Uneasy Listening

Paul Laity

  • Germany Calling: A Personal Biography of William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ by Mary Kenny
    New Island, 300 pp, £17.99, November 2003, ISBN 1 902602 78 1
  • Lord Haw-Haw: The English Voice of Nazi Germany by Peter Martland
    National Archives, 309 pp, £19.99, March 2003, ISBN 1 903365 17 1

William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, recorded his last ever broadcast from the temporary offices of the German Radio Corporation, in Hamburg, on the day Hitler shot himself. British troops were on the point of entering the city and Joyce and his colleagues had raided the cellars of the Funkhaus, drinking everything they could find. If you listen to the distant, crackly recording (which never made it onto the airwaves), the voice is nasal, raspy, over-insistent, and there are traces of the trademark sneer. But his speech is comically slurred, the cadences are unexpected and his Irish accent, usually barely detectable, comes through strongly.[*] Blind drunk and defiant, Joyce, the fervent Nazi, the Mosleyite mob-orator, had returned to the Galway of his youth.

His trial for treason at the Old Bailey was a sensation. Crowds gathered outside, desperate to catch a glimpse of their would-be destroyer. In 1940, two-thirds of the population had tuned in at least occasionally to hear Lord Haw-Haw gloat when British ships were sunk and pronounce the inevitability of Germany’s triumph. He was a marvel of propaganda, the personification of betrayal and, according to the popular press, the most hated man in the country. MI5 judged that his acquittal would cause ‘a public outcry’, but, awkwardly for the government, Joyce wasn’t a British subject and never had been. He was born in Brooklyn to an Irish father and English mother who had become American citizens, and he changed his nationality only in September 1940, when he became a naturalised German. How could he have committed treason? The attorney general, Hartley Shawcross, centred his shaky case for the prosecution on the fact that Joyce had, before 1940, always claimed to be British, had obtained (falsely) a British passport, and, holding a passport, owed allegiance to the Crown. Preparing for the trial, the government had quickly passed a new law to make things more comfortable. For nine months at the start of the war, Joyce had ‘broadcast for the enemy’, and that was enough to finish him. A.J.P. Taylor later remarked that he was hanged for making a false statement on a passport – the usual penalty for which was a small fine.

Widespread wireless ownership led to a wartime golden age of radio propaganda. The Nazis were quickest off the mark, but other governments soon followed their example; in 1941, Britain’s ‘black radio’ network, under Sefton Delmer, began to broadcast anti-Nazi, anti-war messages in German. That these operations often enjoyed only limited success did nothing to prevent ‘radio traitors’ everywhere being vilified: in France, Paul Ferdonnet and André Olbrecht, who recorded programmes in Stuttgart; in the States, ‘Tokyo Rose’, Mildred Gillars (‘Axis Sally’) and Ezra Pound, who was indicted for broadcasting from Italy; in Britain, John Amery and P.G. Wodehouse, who was cold-shouldered for giving a jaunty talk about life in his internment camp. Lord Haw-Haw was the most notorious radio traitor of all, and many British people, in the charged atmosphere of the postwar months, seemed untroubled that he would hang. Rebecca West, reporting the trial for the New Yorker, was surprised at the equanimity with which the jury sent him to the gallows: they came back from considering their verdict ‘as if they had been out for a cup of tea’.

At the start of the war, BBC radio was stuffy and dull. Severe censorship had been immediately enforced and listeners, eager for news, had to make do with the occasional bland announcement and endless hours of Sandy Macpherson playing the BBC theatre organ. The only alternative was to tune in to one of the many English-speaking overseas stations: Moscow radio had a Cockney newsreader; the service in Chungking ended its transmission with ‘The British Grenadiers’ played on Chinese instruments. Beaverbrook instructed his newspapers to monitor the anonymous propaganda programmes coming out of Berlin, and the Express radio critic, who wrote under the name Jonah Barrington, began to invent nicknames for the various broadcasters: ‘Auntie Gush’, ‘Ursula the Pooh’, ‘Uncle Smarmy’. It amounted to an unofficial attempt to kill propaganda by ridicule. The broadcaster first christened ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ was probably Wolf Mittler, a German who had acquired a posh English accent, and who used to sign off with the phrase ‘Hearty Cheerios!’ The name was also given to Norman Baillie-Stewart, a Scot who had been imprisoned in the Tower in 1933 for selling military secrets to the Germans, and was one of the first Britons to join the English language service in Berlin. Barrington described his creation as speaking ‘English of the haw-haw, damn-it-get-out-of-my-way variety . . . his strong suit is gentlemanly indignation.’ A few days later, he wrote: ‘From his accent and personality I imagine him with a receding chin, a questing nose, thin, yellow hair brushed back, a monocle, a vacant eye, a gardenia in his buttonhole.’ After Joyce began to make easily the most provocative programmes on the Berlin station, his voice alone came to be identified with the nickname, and there began months of speculation as to who it might belong to.

