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The other one

How Edward VIII threatened the royal family

Artillery Row

It is the lot of most authors who live by their pen to fear that they are only as good as their last book. We fall easily into the habit of juggling the marketing and book signings of the previous volume, whilst researching and writing the current tome, at the same time scanning the horizon for a future winner. 

So it was that around a decade ago, I proposed writing a history of the British royal family in the two world wars, up to the Falklands and Afghanistan. I hawked the project around as The Windsors at War. Thank goodness it got nowhere; it would have been too shallow, wide-ranging and advanced our knowledge little. I was more than interested when Alexander Larman’s The Windsors at War landed on my doorstep for review, for he has done a far better job with the catchy title than I would have ever offered.

Larman has given us a great follow-up to The Crown in Crisis published in 2020. Perhaps, as is often the case, he unearthed so much new material that the original project became two volumes. What shines through are the primary sources he has mined, the diaries and letters, he has worked his way through, yet wearing his scholarship lightly. We are transported back to the pre-war and wartime era, now made famous in Netflix’s The Crown (which, to the author’s credit, he never once refers to). That series is a dramatised and often fictionalised interpretation of the past, whereas Larman gives us solid factual evidence. Along the way, he picks apart previous attempts at biographies of the semi-Royal pair (the former Edward VIII, known as David, was born His Royal Highness, but his bride Wallis was never accorded the matching title), including those of Philip Zeigler, Marcel Bloch, Frances Donaldson, Andrew Roberts and others.

It was Wallis who was passing state secrets to German intelligence

The author laces his chapters with some memorable phraseology. Of the wedding of David and Wallis in France on 3 June 1937, we are reminded, “Only the most cynical could have begrudged the pair their happy ending, although it remained ambiguous as to who was the dashing prince and who the swooning maiden.” With another coronation in the offing this year, Larman dwells on that of George VI (known hitherto at Bertie) at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. All the time, we are reminded that the new king loathed the debonair confidence of “the king across the water”, fearing that if he made a hash of the kingship he never wanted, his scheming elder brother might return. This is one theme that runs throughout Larman’s fine scholarship.

We are reminded that the king’s much-rehearsed coronation speech was a success. “Millions of his subjects sat at home listening to the broadcast, willing him to succeed whilst knowing of his stammer and the difficulties that even speaking a few short sentences publicly had caused him … Yet fortunately for the coronation ceremony, the king’s nerves seemed to vanish on the day, aided by his sincere religious faith: another characteristic absent from his brother’s life.” 

He was helped by his mother Queen Mary who, abandoning protocol that dictated that a previous monarch’s widow should not attend a subsequent coronation, offered her moral support in person. “This also implicitly suggested that it was his reign, rather than Edward VIII’s, that continued that of her late husband, George V.” These nuances are important for showing how “The Firm”, and not just Queen Elizabeth, rallied round to help George VI into his new role.

Churchill, who had initially supported Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis, remarked to his wife, Clementine, “You were right. I see now the ‘other one’ wouldn’t have done.” He shortly after wrote to the exiled Duke, warning, “There is a great deal of bitterness from those who are hostile to you, and from those who are hostile because of their disappointment … I wish to see the King reign gloriously, and the Duke of Windsor live happily.” Larman wryly remarks that Churchill “did not dwell on the incompatibility of such a desire”.

One trait that runs through this important book is the personal weakness of the Duke and the compelling strength of his bride. Larman makes it plain that both Baldwin and Chamberlain were aware that it was Wallis who was passing state secrets to German intelligence, although her husband also expressed sympathies for Hitler’s regime. Cecil Beaton, photographer of the David-Wallis wedding in France, noted in his diary that the Duchess “not only has individuality and personality, but [she] is a strong force”. Even as he praised her intelligence and admiration for the Duke, Beaton offered the judgement that she “is determined to love him, though I feel she is not in love with him — an interesting reflection on the woman for whom her husband had abandoned his throne. In 2015, Andrew Morton dwelt in great detail on Wallis’s treachery in 17 Carnations: The Windsors, The Nazis and The Cover-Up.

