William Brooke Joyce, the Berlin propaganda broadcaster known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and the last man to be executed in England for treason, was an agent for MI5. He went to Berlin in August 1939 at the behest of an old friend and spymaster, and wound up becoming the English voice of Nazi radio. Then in 1945 he was brought back to London, tried as a traitor, and hanged on January 3, 1946.
This was done to please the Kremlin, and to protect communists in the British government and intelligence services. Haw-Haw needed to be made an example of. He was a man who knew too much.
It all sounds like a premise for an alternative-history novel or docudrama. “Traitor” Joyce is, after all, one of the most vilified figures of his era. But the facts in the foregoing are not only a matter of record, they’ve been extensively written about for the past fifteen years, in a never-ending stream of books and articles. The revelations are all part of a vastly bigger story about wartime intelligence that’s been unravelling for decades, particularly since declassification of MI5 files began in 1999.
The story as it stands now shows that Joyce was a longtime personal and professional friend of Maxwell Knight, the spymaster known as “M” of MI5. In the 1920s Knight was director of intelligence for the British Fascists (not to be confused with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, which came later). From the BF, Knight was recruited to government intelligence, first MI6 then MI5, where he headed up his own section targeting Communist subversion in politics and trade unions.
In the early 1930s Knight attempted to recruit William Joyce, too, whom he’d known through the BF since 1924. Joyce was by now busy pursuing a PhD in psychology, and declined. Nevertheless by 1937 Joyce was on the MI5 books, not merely as expert on Communist groups, but on the internal politics of Mosley’s BUF, which he had just quit. Knight came up with the idea that Joyce should move to Berlin, become naturalized as a German citizen and a full-fledged Nazi—Our Man in Berlin. A double-agent of sorts, except his target wouldn’t be German intelligence itself, but the Soviets.
Joyce finally made this jump in 1939, right after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. This was a time when the British intelligence services were being deeply penetrated by Moscow, and it was reasonably supposed that in Berlin the German and Soviet services were sharing information. He and his wife Margaret left for Berlin on August 26, and eventually found employment as broadcasters in Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. MI5’s Knight paid him a small retainer and maintained sub rosa communications with him, at least till mid-1940.
The story of Joyce and MI5 intersects other famed spy and diplomatic crises of the era, notably the case of Tyler Kent, the American Embassy cipher clerk who copied illicit communications between President Roosevelt and Admiralty’s Churchill, and was imprisoned. The Kent case was a Maxwell Knight operation, in which suspected Nazi/Soviet assets were caught in a “sting” when they posted a coded message to William Joyce in Berlin.
While it mainly concerns British intelligence services, it’s ultimately an American story too; the American services at the time were little more than a junior adjunct of the British. And by birth, William Joyce was American.
William Joyce may be honored someday as hero and martyr, but that may be a long time coming. He has been relentlessly demonized for over seven decades. There are many ironies here, beginning with the fact that his only real crime was lying on a British passport application. He said his birthplace was Galway, Ireland when really it was Brooklyn, New York—an offense meriting a fine of two pounds, as A.J.P. Taylor once noted. Unlike such Soviet spies as Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs, Otto Katz, Alger Hiss (etc., etc.), Joyce never sent Russian defectors or Albanian freedom-fighters to their deaths. Or stole atomic secrets. Or subverted British or American foreign policy. All William Joyce did was give Sunday night news commentaries over the wireless.
Joyce’s persecution and posthumous defamation has always seemed most peculiar. When he was brought back to England as prisoner in June ’45, Parliament rushed through a special new Treason Act, for the specific purpose of convicting and hanging him. This was still Churchill’s wartime coalition government, a very Soviet-friendly stew of Labourites and Tories, some of them actual Communists. Joyce’s conviction and execution as British “traitor,” when it was clearly shown that he was American by birth and German by naturalization, was bizarre in the extreme. As is the unique venom showered upon him by journalists and history-scribblers over the past 73 years.
This spew began with an elegant essay by Rebecca West in The New Yorker, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” in September 1945. It’s smooth and stylish, extremely readable; but it’s a tissue of lies, tabloid disinformation, and derogatory fiction passed off as rumor. And yet this profile of Joyce is still treated as a kind of primary source about the man. Collected and revised in The Meaning of Treason (Viking, 1947) and many subsequent editions and versions, it has never gone out of print. And what a source it is. Describing Joyce’s appearance in court, at the Old Bailey:
He was short and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so… His nose was joined to his face at an odd angle and its bridge and its point and its nostrils were all separately misshapen. . . His body looked flimsy yet coarse. . . There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his lower lip to his ear. But this … gave a mincing immobility to his mouth, which was extremely small. His smile was pinched and governessy… [A] not very fortunate example of the small, nippy, jig-dancing type of Irish peasant. 
West goes on about her “small, nippy” monster for two or three hundred words, then proceeds to lay into the Joyce supporters who showed up at the trial. There’s an old blond floozy, there’s a tiny hunchback, there are people who look like gypsies or madmen. Elsewhere she tells a fabulous, unsourced story about an old toff who observes Joyce’s excellent horsemanship at a 1930s weekend party, and agrees that Mr. Joyce rides well, “but not like a gentleman.”  Like Joyce, Rebecca West was of Anglo-Irish background; she clearly had issues.
Much more recently we have biographer Colin Holmes, who claims to have written the first “authoritative” and “fully sourced” biography of Joyce (Searching for Lord Haw-Haw, Routledge, 2016.). Holmes is a leftist historian who admires Rebecca West very much, and strives to emulate her invective. In his universe it’s still 1945. Joyce’s fundamental and categorical fact—Comrade—is that Joyce is a Nazi beyond redemption, and deserves to hang. Holmes completely dismisses the significance of Joyce’s MI5 involvement, denouncing biographers who focus on that aspect as practitioners of “voodoo history.”
Like West, Holmes concocts fake news in his “fully sourced” biography. He advances a fanciful and quite undocumented story of how Lord Haw-Haw got his famous facial scar. When he was 18 years old and guarding a Conservative Parliamentary candidate speaking in South London in 1924—a Jewish candidate, by the way, named Jack Lazarus—Joyce was jumped and razored by what he and his nearby friend Maxwell Knight called a gang of Communist thugs. That is the story that Joyce and Knight told, and the one reported next day in the press. But in the Holmes version, the culprit was actually an “Irishwoman” who supposedly had followed Joyce all the way from Galway, where the adolescent Joyce had done courier duty for the Black and Tans in 1921. The purpose of Holmes’s tale is to paint Joyce as a liar and a coward. But the evidence is not there. Like West, Holmes likes to tell an anecdote then claim it as fact.
The popular press has had a hard time framing the Joyce-MI5 story. It’s too complex, there’s too much cognitive dissonance. If you say Lord Haw-Haw was an intelligence agent on a mission in Berlin, it must mean he was secretly an anti-Nazi all those years; and a quite brilliant one at that—but if he was, then why did he get a noose instead of a knighthood, or medal at least?
Why didn’t he tell somebody about the MI5 connection at his trials?  The evidence is that he did not do so either out of loyalty to Knight or acknowledgment of the brute fact that such a revelation wouldn’t matter. MI5 already knew his story, and the prosecution had already stitched him up on a fake charge—that as holder of a British passport till 1940 he was liable as a traitor. The fix was in.
All this is missed by the journalistic mindset, which sees only a black vs. white, “Newspeak” simplification, with little understanding of espionage or the political situation of the 1939-40 era. Here is one example, from a few years ago. Joyce’s daughter Heather, by then well into her 80s, petitioned to have her father’s case reopened on the grounds that MI5 records proved him a British operative. The writeup in the Daily Express was predictably goggle-eyed:
Aged just 17 at his death, [Heather] has just put her name to an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) which asserts that not only was her father not technically British, and therefore unable to be a traitor, but he was also a double agent for MI5 throughout the war, a protégé of the spy master who inspired Ian Fleming to create the Bond character M.
The latter is an extraordinary claim which, if true, would mean he duped both Goebbels and Hitler, and would raise new questions about the anti-communist sympathisers in Britain’s secret services.
(Daily Express, 22 May 2011)
Duped Goebbels and Hitler! What a movie this would make!
But Joyce didn’t dupe anyone. When he went to Germany he seemed to be sincere in his support for National Socialism. That was his selling-point as a spy. If you wanted to send someone who would completely pass vetting by Dr. Goebbels—who better than William Joyce?
The Joyce Mission
Joyce’s precise remit is not spelled out anywhere, and he undoubtedly destroyed his own papers pertaining to his mission. In the last weeks of the war, as he moved from Berlin to Apen, Holland, and to Hamburg, and finally to Flensburg, Germany, where he gave himself up, he seems to have taken no documents other than his diaries, his employment ID papers, and a new passport made out in the name of “Wilhelm Hansen.” A couple of days after he was taken into custody, he was debriefed in Germany by MI5’s Jim Skardon—the same smooth, pipe-smoking operative who six years later would interview suspected Soviet spy Kim Philby ten times. Like Philby, Joyce gave only his impenetrable cover story, and hinted at no other agenda: he went to Germany because supported National Socialism and he opposed the war between Germany and Britain. Inevitably, as with Philby, MI5’s Skardon must have known the truth even even if he couldn’t get it on the record.
But working backwards from what we know, it’s possible to make a good guess about what William Joyce and Maxwell Knight were up to. Soviet penetration of the Security Service, MI5, was very much on Knight’s mind in the latter 1930s. In 1937 the Service was reorganized. Communist subversion, a priority in earlier years, was downgraded as a target. Knight was left with his own anti-Communist section, B5(b) (aka “M” section); but most of the other sections in the MI5 “B” department (domestic subversion and counter-espionage) were now focusing on far-right, fascist, and pro-Nazi groups in Britain.
Knight was aware, or suspected, that the Service had been well and thoroughly infiltrated, much as British rightist groups had been. (E.g., both Guy Burgess and Kim Philby had joined the Anglo-German Fellowship in the mid-30s, on instructions from Moscow, for intelligence as well as to sanitize their own Communist histories since their days at Cambridge.)
The one clear instance where we have direct evidence of communication between Maxwell Knight’s end and Joyce’s is the Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff affair. Kent, an American Embassy code clerk, was a suspected Soviet and/or German asset; in 1939 he was transferred from Moscow to London. Wolkoff was a Russian dress designer who moved in far-Right London circles and met Kent in early 1940. Maxwell Knight put together a sting operation in which Wolkoff was asked to send a coded letter to Joyce at Berlin Radio, via neutral diplomatic delegations. This letter was then intercepted by MI5/Knight and used to arrest Wolkoff. In the course of this ruse, Wolkoff’s connection to Kent was uncovered; then his accommodation was raided, where MI5 found hundreds of secret Embassy communiqués, some between Roosevelt and Churchill, as well as the membership roster of The Right Club (an organization headed by Capt. Archibald Maule Ramsay, a right-wing MP).
American Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy waived Tyler Kent’s diplomatic immunity, and Kent was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for some years, as was Anna Wolkoff. The new Churchill coalition government then used these discoveries as a pretext to round up a thousand nationalists, fascists, and peace activists, from May 1940 onwards, and imprison them without trial or habeas corpus.
Some writers have speculated that the Tyler Kent arrest was actually part of a conspiracy to bring down Ambassador Kennedy. No doubt there were some who welcomed the embarrassment to JPK and his Embassy, but this outcome could hardly have been foreseen at the start. MI5’s target was not Tyler Kent but Anna Wolkoff and her circle of presumed “pro-Nazi” conspirators, who might be passing information not only to Berlin but to Moscow. Tyler Kent’s packet of papers were just a windfall that fell into their lap. If there was any such anti-Kennedy initiative by MI5, it was poorly thought out, as it could well blow up in their faces. Kennedy could have decided to protect Kent, might even choose to publicize the secret FDR-Churchill communiqués, which were illicit to begin with.
A prime security concern, during late 1939 and early 1940—the time of the “Phony War” and the German-Soviet Pact—was that information going through German channels was getting to the Soviets; and dispatches from Red spies in Britain were getting to the Germans. The German and Soviet spy services had a history of cooperation, long preceding the Nonagression Pact. 
This is really what brought Tyler Kent down, not some sting operation against Ambassador Kennedy. And whatever the Soviets really had on William Joyce, there can be little doubt that they knew his MI5 background, and that they believed he was a spy sent to Berlin to trace Soviet moles. At war’s end he was a Person of Interest, and he had to be got out the way.
1. From Nigel Farndale’s Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005), p. 318, discussing Joyce’s appeal before the Lords, and an emergency Cabinet meeting by the Home Secretary in December 1945, considering how to deal with the possibility that the Lord might overturn Joyce’s conviction:
“Joyce would no doubt have been honoured to know that he had been the subject of a Cabinet meeting. He would have been pleased, too, to learn that in Moscow the Kremlin was busy bringing pressure to bear on the British Ambassador regarding his case. The Soviets had been critical of the way the Anglo-Americans had conducted themselves at the Nuremberg Trial [i.e., the International Military Tribunal, which had begun a few weeks earlier] and had been monitoring the progress of the British treason trials for any signs of liberal weakness. As an MI5 memo phrased it that week: “We are worried about what the Russian reaction might be if the Lords quash his conviction.”
