Lord Haw Haw captured by British forces
Late on the afternoon of May 28, 1945, two British officers gathering firewood north of Flensburg, Germany, near the Danish border, encountered a man in civilian clothes. He stopped to chat, first in German and then in French — his right hand in his pocket the entire time. He then said, in English: “I used to gather firewood myself.”
The sound of that voice was all the officers needed to identify him.
Three weeks after the German surrender, they had found William Joyce, the Brooklyn-born Fascist who spent five years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to U.K. and U.S. audiences. He was one of several English speakers to broadcast under the name Lord Haw Haw, but the pseudonym had long been associated most closely with him.
The British officers in the woods recognized his voice, and Joyce — who was carrying a German passport bearing the name Hansen — admitted his true identity. As he did so, he moved that right hand that had been in his pocket throughout the encounter, and one of the officers fired, striking Joyce in the thigh.
As he was transported by ambulance to British Second Army headquarters in Lüneburg, where former SS chief Heinrich Himmler had killed himself in captivity five days earlier, Joyce acknowledged his captors’ possible reasons for being a bit twitchy.
“I suppose in view of the recent suicides you expect I am going to do the same,” he said, according to The New York Times. “I am not that sort of man.”
According to the Associated Press account of his delivery to Lüneburg, Joyce “was placed on exhibition here for five minutes so that British Tommies could get a glimpse of one of the most hated men in England.” One soldier shouted at him: “You yellow traitor — in our hands at last.”
Said another: “We can all breathe easier. It would have been awful if the British had not had the honor of capturing this traitor.”
Correspondents gleaned no such quotes from the man himself. After waiting three hours to see him, he merely “stared sullenly” at the assembled reporters, dressed in blue-and-white-striped pajamas.
With his silence, one of the most war’s most distinctive voices quietly exited the stage.
Born in Brooklyn in 1906 to Irish parents — one Catholic, one Protestant — Joyce and his family moved back to Ireland when he was a child, then Joyce moved on to England when he was a teenager. He graduated from the University of London, and during his tenure acquired his most distinctive physical feature. Only 18, he was slashed across the right side of his face by a communist insurgent while attending a political meeting, leaving a long scar on his cheek.
Always right-leaning in his politics, Joyce joined the British Union of Fascists in 1932 and became a key lieutenant to the movement’s leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. The two had a falling-out a few years later, and Joyce eventually moved to Germany in 1939, shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland. He became a German citizen the following year as he stepped into a new role dispensing propaganda back to the country he had left behind.
He initially spoke on the radio only as “Lord Haw Haw”, the catch-all nickname British columnist Jonah Barrington applied to the propagandists. As German forces rolled across the continent, crushing resistance in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Joyce was full of bluster.
He opened his broadcast by repeating “Germany calling” with his peculiar pronunciation, a trademark mocked by many British newspapers after his capture, before bloviating on German successes and encouraging his listeners to give up what surely must be a hopeless fight.
Media outlets had speculated — correctly, for the most part — about his identity for some time, and he came clean on an April 2, 1941 broadcast with a mission statement of sorts.
To conclude this personal note, I, William Joyce, will merely say that I left England because I would not fight for Jewry against the Führer and National Socialism, and because I believe most ardently, as I do today, that victory and a perpetuation of the old system would be an incomparably greater evil for (England) than defeat coupled with a possibility of building something new, something really national, something truly socialist.
At that point in the war, with the United States still on the sidelines and Hitler’s disastrous decision to launch Operation Barbarossa still a couple of months away, Joyce can be forgiven for believing there was a chance that might actually happen.
It wouldn’t last, but Joyce continued to plug away even as the situation deteriorated for his adopted country. By the spring of 1945, when anyone could see it was only a matter of time before the inevitable defeat, he had long fled Berlin for Apen in northwest Germany.
Joyce recorded his final broadcast on April 30, the day Hitler killed himself. It is a defeatist screed in which Joyce, his voice slurring, proclaims that “the people of Britain deserve what they get in the future” for joining forces with the “Bolsheviks” of the Soviet Union.
I have always hoped and believed, in the last resort, there would be an alliance, a combine, an understanding, between England and Germany. Well, at the moment, that seems impossible. Good. If it cannot be, then I can only say, that the whole of my work has been in vain. I can only say that I have, day in and day out, called the attention of the British people to the menace from the East which confronted them.
His broadcast concluded:
Therefore I say to you, in these words, you may not hear from me again for a few months. I say, es lebe Deutschland. Heil Hitler, and farewell.
British troops discovered the recording the following day, the final word from a man who had long been mocked by those he was purportedly influencing — “a joke rather than a terror,” in the words of a news agency account.
A New York Times editorial following his capture summarized his legacy this way:
His voice was eagerly heard in Britain and, when weather conditions permitted, in this country. Neither he nor his German masters ever understood that it was laughter directed at them, and that a few minutes with Lord Haw Haw left everyone the more determined to rid the world of a system that was as preposterous as it was wicked. He might profitably have been paid by one of the Allied Governments, he did the Allied cause so much good.
Though it’s difficult to classify his offenses on the same level as those committed by Himmler or other Nazis later tried for war crimes, he surely knew the British would have little mercy in considering his case.
About 10 days before they happened upon Joyce, British troops caught and identified his wife, Margaret, though they kept that out of the news in the meantime. She was brought to Lüneburg the day he was captured.
Margaret, too, broadcast Nazi propaganda, but British officials eventually declined to prosecute her, “on compassionate grounds.” That concession stemmed from the fate that befell her husband.
Joyce was not considered a war criminal, and therefore was tried as a civilian. He was found guilty of treason September 19, 1945, at the Old Bailey, and an appeals court and the House of Lords upheld the conviction in the coming months.
Joyce’s attorneys had argued he wasn’t subject to treason charges because he wasn’t a British citizen, but the crown successfully argued that he was liable because he had taken out a British passport in 1933.
Early on January 3, 1946, Joyce visited with his wife, his brother, and his sister at London’s Wandsworth Prison. He was then led to the gallows, where the executioner Albert Pierrepoint performed his duties shortly after 9 a.m.
A crowd of about 300 people had gathered outside the prison, and official notice of Joyce’s death was posted at 9:08 a.m. A few sympathizers removed their hats at the news, but there were no disturbances among the crowd.
Joyce’s final words came via his brother, Quentin, who told reporters his brother went to the grave unrepentant with the following statement:
“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. … I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.”