Did "Lord Haw Haw" Get the Last Laugh After All?
William Brooke Joyce, also known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” holds the distinction of being the last man ever to be hanged for high treason by the British Crown.
Joyce was born an American and grew up in western Ireland. He was hanged for high treason by the British Crown at Wandsworth Prison, London, in the early morning of January 3, 1946. His offense was that he had given “aid and comfort to the King’s enemies” and assisted Germany “in her war against our country and our King” by making pro-German radio broadcasts during World War II. By the end of the war Joyce was, after Adolf Hitler, the most detested man in Britain.
This article discusses the life and career of William Joyce, and whether he should have been hanged for high treason after World War II.
William Joyce was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 24, 1906. Joyce spent only a short time in Brooklyn, with his family soon moving to County Mayo in Ireland. The Joyce family moved again in 1913 to Galway, Ireland.
Joyce attended the Convent of Mercy School before enrolling in 1915 at the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius’s school. His teachers were impressed with his academic performance, and Joyce became proficient in Latin, French and German. Jesuit schoolmasters at St. Ignatius’s regarded Joyce as a bright boy to be encouraged in his cleverness.
Joyce, however, also had a penchant for physical combat, and his nose was broken during a fistfight with another boy. Because Joyce kept quiet about this injury, his nose was never properly set, resulting in a slight deformity that left his voice with a nasal drawl.
Before Joyce’s education was completed, the political situation in Ireland degenerated into sporadic rebellion. The Irish rebellion gathered strength, and arson attacks in Galway sometimes degenerated into murder. For example, Joyce at age 14 discovered a dead neighbor who had been shot through the head by rebels for his membership in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Such violent scenes and actions in Galway brought Joyce to an early maturity. By age 16, it was clear to people who observed him, as it was to Joyce himself, that he had the qualities of a leader rather than a follower.
As soon as his family moved to England, Joyce joined the army by falsifying his age. The army sent him home at the end of four months after discovering that he was only 16 years old. Joyce then enrolled in Birkbeck College in London, which awarded degrees to evening students so that they might work at their jobs during the day. At Birkbeck, Joyce passed the intermediate examination for his BA, and then studied English language and literature for the second part of his degree. Joyce also applied to and was accepted by the university’s Officers Training Corps.
Joyce participated with enthusiasm in the literary and political life at Birkbeck. He wrote for the college magazine, acted in the college production of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist, and was president of the Conservative Society. In 1923, at the age of 17, he also joined the right-wing group British Fascisti Ltd. Joyce supported himself through college by working as a part-time tutor. In 1927, Joyce graduated from Birkbeck with first-class honors on his final examination.
When Joyce attended a conservative candidate’s meeting on the evening of October 22, 1924, political opponents instigated violent disruptions to end the meeting. Joyce led a group of British Fascisti in an attempt to restore order. During the melee, Joyce claimed that someone jumped him from behind, a man he later identified as “a Jewish Communist.” The man who jumped Joyce slashed him across the face with a razor. Joyce’s assailant had inflicted upon him a most savage wound. For the rest of his life, Joyce bore a thin but livid scar on the right-hand side of his face, a scar which ran from just behind the lobe of his ear to the very corner of his mouth.
While attending Birkbeck College, Joyce met Hazel Barr, his first wife. Both sets of parents were against their marriage, primarily because the newlyweds were both only 20 years old when they met, and Joyce was in no position to support a wife and a family—a normal expectation of a man at the time. Despite their parents’ reservations, William Joyce and Hazel Barr were married on April 30, 1927, just six days after Joyce’s 21st birthday.
The Joyce’s first child, Heather, was born on July 30, 1928, a little over a year after their wedding. Although Joyce was only with his daughter until she was age seven, this was enough time for him to create a strong bond with her. Joyce supported his family by teaching and tutoring at Victoria College. He proved to be very good at this job, and he also did some academic research with a view to continuing a full academic career. However, Joyce couldn’t leave politics alone.
Joyce became active in the Conservative Party of Chelsea from 1928 until 1930. He impressed the Chelsea Tories with his unique gift of oratory and ability to work hard for a cause. However, after an affair with a pupil, moral pressure was brought to bear on Joyce, and he resigned from the Conservative Party. In July 1931, Hazel gave birth to a second daughter, Diana, which perhaps was a reconciliation baby after Joyce’s Chelsea affair.
Joyce developed a keen interest in the relatively new field of educational psychology and applied to King’s College on May 26, 1932. Without Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Joyce might have lived a normal life as Dr. Joyce, a philologist, and psychologist, possibly even as a pioneer of educational psychology. Instead, Joyce cast aside his promising academic career and threw himself wholeheartedly into the British Union of Fascists (BUF), which had been launched by Oswald Mosley in October 1932.
