Joyce’s odd accent accounted for most of the unintended derision against him. London comedians regularly parodied him, and he was even featured in BBC radio advertising, although at the time no one knew his identity.
At first everyone laughed at the mysterious announcer’s pretentiousness. After France fell in June 1940, and there was a very real threat of a cross-Channel invasion of the British Isles, officials at the Home Office in London took a more serious interest in the shows, particularly as the broadcaster assumed an all-knowing aura of authority and accuracy.
Joyce was credited with knowing minute, precise details about what the British government was doing. To the amazement of his listeners, Joyce correctly predicted what targets would be bombed and the results of the bomb strikes. By reading official Luftwaffe reports that were not released in England, he was able to scoop BBC reports. In addition, Joyce read day-old London newspapers, selectively monitored foreign news- casts, and featured speakers from prisoner of war camps inside German-occupied Europe. As the devastation from aerial bombing worsened, though, his popularity sagged.
Joyce and Margaret became German citizens on September 26, 1940, and his reach expanded with script writing for a trio of black radio pro-paganda stations: Radio Caledonia, Workers’ Challenge, and the New British Broadcasting Service. He also recruited British POWs to enlist in the British Free Corps unit of the Waffen SS, and he published a book, Twilight Over England, in which he contrasted the ideal Nazi Germany versus the Jewish-dominated, capitalist enemy state.
In September 1944, Hitler awarded him the German War Merit Cross, which came com- plete with a personally signed certificate. Despite this, they never met in person. Joyce’s last, allegedly drunken and audibly slurred voice broadcast went out over German Radio Hamburg on the day of Hitler’s suicide. In it he predicted that postwar Great Britain would lose her global empire as a result of her having “won” World War II. Lord Haw Haw signed off his last program with a virulent, “Heil Hitler, and farewell!”
With the war lost, Margaret turned to opium, and both drank heavily and had numerous extramarital affairs. Joyce asked himself rhetorically in a diary entry of April 22, 1945, “Has it all been worthwhile? I think not. National Socialism is a fine cause, but most of the Germans, not all, are bloody fools.” On May 1, 1945, the British Army took Hamburg, causing the Joyces to flee northward to Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein. Behind them, Joyce’s personal microphone was captured and used on air to mock the fugitive Lord Haw Haw and Lady Haw Haw.
A pair of British Army intelligence officers stumbled upon Joyce on May 28, 1945. When Joyce greeted them, the officers immediately recognized his distinctive voice. They asked him point blank if he were Lord Haw Haw. As Joyce reached into a pocket for a false passport that identified him as Wilhelm Hansen, Lieutenant Geoffrey Perry, a German Jew, suspected Joyce might be reaching for a pistol and shot him in the leg.
His captors turned over Joyce, who was unarmed, to Royal Military Police later that day. After spending a fortnight recuperating at the British Military Hospital in Luneburg, Joyce was flown back to the United Kingdom on June 16, 1945, under heavy guard. The irony of his arrest was noted in one account. “The soldier who shot the infamous broadcaster … had been born a German Jew … arrived in England to escape Hitler … became English, and arrested an Irish-American who pretended to be English, but had become German,” stated the account.
His three-day trial at London’s Old Bailey began on September 17, 1945. Attorney Gen- eral Sir Hartley Shawcross indicted him on three counts of treason against the Crown while residing in Germany at first on a British passport and then upon becoming a German citizen during wartime after his passport expired on July 7, 1940.
The court convicted Joyce on one count only, but it carried the death penalty, and on September 19, 1945, he was sentenced to hang. A large segment of the population felt that Joyce had been railroaded, and even Shawcross admitted that he was not proud of the case. Noted British historian A.J.P. Taylor added waspishly that a noose was being placed around Joyce’s neck for making a false statement on a passport, for which normally he would be fined but two pounds.
On January 3, 1946, hangman Albert Pierrepoint carried out the death sentence on 39-year-old William Joyce at London’s Wandsworth Prison. He was buried that night within the prison walls in an unmarked grave at night. In 1976, Joyce’s body was exhumed and taken to Ireland where it was reburied.
His daughter Heather regularly appeals to have his conviction legally overturned. She asserts that he secretly sent coded messages to MI5 from Germany in his radio rants. “He was very pro-empire,” she insists, “and every time he heard ‘God Save the King,’ [he] stood up.”
This article by Blaine Taylor first appeared at the Warfare History Network in January 2019.
Image: Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest. Imperial War Museum.