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.
Born: 24 April 1906
Arrested: 28 May 1945
Trial: 17 September 1945
Convicted: 19 September 1945
Died: 3 January 1946
Joyce’s pre-war profile was sufficient to secure both him, and his wife, work as broadcasters for the Reichsrundfunks Foreign Service, the German equivalent of the BBC, based in Charlottenburg. The exact source of his sobriquet, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, is not entirely clear, but most attribute it to Daily Express radio critic Jonah Barrington, who described a propaganda broadcaster as speaking “English of the haw-haw, damn-it-get-out-of-my-way variety, and his strong suit is gentlemanly indignation.”
Although the name was attributed to Joyce, the broadcast heard by Barrington was actually made by Norman Baillie-Stewart, a Sandhurst-educated officer whose voice sounded far more pompous than the American-Irish nasal twang of Joyce. As Joyce’s broadcasts gained in popularity the name stuck, and was soon exclusively associated with his broadcasts, with their signature cry of ‘Jairmany Calling! Jairmany Calling!’
At the height of his popularity, in the period up to the Battle of Britain, it was believed that up to 16 million British people tuned in to his Nazi propaganda broadcasts, an activity which, while not strictly illegal, was frowned upon by British authorities.
Joyce became the most important propaganda broadcaster in Germany at the time, and both he and his wife were granted naturalised German citizenship on 26 September 1940. With almost as many listeners as the BBC, he gained an almost mythical status: there were claims that he could forecast bomb targets, and that he knew intimate details about target sites: in reality, because of reporting restrictions placed on the BBC by the War Office, he could sometimes scoop the official stories by a few hours, releasing details before they could be broadcast officially, but this was the extent of his ability.
In contrast to his sinister broadcasts, his odd accent was a source of ridicule, and he was parodied by comedians, and even became the subject of some advertisements. But the joke soured with the onslaught of German bombing in Britain, and his popularity waned – though in Germany he remained as popular as ever, and in September 1944 he was awarded the Cross of War Merit First Class, by Hitler, for his broadcasting efforts.
His anti-Semitic stance never faltered, and he continued to blame the war on what he referred to as ‘Jewish International Finance’. He remained true to his belief that Germany and Britain needed to unite against the global Communist threat.In addition to broadcasting, Joyce's duties included distributing propaganda among British prisoners of war, whom he tried to recruit into the British Free Corps, a branch of the Waffen SS. He also wrote a book comparing National Socialist Germany to the evils of a Jewish-dominated capitalist Britain, called ‘Twilight over England’, that was promoted by the German Ministry of Propaganda.As the tide of war turned against Germany, Joyce began to drink heavily and his marriage soured. Both he and his wife, who took opium, in addition to also drinking heavily, became embroiled in numerous extramarital affairs.
In the final days of the war, with the Russian Army advancing inexorably towards Berlin, Joyce was forced to move to Hamburg to make his broadcasts, and his final transmission, during which he was clearly intoxicated, was made on 30 April 1945, in which he continued to rail against the Communist threat, and which he ended with a final, defiant ‘Heil Hitler!'
The following day Radio Hamburg was seized by advancing British forces, which made a final, mock "Germany Calling!" broadcast, denouncing Joyce, who had been forced to flee again, with his wife, this time north towards the Danish border.
On 28 May 1945, Joyce was captured by British forces near the German-Danish border, in the town of Flensburg. Apparently Joyce’s accent had raised suspicions, and when he went to retrieve his forged identification papers from his pocket, to prove he wasn’t Joyce, he was thought to be reaching for a pistol, and was shot in the leg by an interpreter attached to the British forces, named Lieutenant Perry.
After recovering for a fortnight in Lueneberg Military Hospital, Joyce was transported back to the U.K on 16 June 1945. His capture was seen as a significant coup for the authorities and, conveniently, the day before Joyce's arrival, the Treason Act 1945 had been granted Royal Assent by King George VI, enabling Joyce to be charged with three counts of high treason.
