Jan 7th 2021

Lord Haw-Haw: popularity of wartime Nazi propagandist made the BBC up its game

by Tim Luckhurs


Tim Luckhurst is Principal of South College at the Durham University


Capture of William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) in Germany in 1945. Bert Hardy, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit/IWM, CC BY-NC


During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations.

Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”.

During this period, when fighting felt remote from British homes, Joyce became a celebrity. He was genuinely amusing, and he emphasised the socialist aspect of National Socialism in a manner calculated to appeal to British Labour voters.

One topic for attack was rationing, on which Haw-Haw made such effective criticism of Neville Chamberlain’s government that Harold Hobson, a prominent drama critic and author, wrote to The Times in December 1939 to praise his style as a broadcaster. Haw-Haw, wrote Hobson, had increased the nation’s Christmas cheer with his jibe that rationing restricted Britons to “a quarter-pound of butter a week”.

Hobson deplored the BBC’s failure to rebut Haw-Haw’s arguments. He recognised that Haw-Haw made an impact because he faced no contradiction. Hobson warned that the Nazi propagandist had become “a figure of national popularity… the hero of the revue”.

Olivia Cockett, a diarist for the Mass Observation project that recorded the everyday thoughts of British people of the period, illustrates the popularity of such broadcasts. Her diary entry for October 13 1939 records that she “took tea up to my sitting room to listen to the German news in English… They sound mostly quite as reasonable and convincing as the BBC so that I am more than ever wondering where the TRUTH lies”.

‘Diabolical Peter Wimsey’

The idea that Haw-Haw was a privileged member of the upper classes also gained widespread currency – and reinforced the belief that he might have access to important information. Media historian Jean Seaton notes that: “The myth of the English aristocrat with inside knowledge of the German high command – a kind of diabolical Peter Wimsey – was powerful.”

It inspired controversy at The Times. On January 2 1940, a letter from the novelist Rose Macaulay disputed Harold Hobson’s suggestion that Haw-Haw sounded upper class. Macaulay acknowledged that he “speaks excellent English”, but she did not believe it to be “public school” English. Indeed, she detected “a slight provincial accent” – perhaps Manchester?

Macaulay invited other readers to share their opinions. Six days later, The Times collated their responses in a news story. One reader was perceptively certain that Haw-Haw’s speech indicated that he had Irish origins. Another detected “the pomposity and condescension associated with privilege and class”. AS Pratt, the headmaster of King Edward VI School in Nuneaton added: “His broadcasts are a joy and he has added to the gaiety of nations.”

This capacity to entertain alarmed the popular, left-of-centre Daily Mirror. It supported Hobson’s suggestion that the BBC should rebut Haw-Haw’s assertions. If it was true that:

innocent folk listening to Haw-Haw have indeed begun to fall under the spell of his prestige [then] some equally bland announcer should answer him back every evening and refute the most perilous part of his propaganda, which is probably his not unskillful appeal to socialist and anti-imperialist suspicions.

The conservative Daily Mail was equally aware that its readers enjoyed Haw-Haw. It deprecated his “vicious little wisecracks” and deplored his “insinuating questions”. It rejoiced when he was briefly replaced on the airwaves by another English-speaking Nazi broadcaster, a man “with the faint brogue of the cultured North Countryman” whom it christened “Soapy Sam”. But he lacked Haw-Haw’s ability to amuse. The following day, the Daily Mail recorded that “Lord Haw-Haw’s monocled voice reached out from Bremen again last night and British listeners are happy once more”.

BBC gets the message

Writing in the BBC’s own magazine, The Listener, in January 1940, Mr Charles of Herne Hill expressed his fear that consistent bombardment by such propaganda might lead British listeners to question the accuracy of the BBC’s own reporting. He feared that “the only solution will be to emulate Germany’s example and make it an offence to listen to foreign broadcasting”.

But tempting though it was, a ban on listening would make a mockery of Britain’s commitment to democratic principles. American opinion would be outraged. The solution was not censorship but a determined effort to raise the entertainment value of BBC radio. Lord Haw-Haw played a part in shifting the BBC away from its policy of ignoring popular preferences to an understanding that “the barometer of listeners’ preferences” should help to define its output.

Great wartime radio shows were devised that attracted colossal audiences and made the image of a family gathered around a radio set genuinely representative of wartime Britain. Soon, radio overtook newspapers as Britain’s primary source of news.

Joyce, meanwhile, was captured in Germany in May 1945 and convicted of high treason. He was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in London on the morning of January 3 1946.


Tim Luckhurst, Principal of South College, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."