Son Of Jewish Cabinet Minister Broadcast For Hitler
Why the son of a Churchill cabinet minister became a mouthpiece for Hitler
The atmosphere was understandably tense in the magnificent drawing room. The year was 1942, and the horrified Amery family gathered round their wireless at No. 112 Eaton Square, Belgravia.
They were waiting in disbelief to hear their beloved son, John, make a Nazi propaganda broadcast from behind enemy lines.
As the radio crackled to life declaring: "Germany calling, Germany calling!" the presenter announced that John, the son of a British government minister, was about to speak to his countrymen from Berlin.
Born troublemaker: John Amery with his prostitute wife Una Wing
We can only imagine the shame felt by Leo and Bryddie Amery as they heard their Harrow-educated first-born address "Mr Brown, Mr Jones, you Mrs Smith" with a fascist diatribe, just as the infamous traitor Lord Haw-Haw had done before him.
With the understatement of the British upper classes, they described listening to their son as a "miserable ordeal".
Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India in Winston Churchill's Cabinet, immediately called Downing Street to speak with the Prime Minister, a childhood friend, who assured him that he would not be blamed for "the aberrations of a grown-up son".
John Amery was a disturbed English eccentric with a passion for fast cars, fast women and grand hotels, who carried his teddy bear with him at all times.
Variously a diamond smuggler, gun-runner, fascist soldier, bisexual, and a bigamist through his marriages to two prostitutes, he remains one of the enigmas of World War II.
Now, however, I believe I have uncovered a secret that casts a whole new light on his treachery and the disgrace he brought upon his Establishment family.
My play, An English Tragedy, is based on Amery's extraordinary story of adventure, wartime derring-do and betrayal, and his struggle with his own identity.
Churchill did not blame his minister Leo Amery for son John's 'aberrations'
So who was John Amery, and just why did he become a traitor? Born on March 14, 1912, he entered the world after a long and dangerous labour for his mother - a harbinger of the trouble to come.
Some weeks later, the young scion of this illustrious family was christened in the Crypt of the House of Commons, with his godparents chosen from the Establishment elite.
He was born into a privileged existence. The Amerys enjoyed lavish country house parties at Chequers and at the Duke of Westminster's mansion.
Their hostess at Cliveden, Nancy Astor, a famed socialite and the first female MP, held a mock "Parliament" on social reform before dinner for her guests. Afterwards she instructed them to "put on your expensive dresses and forget about the poor".
From an early age, young John was a worry to his parents, however. When he was two, one nanny told them he was "a very hard child", who suffered terrible tantrums.
At the age of five, his teacher described him as "an extremely abnormal boy, with a fixed attitude of an abnormal type and a tendency to live inside himself".
He appalled his nannies by drawing obscene images of naked women and leaving them around the house. When John was ten, his father - by this time a Conservative MP - became First Lord of the Admiralty, and the family moved into Admiralty House on Whitehall.
John was sent to Harrow public school where his rebellious nature marked him out. He took to climbing out of his house at night to visit London nightclubs, losing his virginity at 14.
The 1926 Punishment Book at Harrow records that he was sanctioned for "shop stealing and moral breakdown".
His distraught parents took him in the family Daimler to a psychologist, Dr Maurice Wright, who concluded that John had "no moral sense of right and wrong".
He was eventually sent to a school for English boys in Switzerland but returned having contracted syphilis, which was to plague him for years. He told his tutor that he had caught it by prostituting himself to men.
Academically bright, he gained a place at Oxford in 1929 - something of a feat given his patchy school attendance - but turned it down. Instead, he wanted to go into the film industry, and became assistant film director to a small travelling company.
With the charm of the confidence trickster he was later to become, he persuaded family and friends to fund a £100,000 budget film, Jungle Skies, to be made in Africa.
Putting a brave face on it, his father said that it involved directing "aeroplane crashes, war dances of native tribes - a remarkable enterprise in many ways". But like all John's schemes, it floundered.
