Today (August 15) in London History – the last man executed at the Tower of London

On this day – August 15th – in 1941 the last man to be executed in the Tower of London was shot dead by a firing squad. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

All right, so you’re at the Tower of London. You’re looking at the Crown Jewels. Here’s something you didn’t know. And maybe you didn’t want to know.

Too late, the canoe’s going over the edge of the falls right now.

Standing there, oohing and ahhing, looking at those crown jewels, you’re just yards from the tiny cell where the last person to be executed in the Tower of London spent his last night.

And you’re hearing this story today because Josef Jakobs was executed – by firing squad – at 7.12 am on this day, August 15th, 1941.

Josef Jakobs was German. A German spy. He was born in Luxembourg. He was 44 years old when he was executed.

A German N.C.O. and Secret Service agent attached to the Meteorological Service of the German army, he’d been dropped by parachute from a German plane in the Home Counties area. That’s how the newspaper put it in 1941 – they weren’t giving any specifics away. He was spotted coming down by the British Home Guard. Jakobs had twelve hours of liberty. Two farm workers – members of the Home Guard – found him. We can now reveal the place. In idyllic rural England. Dovehouse Farm, Ramsey Hollow, Huntingdonshire. Landing, Jakobs had broken his leg. The farm workers found him lying on his back, covered by a camouflaged parachute. He was dressed in civilian clothes, over which he was wearing a flying suit with a parachutist’s steel helmet. He told the farm workers he’d come from Hamburg and had nothing to do with the war. But he had a pistol. Which he threw into the helmet when the farm workers pitched up. The pistol was maybe a little bit incriminating – be nice to know if it was army issue. You know, the famous luger. Even more incriminating was the attache case he’d buried under his body. It held a sophisticated wireless transmitter that could operate on both short and long waves. The attache case also held a map on which were marked the RAF aerodrome of Upwood and the satellite airfield of Warboys. He also had forged identity papers, a small torch with a flashing device, a large sum of English money, emergency rations, including brandy, and most incriminating of all, a cold German sausage. And there was a small hand spade he was to use to bury his parachute and flying kit. Oh, yes, he’d also tried to destroy – tore it up – a piece of paper on which was written some sort of code. 

Jakobs was arrested. He was offered an out. Would he turn, be willing to work as a double agent? He declined the offer. He was court-martialled at Chelsea Barracks on August 4th and 5th. He had counsel, a barrister. And an interpreter. The trial was in camera. In other words, the press and the public were kept out. He was convicted under the 1940 Treachery Act and sentenced to death by firing squad. In fairness, it should be said that he had not committed espionage. Though clearly he had every intention of doing so. There was also something slightly anomalous about his death sentence. The 15 other spies executed in Britain during World War II were hanged in civil prison. Jakobs alone went the Tower of London and death by firing squad route. 

Ok, it’s time. 7 am on August 15th 1941. Jakobs can hear them speaking in low voices outside the door of his tiny cell. His tiny cell in the Waterloo Barracks which now, maybe bears repeating, this – houses the crown jewels. They unlock the door. They unlock the door. Say to Jakobs, “it’s time.” There’s a miniature rifle range just yards away. Long gone – it was demolished in 1969 – it was on the east side of the inner wall, between the Martin and Constable Towers. Jakobs’ broken ankle is still not fully healed. He has to hobble to his place of execution. 

Somebody’s fetched an old Windsor chair. A final kindness, I suppose. He won’t have to stand on that broken ankle and face the firing squad. The guards gesture for him to sit down. They tie him to the chair. They pin a piece of white lint over his heart as a target for the firing squad. I’m haunted by a simple little quotidian question. Did he look down to see that piece of white lint, see what it was they were doing. His executioners are Scots Guards. Eight of them. At 12 minutes past seven comes the order, Ready, Aim, Fire. Five of the eight bullets hit the target. Again, perverse of me, perhaps, but I wonder about the other three. Did one or more of those guards intentionally miss? Aim high? Or wide? Fire into the wall behind Jakobs. 

Three final points. 1) the death chair is still in the Tower of London. 2) The condemned cell is now a closet for film. 3) Jakobs was the last person executed in the Tower of London. There were eleven German spies shot at dawn there during World War I. One of those World War I German spies, Carl Muller, had in his possession a guide to the Tower of London. Little did he know when he bought it that he would soon be part of its rich history.

That’s way too grim a note to end on. We’ve got to make our own great escape, get over the wall, tunnel under the wall, get out of the Tower of London, the building whose stones reek of history, the building that stands supreme in England in the scale of human suffering. Wonder if you can guess where I’m heading? Where I’m taking you. Yes, Hampstead. Your Today in London recommendation. Starting today – August 15th – and running through August 31st – Historical images of Londoners on Hampstead Heath go on display at the entrance to the Heath in South Green, near South Hampstead Railway Station and not a long walk from Hampstead or Belsize Park Tube. It’s the Green City: A Visual History of London’s Parks and Open Spaces travelling exhibition. From South End Green it’ll move on to Epping Forest. It’s a hundred photos and prints that date from the 1560s to the 1980s and celebrate the great outdoors. Can’t wait.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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