Lord Haw-Haw became a craze. It was ‘one of those moments’, Mary Kenny writes in her biography of Joyce, ‘when a fashion, a fad, a talking point and a comical inspiration are synthesised into a minor cult’. Haw-Haw was discussed every day in the press, and ‘Germany Calling’ or ‘Jairminy Calling’, the words which began his broadcasts, became a catchphrase. By Christmas 1939, a comedy revue had opened at the Holborn Empire starring Max Miller and called, simply, Haw-Haw; there were dozens of stage acts, impersonators and songs (‘And yet in the winter it’s rather pathetic/ He’s frozen to death, ‘cause his pants are synthetic/Lord Haw-Haw, the Humburg of Hamburg,/The comic of eau de Cologne’). Smith’s Electric Clocks came up with an advert which featured a monocled donkey at a microphone with the caption: ‘Don’t risk missing Haw-Haw. Get a clock that shows the right time always, unquestionably.’ ‘There’s a feeling you can’t turn off,’ a bricklayer told Mass Observation, ‘you’ve got to listen to him.’

In January 1940, the Ministry of Information and the BBC carried out a survey in an attempt to explain his popularity. Some of those questioned said his talks were a source of uncensored news. Over half gave as one of their reasons for tuning in that ‘so many other people listen to him and talk about it.’ It may be difficult to grasp now, but he provided the best – and most shocking – entertainment on air, mischievously telling his audience that all the nerve tonic adverts in the papers proved they were in a bad state, and that the British ‘Ministry of Misinformation’ had encouraged milliners to shape their ‘spring and summer hats out of very thin tin plate’. It was a novel thrill to hear the government mocked and insulted on the radio, and there was something compelling about his sinister announcements – some true, some false – of British military losses. He was an expert at infusing words with threat and intimidation, rolling, as Rebecca West wrote, the figures of lost tonnage on his tongue. ‘Where is the Ark Royal?’ he pestered, week after week, when no news had been heard of the pride of the British Navy. For many people he was simply a Phoney War distraction, but for others he had already become uneasy listening. Often tuned into during blackouts, his broadcasts encouraged a close, uncomfortable relationship between speaker and audience; he became a kind of superego, a disembodied, chastising voice of authority. ‘I love him and all his tricky sayings,’ one correspondent told Mass Observation. ‘I think that, secretly, we are rather terrified by the appalling things he says,’ another admitted. ‘The cool way he tells us of the decline of democracy and so on. I hate it: it frightens me. Am I alone in this? Nobody has confessed as much to me.’

One of Joyce’s attractions, Kenny argues, was that he offered a dynamic, anti-elitist critique of British society, which he had rehearsed at numerous Blackshirt rallies in the mid-1930s. The House of Commons was full of ‘fat and pompous plutocrats’, public schools were cradles of ‘sickening snobbery’, the class system was ‘rotten’. A fanatical anti-semite, he endlessly asserted that the country had been hijacked by a corrupt ruling class in league with Jewish businessmen. A broadcast from December 1939 held that there were ‘no unemployed outcasts’ in Germany, and no Means Test either: the ‘old world’ was ‘tumbling about the ears of the reactionaries’, and there was ‘nothing to be afraid of in that word socialism’. The New York Times reported a few months later that ‘the raucous-voiced Lord Haw-Haw has taken hold among the lower classes.’

