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My Father and Lord Haw Haw

Francis Beckett

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Just before Christmas 1945, as William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw, awaited execution for treason because of his wartime broadcasts from Germany for Hitler, my father wrote to him. "Our children will grow up", John Beckett told his friend, "to think of you as an honest and courageous martyr in the fight against alien control of our country ... That is how we shall remember you, and what we will tell our people." Joyce replied that he was "deeply touched by what you say of the manner in which your children will be taught to regard me".

It was a promise my father did his best to keep. While he was composing the hardest letter of his life, I was probably sleeping upstairs, as peacefully as a seven-month-old baby can sleep. All Joyce's other fascist friends, including their leader Oswald Mosley and AK Chesterton, who went on to found the National Front, rushed to condemn him. But my father never spoke of Joyce except with affection and respect. Only recently, when the MI5 intercepts on his letters and telephone calls were at last opened, did I discover that this was because he was keeping a promise to an executed comrade.

In 1925 John Beckett become the youngest Labour MP of his time, at the age of 30. Moving rapidly leftwards, he was expelled from the Labour party and lost his seat in 1931, joining Mosley's fascists in 1933. He and Joyce were chief propagandists for the Blackshirts, until Mosley fired them for dissent in 1937. Joyce and Beckett formed the National Socialist League, but my father left the next year.

Publicly, Joyce and Beckett attributed their break-up to my father's alarm at the stridency of Joyce's anti-semitism, but there was more to it. In his letter to his condemned friend, he refers to a conversation between them that took place seven years earlier - obliquely because both men knew their letters were being intercepted and read. "No one knows better than myself the sincerity of the beliefs which led to the course of action you chose. You remember we discussed the position in 1938, and the disagreement and respect I showed for your opinion then, remains."

In Joyce's long reply - four cramped pages, his tiny handwriting covering every part of the little sheets of Wandsworth prison paper - he says: "Of course I remember, quite vividly, how we discussed the situation in 1938. I do not, in the most infinitesimal degree, regret what I have done. For me, there was nothing else to do. I am proud to die for what I have done."

At that 1938 discussion, I think Joyce said he would go to Germany if war was declared, and wanted my father to go with him. He also probably explained that if ever he were brought to trial in Britain, he would rely on the fact that he was really a citizen of the US, where he was born. In 1940 my father tried to prepare the ground for this defence. Questioned by a committee which was charged with advising whether he and other fascists should be kept in prison [under the Defence of the Realm Act], he dropped a bombshell.

Q: "Joyce is Lord Haw Haw, I am told ... Do you confirm it?"

JB: "I cannot confirm it, but I think it is very likely."

Q: "... We know Joyce has gone to Germany."

JB: "He is in Germany. Of course, he was never a British subject."

Q: "Was he not?"

JB: "No. He was an American subject, he was born in America, but I did not find that out until after we had parted."

Joyce used this defence in 1945, but that year no one was going to let legal niceties stop them from hanging Lord Haw Haw. My father did not want to buoy his friend up with false hope: "Some of our friends are working very hard to get a petition signed and I shall do my best to help them, but you will not be optimistic as to its results," he wrote.

He began his letter: "I feel an urgent need to write to you, yet find it very difficult to say anything very adequate to the occasion. Certainly I know you too well to imagine there is any need to offer you consolation or exhort you to courage." And he ended it: "Goodbye, William, it's been good to know you and there are few things in my life I am prouder of than our association. Yours always, John."

"As you rightly say," replied Joyce, "I need no exhortation or consolation: but to know that my motives have not been misunderstood by those whose regard I do value is to know that I shall not die in vain, and to suspect that my service in dying may be greater than my service in living. May it be so!" John's letter "could have come only from a real friend". But the petition is unlikely "to stand between me and Jewish revenge" and he would not seek mercy "from those who have denied me justice".

Two weeks after my father wrote to him, on January 3 1946, Joyce was hanged.

The two letters are in eight huge boxes of MI5 surveillance on Beckett in the years 1945 to 1947 which have been kept secret for almost 60 years. All my father's letters, incoming and outgoing, were opened and read, and all his telephone calls were tapped and transcribed. It was done thoroughly - the most trivial everyday conversations are recorded verbatim - but not efficiently. The then news editor of the Communist Daily Worker, Douglas Hyde, told me he once received a letter intended for my father. My father received Hyde's letter. The spooks had put them back in the wrong envelopes.

There is little in the boxes to indicate why he was still worth following, and nothing at all to show why the material is so sensitive that it needed to be buried for six decades. Most of it is the humdrum life and worries of a 51-year-old man just out of prison, with no home, no money, a small baby, no job, and a name and a face which potential employers would remember and fear.

I discovered with sadness how nearly he managed to rescue his life, even then. He got a job as an administrator at what later became Watford general hospital, where I was born, inventing a cover story for his years behind bars. He was "overjoyed" at the prospect of working outside politics, of earning a proper living doing useful work. MI5 considered stopping it, because he was only allowed to travel five miles from his home and the hospital was five and a half miles away. The hospital must have found out who he was, because he was soon wearily back at his old trade, running the British People's party, on the fringes of the fascist right, and living on the wealth of its president, the Duke of Bedford, until the Duke died in 1953, and then slipping into penury.

But an even sadder discovery was that the file contained, not a transcription of Joyce's last letter to him, but a recent photocopy of the original. They never let him see it. My father must have gone to his grave without knowing that his friend had taken the trouble to answer his letter.

Should we care about the secret power of the security services, when the victims were men like Beckett, Joyce and Chesterton, with their unpleasant political views, their racism, and their postwar belief that the Holocaust was a myth, probably invented by Jews? Yes: we cannot demand civil liberties only for people with views we consider acceptable. It's a point worth remembering today, as the government plans the greatest clampdown since MI5 stopped transcribing my father's telephone calls.

This is an extract from The Rebel Who Lost His Cause - The Tragedy of John Beckett MP by Francis Beckett. It is published by Allison and Busby.

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  • 4 weeks later...


Fascinating stuff. Thanks so much for posting it.

In America, the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) were bitterly opposed to the U.S. entering the war, at least prior to Pearl Harbor (which saved them from the "facsist" label). The great poet Ezra Pound, who made wartime speeches from Italy supporting Mussolini and condemning Roosevelt and the allies in scathing terms, was sent to a Washington, D.C. mental institution after the war, and kept there for a decade. His only "illness" was his violent opposition to WWII, and his generally obsessive preoccupation with "the Jews."

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