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.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

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