Report: the Galway-reared extremist became infamous as a German wartime broadcaster

75 years ago, Nazi propagandist and broadcaster William Joyce was captured by British forces at Flensburg, near the German border with Denmark, which was the last capital of the Third Reich. One of the Nazi regime's most notorious champions, Joyce had made a name for himself as a wartime broadcaster at the end of a short, colourful and remarkable life that began in Brooklyn as the son of an Irish immigrant from Co Galway. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter joined RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sarah McInerney show to look back at Joyce's rise and fall.

Joyce was born in Brooklyn, New York in April 1906. "His father, Michael was originally from a small farming background in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo and had immigrated to the United States in the 1880s", explains Ferriter. "He was a building contractor and he went there for business reasons and got American citizenship on the back of it. But then the family came back when the young William Joyce was just three years old and his father set up business in Galway and was involved in renting properties and various things.

"Joyce was educated educated initially in a local primary school and then in Saint Ignatius College by the Jesuits. He was always very positive about his experience with the Jesuit education. He was a very intelligent and precocious child. He was troubled from the get go. One of the reasons why he had that distinctive nasal tone in his voice was because he got into a fight at school and his nose had been broken, so he was very outspoken and precocious and difficult from an early stage."

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Mary Kenny talks about the life and death of William Joyce, the Third Reich's most notorious propaganda broadcaster

That outspokenness may explain who the teenage Joyce supported during the War of Independence. "He was an open supporter of the Black and Tans in the West of Ireland at that time", says Ferriter. "Even some of the loyalists and unionists found him too much to handle. So he is coming from a unionist perspective and his family were very fervent unionists and that would have been instilled in him, but of course he takes it up to higher degrees."

Ferriter notes that Joyce's career was coloured throughout with extremism. "That's apparent from a very early stage. He's a big believer in the British empire and he actually joins a Royal regiment of the British Army when he moves over to England in December 1921. He's too young and he's eventually caught out in relation to his age and he's forced to leave. 

"He tries to pursue his own education. He has an aptitude for history and English and Maths and languages and he studies at Birkbeck College. He even, at one stage, enrols for a PhD in Educational Psychology. But then, he got drawn into the whole question of fascist politics in the 1920s."

From RTÉ Archives, Jim Fahy reports for RTÉ News on how William Joyce's remains were repatriated and buried in an unmarked grave in Bohermore, Galway in 1976

Joyce became very active with the British Union of Fascists. "People will associate this with Oswald Mosley, the very controversial leader of that movement, and Joyce becomes a full time paid organiser for that movement. The interesting thing about the fascists in Britain in the 1920s is that they're Tory auxiliaries. They have very close connections in the early years with British Tories."

However, Joyce fell out with that group. "He's not satisfied with the direction of the British Union of Fascists and falls out with the leadership and he formed his own very small, more extreme group. And that's his progression in the 1920s and the 1930s. I mean, he's a rabble-rouser, a brawler. He was somebody who MI5 suggested was quite deranged, but could be very effective in terms of how he could ignite an audience, which is very much a part of the fascist campaigning at that time.

"He had a very distinctive scar right across his face from cheek, from his mouth right up to his ear. That had happened when he was stewarding a British Tory meeting. He was only 17 years of age at the time, and he was attacked in an alleyway and he later claimed it was the work of Jewish communists so he was deeply, deeply anti-semitic as a result of that."

From RTÉ Archives, writer Francis Stuart talks to presenter John Bowman about William Joyce's time in Berlin in a 1976 interview from the Opinion radio show

It was a need to get out of Britain as well as his increasing adulation of Hitler which drew Joyce to Germany. "He finds himself in Berlin at the beginning of World War II with his second wife Margaret and the question is what is he going to do? He believes in the Führer and he sees himself in many respects as potentially another Führer or a better Führer. But he gets involved in the English language broadcasting service of the Reich at that time through some of the fascist contacts that he had and that's how he ends up broadcasting.

"Why was he called Lord Haw-Haw? Lord Haw-Haw was actually a description that had been applied to previous English language broadcasters and the broadcasting propaganda in Nazi Germany and that moniker is attached to him then. It was Jonah Barrington, a Daily Express journalist, who describes this exaggeratedly aristocratic tone, the kind of sneering, sarcastic British upper crust gentleman the damn-it, get-out-of-my-way Englishman variety. 

"He adopted a particular tone and he upped the ante as the war progressed. Now, there are very compelling reasons for British people to listen to this cause they can access this service, and many of them used to switch over after the BBC broadcasts. They certainly didn't want to be bored and he could often shock and he had information about British prisoners of war. He criticised what was going on in Britain, including its social conditions. And he predicted future air raids. It's estimated that up to six million Britons may have been listening to Lord Haw-Haw and that distinctive opening "Germany calling. Germany calling". And of course this is arch-propaganda. This is part of the Nazi propaganda service and they reward him handsomely."

William Joyce's last broadcast as Lord Haw-Haw in 1945

As the war went on, Lord Haw-Haw remained on air. "Even as things began to go badly for Germany, he remains defiant. He's deeply anti-semitic. He is somebody who never got to meet one of his heroes, Goebbels, but he was obviously styling himself in that manner. He becomes a figure of ridicule and comedians would have made reference to him, particularly when he is still maintaining that Germany will prevail towards the ends of the war.

"His last broadcast was a defiant, drunken broadcast in Hamburg. It was clear that the writing was on the wall and he and his colleagues raided the drink cellars there and got uproariously drunk. And you can hear in his final broadcast the slurring defiance. Then he flees to a place near the Danish border where he is picked up after the defeat of Germany.

"He's brought back to Britain and he's put on trial for treason, but there's a key question about his citizenship. He was born in America and his defence was that he could not be tried for treason because how can you be accused of betraying a country that you do not belong to? The complication is that he had applied for a British passport and had given false information to obtain that British passport by lying about his American citizenship. The argument of Hartley Shawcross, who was the British attorney general, was that because he had a passport, that implied that he had a loyalty to the British Crown and he had betrayed the British Crown and he lost the legal argument."

Hear the discussion in full below