After receiving his British passport, Joyce became a member of the BUF on August 17, 1933. Joyce quit King’s College in November 1933 and immediately plunged into his new job as a speaker for the BUF. Many who saw Joyce speak in those early days described him as an electrifying speaker who was at ease facing large and noisy crowds. Oswald Mosley recognized Joyce’s talent and hired him as his propaganda director at a yearly salary that allowed Joyce to give up his tutorial job at Victoria College. Joyce was soon widely described by the mainstream newspapers as one of the stars of the Fascist movement in Britain.
Joyce’s marriage to Hazel was over after eight years. The first Mrs. William Joyce terminated all contact with her former husband after 1936. However, while speaking for the BUF, Joyce met Margaret Cairns White—his life’s true soulmate. On February 8, 1937, three days after William and Hazel’s divorce was finalized, William and Margaret were married at Kensington Register Office.
William and Margaret Joyce did not go on a honeymoon, in part because William Joyce was running as a BUF candidate in the local elections in Shoreditch. While the Labor Party won as expected, the established parties were surprised when it was announced that Joyce had polled 2,564 votes, almost half that of Labor. Joyce created a scene after his loss, standing rigidly with his hands by his side and declaring that the election had been “a thoroughly dirty fight.” Margaret told her husband that his performance had made him look like a sore loser.
Joyce had also adopted a pro-Hitler stance, which he admitted did not usually find favor among the British. For Joyce, being pro-Hitler meant making anti-Jewish statements. After a speech in Chiswick, when asked about class war and the Jews, Joyce said: “I don’t regard Jews as a class. I regard them as a privileged misfortune.” Joyce’s statement was reported in the papers the next day. Oswald Mosely did not object to Joyce’s statement.
The mood in Britain turned against the fascists. Mussolini’s attack on Abyssinia, Franco’s bloody civil war in Spain, and Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies had outraged British public opinion. Managers of halls and stadiums were also nervous about the fighting that often came with fascist rallies. By 1937, Mussolini had stopped bankrolling the BUF, and the funds from private donors were not enough to plug the gap left by Mussolini’s withdrawal of financial support. Moseley assembled his paid staff and announced that he was going to have to lay off 80% of them. Joyce was one of the highest-profile casualties of this cutback.
Shortly after leaving the BUF, Joyce raised funds to form a new political party—the National Socialist League. Joyce’s British version of the German National Socialist Party inspired great apathy, with its membership soon dwindling to a few dozen people. By the summer of 1939, the Joyces were now wondering seriously whether their destiny lay in Germany. A friend who worked for Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry told the Joyces that their German citizenship seemed guaranteed shortly after their arrival in Germany.
In late August 1939, the British Commons passed the Emergency Powers Defense Act, which, under regulation 18B, Joyce and other political agitators who might be sympathetic to the enemy could be arrested. A friend warned the Joyces that they would soon be arrested and interned. On the morning of August 26, 1939, the Joyces set off for Victoria Station to say goodbye to friends and family. The Joyces next traveled to Dover and left Britain for Berlin.
Unable to collar William Joyce, British authorities moved swiftly to detain his brother Quentin, who was to spend more than four years in prisons or internment camps during World War II. Joyce’s brother Frank was also arrested nine months later under regulation 18B. Frank’s internment lasted less than a year. Neither Quentin nor Frank Joyce had done anything wrong or illegal, and both were interned without trial.
During their first months in Berlin, the Joyces enjoyed an eminence that far exceeded the mild celebrity that William had attained during his time in Britain. The couple was feted, and invited to parties, and everyone wanted to know what they thought about the war. They drank, smoked, and talked into the late hours with colleagues, foreign journalists, and German soldiers who were home on leave.
After a couple of false starts, Joyce was offered a post at the Rundfunkhaus, joining a small coterie of English language broadcasters working there as part of the National Socialist propaganda program. In time, Joyce commanded an audience bigger than any other English-speaking fascist has ever addressed before or since. By the end of January 1940, 60% of British citizens were gathering around their radios to listen to him. Joyce had 6 million regular and 18 million occasional listeners. With the exception of Winston Churchill and comedian Tommy Handley, Joyce’s voice became better known in Britain than any other person.
