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The shock jock of the war years
Sean Gillane SC

17 Jun 2021 / people Print

Germany calling: the shock jock of the war years

Those attending a talk as part of the Green Street lecture series by Sean Gillane SC (16 June) heard that Galwegian William Brooke Joyce, also known as German Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, may have failed to get a fair trial in England.

Joyce was convicted on one count of high treason and hanged on 3 January, 1946, after a failed appeal, which found that he had given aid and comfort to Britain’s enemies during the war. 

The son of unionist-leaning parents, Joyce was baptised a Catholic but despised nationalism.

He was considered a good, perhaps brilliant, student by the Jesuits in Galway, and was accomplished in Latin, Greek, French, and German, and wrote poetry and could play piano sheet music from memory.

Pugnacious

Joyce was pugnacious in character, with a strong taste for debate and argument. Ultimately, he rejected Catholicism, owing to his closeness to his Protestant mother. 

At school, Joyce began to express openly pro-British sentiments, as pressure was brought to bear on his father for renting property to British interests. At least one of his father's properties was burned to the ground.

Joyce may have acted as a runner for the Black and Tans, and accounts differ as to whether he was an intelligence source for the British Army.

He moved to London to pursue his education and achieved a first-class degree in English. He also applied to join the officer training corps while studying there — important, because, in so doing, he claimed to be British.

Hatred for nationalism

Joyce's hatred of Irish nationalism never waned and was married to a growing hatred for Bolshevism, as the anti-Semite in him began to emerge.

“Love of union and empire informed everything. He began to see Marxism almost as a form of Judaism itself,” said Sean Gillane.

The emergence of Mussolini, whom he saw as a saviour of Italy, was also an inspiration to Joyce, and he joined the British fascist movement and developed an intense, hectoring style of public speaking.

In the late 1930s, Joyce began to nurture his German contacts. The pull of Germany was made stronger in the light of fascism's failure to make popular electoral progress in England.

Joyce was under increasing financial pressure, and war was now almost certain.

His fatal decision to leave for Germany may have been prompted by a tip-off about the internment of security suspects.

He left on 26 August, 1939 and would never see his two children again. The tip-off proved accurate – his brothers and several associates were arrested the same day.

In Germany, Joyce was quickly offered employment by Joseph Goebbels, who had a unique insight into the potential importance of radio as a medium.

His German workbook, which set out the details of his employment and his pay and conditions, would eventually come back to haunt him, Sean Gillane SC said.

The Joyce output on the foreign service was prolific, and he sometimes broadcast several times a day. Margaret, his wife, also broadcast weekly talks to women, though she lacked his charisma. Joyce began his broadcasts with the phrase, 'Germany calling, Germany calling'.

Before the war, German stations were popular in Britain for music and light entertainment, given the sometimes puritanical approach of the BBC.

With the imposition of blackout and censorship, the British public was starved of news, and more particularly, starved of entertainment, Sean Gillane said. 

“The scene was perfect for the emergence of this irreverent, occasionally profane, voice — a shock jock of his time — and people turned to the broadcasts in their millions,” he said.

A BBC survey showed that amid the privations of war, people occasionally enjoyed the digs that were pointed towards their own ruling class.

Joyce had a particular loathing for Churchill, whom he described in one early broadcast as a ‘whiskey-guzzling, cigar-chomping, bovine, decadent liar’, and he always described him as the ‘degenerate of Downing Street’.

“Not everyone in England was unreceptive to this, while still supporting the war efforts,” Gillane said.

Jamming

Jamming the Haw-Haw broadcasts was discussed at British government level and, from 1942, the matter was of real concern of the government.

“With Joyce, everything was done with a desperate grinding sincerity, and he was always going to be viewed in a different light after the war,” said Gillane.

After the defeat at Stalingrad, and with the Red Army encroaching, the broadcasts became more unhinged and divorced from reality. Joyce was manifestly drunk during his final broadcast from Hamburg on 30 April 1945.

Goebbels was particularly anxious that Joyce not be captured, and arranged his escape to Scandinavia, with orders to lie low.

“Lying low, however, was beyond him. On 28 May 1945, a reconnaissance regiment was gathering wood near the Danish border,” Gillane recounted.

“Joyce’s inability to shut up was to prove his downfall. He approached the soldiers and spoke to them first in French, then in English, to tell them where more wood might be found.”

The soldiers recognised his voice, and he was shot in the leg, before being returned to England in June, then sent for trial before the Central Criminal Court, where he was arraigned on three counts of treason.

Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross argued that if a prince affords protection to a subject, the subject owes a debt of allegiance to the prince. 

He said that Joyce had enveloped himself in the Union Jack and secured for himself the greatest possible protection.

The appellant judges said it was inconsistent with the common law that an alien could aid the king’s enemies with impunity, by virtue of a temporary absence on the high seas.

By holding a British passport, the crown assumed an onerous burden, and the holder  acquired substantial privileges, the judgment read.

Legal scholars later criticised the trial as intentionally unfair, and a sorry showing for British justice, because the prosecution was prejudicial to the accused, who was a US citizen.

Joyce was also not returned to English soil until the day after the Treason Act of 1945 was passed. It was suggested the law was passed specifically with the upcoming Joyce case in mind.

The evidence, likewise, had been gathered on Joyce’s broadcasts from Germany during the war, in anticipation of his prosecution.

In fact, Joyce was hanged based on one broadcast, which he had denied making, and for which no notes or transcription were made.

Journalist Mary Kenny attributed a comment to a member of the public in Galway, who said: “That's what happens when you put an Irish man on trial in an English court.”

Sean Gillen commented: “It's hard to shed tears for Joyce. The worst part of him – the virulent anti-Semitism – didn't really feature in his prosecution, and began to slip away from view and accounts of the trial thereafter.

“Notwithstanding all of that, it's clear that Joyce met a fate that many — who did as much as him, and many far worse — escaped.

“Kim Philby, the English spy, said: ‘To betray you I must first belong, and I never belonged’.”

'As English as warm beer'

Gillane added that where Joyce truly belonged was always a contingent question, a question that resulted in a noose around his neck. 

His wife Margaret, described by some as being ‘as English as warm beer’, was never put on trial, and died in London in 1972, despite participating with her husband in broadcasts from Germany.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland