On 30th April 1945, news of Adolf Hitler’s suicide spread across the world and was received with joy in most places, as Nazi Germany’s surrender seemed all but assured in the coming days. The radio waves were dominated by excited chatter and victorious announcements, but one broadcast bucked the trend. As Terry Charman describes, rather than celebrating the death of the insane dictator or the nearing end of the war, the broadcast was asking: ‘Can Britain survive?’ To the broadcaster, the answer was clear – ‘without German help, she cannot.’
It was a supremely odd thing to say as British forces swarmed all over a devasted Germany, and one could be forgiven for assuming that they were the words of a desperate German trying to convince themselves and anyone who might listen that their homeland still had the power to control the destiny of Europe. But the man who had taken to the radio that afternoon was not even German. In fact, he didn’t seem to have a defined nationality at all – he was a Brit who had been born in America and brought up in Ireland. But it was his beliefs that had led him to Germany and to the air waves that day. The man was William Joyce, a committed fascist and anti-Semite who was now desperately trying to justify the actions he had taken during the war and indeed before it. While his countrymen fought against Nazi Germany, he had spent the war trying to convince them not to, poisoning British airwaves with Nazi propaganda and declaring that it was no use fighting against them. It would not be long before he had to answer for his crimes.
William Joyce's early life is best summarised by Seth Eislund. He was born in New York City on 26th April 1906 to parents Michael Francis Joyce, a naturalised US citizen from Ireland, and Gertrude Emily Brooke, who came from an Anglo-Irish family. Joyce was only three when his family moved back to Ireland, settling into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Galway. He was a ferociously intelligent child and showed from an early age that he had no hesitation making bold life choices, converting to Anglicanism (he had been raised Catholic) at the age of 14.
Michael Joyce, though Catholic, was loyal to Britain and was dismayed at Irish attempts to form a Republic. As the Irish war of independence escalated in the late 1910s he hired out some of his properties to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the pro-British Irish police force, which made the family a target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The target on their back was made bigger by William, who later claimed to have been part of the notorious pro-British ‘Black and Tans’ militia, but in reality had just acted as a courier and scout for the British Army. According to Enda Delaney, an IRA man was dispatched to assassinate young William in December 1921, but Michael had already moved his family to a safe house, and the family were helped in a move to England by British officers – William, being in the most imminent danger, left home a few months before the rest of the family.
England, and a fascination with Fascist politics
Upon his arrival in England Joyce enlisted in a British army regiment in Worcestershire, but he was dismissed after his superiors discovered he was underage. Instead, he enrolled at London’s officer training corps, before gaining a first-class degree in English and History from Birkbeck college in 1927, the same year he married his first wife, Hazel Barr, with whom he had two daughters. Joyce was no good as a husband or father, regularly beating his wife and engaging in numerous affairs.
A scrap in 1924 left William Joyce with a scar on his face (spartacuseducational.com)
It was during the 1920s that he became transfixed with right-wing politics. He had always hated Irish nationalists and expanded his hate list to include left-wingers and Jews. He joined the fledgling British fascist movement in 1923, earning a scar for his troubles when he was involved in a scrap at a demonstration the following year. By 1928 he had joined the Conservative party, but in 1932 he found another movement more suited to his beliefs.
The British Union of Fascists (BUF) had been founded in 1931 by Oswald Mosley, a minor aristocrat who had toyed with conservative and socialist politics before finally settling on fascism as his vehicle to power. Joyce eagerly threw himself into the movement and quickly developed a reputation as a brilliant communicator. In 1934 he was appointed head of propaganda in the party, a prelude to his eventual position in Nazi Germany, and the following year he was made deputy leader. However, while Joyce publicly lavished Mosley with praise, in private he gave a far more damning verdict of the man, labelling him ‘hopeless’ and a poor leader for the movement. He also thought that Mosley was only rhetorically anti-Semitic; that is, he was happy to denounce Jews in his speeches but not fully committed to persecuting them if he were to ever gain power. For the viciously anti-Semitic William Joyce, this was not enough.
Tension between leader and deputy leader led to Joyce’s expulsion from the BUF in 1937, and he rather petulantly attempted to create his own movement, the National Socialist League, which explicitly identified Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party as the form of government Britain should be striving for. He received almost zero support.
Lord Haw-Haw and the Second World War
In August 1939, Britain going to war with Germany was inevitable and Joyce was worried that he was about to be arrested by the British government. In fairness, he was right to be worried, as Robert Philpot describes: the government were indeed keeping tabs on him and planned to arrest him as soon as war was declared. But Joyce managed to escape that fate by moving to Berlin in late August with his second wife, Margaret White, whom he had married in 1937. Barely a week later, Britain and France officially declared war on Germany, and Nazi sympathisers in Britain such as Oswald Mosley were duly rounded up and imprisoned – Mosley would not be released until 1943, and only then because he was ill.
At first, Joyce was unsure what to do. He was thrilled to be at the beating heart of Nazism, but knew he had to work to gain the trust of the suspicious Germans who were wondering why the scar-faced Brit had arrived so suddenly in their capital. However, he wasted no time in trying to show the Nazi government how he could be of use and his potential was quickly spotted by none other than Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister. Within a month of arriving in Berlin, Joyce was given his own radio slots on the Nazi English-language radio service and given the task of spreading their propaganda to the English-speaking world, particularly Britain.
Depressingly, Joyce’s initial work was supremely effective. Through the rest of 1939 and into 1940 he focused his broadcasts on sewing distrust in the British government, claiming that British democracy was a sham and that, in the end, it was the same elite group of people – and the Jews, of course – who remained in power. Terry Charman's detailed research shows that this message did strike a chord with many working-class Brits, while others listened purely for the entertainment value of Joyce’s wild and imaginative pronouncements. Regardless of the content of his messages, he was more entertaining than the dry, sombre material put out by the BBC. The programme’s popularity was increased by the sense of mystery that accompanied it, because for a few months no one was sure who he actually was. The British tabloid press labelled him ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, because of the ridiculous aristocratic accent he tried to put on, but their mocking him only further publicised his show, which before long was the most widely listened to radio show in the country. Eventually, a mixture of British intelligence and claims from listeners in Joyce’s native Galway confirmed his real identity, but the ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ label stuck. His wife Margaret, who also broadcast on his programme, was named ‘Lady Haw-Haw’.
Despite this initial success, as 1940 progressed his broadcasts became darker, and as Nazi invasion became a very real possibility the British public stopped seeing Joyce’s broadcasts as entertainment. While his early broadcasts had been witty and biting, raising legitimate questions about the British establishment, he was now more hateful and venomous. His audience declined massively, especially after the Blitz in 1940-41 when his contempt for Britain and mocking of British resistance to Germany absolutely did not capture the mood of national togetherness. Even after his own father was killed in the Blitz, he refused to take a humbler tone. For the rest of the war he tried to increase his audience by listing Prisoners of War on his programme, but even this was not enough to save his broadcasts from slipping into irrelevance. Still, in 1944 he was awarded a first-class merit cross by the Nazi government for his efforts.
Capture and Execution
As allied bombs fell on German cities Joyce and Margaret moved home several times before finally settling in Hamburg. It was from here that he made his final broadcast on 30th April 1945, in which he asked the ridiculous question of whether Britain could survive without Germany. But he was not as deluded as he sounded in that broadcast, and he knew the game was up. Days later, he and Margaret were trying to slip into Denmark, but in a delicious twist of irony it was his voice that gave him away. A British officer on the border recognised his voice and tried to arrest him, leading to a struggle in which Joyce was shot in the leg.
William Joyce recovers from a bullet to his leg, under the watch of British soldiers (reddit)
While Nazi war criminals were sent to court in Nuremberg, William Joyce was charged with treason in Britain. In his trial in London in September 1945, Joyce argued that he was not British at all, that since he was born in America and raised in Ireland he owed no allegiance to Britain, but he was found guilty on the grounds that he had held a British passport – the one he used to travel to Berlin in 1939 – and therefore had committed treason in his work for Britain’s enemies. There is more delicious irony here: in his desperation to reach Berlin, he had lied on his passport application and not mentioned his Irish background. It was this lie, and the British passport the lie secured, that sealed his fate.
Joyce appealed his death sentence but was flatly rejected. On 3rd January 1946, he was hanged at Wandsworth prison, the last person executed for treason in Britain.
William Joyce was an abhorrent man – a wife-beater, adulterer, racist, fascist and raging anti-Semite. Yet his talent for communication had briefly allowed him a taste of power that he had no right securing. He showed no loyalty to any country, only to a poisonous movement that legitimised all of his hate. As bombs rained down on his former home and as millions were sent to their deaths, he took to the airwaves to justify it all. In the end, though the legal basis of his conviction may have been dubious, he got what he deserved.
The Ministry of History is not an academic source. Our pieces are written by writers who have been studying history for years and are well versed in and influenced by countless other writers and works. For this article specifically our sources have included:
'Lord Haw-Haw: The Story of William Joyce', article by Seth Eislund, published by historic-uk.com
'Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The life and lies of an Irish Nazi', article by Enda Delaney, published by the irishtimes.com (2017)
'The Rise and Fall of Lord Haw-Haw during the Second World War', article by Terry Charman, published by iwm.org.uk (Imperial War Museums) (2018)
'The unfortunate odyssey of Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi's wartime voice in Britain', article by Robert Philpot, published by timesofisrael.com (2019)