The fate of Margaret Joyce, who had followed much the same path as her husband, in terms of treasonable actions, was markedly different to that of her husband.
There are two main theories about her treatment after their arrest in Flensburg, and her return to the UK: firstly, that the authorities felt that she had suffered enough through her husband’s trial, and that they had no appetite for a further trial, and secondly, that Joyce agreed to keep his connections to MI5 secret, in exchange for the freedom of Margaret. Certainly, as a British citizen, born and raised, a treason case against her could more easily have been made than against her husband, although she was not as well known a broadcaster as her husband had been.
For whatever reason, she was never charged, and was instead shipped out of Britain shortly after his execution, but was allowed to return back to the UK some years later. She died in Soho, reportedly from alcohol-related illness, in 1972.On 18 August 1976, William Joyce's remains were exhumed from their site within Wandsworth Prison and returned for burial to Ireland, where they were re-interred at the New Cemetery in Bohermore, County Galway.
The original intention of the authorities was to try Joyce for treason immediately, but when his complicated nationality issues came to light, the court case was forced back until September.
It was not clear that an individual, born in the United States, raised in Ireland, who obtained British citizenship via deception for a relatively short period, and who then obtained naturalised German citizenship, could legally be tried for treason against the British Crown, by broadcasting propaganda in an area outside of the Crown’s legal jurisdiction. Clearly, if Joyce owed no allegiance to the Crown, he could not be tried for committing treason against it.
When the case went to trial, on 17 September 1945, Joyce was charged on three counts of high treason, namely that:
1. William Joyce, on 18 September 1939, and on numerous other days between 18 September 1939 and 29 May 1945 did aid and assist the enemies of the King by broadcasting to the King's subjects propaganda on behalf of the King's enemies.
2. William Joyce, on 26 September 1940, did aid and comfort the King's enemies by purporting to be naturalised as a German citizen.
3. William Joyce, on 18 September 1939 and on numerous other days between 18 September 1939 and 2 July 1940 did aid and assist the enemies of the King by broadcasting to the King's subjects propaganda on behalf of the King's enemies.
The case took three days to hear. In order to overcome the confusion surrounding his citizenship, the prosecution argued that the British passport, which Joyce had renewed immediately prior to his escape from Britain, and which was valid until 2 July 1940, entitled him to the protection afforded to all British passport holders, and that he therefore owed allegiance in return. Had he kept his US citizenship during his time in Britain, he could never have been prosecuted on treason charges in the UK.
The judge, Mr. Justice Tucker, accepted the point of law presented, but instructed the jury to find him not guilty on the first two counts, which extended to periods beyond the validity dates of his British passport, when he was recognised in law to have been a US citizen.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the single remaining count of high treason. Carrying a mandatory capital sentence, Mr. Justice Tucker had no choice but to sentence William Joyce to death by hanging.
Despite general public satisfaction that Joyce had been brought to justice, there was widespread unease that his death penalty was as severe a sentence as those meted out to major war criminals, like those responsible for the massacres carried out in concentration camps. He had never directly claimed a single life, regardless of how reprehensible his political views might be.
On 27 September 1945, Joyce's lawyers gave notice of appeal, on the grounds that the Judge had ruled incorrectly that he could be expected to owe allegiance to the Crown during his time in Germany. The appeal was heard on 30 October and dismissed on 7 November.
Due to the important questions of law involved in the case, the Attorney General granted permission for the Joyce case to be heard before the House of Lords; the highest British court, which occurred between 10 and 13 December. The Lords also dismissed the appeal, on a vote of 3 to 1, on 18 December 1945.
All routes of appeal now exhausted, Joyce went to his death unrepentant and defiant saying: “In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the powers of darkness which they represent” according to the BBC.
He was hanged at Wandsworth Prison at 9am on 3 January 1946, the last person in British history to be hanged for treason. Like all executed prisoners, he was buried in unconsecrated ground within the prison grounds.