1945, though there are conflicting accounts as to whether this last program was actually transmitted.
Rambling and audibly drunk, he blamed Britain for pursuing the war beyond mere containment of Germany and repeatedly warned of a Soviet menace.
Signing off with a final defiant «Heil Hitler and farewell», Joyce was wounded by gunshot when captured by Jewish Lieutenant Geoffrey Perry (1922-2014), born as Horst Pinschewer in Berlin, on May 28th, 1945 near the German border with Denmark.
Charged with high treason on September 17th, 1945 at Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, «Not guilty» were the first words from Joyce’s mouth in his trial.
For many, it seemed like the most serious offence known to English law since Irish-born diplomat, humanitarian activist and poet Roger Casement (1864-1916) tried to gain German military aid for the April 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland during World War I.
So at the beginning it seemed that as a US citizen Joyce would have to be acquitted, as based upon a lack of jurisdiction he couldn’t be convicted of betraying a country that wasn’t his own.
Nevertheless, Attorney General Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003) argued that due to Joyce’s possession of a British passport, even though he had misstated his nationality to get it, therefore owed allegiance to the British Crown at the time he commenced serving the Germans.
His conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal on November 1st and by the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament which for many centuries had a judicial function, on December 13th.
Without justifying or excusing Joyce’s behavior, one has to wonder at the legal basis on which he was condemned to the gallows. Technically, he forfeited his life for making a false statement when applying for a travel document, the usual penalty for which is a small fine.
Joyce went to his death unrepentant and allegedly stated that he “defied the power of darkness which the Jews represent”, hoping that “Britain be great once again» and felt “sorry for its sons who have died without knowing why.”
Buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls, with the permission of then British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins (1920-2003), in August 1976 Joyce’s remains were transferred to where he had spent his youth.
P. D.: Mosley snubbed Joyce in his autobiography and later denounced him as a traitor because of his wartime activities.