Duke who just could not be beastly to the Nazis

Official papers reveal picture of a selfish and indiscreet man who embarrassed Britain

John Crossland
Wednesday 04 December 1996 01:02 GMT

The 1945 Labour government desperately tried to conceal evidence of the Duke of Windsor's ambivalent attitude towards Germany during the early part of the Second World War, according to official papers released yesterday.

A top-secret file from the private papers of Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, which had been ordered to remain closed for a century, was opened at the Public Record Office in Kew.

German diplomatic papers found at Schloss Marburg by the American occupiers in May 1945 had showed up the Duke's ambivalent attitudes to a continuation of the war - sympathies which had encouraged the SS to launch "Operation Willi", with a view to luring him on to Spanish territory, where he would have been kidnapped. Other private papers relating to the Duke's peace- feelers are believed to have been smuggled from the home of the Royal Family's German cousins at Schloss Coburg by the spy Anthony Blunt. (They may surface after the century set for release of the abdication papers.)

A dramatic personal testament to the Duke's indiscretions was revealed yesterday in a minute sent to the Foreign Office via the Lisbon embassy in April 1943. A Count Nava de Tajo, described as "an agreeable young Spaniard" who was formerly an employee of the League of Nations, had told an embassy official that the Duke had "expected the British Cabinet to resign in the near future and expected to see the creation of a Labour government which would enter into negotiations with Germany. He expected also that King George VI would abdicate, following a virtual revolution brought about by the fact that the ruling classes had utterly disgraced themselves and that he, the Duke of Windsor, would be summoned to return to England to occupy the throne."

De Tajo continued: "HRH also spoke of how England would become the leader of a coalition consisting of France, Spain and Portugal while Germany would be free to march against Russia."

The report went on: "HRH said at dinner, I was got rid of by the Tories, and expressed himself with some force about the present Queen of England [the Queen Mother] whom he termed `an ambitious woman'."

In a plea to Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, to have the Windsor file exempted from the release of German war-time documents, Bevin urged the objective "to try to persuade United States government to co-operate with us in suppressing the documents concerned. They would possess the highest publicity value on account of the personalities involved and the types of intrigues described. Any disclosure would in my opinion do grave harm to the national interest."

Bevin said that a diplomatic initiative with the American occupation authorities was not enough. "We should go [to] the lengths of asking the US government whether it would be willing that the file should be destroyed or at least handed over to us for safe-keeping."

The US State Department, through Britain's ambassador to Washington, Lord Halifax, put Bevin in his place. "It appreciates the reasons which prompt the British government to wish to restrict circulation of certain documents but it cannot discount the importance to the history of the war of the German manoeuvres for a negotiated peace at that time. It would be unlawful for the secretary of state to authorise delivery of them to the British government."

Judge Jackson, the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials did, however, go along with a cover-up by promising not to raise the Windsor issue at the hearings.

The papers show that Churchill made overtures to find the duke a role as an ex-officio diplomat, a plan crushed by Bevin after an interview with the king. Attlee was told on 13 October 1945 that the King asked Bevin about the possibility of the Duke of Windsor being made ambassador to Washington. Bevin replied that he didn't think "HRH should be given such employment". "The King", said the memo, "expressed satisfaction with the arrangement." Archibald Clark-Kerr, who was given the appointment, was told bluntly: "this is to warn you in case HRH approaches you on the matter [of an appointment]. He should be given no encouragement." Clark- Kerr was told to burn the telegram.

The pattern of the Duke's future life, with its extravagance and peregrinations, emerged as soon as Germany surrendered and the concern it caused a Labour government presiding over an austerity programme is vividly caught. The Treasury asked the Cabinet for approval for an overdraft of pounds 5,000 which the Duke had asked to be forwarded to his Paris account at Lloyds Bank.

Pierson Dixon, senior diplomat at the Foreign Office, minuted: "The Treasury explain that there is no exchange problem involved but they naturally feel hesitation about the large sums of money being made available to the Duke in France when ordinary British subjects there are severely restricted. It is reasonable I think that the Duke and Duchess should have ampler facilities than an ordinary British subject. It is really a question of degree. If they now proceed to live on an extravagant scale, going in for large scale entertaining and spending large sums on the decoration of their house, there is bound to be criticism..."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in