Throughout Larman’s compelling read, we are offered evidence of how tone-deaf the Duke was to international protocol, the interests of Britain and the sufferings of others. Anthony Eden, as Foreign Secretary, observed how the pair felt they should be “treated abroad by ambassadors and dignitaries, rather as they would a member of the royal family on a holiday”. This came to a head when friends of the Duke organised a visit to Germany over 11–23 October 1937. They met several leading Nazis, including Hess, Goebbels (who called the Duke “a tender seedling of reason”) and Göring, as well as renewing their acquaintance with Ribbentrop, still then ambassador to Britain. It was Ribbentrop, according to Morton’s book, who had sent Wallis 17 carnations daily “each one representing a night they had spent together”. 

On the penultimate day, the Windsors met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Larman reasons that the visit was as much to show that the Duke and his bride were still relevant in the wider world, as to form a bond with the Führer to avoid future war. As with many public figures of the era, David feared communism far more than fascism, for which he saw the best antidote in an alliance with Germany. We are left wondering whether the Duke observed in Hitler’s authoritarian state all that he admired and wished for Britain, but was now denied.

With the outbreak of war, the Duke’s behaviour was indescribably awful

A subtext to The Windsors at War is just how much anxiety David caused the King, his younger brother, during the run up to war and during it. For most of the period, the Duke badgered for money, confirmation of his status and a royal title for Wallis. Whilst the first was forthcoming, amounting to a financial settlement of £25,000 a year (generous by any standards, considering the Windsors spent their days sofa-surfing and sponging off their rich friends), neither of the latter were. Chamberlain was forced to write that “in addition to letters of protest he had as Prime Minister … all classes stood against him. In addition to the British not wanting him to return, residents of Canada, New Zealand and America wished him to remain in exile”.

Yet, writes Larman, the Duke would not simply “languish in exile and be denied the opportunity to contribute his thoughts on the international situation. This arrogance made him both unpredictable and, with the outbreak of war drawing closer, dangerous. At a time when it was crucial that the loyalties of prominent public figures were transparent, his inclinations remained opaque”.

I had forgotten, until the author reminded me, just how important was George VI’s state visit to Canada and the United States of MayJune 1939, the first of a British sovereign to the latter country. The King and Queen immediately saw eye-to-eye with the Roosevelts, Bertie battling with his disabling stammer, Franklin with his polio. The president had been a former naval secretary, the King had served on HMS Collingwood at Jutland. The visit was a huge success and vital to the war about to transpire. The Daily Mail, no uncritical supporter of George VI, opined their return was “the greatest of all homecomings, the closing scene of the greatest royal day since the Coronation”. The King had outclassed Chamberlain at Munich and anything the Duke might have achieved in talks with Hitler.

With the outbreak of war, the Duke’s behaviour was indescribably awful. As France fell, he was loafing at Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur between Cannes and Nice. He refused to return “unless he was billeted in either Windsor or one of the other royal castles”. A plane on standby, ready to whisk the Duke and Duchess to safety, was cancelled. Courtiers were horrified at him watching “from one’s swimming pool as Europe prepared to fight”. The Duke had the audacity torefuse a lifeline, because the standards of accommodation being offered did not live up to one’s regal standards. It showed a peerless level of narcissism”.

During the Phoney War, Chamberlain allowed the Duke a major-general’s sinecure in France, “but was not told any state secrets because of his wife’s known unreliability”. Yet, even this he abused, appearing in the uniform of Marshal of the RAF, to which he was not entitled. Eventually, when he took a salute that was intended for the British commander-in-chief Lord Gort, he was formally reprimanded and removed from his duties. Chamberlain hand-wrote a personal telegram: “Your Royal Highness has taken active military rank and refusal to obey direct orders would create a serious situation. I hope it will not be necessary for such orders to be sent. I most strongly urge immediate compliance with [the] wishes of the Government.” The Duke’s petulant and extraordinary reply was, “I used to have your support until you reached the supreme power of PM, since when you have subscribed to the court’s hostile attitude towards me… you [have] threatened me with what amounted to arrest, thus descending to dictator methods in your treatment of your old friend and former King.

