Q&A: Why was Josef Jakobs the only WW2 spy to be shot rather than hanged?

Josef Jakobs was a German spy who parachuted into a Huntingdonshire field early in 1941...

Chair used for the last execution at the Tower of London, c1940. Wooden chair on which the German Corporal Josef Jakobs was seated when he was shot as a spy in the Tower of London in August 1941. Two of the spindles have been shot away and the frame broken by bullets. Jakobs, who was seated due to an injured leg, was the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. (Credit: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries / HIP / TopFoto)

Captured by the Home Guard after he had broken his right leg on exiting the aircraft, Jakobs was arrested and taken to Brixton prison.

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Following interrogation, Jakobs was committed for trial for treason under the Treachery Act. Found guilty on 5 August 1941, he was sentenced to death by firing squad and executed in the Tower of London ten days later.

The peculiarity of the case is why Jakobs was shot at the Tower, when all other captured German spies were hanged at Pentonville or Wandsworth prisons. It has been suggested that this was due to his injuries, but that is incorrect. It is simply because the decision was made – primarily for reasons of speed and secrecy – to try him by a general court-martial, rather than in a civilian court.

When sentenced to death therefore, he was to be shot rather than hanged, and the most expedient location for that to be carried out was the old shooting range in the Tower of London.

In this way, Josef Jakobs – who was an otherwise unremarkable and rather inept spy – has gone down in history as the last person to be executed at the site.

This Q&A was answered by Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010).

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This Q&A first appeared in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine