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

Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ageing is so far known to be caused by nine biological mechanisms, sometimes called the “hallmarks of ageing”. In order to prevent ageing in our tissues, cells, and molecules, we need to be able to slow or prevent these hallmarks of ageing from taking place. While there are numerous treatments currently being investigated, two approaches currently show the most promise in slowing the development of age-related disease. .... One area researchers are investigating is looking at whether any medicines already exist which could tackle ageing. This method is advantageous in that billions of pounds have already been spent on testing the safety and efficacy of these drugs and they are already in routine clinical use in humans. Two in particular are promising candidates."
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "The ageing global population is the greatest challenge faced by 21st-century healthcare systems. Even COVID-19 is, in a sense, a disease of ageing. The risk of death from the virus roughly doubles for every nine years of life, a pattern that is almost identical to a host of other illnesses. But why are old people vulnerable to so many different things? It turns out that a major hallmark of the ageing process in many mammals is inflammation. By that, I don’t mean intense local response we typically associate with an infected wound, but a low grade, grinding, inflammatory background noise that grows louder the longer we live. This “inflammaging” has been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat in arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure , frailty, cancer and cognitive decline."
Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "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'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."