The name “Lord Haw-Haw” was invented by the Daily Express radio critic Cyril Carr Dalmaine, who used the 18th-century pseudonym of Jonah Barrington. The British press repeatedly asked: Who is Lord Haw-Haw? As time wore on, William Joyce became the definitive “Lord Haw-Haw.” The Haw-Haw joke continued at a high pitch from the autumn of 1939 to the summer of 1940. However, unlike other English-speaking radio broadcasters from Germany, most of whom had relatively pleasant postwar years, Joyce paid the ultimate price for his media title.
Joyce in his radio broadcasts insulted, outraged, amused and annoyed his listeners, but people still listened to him. Joyce also effectively criticized the social conditions in Britain. He stated that the upper classes expected to draw recruits for the army to fight and die for Britain from the decent and honest poor and the industrious working classes. Joyce’s broadcasts had a major impact because they echoed what many people were thinking: it might be better to reform social conditions in Britain than to embark on a war with Germany. Joyce also effectively told his audience that, unlike in England, there were no unemployed outcasts in Germany.
Goebbels told Hitler about Joyce’s broadcasting brilliance, and the Führer was duly impressed. Throughout 1940, Goebbels heaped praise on Joyce’s work:
“The English are lying to the heavens again, but our Lord Haw-Haw is always ready with an answer for them.”
Goebbels described Joyce as “magnificent” and “the best horse in my stable.” Joyce also received numerous fan letters from the American poet Ezra Pound and was able to successfully recruit his wife Margaret to make radio broadcasts on women’s issues.
As the tide gradually turned against Germany in 1942-1943, Joyce’s star also waned. In Britain, Lord Haw-Haw was no longer featured as a character in the press, as there was too much going on in the theater of war. Goebbels looked for other ways to vary his propaganda approach. In October 1942, Goebbels hired John Amery, the son of a British Cabinet minister, to make radio broadcasts from Berlin. Amery’s appearance on German radio made virtually no impact whatsoever on the British public, who scarcely noticed him. The Amery broadcasts lasted only eight weeks, and Joyce remained as Germany’s chief broadcaster.
Because of the bombing of Berlin and other German cities, the Joyces were moved back and forth to Luxembourg, where there were good broadcasting facilities. The relentless bombing of Germany, however, had the positive effect of unifying the German populace. In a ceremony on October 22, 1944, Joyce was sworn into the German Home Guard—the Volkssturm—to serve the Fatherland until death. Fortunately for Joyce, he was not required to do anything more for the Volkssturm than a little light training.
Goebbels wanted Joyce to continue his radio broadcasts to the very end of the war. The Joyces and their colleagues were forced to leave Berlin in March 1945 for Apen in northwest Germany. Joyce continued his broadcasts in Apen until he was forced in April 1945 to move to Hamburg. Joyce made his last broadcast from Germany on April 30, 1945.
Capture and Trial
With Allied troops closing in on Hamburg, the Joyces traveled to Flensburg, where Adm. Karl Doenitz administered the German government until May 23, 1945. On the evening of May 28, 1945, Joyce set off on a walk and initiated a conversation with some British officers gathering firewood. A Jewish British officer recognized Joyce’s voice and asked, “You wouldn’t be William Joyce, by any chance, would you?” Joyce reached into his pocket to produce his German passport falsely identifying him as Wilhelm Hansen. The British officer, thinking that Joyce was reaching for a gun, shot the unarmed Joyce. Joyce fell to the ground, seriously wounded and in need of urgent medical treatment. Joyce was searched, and on him was found the military passport identifying him as William Joyce.
Joyce was transported by British army personnel to a military hospital. He arrived at the hospital surrounded by a throng of soldiers, who were curious to see the man behind the familiar voice of Lord Haw-Haw. After ascertaining that Joyce had been hit in the right buttock, the surgeons operated on Joyce in front of a large audience just before midnight. His wounds were more extensive than previously recognized. Joyce’s haggard, pale appearance upon his arrival in England reflected the seriousness of his injuries.
Given Joyce’s extreme unpopularity in Britain, MI5 and other British officials were eager to convict Joyce of treason. However, Attorney General Donald Bradley Somervell and Senior Prosecuting Counsel to the Treasury Laurence Austin Byrne were not convinced that Joyce could be prosecuted for treason. They advised that Joyce’s broadcasts might have hurt British wartime morale, but it would be difficult in law to demonstrate that he had offered assistance to the enemy or impeded the operation of British forces.
The fact that Joyce was born in America also created problems in convicting Joyce of treason. Rebecca West wrote:
The child of a naturalized American citizen, born after his father’s naturalization, is an American citizen by birth. Therefore, William Joyce owed the King of England no allegiance such as arises out of British nationality. It seemed he must go scot-free. He had committed no offense whatsoever in becoming a naturalized German subject on September 26, 1940. That would have been high treason had he been a British subject, for a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime. But when he took out his naturalization papers in Germany, he was an American citizen, and even the American government could not have questioned his action, being then at peace with Germany, which did not declare war on the United States until December 11, 1941. It followed, then, that his broadcasting was, if only his nationality had to be considered, an offense against nobody.
