Pub-quiz enthusiasts look away. The rest ponder this piece of head-scratching trivia. Who was the last person to be executed at the Tower of London? Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes, Walter Raleigh? Nein. In fact it was a German dentist called Josef Jakobs and his death, by firing squad, was a mere 71 years ago.
Jakobs was an untrained, ill-equipped German spy who was parachuted into Britain in February 1941, apparently charged with sending details of London weather patterns back to the Fatherland. But he broke his ankle in a bungled leap from the plane.
When captured, writhing in agony, at the Huntingdonshire drop point, he was found to have nearly £500 of counterfeit currency, an empty ration book and identity papers that were obviusly forged. His war was over and so, effectively, was his life. The 43-year-old father of three was tried by a court martial, found guilty of treason and at 7.12am on 15 August 1941 was taken to the practice range at the Tower where, blindfolded and with a white marker over his heart, he was shot by eight soldiers from the Scots Guards.
Unlike the other 16 enemy spies hanged in London prisons during and just after the Second World War, Jakobs’ ankle injury meant he couldn’t stand, so he had to be shot while seated. The splintered chair is now an exhibit at the Tower.
The story has consumed his granddaughter Giselle, a Canadian who works in schools for native Americans. She’s made countless visits to London to unravel his story – each time teasing out more detail from intelligence reports and war records. But today she’s back at the Tower on a mission of her own.
“After he was executed, Josef was buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green [north-west London]. His son, my dad, is 80 this August and he has never been to England before. I’d like to bring him over here, to the Tower and to the cemetery. If we could have a headstone, that would lay Josef to rest and bring some sense of closure.”
What drives Giselle is the deep sense of injustice she feels about her grandfather’s death. A small-time crook imprisoned before the war for counterfeiting offences – he spent some time in the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp for political prisoners – he was given only limited training before being dropped into the UK.
“He was a rogue and a scoundrel but he was not a Nazi,” says Giselle. “He learnt some Morse code and studied cloud patterns, but they didn’t even give him a single practice parachute jump. He had none of the skills needed to carry out his objectives. He was as good as dead the moment he jumped out of the plane.”
She’s also upset that his deathbed letter was never sent to his wife. “My grandmother died not knowing what happened to her husband. She received a German Red Cross death notice saying that he had fallen on active service, but she never heard anything else. He wrote his letter to her just hours before he was shot. He pours his heart out. He tells his children to be good children.
“Even today when I read it, I get very emotional. What he really wanted to say to his family, he wasn’t able to say.”
Giselle is aware of her grandfather’s unique place in British history. But she wants him to be remembered for more than just being the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. “There is so much more to his story than just a trivia question.”
Bloody Tales from the Tower is on National Geographic today at 8:00pm.