The Soviets had recently brought similar pressure upon the French, forcing them to condemn to death not only Pierre Laval and the ancient Philippe Petain, but such minor figures as the writers Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu de Rochelle. The 89-year-old Petain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by his onetime protégé Charles de Gaulle, but even de Gaulle dared spare no one else.
2. “Lord Haw-Haw” was a nickname that a London tabloid columnist invented for another British broadcaster, who sounded like a comic P.G. Wodehouse figure; but it stuck primarily to William Joyce.
The most recent mainstream book dealing with the general subject of Joyce, Maxwell Knight, and MI5 is Henry Hemming’s biography of Knight, Agent M (PublicAffairs/Perseus, 2017), which has been tremendously popular and well received in England; it was recently Waterstone’s Book of the Month. The Knight/MI5 connection to Joyce has also been touched upon recently in Francis Beckett’s A Fascist in the Family, reviewed here last year, and Colin Holmes’s Searching for Lord Haw-Haw (both from Routledge, 2016). Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005) was probably the first in-depth treatment of MI5’s use of Joyce, particularly in regard to the 1940 Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff case. Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt (originally published 2005, new imprint 2017) discusses the early connections between the British Fascist movement and MI5’s anti-subversion unit, and uses MI5/Joyce information on the internal politics of Mosley’s British Union. State Secrets by Bryan Clough (2001, 2005), an early distillation of the MI5 files, suffers from an overload of conspiracy hypothesis but makes insightful criticisms of other literature. The Defence of the Realm (2009) Christopher Andrew’s “official” history of MI5, is very “sanitised,” as the Guardian wrote, but is still useful for what it shows and doesn’t.
3. Farndale, Ibid.
4. “Technically, Joyce was hanged for making a false statement when applying for a passport, the usual penalty for which is a small fine.” A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1964.
5. Pro-Soviets in the Churchill coalition included Stafford Cripps, a House Leader, aircraft minister and ambassador to USSR; and Ellen Wilkinson, a minister of education who was a onetime Communist Party member. The Foreign Office and SIS (MI6) meantime was famously shot through with spies, beginning with Burgess, Philby and Maclean.
Regarding the Treason Act of 1945, targeting Joyce, Americans will readily notice that it was both an ex post facto law and a “bill of attainder.” The bill’s sponsors and Learned Judges justified it with the laughable excuse that it was merely a modification to Treason Acts of 1351, 1695, etc., etc.!
6. Rebecca West, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” The New Yorker, September 29, 1945.
7. West, Ibid.
8. Interviewed by a hometown paper in Sheffield, England, Colin Holmes gave some indication of his own peculiar outlook by comparing Lord Haw-Haw to Donald Trump:
“I remember when I was writing the book I mentioned to a psychiatrist friend that I was having difficulty in understanding Joyce,” says Prof Holmes. “He said, ‘Well, we would describe him as a narcissist.’ I realised that was it. And, of course, an American psychiatrist said the same thing about Trump.” (Sheffield Telegraph, 23 Nov 2016)
9. Holmes’s story about the scar has nevertheless been picked up, uncritically, by Francis Beckett in his biography of his father, Fascist in the Family (2016), and by Henry Hemming in Agent M (2017), about Joyce’s friend Maxwell Knight. While his version might be plausible by itself, he leaves too many evidentiary holes, such as failing to provide any corroboration or transcript. Furthermore the tale is opposed by every other account of the event, and dubiously claims a dubious source: the 86-year-old ex-wife of Joyce, now dead, who was not an eyewitness, did not then know Joyce, and supposedly waited nearly 70 years before vouchsafing this nugget to an unfriendly biographer.
10. Joyce did in fact play with the idea of declaring his MI5 ties, as he wrote his wife. Farndale, p. 315.
11. See J.A. Cole, Lord Haw-Haw and William Joyce: the Full Story. Faber & Faber (London), 1964. Also Farrar Straus & Giroux (New York), 1965. Joyce’s diaries, documents, and the Skardon debriefing are photographed and transcribed.
12. Antony Percy, Misdefending the Realm. University of Buckingham Press, 2017.
13. E.g., Bryan Clough, State Secrets, 2001, 2005.
14. Guy Liddell, 1940 Diaries.