The night the Germans bombed their own propagandist

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, during which the South London Press continued to be published twice a week despite paper shortages, government censorship and the loss of staff serving in the forces, writes Mark Bryant.

By September 1939 most of the newspaper’s employees had moved from offices above the Underground station at Elephant and Castle to a new home in Leigham Court Road, in what was then relatively rural Streatham.

Streatham, however, was no safer in wartime than the Elephant, as journalist Roy Nash, later of the Daily Mail, recalled: “I remember one especially vicious bomb that came whistling towards us. The chief sub looked up, handed me a news story with the request, ‘Give that a third of a column.’

“From somewhere north of Streatham Hill Station came the crump of an explosion, crashing masonry, bursting glass. A third of a column it was and the paper, as we all know, has survived a darned sight longer than Hitler’s Reich.

One particular wartime front page, for Friday, August 30, 1940 had a special interest for residents in the Dulwich area.

It not only published reports about the first ever Nazi air raid on the district, which had taken place the previous night, but also revealed that, ironically, one of the first houses to be destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs was the family home of William Joyce – better known as the infamous German radio propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, whose nightly broadcasts to Britain began with the words ‘Germany Calling’.

Michael and ‘Queenie’ Joyce had moved from Ireland to Allison Grove, off the South Circular near Dulwich College in the early 1920s.

William, who had been born in New York in 1906 but had been brought up in Ireland, was the oldest of their five children. He had briefly attended Battersea Polytechnic and then studied for an English degree at Birkbeck College, University of London, while living at home in Dulwich.

Lord Haw-Haw’s arrest, and, above, outside Wandsworth Prison on the day of his execution on January 3, 1946

In the run-up to the general election of October 1924, Joyce, by then a member of the British Fascists group, was a steward at a rally at Lambeth Baths hall – now the site of Lambeth Towers, near the Imperial War Museum – for the Unionist candidate for Lambeth North, Jack Lazarus.

However, a fight broke out with Communist hecklers and Joyce was badly slashed in the face by a razor – the wound required 26 stitches.

The Evening Standard reported the incident on its front page of October 23, 1924, quoting Lazarus as saying: “The man Joyce, one of our supporters, fell down, his face covered in blood,” and the article continued: “Mr Lazarus vowed to have the Public Order Act enforced after these scenes of disorder, as a result of which Mr William Joyce, of Allison Grove, Dulwich had to be confined to hospital.”

He later married a fellow student and worked as a tutor of languages in Victoria while studying for a PhD.

However, he gave this up soon after joining Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1933, becoming Director of Propaganda and deputy leader. And then when he broke away from the BUF in 1937 to form his own group, the National Socialist League, together with ex-BUF member John Beckett – the former Independent Labour MP for Peckham – the activities of he and his family continued to feature in the newspapers.

As Mary Kenny says in her 2003 book Germany Calling, “William seems to have roped in his whole family. He even had his teenage sister, Joan, hand out Fascist propaganda leaflets at Sydenham School for Girls.

“He also dressed little Robert up in a black shirt. ‘Poor Mrs Joyce,’ the neighbours in Dulwich used to exclaim. ‘With all those terrible children in their black shirts.’”

His brother Frank was particularly active in William’s support, and received separate mention in the South London Press in 1938 when he married Lilian Weeks, the daughter of the popular local landlord Harry Weeks, who ran the Magdala – now The Lordship – in Lordship Lane for many years.

By this time William Joyce had left his first wife and their two children, and was living with his second wife – also an ex-BUF member – in a flat in Farquhar Road, Norwood, a short distance from his parents’ house in Dulwich.

However, though he would visit his family home occasionally to organise rallies in the Dulwich area, once he moved to Germany in 1939 he only returned to London for his trial after the war.

He was thus not aware of the destruction of his family home at No.7 Allison Grove until some time after the event. Its demise took place in the early hours of Thursday, August 29, 1940 – by coincidence almost exactly a year after Joyce had left England for Berlin.

The story was headline news, featuring on the front page of the South London Press for Friday, August 30 under the banner headline Haw-Haw’s London Home is Damaged by Nazi Bomb, Parents Sheltering in Cellar Unhurt – Houses Near Railway Wrecked.

The article continued: “For the first time since war began Nazi planes dropped bombs on South-east London in the early hours of yesterday morning. Houses and a big store in three boroughs were hit and in one crowded working-class area more than 20 high-explosive bombs were dropped.

“By a peculiar twist of fate one of the houses damaged by bombs was the home in outer South-east London of the parents of Lord Haw-Haw, whose daily talks from Germany entertain radio listeners in this country.”

This was followed by further details: “Mrs Joyce ‘Heard Bombs Explode’. The house in which Mr and Mrs Michael Joyce, parents of Haw-Haw, live is the only one on that side of the road. The neighbouring houses had been demolished by the landowners.

“Mrs and Mrs Joyce, sheltering in the cellar, were unhurt, but part of the house was demolished when a bomb fell nearby.

“Mrs Joyce told the SLP ‘We heard the bombs exploding and we heard masonry falling but apart from a shower of dust and debris we were unscathed. My husband and I were sheltering in the cellar.’”

A house opposite the Joyces’ was also badly damaged in the raid.

As the South London Press reported: ‘Four elderly women in their Anderson shelter were trapped when the entrance caved in.”

The Joyce family home after the bombing was later described by Rebecca West in her 1949 book The Meaning of Treason, which records: “Nothing remains of it now save a hole in the ground beside the remains of a neighbour’s basement; a fine tree, long grasses, and lilacs and syringas grown wild-branched for lack of pruning give the scene a certain elegiac beauty.

“The family lost all their possessions save a trunk full of old papers and a few pieces of furniture, and they went to live at a rest centre until they found another house.”

Michael and Queenie Joyce eventually moved to a flat in Underhill Road, East Dulwich, where they both died in the 1940s. Some of their other children lived there for a while but all had moved out by 1950.

In the last days of the war William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, was captured by the Allies and put on trial. He was executed in Wandsworth Prison on January 3, 1946, the last person in the UK to be sentenced to death for high treason.

Mark Bryant lives in East Dulwich close to the Joyce family’s final home in Underhill Road.
He is the author of World War II in Cartoons and other books.

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