On 7 July 1940, whilst the Battle of Britain was being fought, the subtitle of Larman’s book “The Nazi Threat to the Crown” emerged. Sir Alexander Cadogan, under-secretary at the Foreign Office, received a telegram “that he greeted with horror. On it, he wrote, ‘PM to see, and made it clear that it should also be passed to the king”. A German source suggested that the Nazis “expect assistance from Duke and Duchess of Windsor, latter desiring at any price to become Queen. Germans have been negotiating with her since June 27th … Germans propose to form an Opposition Government under Duke of Windsor having first changed public opinion by propaganda. Germans think King George will abdicate during attack on London”.

The Germans believed that the former Edward VIII was someone they could manipulate

We may never know the extent to which David and Wallis were aware of these plans, and how much was German wishful thinking. The relevant German Foreign Office documents, files and telegrams ended up in Marburg Castle, Germany, at the end of the war. Some contents have gradually trickled out, but access to the copies held in US and British archives has been tightly controlled, and some have probably been destroyed. The very ambiguity of the Duke and Duchess, however — initially escaping to Franco’s pro-Nazi Fascist Spain, then temporarily resident in Portugal, whilst Britain was fighting for her life — amounts in the eyes of the author, and most interested parties, to treachery. It takes little imagination to harken back to another “king across the water”, his Jacobite cause and the problems this caused for generations.

With Churchill now as prime minister, but the Windsors airing “views that were at best pro-appeasement and at worst helpful to the German cause, still a firm supporter of a peaceful arrangement with Germany, and David convinced that if he “had remained on the throne, war could have been avoided”, firm measures had to be undertaken. When an SS plot was uncovered to kidnap David and Wallis, and by force if necessary spirit them into Spain, Switzerland or Germany (Larman remains unconvinced that this was even viable), Churchill decided on a forced exile. On 1 August 1940, the Duke and Duchess somewhat against their will took a ship from Lisbon to the Bahamas, where David was to spend the war as Governor.

Churchill felt obliged to instruct the recalcitrant Duke that he was only “to express views about the war and the general situation which are not out of harmony with those of His Majesty’s Government … The freedom of expression which is natural to anyone in an unofficial position … is not possible in any direct representative of the Crown … We are all passing through times of immense stress and dire peril, and every step has to be watched with care”.

His brother, Bertie, meanwhile, had grown into kingship, finding confidence in adversity. As he toured the East End after a bombing, one local politician responsible for civil defence observed, “it is almost impossible to believe that he is the same man who took the oath before the Privy Council less than 4 years ago”. Whilst never in British history had a monarch “seen and talked to so many of his subjects, or so fully shared their life”, his brother decided that Government House in the Bahamas was in an unbecoming condition for a man who had once been king-emperor. He immediately asked for £5,000 for it to be brought up to his accustomed standards, describing its current state as “quite unacceptable”. Churchill informed the Duke-Governor that he hoped “when people here were having to put up with so much, you would be willing to put up with this discomfort and remain at your post”.

Occasionally, much to the distress of the British ambassador in Washington D.C., Lord Halifax (Churchill’s rival for the premiership in May 1940), the Windsors legged it over to America. A U.S. journalist, Helen Worden, “lambasted Wallis as petty, status-obsessed, in thrall to an outdated perception of her own worth and responsible for the reduced status of her husband”. David’s response was to ask J. Edgar Hoover to investigate whether there was a Jewish conspiracy to blacken Wallis’s name, as “he believed that Miss Helen Worden, author of the article, was Jewish”. After the war, Larman observes in another wonderful phrase that the Duke “was a relic of the previous world now, and treated with the mild interest that shop-soiled antiquities traditionally receive”. 

The Windsors at War paints a picture of a pretty insalubrious pair, possibly unconsciously nasty. I am reminded of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “They were careless people — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Larman concludes, “the flaunting of their associations with Nazis, fascist sympathisers, and fellow travellers was too extensive and consistent to be excused merely as poor judgement. It may be overstating the case, as some biographers and historians have done, to call David the ‘traitor king’. But it is not hard to imagine a situation in which, shorn of the cosseting advantages they enjoyed, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor might have expected to find themselves in Holloway prison, not too far from Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford.” 

The Germans believed, and his personality suggests, that the former Edward VIII was someone they could manipulate. From the Duke’s admiration for Hitler’s Germany and his anti-Semitism, Alexander Larman builds a strong case for the prosecution that David was at the very least a Nazi sympathiser. In the context of the Second World War, that certainly made him a threat to Britain, the Empire and the Crown itself. 

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