The attempt to kill propaganda by ridicule had resoundingly backfired. ‘Our English radio broadcasts are being taken with deadly seriousness in England,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘Lord Haw-Haw’s name is on everybody’s lips.’ ‘I tell the Führer about Lord Haw-Haw’s success, which is really astonishing,’ runs an entry from March. ‘He is magnificent . . . the best horse in my stable.’ After only a short time, the British government was regretting the ‘unfortunate mistake’ that had been made in allowing Haw-Haw to get so much publicity, and the BBC was considering a new schedule which pitched stars such as Arthur Askey, Gracie Fields or George Formby against Joyce. Eventually, the Corporation chose Norman Birkett, a well-known lawyer, who began to make weekly broadcasts at the same hour as Haw-Haw. Goebbels was exultant: ‘They want to put somebody up to talk against him. This would be the best thing that could happen. We’d have him for breakfast.’

‘We are not surprised to learn that panic and confusion are hourly gaining ground in Britain,’ Joyce crowed on air as the Phoney War became the invasion summer. During the ‘white hot weeks’ after Dunkirk, the British public grew increasingly susceptible to scares about German parachutists and Fifth Columnists. Ranks of enemy agents were said to be disguising themselves as nuns. As people became more jittery, Lord Haw-Haw’s identity began to float free of Joyce’s, and what was reputed to have been said in his broadcasts often bore no relation to their actual content. Strange claims were made. It was said that Haw-Haw had detailed knowledge of the topography of every town and village in the country, and of evacuations and requisitionings; that an active Fifth Column was passing this information on to him. It was rumoured that he knew when a town clock was running slow or fast. Letters to newspapers told of wives distraught that Haw-Haw had named the secret destination of their husbands’ naval battalions, making it certain that ‘German U-boats will see that none of the men arrives.’ In June 1940, the Daily Mirror formed an Anti-Haw-Haw League of Loyal Britons in an attempt to stop the harmful gossip.

As the air-raids began, Haw-Haw’s powers reached their apotheosis. ‘Tonight our bombers will be coming over Stamford Hill,’ one listener remembered him announcing, ‘so you have that pleasure to look forward to.’ In Bradford, it went around that he had referred to the new roof being built on the grammar school, and commented: ‘You needn’t trouble to finish it as we’ll finish it off for you.’ There were whispers about the destruction of whole towns on the South Coast, and a Liverpool clergyman was sure that Joyce had said that German bombs would ‘spread Hartley’s jam on Crawford’s cream crackers’ a few days before the bombing reached Liverpool and the Hartley’s and Crawford’s factories were hit. By the end of the Blitz, Haw-Haw had become a bogeyman to whom all sorts of rumour could be attributed, a twisted figment of the public’s imagination. Martin Doherty makes it clear in Nazi Wireless Propaganda (2000) that outbreaks of Haw-Haw scare stories recurred throughout the war, at moments of maximum stress: after the defeats of 1942, during the air-raids of that year, and with the first use of flying bombs in 1944. The government, which monitored these outbreaks carefully, realised that they were an expression of low morale, but could do little to stop them. (Haw-Haw was also associated with other tall tales – that the Queen Mary had been sunk, for example, or that poison gas had been released in the Home Counties.)

Mary Kenny is not the first biographer to prise Joyce from the remarkable story of the mythical Lord Haw-Haw. She is, however, the first to write a determinedly sympathetic life, one that portrays him as complex and in many ways likeable. He was, she says, not only an inventive broadcaster, but intelligent, amusing, musical, a fine sportsman and a talented linguist; he hated snobbery and was angry about the exploitation of the working class. She describes her book as a ‘personal biography’, which means that it emphasises Joyce’s Irish roots and his reputation in Ireland, where he has always been regarded with some goodwill. During the war, Haw-Haw was listened to in the Republic ‘with delighted dedication’. He ‘provided a welcome distraction from the stifling political correctness of neutrality, as well as the satisfaction of seeing the Old Enemy, England, flagrantly scoffed at’. In Belfast, Catholics supposedly turned up their radios if Haw-Haw was on when RUC patrols passed along the street. ‘Some of the most affectionate recollections of Lord Haw-Haw,’ she writes, ‘have come to me from . . . members of the Irish public who remember those exciting radio days.’

As Kenny explains, her ‘personal’ approach goes further. She identifies with him as somebody who was brought up with both Catholic and Protestant influences, and who moved from Ireland to England. Like her, Joyce required ‘passionate commitment to a cause’, and was inclined to change sides when disillusionment set in. They share a hatred of ‘the English obsession with compromise’. ‘I chose William Joyce as a subject for a biography,’ she writes, ‘because I thought that this English-Irish, Catholic-Protestant identity was something I would understand, historically. But as time went by I began to have the slightly eerie feeling that I had not chosen William Joyce: William Joyce had chosen me.’ She began to feel ‘familiar with his spirit’, and the daftness doesn’t stop there: she goes on to tell us about dreams she has had in which Joyce has featured, and has made the unfortunate decision to refer to her subject throughout as ‘William’, explaining that readers might otherwise confuse him with the author of Finnegans Wake.

Kenny has talked to Joyce’s family and this, too, has encouraged her to be friendly. She perhaps feels that he needs even now to be saved from disrepute in Britain, though her only evidence of lingering obloquy is a list in the Sun of ‘100 Britons we love to hate’, which places him in the company of James Hewitt, Jonathan Aitken and Simon Cowell. On a number of occasions, she connects Joyce’s case with that of Roger Casement, another Irishman hanged for treason in Britain during a world war. The comparison is, to put it mildly, flattering to Joyce, who had a notable effect as a propagandist, but did nothing to earn anybody’s lasting respect.

His childhood years in Ireland are undoubtedly important: they introduced him to political violence, and defined his extreme British nationalism – both were crucial elements in the development of his Fascist convictions. His family was strongly pro-British, which made them extremely conspicuous in Galway in the years immediately after the Easter Rising; Joyce boasted about his Empire Loyalism, and was hated for it. ‘Patriotism,’ he wrote about his early years, ‘was the highest virtue that I knew.’ In 1920, during the War of Independence, he attached himself, aged 14, to the Black and Tans and went around with them, pointing out the houses of active republicans. His name became associated with the murder of a priest, and an IRA lieutenant was ordered to assassinate him as he was making his way home from school. He was lucky, but, fearing another attempt, fled to England, soon to be followed by his family, when their house was burned down.

Bursting to wear a uniform and to serve the Crown, he enlisted in the Royal Worcester Regiment, but his ultra-patriotism stood out even there. The other soldiers found him hilarious: they would whistle ‘God Save the King’ in the middle of the night for the pleasure of seeing him jump out of bed and stand to attention. He caught rheumatic fever from wearing damp fatigues, an illness which, according to Kenny, stunted his growth. Having been thrown out of the Royal Worcesters for lying about his age, he spent an unsuccessful year at the polytechnic in Battersea, and looked for another outlet for his violent nationalism. He found it in the British Fascisti Ltd, a group formed in 1923 by Rotha Lintorn Orman, a leading Girl Guide, war hero, feminist and enthusiast for Mussolini, with a particular antagonism towards socialist Sunday schools and a drink problem. Joyce was put in charge of the Battersea district, an interesting commission: the local MP was the Indian Communist and anti-imperialist Shapurji Saklatvala. It was at this time, Kenny argues, that anti-semitism took hold of him, in part thanks to a well-publicised theory that Jewish Bolsheviks were behind the troubles in Ireland.

According to Peter Martland’s commentary on the MI5 files recently made available at the National Archives, Joyce also joined the ‘K’ society, a.k.a. the ‘Inner Organisation’, a shadowy group of thugs who specialised in disrupting Communist meetings. These were palmy days in England if you liked a political scrap, and the police were more lenient with Fascists than with their Red opponents. Joyce was in love with his own pugnacity. In October 1924, he volunteered to steward a meeting for the Tory candidate hoping to oust Saklatvala at the general election. After the speeches, a gang of Communists rushed the platform and tried to seize the Union flag. There was a fight; one youth took out a cut-throat razor and slashed Joyce’s face. The wound required 26 stitches and left a savage scar that swept across his face from his ear to the corner of his mouth. It made him, at the age of 18, a celebrity within the burgeoning Fascist movement; for the first time, he featured on the front pages of the papers. He called his scar ‘the Lambeth Honour’ and was convinced it was the work of a Jew.

