Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, tells the story of Josef Jakobs, dentist, counterfeiter, spy and the last person to be executed in the Tower
The last person and the only spy to be executed at the Tower of London in the Second World War was a German spy called Josef Jakobs, who was shot by a military firing squad on August 15 1941 after being found guilty under the Treachery Act of 1940 before a general court martial.
His doomed spying mission as an agent of the Abwehr ( German Intelligence Service) began to unravel after he broke an ankle on landing on his first and last parachute jump into rural Huntingdonshire in January, 1941.
While lying in agony, unable to move and with little prospect of success, he surrendered to a local Home Guard unit. His injuries were later treated at Dulwich Hospital and he was held at various London prisons under interrogation, including HMP Wandsworth from where he was taken before a specially convened court martial conducted at the Duke of York’s Head Quarters in Chelsea.
Born in Luxembourg in 1898, Jakobs family moved to Berlin and following war service in the Imperial German Army in World War One he trained to become a dentist and married in 1926.
The marriage produced three children. As a result of the economic depression in the 1930’s he gave up working as a dentist. After becoming involved in counterfeit gold making he found himself serving a prison sentence in Switzerland.
On release he secured employment but soon fell into old ways by engaging in illicit activities, providing black market passports to Jews eager to escape Hitler’s Germany.
Soon afterwards he was arrested by the authorities and found himself in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. After release (and under investigation by the Gestapo) he was recruited by the Abwehr.
The Abwehr’s desperation to send agents into England to gather intelligence, in advance of the planned invasion of the UK, meant any misgivings it might have had over his suitability to spy were swiftly put aside.
He was flown to England in a Heinkel 111 from occupied Holland before his short lived espionage mission, deemed by many in the Abwehr as a Himmelfahrt (journey to heaven) – a euphemism for a suicide mission – came to an abrupt end in a field in the Fens.
Jakob’s defence lawyer at his court martial held between on August 4-5 1941 was a Lewisham born, Oxford educated barrister. called Captain Eric Vincent Ewart White (Royal Artillery. The family home was on Adelaide Avenue, Ladywell. Although his legal background was in commercial law, he was called upon to defend his client, on trial for his life. He ‘gave it his best shot’, but the case for the defence proved unsuccessful.
Captain E.V.E.White later served in North Africa, before dying in a car accident aged 35 in Egypt in 1944. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Heliopolis in Cairo.
Jakobs, it was noted by those present, faced his execution with brave resolve. His last words to the firing squad before being blindfolded and strapped to a chair ( his injured ankle forcing a limp), were recorded as ‘ Shoot straight , Tommies’.
* Eleven German spies were executed by firing squad during World War One at the Tower of London
In the course of researching this post I corresponded with Giselle K. Jakobs, Josef’s granddaughter, whose compelling and highly moving account of the colourful life and death of the last German spy to be executed at the Tower of London is highly recommended.