William Joyce was born in Brooklyn, New York on 24 April 1906, to Michael and Gertrude Emily Joyce, Irish citizens, who had become naturalised Americans eight years before his birth.
Three years after Joyce's birth, the family returned to Ireland, settling in Galway in County Mayo. Unusually for Irish Catholics, the Joyces were staunch loyalists, which caused them a certain amount of difficulty in the republican south, including attacks on their family business and their home by Sinn Fein nationalists.
Joyce attended a Catholic school, St. Ignatius College in Galway, and proved an intelligent, but argumentative child, ready to back up his principles with his fists. During one of these fights his nose was broken, and his refusal to have it reset resulted in the nasal drawl that would become so familiar to the audiences of his Nazi propaganda broadcasts during the Second World War.
When the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, announced the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which resulted in the creation of the Irish State, the Joyce family left Ireland for England, fearing nationalist retribution. Joyce was 15 years old at the time and, following a short stint in the army – where he was discharged for being underage – and a short stint at Surrey Polytechnic, he applied to Birkbeck College, at the University of London.
During his studies he developed a passionate interest in fascism, joining the British Fascisti Ltd. in 1923, an offshoot of the Italian Fascist movement. He became infamous for his anti-Semitic views whilst at University, and was often heckled at political meetings at a time when interest in politics was rife in tertiary education.
Never shy of using his fists, Joyce became involved in a fracas with an opposing left-wing mob at a Conservative Party meeting in 1924, and received a deep razor slash that ran across his right cheek, leaving a permanent scar. Joyce was convinced that his assailant was a "Jewish Communist" and the injury made his anti-Semitic stance even more implacable.
Joyce left the British Fascisti in 1925, disillusioned with their lack of political conviction, and he joined the Conservative Party. He graduated from Birkbeck in 1927 with a first-class degree, and also married Hazel Barr on 30 April 1927, who bore him two children. He decided on a full-time academic career, but was galvanised, in October 1932, by the arrival on the political scene of Oswald Mosley, who launched the British Union of Fascists, a party that Joyce quickly joined, dropping his academic career overnight to become an impassioned party speaker.
1934 was an important year for Joyce; thanks to his impassioned oratory, he progressed through the BUF party ranks until he was promoted to the position of Director of Propaganda. Also in that year, on 4 July, Joyce set in motion a chain of events that would prove his eventual undoing: he falsely claimed to be a British citizen, and obtained a British passport.
Despite his successful oratory, his appetite for brawling and willingness to confront anti-fascist agitators caused Mosley embarrassment, and he was forced to distance himself further from Joyce when his anti-Semitic rhetoric threatened to override the party’s political direction. Although Mosley used anti-Semitic sentiment as a political tool when it was expedient, he never shared Joyce’s virulent hatred of Jews, which seemed to increase with every passing year.
Joyce was divorced in 1936, and he married Margaret Cairns White, in London, on 13 February 1937. When, in the same year, the BUF performed disastrously in the polls, Mosley dismissed Joyce as a salaried party member, and Joyce left to form his own political party, the National Socialist League, with his new wife Margaret as treasurer. Over the next two years the small but vocal party were involved in a number of skirmishes, which resulted in court appearances on assault charges, although Joyce was never convicted. He made no secret of his support for Adolf Hitler, and had contact with suspected German agents within the UK.
Given his political allegiance, his correspondence was subjected to regular interception by the British Secret Service, and in July 1939 a letter to a suspected German spy revealed that he intended to travel to Germany, given the imminence of war. MI5 decided that he would be detained as soon as war was declared. In August 1939, in the days immediately prior to the declaration of war, Joyce dissolved the National Socialist League, and renewed his British passport for another year.
According to one of Joyce’s biographers, Nigel Farndale, Joyce developed a relationship with an intelligence division within MI5, known as section B5(b), which was responsible for infiltrating extremist political groups, during his time in England. Given his close connections to Ireland, it seems plausible that he might have been very valuable in this regard, and Farndale claims to have discovered documents, recently released under freedom of information legislation, backing up this connection.
Whether he provided any useful intelligence to B5(b) is unclear, but the strength of this relationship was sufficient that the head of MI5, Maxwell Knight (who was the inspiration and basis of the Ian Fleming character ‘M’ in the James Bond books), apparently tipped Joyce off about his imminent arrest. Joyce and his wife fled to Berlin on 26 August 1939, with Knight’s assistance, just days before war was declared. When Special Branch agents arrived to arrest Joyce on 1 September, he had already left the country using his British passport.