Joyce transferred to Birkbeck and did well. For a time, perhaps, he tried to erase his image as a belligerent, rather desperate misfit: he was an enthusiastic officer cadet, got married, applied for a job at the Foreign Office and became active in the Conservative Party. But the FO turned him down (because, he thought, he was too poor) and local Tory officials, while noticing his ‘unique gift of oratory’, felt uneasy about his vituperativeness and his unhealthy reverence for Thomas Carlyle. In 1933, he joined Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and quickly emerged as one of the movement’s principal rhetoricians; within months he was addressing an audience of more than five thousand. For the next couple of years – the highpoint of Fascism’s popularity in Britain – he was paid handsomely to travel up and down the country, cursing capitalism and defending the empire. He now experienced the sharp pleasures of public speaking and street fighting nearly every night. Known as ‘the Mighty Atom’ and ‘the Professor’, he was made the Blackshirts’ deputy leader and director of propaganda. An MI5 agent portrayed him as ‘a born leader of men . . . a rare combination of a dreamer and a man of action’. At this time, as later, Joyce turned hate into charismatic entertainment. Margaret, his second wife and a fellow Fascist, described seeing him on the platform for the first time: ‘a man charged with energy . . . so that everyone else there seemed only half alive, raking them with his oratory, stirring them with his scorn, arousing nervous laughter’. ‘You’re a right bastard!’ one woman heckler shouted at him. ‘Thank you, mother,’ he promptly replied.

In 1936 the BUF changed its name to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, and began to move away from the Italian model and towards the German one. According to Kenny, Joyce, along with his associate John Beckett, was responsible for making Mosley’s organisation more anti-semitic. Other office-holders became concerned that his speeches were so vitriolic they left potential supporters behind. He said repeatedly and obsessively that Jews were responsible for all the ills of British society, and condemned (in this case) the Conservative Party as a ‘loathsome, fetid, purulent, tumid, mass of hypocrisy’. The BUF had already begun to lose support and to suffer serious organisational and financial problems by the time Joyce fell out seriously with Mosley, who in public he referred to as ‘the greatest Englishman I have ever known’, but in private thought of as conceited and called ‘the Bleeder’. Mosley, who had always kept his distance, sacked him.

With John Beckett, Joyce set up a new organisation, the National Socialist League, with financial backing from Alex Scrimgeour, a stockbroker, and his eccentric sister Ethel, who remained Joyce’s doting admirer until the end. His meetings now ended not with the singing of the National Anthem but with calls of ‘Sieg Heil!’ A photo taken in 1938 shows him in a Nazi uniform with a toothbrush moustache. The NSL was always insignificant and soon disappeared to nothing; Joyce was reduced to addressing other fringe groups and to speaking on street corners. As war approached, he decided that he and Margaret would go to Germany.

He was too enthusiastic a Nazi to stay in Britain, but his was a frustrated abandonment of the country he had always been determined to exalt. His patriotism was so extreme it soon tipped over into antagonism: as Kenny suggests, ‘no one can hate the English like an Orangeman who has been disappointed by Mother England.’ More practically, he was alerted by someone in MI5 that he would be interned as soon as war broke out. Kenny is ‘almost certain’ that the source of this information was the head of MI5, Charles Maxwell Knight, a former member of the British Fascisti Ltd; Martland is more circumspect. On 26 August, Joyce took the boat-train from Victoria; on 4 September, the second day of the war, the police scoured London trying to find him.

He had few contacts in Berlin, but was given an introduction to radio work by Dorothy Eckersley, a former member of the Right Club and the NSL. Established as Lord Haw-Haw, he was soon receiving effusive fan letters from Pound and dreaming of becoming an official in a British Nazi government. The novelist Francis Stuart, who initially helped out with some Haw-Haw scripts, and who broadcast on the Irland-Redaktion station, noted with ruefulness that Joyce was treated ‘quite regally’. Margaret Joyce, too, began to broadcast, and Lord and Lady Haw-Haw moved into a swanky flat on Kastanien-Allee.

