The Capture and Execution of William Joyce

On January 3, 1946, ardent fascist and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce was executed following his conviction for treason.

Top Image: The Capture of William Joyce, Germany, 1945. Hardy, Bert, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. Source: Imperial War Museum BU 6910.

On the evening of April 30, 1945, as the final days of the Battle of Berlin wreaked havoc on the Nazi regime, the radio broadcaster known to his listeners as “Lord Haw-Haw” recorded for the last time. The broadcast—a rambling, drunken address—warned Germans of the menace of the Soviet Union and castigated Great Britain for pursuing war against Germany. Unhinged and defiant, Lord Haw-Haw signed off on his final broadcast with “Heil Hitler and farewell.” Within hours, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Radio Hamburg was seized by British Forces.

Born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce was, on the surface, an unlikely fascist. His parents were both from Ireland, and though his father became a US citizen in 1894, the family moved back to Ireland when Joyce was a young child. His parents, staunch unionists who were opposed to a sovereign Ireland, encouraged Joyce to hold these same beliefs and, as a teen, he served as a courier for British Army Intelligence during the Irish War for Independence. As Joyce became further entrenched in the fight against the Irish Republican Army, he began to make friends with Black and Tans, constables who were recruited as reinforcements in the fight against Irish nationalists. The group, the vast majority of whom were former British soldiers who fought in World War I, quickly became known as something of a terrorist group; they had a budding reputation for extrajudicial killings, arson, and police brutality, resulting in public opinion in Ireland shifting against British rule. On the night of November 14, 1920, 28 year old Irish priest and known Irish republican sympathiser Michael Griffin was kidnapped from his home, reportedly by Black and Tans. Days later, his body was found in an unmarked grave in a bog. Joyce, just 14 years old at the time, was linked to the murder but never charged. Subsequently he was discharged from service after it was discovered he was underage.

Joyce flirted with fascism for the remainder of his teen years and into his 20s, but it wasn’t until 1932 that he joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a British political party founded by Sir Oswald Mosley that same year. Known as a powerful orator, Joyce rose through the ranks and was made Director of Propaganda in 1934. His rhetoric became increasingly violent and outwardly anti-Semitic, moving the party further away from their initial message of economic prosperity through corporatism, a message that ultimately was simply more subtle in its anti-Semitism but not devoid of it. Tensions grew between Joyce and Mosley, and in 1937, citing a restructure brought on by the 1937 elections, Mosley fired Joyce from the BUF. In response, Joyce started his own fascist party, the short-lived National Socialist League, and in the summer of 1939, just before war was declared, Joyce and his wife Margaret fled to Germany.

Joyce became a German citizen in 1940, and took a job doing radio announcements and script writing for German radio’s English broadcast services. He became one of several men known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” a nickname initially coined by radio critic Jonah Barrington (himself publishing under a pseudonym; his real name was Cyril Carr Dalmaine) in 1939. Joyce’s broadcasts, which always began with the announcement “Germany calling, Germany calling,” urged the British to surrender and blamed the Jews for the outbreak of the war; they took a snide, mocking, and at times menacing tone and were designed to undermine British morale. Though listening to the broadcasts was not illegal, it was strongly discouraged. This did not stop 6 million regular listeners and 18 million occasional listeners around the United Kingdom from tuning in.

After Joyce recorded his last broadcast, he and his wife fled to Kuffermuille, a small village just on the border with Denmark near Flensburg, where Hitler’s successor Admiral Karl Donitz had taken refuge before his ultimate surrender to the Allies. On May 8, victory over Europe was declared, and British troops began to search the country and surrounding areas for potential war criminals. Joyce was on their list.

At the end of May 1945, rumors spread that a quiet British couple living in the cottages in Kuffermuille were Joyce and his wife, and on May 28, he was spotted and confronted by intelligence officers. Joyce was shot during the encounter; intelligence officer Lieutenant Geoffrey Perry fired after Joyce reached for something in his back pocket. He was arrested, and after he was searched it became clear that he had been reaching for a fake passport to try and evade capture, but did not have a weapon.

Officers drove Joyce to a border post and turned him over to British military police, and he was then taken to London to be tried on three counts of high treason. Questions of jurisdiction arose almost immediately; Joyce held a British passport—and had lied about his country of origin to get it—but he had otherwise never been a British subject. Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross, however, successfully argued that as long as Joyce possessed this British passport, he owed his allegiances to Britain and could therefore be tried for treason against the nation. He was acquitted of two charges but was convicted of one: “being a person owing allegiance to our Lord the King, and while a war was being carried on by the German Realm against our King, did traitorously adhere to the King's enemies in Germany, by broadcasting propaganda.”

Joyce appealed the verdict, but his conviction was upheld, and he was to be sentenced to death. Remorseless, he allegedly stated, “In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again and in the hour of the greatest danger in the West may the standard be raised from the dust, crowned with the words—‘You have conquered nevertheless.’ I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.”

On January 3, 1946, William “Lord Haw-Haw” Joyce was hanged, and his body buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the prison where he was held. In 1976, his daughter petitioned to have the body exhumed and interred in his once-home of Bohermore, Galway, Ireland, where his grave remains today.

This article is part of a series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by the Department of Defense.


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Gemma R. Birnbaum

Gemma Birnbaum is the former Assistant Vice President for the Media and Education Center at The National WWII Museum. 

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