Leo Amery described watching his handsome and much-in-demand son at a ball as he "got away with a charming little bit of Turkish delight in the shape of the Turkish Ambassador's daughter".
John was becoming increasingly unconventional, however. At the age of 20, he appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court accused of leaving his car to obstruct a street while he went drinking. It was revealed that he already had 73 previous convictions.
Suddenly, he announced that he was to marry Una Eveline Wing, an actress, and hoped that he would "give his creditors confidence at having married a rich woman".
In fact, she was known to police as a common prostitute. Being under 21, Amery was unable to marry without parental consent.
Instead, he and Una fled to Europe, hotly pursued by the Press, who were revelling in this society scandal.
The pair settled in Paris, financing an extravagant lifestyle by pawning possessions or cadging money from family friends.
Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister: "If you had ever set eyes on that little gutter-snipe, you would feel no surprise at anything he might do."
Amery and Una eventually married in Greece. Six weeks later, his parents received yet more bad news. A warrant had been issued for John's arrest in Athens over the fraudulent purchase of diamonds using a dud cheque.
His despairing family bailed him out and John promised to turn over a new leaf.
Just like Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, John would carry his childhood teddy bear with him, sitting it beside him in cafes where he would buy it drinks and comics to read.
Hitler invited Amery to make speeches against the Judaism
He had also taken to carrying a gun at all times, terrified that his creditors were after him.
Una reported that he was still earning money as a male prostitute and also liked to indulge in masochistic sex with female prostitutes.
In 1936 he was declared bankrupt, owing nearly £6,000 (£294,000 at today's prices), and might have settled into life as a petty scoundrel were it not for his increasing fascination with the Nazi cause. He believed that Communism was a plague carried by Jews.
Amery left his wife in London and travelled to Spain, where he fought for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, gun-running for Franco and in active combat. He told his father that he had seen Communist torture chambers in Barcelona which fuelled his increasing hatred of them.
At some point around this time, John - who was by this time dealing in the black market across Europe - came under the spell of French fascist Jacques Doriot and his newly-formed Parti Populaire Francais.
When war was declared, John was in Spain. He returned to Paris where he had a new prostitute girlfriend, Jeanine Barde, and announced his support for the German invasion of Russia on the basis that Europe was under threat from Communism and Judaism.
A report filed by MI6 agents at the time, however, said that Amery was no threat to British interests because he was drinking "a whole litre of gin in a single night" and was "so dissipated, both physically and morally".
But after writing a letter critical of early British bombing raids to a French newspaper, Amery came to the attention of the German High Command. Fatefully, he was invited to Germany by Hitler.
Travelling with his girlfriend, under the names Mr and Mrs Brown, Amery was greeted in Berlin as "a guest of the Reich".
As the son of a serving British Cabinet minister, he was feted as the Fuhrer's glittering prize, and arrangements were put in place for him to broadcast to Britain. He was installed in a hotel in some splendour, alongside his pet dog, Sammy.
Back in London, his father heard the unpleasant news from reporters outside his Belgravia home. He told friends that he believed the Gestapo might have got hold of John, and he would make the broadcasts only under duress.
On November 19, 1942, he made his first broadcast, declaring: "Listeners will wonder what an Englishman is doing on the German radio tonight. I come forward without any bias, but just simply as an Englishman-to say to you: a crime is being committed against civilisation!
"You are being lied to, your patriotism, your love for our England is being exploited by people who for the most part hardly have any right to be English. Between you and peace lies only the Jew and his puppets."
The Amerys initially denied that it was John making the broadcasts - but his identity was clear to the British Security Service.
The following day, Leo Amery talked over the debacle with King George VI, who was "very nice about it". Next, he went to his lawyer to disinherit his son.
Over the following weeks, John made a further nine propaganda speeches. The last was recorded on New Year's Eve 1942, at which point the Germans sent him back to Paris because they felt he had fulfilled his usefulness.
