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Treachery Act 1940

Treachery Act 1940

The Treachery Act 1940 (3 & 4 Geo. VI c. 40) was a British law created during World War II to prosecute and execute enemy spies. The law was passed in the month after Nazi Germany invaded France and Winston Churchill became prime minister (May 23 1940). It was deemed necessary because treason still had its own special rules of evidence which made it a difficult offence to prove (see Treason Act 1695). The new offence of treachery, a felony, was designed to make securing convictions easier as it could be proved under the same rules of evidence as ordinary offences. It was always intended to be a temporary emergency measure which would be repealed after the War. The bill was rushed through Parliament in two days, passing the House of Lords in a few minutes and receiving royal assent on the same day.

The first section of the Treachery Act 1940 read:

If, with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty's forces, or to endanger life, he shall be guilty of felony and shall on conviction suffer death.

In commending the Bill to the Commons, the Home Secretary said that conduct in the Bill would amount to treason (by being adherent to the Sovereign's enemies or giving to them aid and comfort). Some argue that the Treachery Act 1940 could quite easily have replaced the current, ancient statutes that relate to and define treason. However prosecutions still continued during the War under the Treason Act 1351.

Besides the laxer rules of procedure and evidence, the other main difference between treason and treachery was that the death sentence for treason was mandatory, whereas the death sentence for treachery could be commuted by the court under the Judgement of Death Act 1823.

The Treachery Act 1940 was suspended in February 1946, and was repealed in 1967. However the Treason Act 1945 abolished the special status of treason and enabled treason to be proved with the normal rules of evidence.

Seventeen people were shot or hanged for treachery. The first British subject to be executed (hanged) under the law was George Johnson Armstrong in July 1941. Duncan Scott-Ford was also executed for treachery. German agent Josef Jakobs, the last person to be executed in the Tower of London, was executed by firing squad under this Act. The last person to be executed under the Treachery Act was British, Theodore Schurch, who was executed in January 1946, and was the last person to be executed in the United Kingdom for an offence other than murder.

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