Key Point: The Duke of Windsor’s flirtations with the Germans played a part in Hitler’s reluctance to order an invasion.
It was around noon, June 19, 1940, when a small caravan of cars set out from Antibes in southern France en route to the Spanish border. Edward, Duke of Windsor was in one of the cars accompanied by his wife, the former American socialite Wallis Simpson. Edward had once been King of England, but he abdicated the throne to marry this woman who sat behind him, declaring in a radio address that he could not go on without “the woman I love.”
Now they were in a desperate bid to reach safety in neutral Spain. It was a gamble because they had no visas and might be stopped and refused entry. But desperate times call for desperate measures. German tanks had smashed though the French frontier and defeated Allied armies in a stunning demonstration of the Blitzkrieg, and Paris had been evacuated. Before long a rump French government would sue for peace, and it was imperative the Duke get out of the country as soon as possible.
“Je suis le Prince de Galles”
The journey to the Spanish border was anything but easy. There were numerous roadblocks, barriers manned by French soldiers who had been veterans of World War I. The royal caravan might have been stopped dead in its tracks, but when they came to the first roadblock a quick-thinking Edward let himself be seen by the soldiers.
“Je suis le Prince de Galles. Laissez-moi passer, s’il vous plait. (I am the Prince of Wales. Let me pass, please.)” he said. Edward had been a popular figure during the Great War, often visiting the front. He was known to most Frenchmen and well liked. His caravan was allowed to pass without difficulty each time a roadblock was encountered.
When the royal party reached Perpignan near the Spanish border a stubborn Spanish consul refused at first to issue transit visas for the fugitives. The duke sent hurried telegrams to the British ambassador at Madrid and the Spanish consul at Bordeaux, and after much argument, political pressure, and fervent appeals the consul gave in. The duke and his party set foot on Spanish soil around 6 pm on June 20, 1940, then proceeded to Barcelona and a well-earned rest in a luxury hotel.
The Duke of Windsor had escaped the fire of war only to land in the frying pan of espionage and political intrigue. Spain was ruled by the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, who made little attempt to hide his pro-Axis leanings. In fact, he had recently declared Spain to be not strictly neutral but actually “nonbelligerent.” To many outside observers this seemed but one step away from actively joining the war on Hitler’s side.
Edward’s presence in Spain and later Portugal would lead to Operation Willi, a German attempt to capture the duke by fair means or foul. If he could be persuaded to come into Germans hands freely, so much the better. If not, the Germans were prepared to kidnap him and force him to comply.
The Disgraced King Edward VIII
The Willi plot has its roots in Edward’s alleged pro-German attitudes. Some historians have gone so far as to maintain he was sympathetic with the Nazis, and he certainly was guilty of some indiscreet remarks concerning the possibility of German victory. But a few offhand comments uttered in private to friends did not make him pro-Nazi. Further examination of his past can perhaps ferret out the truth.
Edward was born in 1894 at the height of the British Empire. A great-grandson of Queen Victoria, he became Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne when his father George V became king in 1910. When World War I broke out he was given a commission in the Grenadier Guards but was not permitted to take an active command.
The prince did make frequent tours of the Western Front and tried to expose himself, even in a limited way, to the danger and hardships of trench warfare. He may not have been in battle, but he saw enough of the horrors of war to mark him for life. Like many of his generation, he considered war a plague of mankind, something to be avoided at all costs.
In the 1920s, the Prince of Wales was something of an international celebrity, admired and even envied around the world. In 1935 Edward gave an address to the British Legion, an organization of war veterans, in which the prince expressed a hope that they would stretch a “hand of friendship” to their counterparts in Germany. The speech was considered pro-German and began a controversy over his loyalties that continues to this day.
Edward became king in January 1936, but his reign proved short-lived. He wanted to marry his mistress, American-born Wallis Simpson, and refused to consider any other course. Simpson had already been married once and was in the process of obtaining a divorce from her second husband. She was considered a gold-digging, unscrupulous adventurer, and the British establishment and many common British people were aghast.
And so it was that King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in favor of his younger brother Albert, who then took the title of George VI. Relations between Edward and his family quickly soured, especially when his new wife was denied the title of “royal highness.” Edward was created Duke of Windsor and went into a kind of semi-exile in France. When he married Wallis in 1937, the new king would not give permission for any of the royals to attend the ceremony.
A Twelve-Day Tour of Nazi Germany
Hurt by what he perceived as shabby treatment, Edward foolishly visited Nazi Germany in October 1937. This would be a propaganda coup for the Nazis, and some of Edward’s friends, notably Winston Churchill, urged him not to go. The duke rejected their advice. He was curious about Hitler and felt “red carpet” treatment in Germany would make up for the snubs Wallis endured from the royal family.
Edward and Wallis toured various sites and were entertained by Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and many others. It was reported that once or twice the duke gave the infamous “Heil Hitler” salute. If true, it was probably more of a “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” situation than an outward expression of his inner beliefs.
The 12-day tour of Germany climaxed when the couple had tea with Hitler at Berchtesgaden. The Führer seemed genuinely charmed by the Windsors and later remarked “what a good Queen” Wallis would have made. In retrospect, the trip was something of a turning point for the Duke of Windsor, though few were aware of the fact. As time wore on, Edward’s loyalties became more and more suspect. Even in isolationist America the duke was indelibly seen as someone who harbored pro-German sympathies.
Churchill’s Overtures to Edward
When war broke out in 1939, the Windsors came back to Britain but were partly cold-shouldered and given little to do of real substance. Edward was a British liaison officer with the French High Command, but his reports on the French lack of military preparedness were ignored.
When the Windsors arrived in Spain, the German ambassador, Eberhard von Stohrer, telegraphed Berlin asking what to do. This was a matter for German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who immediately began thinking the duke would serve as a useful pawn in the German war effort.
Ribbentrop spoke English and had been German ambassador to Britain in the 1930s. He knew Edward from his brief reign as king and according to some reports also was acquainted with Wallis. In 1941, FBI agents investigating Wallis uncovered scurrilous rumors that Ribbentrop was actually her lover for a time. In any case Ribbentrop wanted to get the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into his hands as soon as possible.
Edward loved the privileges of rank but not its duties. He was often lazy, selfish, and inattentive, yet in his way was genuinely idealistic on social issues and staunchly patriotic. The duke tried not to say anything at least publicly that might hurt his country.
In spite of good intentions, Edward made some indiscreet private remarks to Alexander Weddell, the American ambassador to Spain.
The duke felt the war was an unmitigated disaster for Britain and that the island nation was on the brink of a catastrophic defeat. In his opinion, “The most important thing to be done now was to end the war before thousands more were killed or maimed to save the faces of a few politicians.” This made Edward sound like a defeatist, if not exactly pro-German, and did little to help his reputation even though the remarks were not widely known.
Winston Churchill was now prime minister of Great Britain, and a man who supported Edward during the abdication crisis. Churchill wanted Edward to come home as soon as possible, and once back on British soil things could be sorted out. In other words, hopefully Edward could be given a job of real substance.