During World War II, The Government of the United Kingdom became somewhat obsessed with ferreting out Nazi spies. Those who were apprehended were immediately faced with execution. These began very early on, and would span the entire conflict.
Sir Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10th 1940. While his predecessor, Chamberlain, hoped to pacify Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party.
In 1938 Prime Minister Chamberlain, in the hope of “achieving peace in our time” allowed Hitler to annex a part of Czechoslovakia.
This concession proved futile when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Chamberlain did, at that time, declare war.
Unfortunately, Mr. Chamberlain was not well-equipped to face the daunting challenge of the Nazi conquest of all Europe. In 1940, Hitler’s army ousted the British in Norway.
This disaster on Mr. Chamberlain’s watch, cost him the support of most members of his Conservative party. Following this defeat, Hitler’s armies were to invade Belgium and the Netherlands. Again, Mr. Chamberlain’s office fell into disrepute by the House of Commons.
When Sir Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister, his abilities as a bellicose leader, combined with his convincing speeches, enabled him to promise the British people that the UK would never surrender, and he was able to keep his word.
One of his first concerns was to ferret out Nazi spies, often referred to as “fifth columnists”, and have them executed.
MI5 Take Control
He was informed that only British citizens could be prosecuted for treason. Sir Winston immediately put a new law in place, which would be called the Treachery Act. This covered a great deal of ground and there was only one punishment for anyone who fell into this category, and that was Death.
A four-day trial ended in the conviction of three suspected spies who were sentenced to be hanged.
However, the publicity left a sour taste in the mouths of many Brits and Sir Winston turned this area of home protection over to MI5. This agency, using what is called the double-cross, became increasingly useful through the ensuing years.
As MI5 found these spies, they were used to send their handlers in Germany a blend of incorrect information that proved very useful in confounding the Abwehr’s operations. (The Abwehr [defense]was Germany’s equivalent of MI5 at that time). Though some were used to the advantage of MI5, other’s were not so lucky.
The first convicted men were hanged; However, under British law, the names and dates of the hangings were posted outside prison walls for any interested reader. Desiring more secrecy, MI5 took a more secret path to avoid publicity. Future convicted spies were to be executed by a firing squad behind closed doors.
The first of these was a dentist named Joseph Jakobs. When he was dropped by parachute over England, Herr Jakobs broke a leg. Apprehended immediately, he was taken to the Tower of London where there was an indoor shooting range. He was executed by a firing squad consisting of eight soldiers.
MI5 also made good use of beautiful young women to gain the confidence of suspected spies, and in turn learn all they could. This proved a very easy way to gain information from most men. Notable among those who were executed was William Joyce aka “Lord Haw-Haw”. Mr. Joyce was born in the United States but somehow ended up broadcasting propaganda for the Nazis. He was dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw” due to his phony upper-crust British accent and his constant “haw haws” to emphasize his words.
Allies Within The Abwehr
During World War II, in what the Nazis called “Operation Lena”, nearly one hundred and forty German spies were sent to Great Britain. Many of those were parachuted into England, and most were immediately, or soon captured and given the choice of becoming a “double agent” for the British Government or execution by firing squad.
Unknown to Adolph Hitler, the Abwehr was controlled by a group of anti-Nazi Abwehr officers who didn’t want these missions to succeed. For this reason, they chose incompetent agents, badly trained, etc. rather than intelligent spies. These were of course almost immediately rounded up and placed in confinement.
Most of these opted for the first choice, even encouraging Hitler to send more spies to England with plenty of money, which he did. Many on the other hand, remained loyal to the Nazi cause, and as a result faced a firing squad in the storied Tower of London. While the majority of these executions were carried out at the Tower’s indoor shooting range, at least two convicted spies were shot by a firing squad in one of the Tower’s ditches.
Here is a list of the 17 known prisoners who were executed by firing squad during World War II:
- Joseph Waldberg
- Carl Meier
- Charles Kieboom
- George Johnson Armstrong
- Werner Heinrich Walti
- Karl Drueke
- Josef Jakobs
- Karel Richter
- Alphonse Timmerman
- José Key
- Duncan Ford
- Johannes Dronkers
- Franciscus Winter
- Oswald Job
- Pierre Neuekermans
- Joseph Vanhove
- John Aery
- William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw
- Theodore Schurch
While the thought of convicted spies dying before a firing squad in secret may shock many, it must be understood that the United Kingdom was in a life or death struggle with Nazi Germany during the time of World War II.
Prime Minister Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler and avoid a direct conflict but to Hitler, this was only a sign of weakness that served to encourage him to continue his expansion of “Greater Germany”.
Hitler’s words even today remind us of this megalomaniac’s ambition. “Heute gehört uns Deutschland, u. morgen de ganze Welt.”Germany is ours today, tomorrow it will be the whole world”.
Churchill recognized the threat behind Hitler’s words and immediately took action to use any means to rid the world of this egocentric maniac.
Fortunately, at that time, Prime Minister Churchill was up to the task as well as giving confidence to British citizens with his powerful and inspirational speeches.
There are more stories of executions in World War II, and although a morbid topic, it’s a very interesting one nonetheless.