Friday 23 March 2018

Lord Haw Haw was no laughing matter

Our reporter traces the career of William Joyce, executed 70 years ago and buried in Galway

Executed for treason: A wounded William Joyce following his capture by the Allies.
Executed for treason: A wounded William Joyce following his capture by the Allies.

Damian Corless

He got under the skin of the British people and messed with their minds, and 70 years ago this week, William Joyce paid for those sins with his life. Executed for treason by a British legal system hell-bent on vengeance rather than justice, the Nazi broadcaster better known as Lord Haw Haw was laid to rest in Galway.

Wounded and captured by the Allies in his adopted fatherland, Joyce was subjected to a travesty of a trial. Again and again, his lawyers hammered home the legal nicety that the defendant - born in New York, raised in Ireland and a naturalised German citizen - could not be charged with treason to the British Crown.

His accusers side-stepped this shaky ground by claiming Joyce was the holder of a British passport, making him eligible for hanging as a traitor. In fact, the passport was fraudulent as he claimed he had been born in Galway while Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. He had acquired it in the 1930s to allow him to work with Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, which he quickly found too moderate for his views.

The historian AJP Taylor observed: "Joyce was hanged for making a false statement when applying for a passport, the usual penalty for which is a small fine."

Joyce was just one of several Nazi broadcasters given the generic title of Lord Haw Haw in the early stages of the war, but he was the only one dragged to the gallows. Some served short jail terms for decontamination, to be then readmitted into respectable society.

While Francis Stuart, the author husband of Maud Gonne's daughter Iseult, did not share in the Haw Haw title, there is an argument that his role as a Nazi propagandist actually was treasonous since he was born a subject of the British Empire in Australia. Stuart not only penned some of Joyce's speeches, but he doubled up as an IRA activist determined to damage and to sabotage Britain's war effort in every way. But the vengeful British authorities only had eyes for Joyce, and Stuart set up home in London in the 1950s with his new German wife.

Joyce adopted a peculiarly posh wireless voice that was at once creepy and comical. He opened each broadcast with the unsettling catchphrase: "Germany calling. Germany calling."

He called it "the news in English" but it was a regularly frothy mix of taunts, outlandish claims that the warmongers of Britain and France were attempting to bully peace-loving Germany, news of Nazi victories and lame jokes at the expense of Winston Churchill and other pillars of British society.

On Sundays, Germany Calling was followed by a programme in the Irish language, although the patchy reception here was a big turn-off for potential listeners.

Lord Haw Haw was an instant and massive hit with British audiences feeling the effects of heavy media censorship and the closure of the cinemas. In the early stages of the war, he was attracting audiences of six or seven million, despite stern warnings from the authorities that tuning in was deeply unpatriotic.

He became feared and loathed in roughly equal measures. In the opening months of the war, he stirred up panic in Peterborough, telling the inhabitants that the Luftwaffe were about to bomb a factory in the town. This had the desired effect, the workers kept well away and production stalled. With good information almost impossible to come by, the people began to believe that Haw Haw had advance notice of German attacks.

A senior military officer wrote to the BBC's DG, saying that rumours of Joyce's tip-offs "are spread by people who are normally responsible and sensible and cause genuine alarm". He warned that Joyce's "ingenuous" transmissions were "affecting public morale" to a damaging extent.

In time, Joyce came to be hated perhaps more than any other Nazi bar Hitler, and he revelled in his notoriety. The power he seemed to have was perhaps best captured in the 1942 Hollywood movie Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror starring Basil Rathbone, in which the villain was able to predict Allied defeats.

Attempts by the BBC to pitch Jeeves & Wooster creator PG Wodehouse in a ratings battle with Joyce were scuppered when the writer, a tax exile in France, was captured by the advancing Germans in 1940. It was only when the BBC replaced stuffy 'improving' talks with jaunty light entertainment that they started to eat into Haw Haw's vast audience share.

Shot in the thigh in a forest near the Danish border, William Joyce was taken to London for his show trial. Britain's Attorney General insisted that even though his passport was fraudulent, it showed he'd placed himself "under the protection of the British Crown" and so owed the State his allegiance. Extra police were on duty outside Wandsworth Prison for his execution to keep an eye on the 250-strong crowd gathered outside, but there was no trouble.

When captured, he was carrying a written testament that claimed he was glad this moment had come because waiting for it was becoming a strain. He added that he loved England. Maybe, but he didn't like the way the English were running it.

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