Joyce remained the key presence in the Berlin Rundfunk even after Goebbels had begun to wonder, with the Soviet Union and the US having joined the war, whether Haw-Haw’s ‘biting criticism’ was the best way to wage the propaganda battle. During 1943 and 1944, when the fighting was clearly going against the Reich, his broadcasts continued to trumpet Germany’s successes, to heap insults on Churchill and to blame ‘international financiers’ for the conflict. But, as Kenny documents in detail, Joyce’s personal life was troubled. He divorced Margaret, who had a long-term German lover, remarried her, and began to drink heavily. If a British intelligence report is to be believed, he was, by 1944, ‘almost permanently in a state of intoxication’, and had ‘adopted the system of writing out his scripts wherever possible two days in advance, so that they should be available for reading should he himself be incapable of coherent thought at the time of the broadcast’.

As the situation grew more desperate, Joyce began to rediscover his love of England. ‘I hate the idea of dying as England’s enemy,’ he wrote in his diary in March 1945, ‘or being despised by those among whom I was once regarded as an ardent patriot.’ ‘England means so much to me,’ he gushed a few weeks later. The pull of England led, in a curious way, to his capture. Having made his final broadcast, Joyce was given a false identity and taken to Flensburg near the Danish border, where he and Margaret lodged in a cottage. Out walking one day, he saw two British soldiers, and told them, in English, where to find firewood; he then couldn’t resist engaging them in more general conversation. One of the soldiers recognised his voice, and asked him if he happened to be William Joyce. When he reached in his pocket to pull out his false papers, he was shot in the hip. In the jeep on the way to the hospital, one of the soldiers recalled, ‘he couldn’t stop talking’ about the coming domination of Europe by the USSR. After a spell under military surveillance in Brussels, he was brought back to London. ‘God bless old England,’ he said as the army plane passed over the White Cliffs.

Kenny praises the efforts made by Joyce’s brother Quentin to prepare a case for his defence, and makes a great deal of Joyce’s bravery when he knew he was ‘for the rope’. Visiting Brixton Prison hospital, Quentin reported Joyce to be ‘very cheerful and in good spirits’, and Kenny tells us that, during his last months, he was ‘kindly, thoughtful, considerate of others, humorous and calm about his fate’. He was the only prisoner under sentence of death to have consistently put on weight. (Apparently, Quentin suggested that he should see a priest and be reconciled to the Church before his execution. ‘Don’t you think I’ve had enough trouble with passports to which I wasn’t entitled without trying to get into heaven with one?’ Joyce replied.) Kenny argues, rightly (and uncontroversially), that Joyce’s fate was undeserved: his real offence was to have acquired his nickname, and the legendary repute that went with it. He hadn’t been responsible for a single British death, but found himself at the centre of a show trial, which soon afterwards was regarded with some embarrassment. It was essentially a matter of revenge.

This is the most thorough study of Joyce’s personal life that is likely to be written, but it misses much of his viciousness and Kenny has clearly got too close to him. She writes that ‘there was something redemptive about his walk to the gallows,’ and makes the silly suggestion, notwithstanding his knowing jokes with Margaret about Belsen and Buchenwald, that a proper penalty for him would have been a guided tour of the death camps. ‘I yield nothing of my political opinions,’ he noted in his diary before being captured, ‘nor do I believe that I have acted wrongly.’ ‘Regrettably,’ Kenny echoes, he ‘remained unrepentant in his National Socialist views’. Is it a matter for regret? Would she have found it comforting if he had finally seen the error of his ways? Why isn’t it simply a fact? For all his ability and charisma, Joyce was unswerving in his dogmas and his hatreds: while awaiting trial, he scratched a swastika on the wall of his prison cell. And at the Old Bailey, after his sentence had been pronounced, he raised his hand in the Fascist salute.

[*] A number of his broadcasts, including this final one, can be heard at www.earthstation1.com/Lord_Haw_Haw.html