MI5 feared Duke of Bedford was Nazi choice for Britain's leader

Files reveal secrets of wartime Britain
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The Independent Online

An Oxford-educated aristocrat who kept a collection of 400 parrots and believed Hitler was a misunderstood statesman was identified by MI5 as the likely leader of a Nazi puppet regime if Britain was invaded, secret papers released today reveal.

The Marquess of Tavistock, who became the 12th Duke of Bedford in August 1940, was placed on a Home Office list of individuals to be put under arrest in the event of a Nazi landing. The decision stemmed from a Security Service investigation into his private life.

MI5 concluded that the duke, who was a a vegetarian and a suspected deserter, would be appointed as Britain's gauleiter, a Nazi regional governor, or used as a puppet prime minister.

Security Service agents tracked the peer from 1939 after he became a figurehead of the pacifist movement and published a series of pamphlets advocating a negotiated peace with the Germans.

Documents released at the Public Record Office in Kew, west London, reveal officials initially treated Lord Tavistock as a "harmless crank", despite his links with Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and other extreme groups. But the alarm was raised at MI5 in 1940 when an inquiry into his activities suggested, for apparently arbitrary reasons, that he might have been turned to a pro-German perspective by a governess who had worked for the Kaiser.

The report used information from a source whose name has been removed from the records but who was described by MI5 as having known the family for a long period. The report noted that during the First World War the peer was suspected of deserting his regiment and that he had been under the influence of "every kind of crank and eccentric", including his wife, who was described as such because she was a Quaker.

The briefing suggested Lord Tavistock was dominated by his valet, a Mr Broad, after becoming estranged from his father, and may have been in a gay relationship with an anarchist with a criminal record.

But despite paranoia in MI5 about non-conformists, the file revealed more incriminating grounds for suspicion after intercepted letters from the peer suggested that members of Churchill's government were warmongers bent on demonising Hitler.

MI5 pointed out that Lord Tavistock travelled to Dublin in 1940 to meet German officials and produce a widely derided peace plan. The Security Service concluded that the peer, who inherited Woburn Abbey, was a likely traitor. The Home Office none the less rejected advice to intern him.

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