Joyce, William (Lord Hawhaw) (1906–1946)

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Nazi radio propagandist.

Known as "Lord Haw-Haw," William Joyce was the last man to be hanged for high treason in Britain, on 3 January 1946. His offense had been that he had given "aid and comfort to the King's enemies," and had assisted Germany "in her war against our country and our King."

Joyce had been a broadcaster for the Third Reich, and his radio commentaries had been disconcertingly successful: at one point, he attracted some sixteen million listeners in Britain and Ireland. His radio call signal "Germany Calling!" was used by stage comics to elicit hilarious laughter and instant recognition: for, although Joyce's propaganda broadcasts were odiously pro-Nazi, they nevertheless touched the British sense of humor.

Joyce's trial, in 1945, was a media sensation. The outcome was controversial, for William Joyce was not, technically, British. He had been born in America—the son of a naturalized American—and had grown up in Ireland. He had, in 1933, made an application for a British passport, in which he had mendaciously claimed to have been born in the United Kingdom. By this act, claimed the prosecuting attorney Sir Hartley Shawcross, Joyce had wrapped himself in the Union Jack: his value to the Reich was as a supposed Britisher.

Joyce was a difficult and aggressive individual, who grew up in Galway—his family origins were a troubled mixture of Irish and English—during the revolutionary early years of the twentieth century. From an early age he witnessed political street violence. He was a clever, precocious but rebellious boy, who was expelled from his Jesuit school, St. Ignatius College. He attached himself to the notorious Black and Tans and narrowly escaped being liquidated by the local branch of the Irish Republican Army. Aged fifteen, he fled to England where he enlisted in the Worcester Regiment, but was soon discharged for lying about his age. He attended Battersea Polytechnic to study medicine, but was also ejected from there for behavior problems.

At seventeen, he received a serious gash across his cheek after an encounter with a political opponent at an election meeting. The scar remained livid throughout his life and the significance of the wound went deep: he claimed that a "Jewish communist" had tried to kill him, and this theme became part of a lifelong and pathological anti-Semitism.

Subsequently, he attended Birkbeck College, London, where he gained a first class honors degree in English literature, and began to manifest a certain academic brilliance. He was a gifted philologist, a fine scholar in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Politically, he was involved with the Chelsea Conservative Party.

Joyce was studying for a Ph.D. when he was smitten by Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. From 1933 until 1937, Joyce was a star speaker for Mosley; but in 1937, after the British Fascists began to lose ground, he was discharged from the organization, with whom he had a paid job. He and John Beckett formed their own group, the National Socialist League, but it failed hopelessly.

Increasingly, Joyce was living a hand-to-mouth existence as a private tutor, when, in 1939, he decided to live in Germany. He and his second wife, Margaret, took the boat to Ostend on 26 August 1939. He had probably been tipped off by the MI5 spymaster Charles Maxwell Knight that he would shortly be interned.

Through a series of flukes, Joyce was introduced to the Reich's propaganda broadcasting organization and in October 1939 found himself before a microphone. "Lord Haw-Haw" was born. The nickname came from a radio critic who described a broadcaster who "speaks English of the haw-haw, damn-it-get-out-of-my-way variety." Various broadcasters contributed to the Haw-Haw character, including Norman Baillie-Stewart, Wolf Mittler, and Eduard Dietze, but finally it was Joyce who took the role, with a particularly memorable rasping tone.

His broadcasts could be threatening, scoffing, sneering, comical, satirical, impertinent, and occasionally radical—he always criticized "the swells" and upheld "the workers." Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, issued the orders, but Joyce wrote the words. As he had an unrivaled topographical knowledge of Britain—and Ireland—he was able to mention specific places knowledgeably, and this developed into a myth of occult dimensions. It was believed that Lord Haw-Haw had said that one town would be bombed, another spared. There are still many anecdotes about Haw-Haw's prognostications, most unverifiable.

Joyce always feared the entry of the United States into the war, and after 1942, his star began to wane. His radio audience figures went as low as one and a half million. But he had made his commitment to Germany—he even became a German citizen—and he stuck with it. He and Margaret were captured in May 1945, near Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein. He had been given the identity of "William Hansen," but when he spoke to two British soldiers, his voice instantly identified him.

In London, Parliament hurriedly revived a statute of 1351 to ensure that he could be charged with treason. The trial began in the Old Bailey on 17 September 1945 and was over in three days. An appeal followed on 30 October but failed, as did a final appeal to the House of Lords.

In prison, Joyce wrote many letters to Margaret, full of complex language and ironic puns. He was unrepentant about National Socialism.

The legend of Lord Haw-Haw lives on as a half-demonic, but half-comical character whose nickname crops up with British—and Irish—memories of World War II. Joyce's name has also endured as a byword for enemy propaganda, and during Britain's involvement in Iraq, there were many allusions to individuals who might prove to be "the Lord Haw-Haw of our time" (if they were to broadcast for Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden).

And among lawyers, there is a continuing forensic interest in Joyce's trial: contemporary legal opinion tends to the view that it was, technically, an erroneous verdict. But a view also prevails that it was, within the context of the time, morally justifiable.

Joyce had been married twice, first to Hazel Kathleen Barr, by whom he had two daughters, and then to Margaret Cairns White. His eldest daughter, Heather, remained attached to his memory while deploring his politics: in 1976 she had his remains transported to Bohermore Cemetery in Galway, where they were reburied near to the Atlantic Ocean where he had played as a boy.

See alsoBritish Union of Fascists; Collaboration; World War II.


Kenny, Mary. Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw." Dublin, 2003.

Mary Kenny