LONDON LETTER:Broadcasts by Irishman William Joyce that threatened British morale during the second World War are available on an internet archive, writes MARK HENNESSY
DURING ONE of his late-1939 Germany Calling broadcasts from Hamburg, notorious Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, put the fear of God into his audience in Peterborough by telling them that the local factory was going to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. Production stopped when the workers, understandably, stayed at home. It was but one of Joyce’s propaganda coups.
Enjoying a seven-million- strong audience in the war’s early days, Joyce deeply worried the war office, and at one point threatened the independence of the BBC. A depressed and far from war-hungry population starved of news and light entertainment – worsened by the closure of all cinemas – sought distraction elsewhere.
“[His rumours] are spread by people who are normally responsible and sensible and cause genuine alarm,” wrote Lieut-Col Aylmer Vallance to BBC director general Frederick Ogilvie in December 1939. He warned that Joyce’s “ingenuous” transmissions had become “a definite factor affecting public morale”.
Today, the BBC has made 15 of Joyce’s famous broadcasts – in his famous nasal, high-pitched, almost comical accent – available online on the BBC archive, along with 11 previously unreleased documents, including the Vallance letter, detailing the concern of senior figures in the British military and in the BBC itself.
“This is heard in many public houses over the country and in private houses and is undoubtedly having an effect upon public opinion, making it hesitant and disbelieving,” said Viscount Corvedale, the son of former prime minister Stanley Baldwin.
The nickname “Lord Haw-Haw” was one given by a British radio reviewer to a group of broadcasters working on the Germany Calling programme, which went on air from September 18th, 1939.
Besides Joyce, the other best- known broadcasters were Wolf Mittler, a British-educated German who spoke in the tones of an upper-class Bertie Wooster-ish Englishman; and Norman Baillie-Stewart, a former British army officer who was cashiered for selling military secrets.
But the name suited Joyce best. He was flattered by the notoriety and the BBC took him seriously, endlessly researching his impact on his audience, as a January 1940 report clearly shows: “A typical nine o’clock BBC news bulletin is listened throughout by 16 million adults, or over 50 per cent of the listening public. If it is followed by a talk, this will be heard by nine million. Of the other seven million, six million switch over to Hamburg.”
He was more popular with the wealthy than with the poor, and with men, rather than women: “The less politically minded a listener, the less likely he (or more often she) is to listen to Hamburg broadcasts,” the BBC said.
Soldiers were particularly attracted to him: “[It] is a very grave danger to morale and may be in the future a very definite penetration point for enemy propaganda,” the director of home intelligence complained.
“The phrases, ‘Of course, he does bring out a lot of good points, you know’, and ‘Let’s hear what Hamburg’s got to say about it’ are still frequently heard,” the intelligence officer told colleagues in a memo.
A concerned British government urged the BBC to put PG Wodehouse head to head with Joyce, though that plan went west when Wodehouse was captured by the Germans during the French invasion. Wodehouse later landed himself in trouble when he broadcast for the Germans.
In time, however, the BBC did improve its schedules, putting on attractive light entertainment that distracted the population from its war worries, and from Hamburg and Joyce.
Joyce was eventually captured by British soldiers as he cut a birch tree outside a cottage at Kuffermuille on the German/ Danish border and was shot in the thigh. He had in his pocket pages of a manuscript in which he said he would be glad when he was caught as the suspense was getting on his nerves, and, anyway, he loved England.
Back in Britain Joyce, who was born in the United States to British and Irish parents, was tried for treason on the grounds that he held a British passport. He had fraudulently applied for this in order to work with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in London in the 1930s. The decision to apply for it cost him his life, and he was hanged in Wandsworth jail in January 1946.
Though he was just one of the Lord Haw-Haws at the war’s beginning, Joyce, who was raised in Ireland, was the only one to face dire retribution at its end when the time came to settle scores. His early colleagues in Hamburg did better. Baillie-Stewart, though once a serving soldier, got away with a five-year sentence, while Mittler made a career in post-war West German television.
The Lord Haw-Haw archives can be viewed at www.bbc.co.uk/archive/