The prosecution in Joyce’s trial countered that whenever the accused had been required to declare his nationality, he had claimed to be British. Joyce had also applied for, and been granted, a British passport on three occasions. The prosecution argued that Joyce’s British passport placed him under the protection of the British Crown, it clothed him with the status of a British subject, and it required from him a duty of faithfulness and allegiance to the British Crown.
The jury took only 23 minutes to find Joyce guilty of treason because of his radio broadcasts made in Germany between September 18, 1939 and July 2, 1940. Joyce was sentenced to death by hanging. His appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeals and the House of Lords were predictably dismissed. Joyce was hanged on January 3, 1946, with the British newspaper Daily Worker invectively calling Joyce “this Fascist braggart” and “a twisted-mouth thug” who had “mocked the people of this country in their darkest hours.”
Joyce’s worldview did not change after the war. He wrote shortly before his death:
In death, as in this life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war; and I defy again the power of Darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the aggressive Imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again; and, in the hour of the greatest danger to the West, may the standard of the Hakenkreuz be raised from the dust, crowned with the historic words Ihr habt doch gesiegt [You have conquered nonetheless]. I am proud to die for my ideals; and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.
Joyce resented being called a traitor. He never knew or believed that his British passport imposed on him any duty to England after he left the country.
Many other people, including lawyers and laymen, servicemen and civilians, also believed that the decision in Joyce’s case was wrong and that his unmeritorious case had made bad law. While most people disapproved of Joyce’s conduct, large numbers of people thought that Joyce never should have been convicted and hanged for treason.
In this author’s opinion, Joyce was so hated in Britain that it was impossible for him to have received a fair trial. Similar to the Nuremberg and other Allied-run postwar trials, the defendants were all considered guilty until proven innocent.
A version of this article was published in the March/April 2023 issue of The Barnes Review.
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 Kenny, Mary, Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw,” Dublin, Ireland: New Island, 2003, p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Martland, Peter, Lord Haw Haw: The English Voice of Nazi Germany, Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003, p. 1.
 Holmes, Colin, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 12-13.
 Ibid., pp. 14-17.
 Selwyn, Francis, Hitler’s Englishman: The Crime of “Lord Haw-Haw,” London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1987, p. 16.
 Ibid., pp. 17, 20-21.
 Ibid., pp. 22-24.
 Ibid., pp. 26-27.
 Ibid., pp. 27-29.
 Kenny, Mary, Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw,” Dublin, Ireland: New Island, 2003, pp. 81-82.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 Ibid., pp. 87-89.
 Ibid., pp. 89-93.
 Ibid., pp. 94-97.
 Ibid., pp. 100, 102-103, 106.
 Farndale, Nigel, Haw-Haw: The Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce, London: Macmillan, 2005, pp. 98-99.
 Ibid., p. 82.
 Ibid., pp. 102-103.
 Ibid., pp. 105, 107, 112-113.
 Ibid., pp. 112-117.
 Kenny, Mary, Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw,” Dublin, Ireland: New Island, 2003, pp. 130-132.
 Ireland, Josh, The Traitors: A True Story of Blood, Betrayal and Deceit, London: John Murray, 2017, p. 61.
 Ibid., pp. 62-65.
 Kenny, Mary, Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw,” Dublin, Ireland: New Island, 2003, pp. 144-149.
 Ibid., pp. 151-153.
 Ibid., pp. 160-163.
 Ibid, pp. 185, 190-192.
 Ibid., pp. 199-200, 202, 206.
 Ibid., pp. 207- 215.
 Holmes, Colin, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 247-248, 321-322.
 Ibid., pp. 321-322.
 Ibid., p. 325.
 West, Rebecca, The New Meaning of Treason, New York: The Viking Press, 1964, p. 12.
 Holmes, Colin, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 333, 339.
 Ibid., pp. 338, 343-348, 356-357.
 Ireland, Josh, The Traitors: A True Story of Blood, Betrayal and Deceit, London: John Murray, 2017, p. 272. See also Holmes, Colin, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, London: Routledge, 2016, p. 377.
 Du Cann, C. G. L., Famous Treason Trials, New York: Walker and Company, 1964, p. 261.
 Hodge, Harry and Hodge, James H. (eds.), Famous Trials, New York: Dorset Press, 1986, p. 376.