Treachery Act 1940

The Treachery Act 1940[5] was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom effective during World War II to facilitate the prosecution and execution of enemy spies, suspended afterwards, and repealed in 1968 or 1973, territory depending. The law was passed in the month after Nazi Germany invaded France and Winston Churchill became prime minister, on 23 May 1940.[6]

Treachery Act 1940
Long titleAn Act to make further provision for the trial and punishment of treachery.
Citation3 & 4 Geo. VI c. 21
Introduced bySir John Anderson
Territorial extentapplied to anything done:
Royal assent23 May 1940
Commencementon Royal Assent
Repealed1 January 1968[1] (all other than with respect to Scotland and Northern Ireland[2])
18 July 1973[3] (Scotland and Northern Ireland[4])
Other legislation
Repealed byCriminal Law Act 1967 (c.58), s. 10(2) and Part 1 of Schedule 3;
Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973, s. 1(1) and Part V of Schedule 1
Status: Repealed

Reasons for the ActEdit

The Treachery Act was deemed necessary because treason still had its own special rules of evidence and procedure which made it a difficult offence to prove and prosecute (see Treason Act 1695). The newer offence, a felony, was designed to make convictions easier as it could be proved under the same rules of evidence as ordinary offences. It was also needed because there was doubt whether the treason laws were applicable to saboteurs.[7]

In commending the Bill to the House of Commons, the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, explained why the law was necessary:[8]

[T]he scope of Clause 1 of the Bill is substantially the same as the scope of the Treason Acts, but the Treason Acts might not be applicable to persons who are not normally resident within the King's jurisdiction; and moreover the Treason Acts are antiquated, excessively cumbrous and invested with a dignity and ceremonial that seems to us wholly inappropriate to the sort of case with which we are dealing here.[8]

In the House of Lords the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Simon, elaborated:

It is a very doubtful question indeed whether under the existing law of treason you could proceed against an alien who has come here suddenly, surreptitiously by air or otherwise, for the purposes of wreaking clandestine destruction or doing other acts against the safety of the realm. In as much as treason is a crime committed by someone who owes allegiance, it might be well argued that such a person does not owe allegiance to the British Crown. For these reasons it is urgently necessary that this Bill should be passed.[9]

The Act was always intended to be a temporary emergency measure which would be repealed after the War. It was rushed through Parliament in two weeks, passing the Lords in a few minutes and receiving royal assent on the same day.[10]

Treachery and treasonEdit

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.

Some argue that the Act could easily have replaced the current, ancient statutes that relate to and define treason.[11] After the war people continued to be prosecuted under the Treason Act 1351 for disloyalty during the War.

Besides the laxer rules of procedure and evidence, the other main difference was 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. No sentences were commuted by the courts. One was commuted by the Home Secretary.


Breach of a duty of allegiance was not an element of treachery. Section 4 of the Act provided:

This Act shall apply to anything done –

(a) by a British subject elsewhere than in a Dominion, India, Burma, or Southern Rhodesia;
(b) by any person subject to the Naval Discipline Act, to military law or to the Air Force Act, in any place whatsoever; or
(c) by any person in the United Kingdom, or in any British ship or aircraft, not being a dominion ship or aircraft.

"Dominion" meant any Dominion within the meaning of the Statute of Westminster 1931, except Newfoundland, and included any territory administered by the Government as a Dominion (section 5(1)).

Uses of the ActEdit

Sixteen people were shot by firing squad or hanged for treachery.[12] The first British subject to be executed under the law was George Johnson Armstrong, who was hanged at HMP Wandsworth on 10 July 1941.[13] Duncan Scott-Ford was also executed for treachery in November 1942. German agent Josef Jakobs, the last person to be executed in the Tower of London, was court-martialled and executed by firing squad under this Act. The last person to be executed under the Treachery Act was the British soldier Theodore Schurch, executed on 4 January 1946, who was the last person to be executed in the United Kingdom for an offence other than murder.

A seventeenth person, Portuguese diplomat Rogerio de Magalhaes Peixoto de Menezes, was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted by the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, to penal servitude for life.[14] He was deported in 1949.[15]

Suspension and repealEdit

The Treachery Act 1940 was brought into being for the duration of the "war emergency" (section 6). The Treason Act 1945 abolished the special status of treason and enabled treason to be proved with the normal rules of evidence. The Treachery Act was suspended on 24 February 1946,[16] and was later repealed in part as to its extent in 1968, with the remainder in 1973.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit


  1. ^ Criminal Law Act 1967, section 12(1)
  2. ^ Criminal Law Act 1967, section 11(1)
  3. ^ Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973. The repealing provision came into force on the date of royal assent because the contrary was not specified.
  4. ^ The repealing provision extends to the remainder of the United Kingdom, because the contrary was not specified.
  5. ^ Treachery Act 1940, 3 & 4 Geo. VI, c. 21  – via Wikisource.
  6. ^ HM Prison Service – Prison Service News (Magazine)
  7. ^ Edward Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England, Third Part, page 11: "An enemy coming in open hostility into England ... cannot be indicted of treason, for that he was never within the protection or ligeance of the king."
  8. ^ a b Hansard, 22 May 1940
  9. ^ Hansard, 23 May 1940
  10. ^ Hansard
  11. ^ D. Seaborne Davies, The Treachery Act, 1940, The Modern Law Review, Vol 4, No.3 (Jan 1941) pp 217–220, quotes the opinion of the Journal of Criminal Law (Vol 4, p.304) to this effect and comments on it.JSTOR
  12. ^ Hansard, 1 February 1965
  13. ^ "Traitor Hanged in Britain": 10 July 1941 The New York Times (page 5)
  14. ^ British Military & Criminal History in the period 1900 to 1999
  15. ^ Royal Historical Society Bibliography
  16. ^ The Treachery Act (End of Emergency) Order 1946 (S.R. & O. 1946, No. 893), article 2

External linksEdit