Last Execution in the Tower of London

15th August 1941: German Spy Josef Jakobs is shot by firing squad

The Tower of London was built shortly after William the Conqueror landed in 1066. It was in almost continuous use for the imprisonment of traitors and other important prisoners up until the 20th century. Routine torture and beheadings had ended in the Middle Ages but it was still used for executions in time of war.

The unfortunate Josef Jakobs had parachuted into Britain on the night of 31st January/1st February. He broke his ankle as he exited the plane and then broke his leg as he landed. He landed in the middle of fields and used his revolver to attract attention - whereupon he was discovered with his radio, maps, a large quantity of cash and a torn up code book and promptly arrested.

Josef Jakobs had been a dentist in Germany before becoming involved in a number of shady schemes.He was imprisoned in Switzerland for a counterfeit gold scam in 1937. He was arrested in 1939 for his part in a smuggling ring that took bribes from Jews trying to escape the country. He was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp but released in 1940. German military intelligence probably offered him a deal if he ‘volunteered’ to spy for them.

After a limited recovery he was put on trial at the beginning of August. The charge was quite simple:

"Committing treachery in that you at Ramsey in Huntingdonshire on the night of 31 January 1941/1 February 1941 descended by parachute with intent to help the enemy."

Although Jakobs argued that he had always intended to give himself up the verdict could hardly have been in doubt. The historic final death warrant was passed to the Constable of the Tower:

LD/SR A(s) 1 MOST SECRET

To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.

Sir,

I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.

The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.

Sgd. Sir Bertram N. Sergison-Brooke,

Lieutenant-General Commanding London District.1

Most spies and traitors were hanged at Wandsworth Prison during the war. Jakobs was executed by Firing Squad at the Tower because he was a member of the German military.

He was blindfolded and placed in a chair for the execution - the conventional method of execution used at the Tower during the 1914-18 war. The officer in charge gave a silent signal to the Firing Squad and he was shot dead.

The wooden chaired that he was strapped to for his execution is now on exhibition in the Tower of London. A practice going back almost ten centuries ended with him.

1

For more details see National Archives, Security Service file KV2/27 folio 29a