Haw Haw, but no laughing matter

History: By January 1940, two-thirds of the adult population of Britain was listening at least occasionally, and one-sixth regularly…

History: By January 1940, two-thirds of the adult population of Britain was listening at least occasionally, and one-sixth regularly, to broadcasts from Germany by a mysterious propagandist. Within three weeks of the start of the war, a Daily Express columnist had christened this broadcaster "Lord Haw Haw" because "he speaks English of the haw, haw, dammit-get-out-of-my-way, variety". Garret FitzGerald reviews Lord Haw Haw: The English Voice of Nazi Germany by Peter Martlan.

However, by the end of 1939, Lord Haw Haw had been publicly identified by his former wife as a British Nazi, William Joyce, an identity which he himself admitted in a broadcast in April 1941.

William Joyce had been born in the US to Michael Joyce, an Irish emigrant of the 1890s who, during a return visit to Ireland, had met a 25-year-old English girl, Gertrude, holidaying there with her family. They fell in love, and Gertrude, accompanied by a brother, sailed to New York in April 1905, marrying Michael Joyce a couple of days after her arrival. Their first child, William Joyce, was born there a year later.

In 1909, the family returned to Ireland, possibly because Gertrude did not like America. They lived first in Co Mayo, but in 1912 moved to Galway, where Michael Joyce, by that time the owner of a row of houses in Salthill, became manager of the Galway Bus Company. In the years that followed, as Ireland moved towards more radical nationalism, this British Empire Loyalist family became increasingly alienated from the community in which they lived, and left for Dulwich in south London shortly after the signature of the Treaty in December 1921. Although William was not yet 16 when they departed, he had already left school and become involved with the Black and Tans and/or Auxiliaries in Galway.


Between 1922 and 1927, William Joyce matriculated, attended two polytechnics, and secured a first-class honours BA in English; later, in 1932, he registered as a PhD student of psychology at King's College, University of London. Meanwhile, from 1923 onwards, he had become involved with various fascist groups - and, briefly, with the Conservative Party's youth wing. In 1934, he abandoned his PhD on being offered a full-time job as director of research - which seems to have meant propaganda - for Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF). When, in 1937, the BUF had to sack more than 100 staff because of the withdrawal of financial support by industrialist peers such as Nuffield, Austin and Rothermere, Joyce split with Mosley and established his own British Nationalist Socialist League.

Meanwhile, his first marriage, in 1927, had ended in divorce - he had been an abusive husband - and he remarried, to a fellow-activist, Margot White. Joyce had applied for and secured a British passport in 1933, claiming to be a British citizen born in Galway, and within hours of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, shortly after midnight on August 23rd, 1939, he renewed his passport. He left for Germany with Margot two days later, and by early September, his broadcasting career had begun. Margot soon joined him on the airwaves.

I don't think that anyone who heard Joyce broadcasting will ever forget that extraordinary nasal voice announcing each night: "Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling, here is the news and a talk in English from stations Hamburg, Bremen, Essen on the medium wave and station DXQ on the short wave."

I have to say I didn't listen to him often, partly because I was more interested in news than in propaganda, and partly in deference to my pro-Allies father - who was even more emphatic about not listening to his former friend, Ezra Pound, broadcasting from Italy!

At the end of the war, on May 1st, 1945, the Joyces were brought by the SS from Hamburg to Flensburg on the Baltic coast, whence they hoped (in vain) to escape to Sweden. There they lay low for four weeks; but on May 28th, they had a row, and Joyce went out to a wood nearby to gather fuel. Two British officers were on the same trail and Joyce waved to indicate to them some wood in a ditch, but after speaking to them in French, he made the mistake of saying in English: "Here are a few more pieces." They at once recognised him and addressed him by name. He put his hand in his pocket and, thinking that he had a gun, one of the officers shot him in the leg and arrested him. A couple of weeks later, he was brought to London, but his wife remained in prison in Brussels until her later release, although she was flown to London to visit him during the final six weeks of his life.

His conviction for treason was controversial because, up to that time, a charge outside the country had lain only against a subject of the crown - and Joyce was, of course, a citizen of the US, where he had been born. But the judge in the Central Criminal Court held that "on the 24th August 1939, when the passport was applied for, the prisoner beyond a shadow of a doubt \ owed allegiance to the crown . . . and nothing happened . . . thereafter to put an end to the allegiance he then owed".

This highly dubious verdict was upheld by the Lord Chief Justice at the Court of Criminal Appeal, and subsequently by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. In some British legal circles, and in Ireland even among people totally hostile to his wartime activities, this outcome was seen at the time as perverse and politically motivated.

Joyce was executed on January 3rd, 1946. In 1972, his two daughters by his first wife secured the transfer of his remains to Galway and their internment in a cemetery there after a requiem Mass. His second wife was eventually released and died in England in 1972.

The brief text of this book, largely based on MI5 material, contains everything that can be known about William Joyce, and is accompanied by 200 pages of photocopies of relevant documents. But William Joyce never really comes to life in these pages. His own enclosed and highly unattractive personality, the paucity of personal human accounts of contacts with him, and the official tone of the writing, all tend to flatten him out.

Garret FitzGerald is a former taoiseach. His most recent book, Reflections on the Irish State, was published by Irish Academic Press last November

Lord Haw Haw: The English Voice of Nazi Germany. By Peter Martlan, The National Archives (UK), 302pp, £19.99