In Paris - and now with a second wife, yet another prostitute, Michelle Thomas - he began to work on plans for a British legion formed by British prisoners of war who would fight for the Germans against Russia. His father described this as "undoubtedly his most heinous offence".
At the invitation of Benito Mussolini, John travelled to Italy, where he was captured by Italian partisans.
The British were keen to take him into custody, and a young officer, Captain Alan Whicker, who would later present the celebrated television series Whicker's World, was sent to find him.
Amery apparently met him with the words: "Thank God you're here. I thought they were going to shoot me."
In 1945 he was sent to an internment camp in Terni, and a team from Scotland Yard flew to interrogate him. They found a man obsessed with his missing possessions, particularly his teddy bear and his wife's "one fur coat, and two silver foxes".
The gravity of his offence clearly escaping him, he told the detectives: "I don't suppose for a moment they'll bring a charge against me, but if they did, of course, my father would see to it."
Some weeks later, he was brought back to England - dressed in full fascist garb, including jackboots. He was charged with high treason, a crime for which there was only one penalty: death.
He was held in Brixton Prison to await trial, as his family launched a desperate bid to save him, using all their political influence. Amery's mother even petitioned the King on his behalf but to no avail.
After the war ended in 1945, Churchill's government was heavily defeated and Leo Amery lost his seat.
His son's trial took place on November 28, 1945, in Court One at the Old Bailey. To gasps from the court, he pleaded guilty on all counts - effectively a suicidal plea.
So the story might end, were it not for one startling fact revealed in recently released papers which I believe helps explain Amery's extraordinary life: the Amery family was Jewish.
Leo's mother was born in the Jewish quarter of Budapest and came from an intellectual Jewish-Hungarian family. But Leo chose to hide his background, probably because he feared it could jeopardise his ascent through the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Today we tend to forget how savage anti-semitism was throughout Europe - even in Britain - during the 1930s, and it appears that John Amery, like many at the time, became caught in its grip. He had been raised believing himself to be an upper-class Englishman, complete with private education and a father who was a Cabinet minister.
To discover that he was of Jewish descent struck at the very heart of his personal identity.
Was his adoption of the Nazi cause the ultimate in self-denial; the proof that - at least to himself - he could not possibly be Jewish?
In his radio broadcasts he claimed the German army was preventing "world domination by Jewry".
Or did the discovery turn his feelings for his father into a passionate loathing for the man who had hidden the truth from him and a desire to get revenge by espousing an openly anti-semitic cause?
More than 60 years later, we can only speculate as to what role this discovery played in Amery's treachery, but perhaps when he made that astonishing guilty plea in court it was his final acknowledgement that he had betrayed not just his country but his family as well.
An onlooker in the court said: "He was like an insect that falls on a hot stove and is withered, and what he did felt like an act of cruelty to the whole court.
It was quite clear that he was morally satisfied and that he was congratulating himself on having at last, at the end of his muddled and frustrated existence, achieved an act crystalline in its clarity."
Asked if he had anything to say as to why judgment of death should not be passed, he replied: "No, thank you, sir."
The judge summed up by saying: "John Amery, I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason.
"They called you a traitor and you heard them, but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your king and country, and you have forfeited your right to live."
The trial lasted just eight minutes. Despite medical reports labelling him psychotic, he was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in Wandsworth Prison at 9am on December 19, at the age of 33.
Amery reportedly said to the famous executioner: "Mr Pierrepoint, I've always wanted to meet you, but not, of course, under these circumstances."
Pierrepoint later claimed that as he tightened the noose, Amery was "the bravest man I ever met".
It was said of John's mother that she never smiled again. She was refused Home Office permission to put flowers on his unmarked grave in prison. In 1996, after her death, the family succeeded in their efforts to have his body exhumed and cremated, with the ashes scattered in France.