Byron Rogers

Hanged on a legal quibble

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Nigel Farndale

Macmillan, pp. 374, £

Who killed Lord Haw-Haw? It was I, said Hartley Shawcross. I was the attorney general who led his prosecution personally under the Treason Act, even though my constitutional expert advised me that we did not have a case in law, and one of my predecessors in office had confessed himself ‘incredulous’ at its being brought at all against someone who was not, and had never been, a British subject.

It was I, said Frederick Tucker. I was the high court judge who heard the case even though six years earlier I had described the accused as ‘a traitor’, and should thus have considered myself ineligible. It was I who, instead of leaving it to the jury to decide, in the course of it ruled that the possession of a British passport in itself brought allegiance to the Crown. I did this even though it was known that the accused had lied to obtain it, an act for which the maximum penalty at the time was £2.

So what was the offence of William Joyce, called Lord Haw-Haw, this American-born German citizen and graduate of Birkbeck College, that brought him to a British gallows? In the 1930s he had been a London street fighter and fascist, but there were many such, the Daily Mail trilling in 1934, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts.’ He had also been an Eng. Lit. lecturer, and, like many another, had seduced one of his students (though she was only 16, and looked alarmingly like the young Margaret Thatcher).

But then in the early 1940s Joyce had discovered another talent, this time as a broadcaster. He proved such a success at this that the BBC, which had been relying on 10 daily hours of organ music by a Scotsman, had to rejig its schedules to compete. They brought on George Formby and Vera Lynn against a man who was attracting nine million listeners, two thirds of its potential audience. The only thing was, Joyce had discovered his new talent during the second world war, and in Germany.

Some 40 British subjects who really were British subjects broadcast from Germany during the war, one of them an old lady with photographs of the King and Queen on her desk, and another Joyce’s own second wife, a dancer from Carlisle. Of these only two were executed, the other being John Amery, the son of a cabinet minister, who virtually choreographed his own route to the gallows by pleading guilty to treason, no other penalty being provided for under the Act.

But why Joyce? The answer seems to be that he was too good at what he did. In the beginning people found him and his accent funny. When a British PoW, asked about their reaction, told him that they thought him ‘very amusing’, Joyce, it was reported, ‘seemed surprised and annoyed’. But then something very odd happened: he passed into myth, and they became frightened.

In Wolverhampton they believed that when their town clock stopped at five to nine one night Joyce reported the fact 20 minutes later in Germany. There was a lot about time and clocks, even though neither Joyce nor any other German broadcaster ever mentioned one. In Cambridge they believed he had said darkly that they had no need to worry about their new Guildhall clock, he would put that right for them. And it wasn’t just clocks. In the Midlands an ammunition factory suffered a drop in production when it was believed that Joyce had threatened to bomb their new paint shed.

For they had become convinced that Joyce, who was never to meet Hitler, his nominal boss, Goebbels, or any of the Nazi hierarchy, could, when he wished, direct the bombing. In Shoreditch they believed that he had had one street bombed because he had been beaten up there. Yet all he ever did was broadcast, it all turned on the broadcasts.

And it is the one fault of this good book that there is not enough on them. There should have been a full transcript of two or three, or more, not just excerpts from them, to underline what he actually said in those 20 minutes every night as part of the two-hour ‘Jairminny Calling’ programme. This would have enabled the reader to see him in context.

At one level a biography of Joyce is irrelevant, for the man became a phenomenon formed not out of what he was but what people thought he was, and I got no impression of what first made them laugh, then frightened them. Was it because his side- swipes about capitalism, public schools and inherited privilege, the rich exporting their children to the safety of the United States, disturbed their trust in their own side? His last broadcast was a chilling prophecy of the coming of the Cold War, but why people should have gone on listening night after night to what were basically editorials I don’t know.

The effect is that Joyce dwindles, becoming a sad rather than a tragic figure. As his first wife said when she heard that he had been sentenced to death, ‘Poor little swine! Why did he get himself into this mess? He won’t show any fear, you know. He’s always very brave.’ Yet this is a book without a hero.

There is humbug aplenty, chiefly among the British lawyers who, having hanged her husband, chose not to prosecute his wife, who, as a British subject on a passport that did not expire until 1943, made nearly 500 broadcasts in that time, and really had been guilty of treason. There are also some headbangers, most of them in MI5, amongst them Ian Fleming’s M, who had actually recruited Joyce to report on the Blackshirts, and was to tip him off about his impending arrest in 1939. This man, Maxwell Knight, a homosexual devotee of the occult, lived in Chelsea with a bear, a baboon and a cockatoo. After his retirement he wrote How to Keep an Elephant, followed the next year by How to Keep a Gorilla. To have someone that bizarre padding round the furniture just makes Joyce dwindle even more.

He was excited when they brought him back to face trial, chiefly at seeing the white cliffs again, and was heard to say, ‘God bless old England, God bless old England.’ In return, many found his last broadcast very moving.

I did not like the ghastly gallows gossip, the hangman murmuring, ‘Follow me, sir, it’ll be all right’, and the pinioned hands whitening in the pit. But Nigel Farndale’s heart is in the right place: he leaves the reader in no doubt that this was a judicial lynching.