Operation Eiche – the mission Winston Churchill described as “one of great daring“.
1943 was a bad year for the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. His hopes of holding North Africa had been dashed, his decision to send Italian troops to help Hitler fight the Russians on the Easter Front was a disaster, and the Allies had landed in Sicily leaving Italy vulnerable in the south. To cap it all, the Allies bombed Rome on 19th July, damaging two of Rome’s airports as well as reducing parts of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence to rubble.
Although Mussolini was a dictator he did not hold the supreme power that his friend, Adolf Hitler, had in Germany. Italy still had a king and a council with the power to remove Mussolini, and by July 1943 they had had enough. On 24th July the Grand Council passed a vote of no-confidence in their leader; Il Duce was summoned to the palace the next day, where King Victor Emmanuel told him that he was to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio. Mussolini must have been stunned when the king told him that ‘Italy has gone to bits. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’ The dictator, who had been in power since 1922, was further stunned to find himself immediately arrested on the orders of the monarch.
The fall of Mussolini was also a shock to Hitler, who was afraid that Italy would now change sides and support the Allies against him. The only solution was to annex Italian territory and rescue Mussolini. This would not prove as easy as he might have thought as the Italians constantly kept their prisoner on the move, so Hitler appointed Kurt Student to plan a rescue attempt – codenamed Operation Eiche – whilst Hauptsurmfuhrer Otto Skorzeny was sent to Italy to find out where Mussolini was being held. Hitler made the importance of the mission very clear when he told Skorzeny ‘Mussolini, my friend and our loyal comrade in arms, was betrayed yesterday by his king and arrested by his own countrymen. I cannot and will not leave Italy’s greatest son in the lurch. To me the Duce is the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. Italy under the new government will desert us! I will keep faith with my old ally and dear friend; he must be rescued promptly or he will be handed over to the Allies.’
Skorzeny had been wounded by shrapnel in the back of the head in 1942; when he recovered from his injury he was assigned a job on Hitler’s staff where he was developing commando warfare. In early September, with the use of intercepted radio transmissions, he finally discovered that the deposed dictator was being held in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy. Unfortunately for Skorzeny, any rescue attempt had to be briefly put on hold as Italy capitulated to the Allies on 8th September and German focus was on taking control of parts of Italy; but the mission could not be delayed for too long in case Mussolini was handed over to the enemy by the Italian government, so planning went ahead, and the rescue attempt took place on 12th September, led by Major Mors.
Mors’s plan was for 12 gliders transporting 3 platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and 1 platoon of SS men to land in an open area close to the hotel; at the same time, troops in 20 vehicles would take on the 100 guards at the lower cable-car station and so completely cut off the hotel higher up the mountain. The lower operation went smoothly, and was completed at 14.00 as the gliders (reduced from 12 to 10) came in to land 5 minutes later. To their dismay, the ‘open field’ which had been observed in reconnaissance photographs turned out to be a stretch of steep and rocky ground, causing one of the gliders to crash.
But this crash did not hold up the operation and, within minutes of landing, the Italians’ radio equipment had been put out of action; the guards (100 men at the hotel) appeared confused and did nothing to oppose the attacking Germans – after all, the commando forces had recently been their allies, and the prisoner they were holding was their former commander-in-chief. Skorzeny quickly took advantage of their confusion and raced to Mussolini’s room where he declared “Duce, the Führer sent me to free you”, to which Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”
Whilst there had been a short fire-fight when the Germans took the lower cable-car station, the entire operation at the Hotel Campo itself was conducted without a shot being fired. Photographs were taken of a smiling Mussolini with his rescuers, and even some of the Italians who should have been guarding him grinneded happily as they had their photographs taken with their attackers. Il Duce was now the guest of the Germans, and his extraction was imminent.
A Fieseler Fi 156 Short-Take-Off-and-Landing plane survived a tricky landing on the rocky strip to pick up its passenger. On take-off there was a frightening moment as the nose of the overloaded Fieseler dipped and the plane plunged down towards the valley floor, but the pilot was finally able to regain control and the deposed dictator began his flight to freedom, changing planes at Pratica di Mare before continuing on to Germany via Vienna. As the plane disappeared into the distance, the gliders which had been used in the raid were destroyed and the German troops took the cable-car down the mountain where they made good their escape.
Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, near Rastenburg, on 15th September. The Fuhrer was shocked to see how much weight his old friend had lost since their last meeting, but was glad that his fellow fascist leader was safe. Eleven days later Hitler set up Mussolini as leader of the Salo Republic in northern Italy, but the writing was on the wall for the man who was now hated by the people he once led. On 27th April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured by Italian partisans as they tried to escape from the advancing Allies. The following day he was executed by a firing squad and his body, with that of his mistress and their supporters, was hung by the feet from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Milan.
The popular leader who had led Italy to war, and later been rescued in what Churchill described as a mission of “great daring”, had finally received what the majority of Italian people felt were his just deserts.
80 years ago today Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. History records this as a great act of appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and many people feel that if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler he could possible have prevented the Second World War. But is this true?
The Sudetenland was part of the country of Czechoslovakia which had only been created 20 years earlier with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. The new independent Czechoslovakia was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles, but the world powers who dictated the treaty failed to realise that there would be problems arising out of three million German speaking people – 24% of the population – being included within the new country. Most Czech Germans lived in an area called the Sudetenland which bordered Austria and Germany, and they resented the fact that they had not been consulted about whether or not they wanted to be a part of Czechoslovakia. The constitution of the new country guaranteed equality for all citizens but, in reality, the Germans did not have fair representation in either the government or the army, and felt that their needs were being ignored. In an attempt to address the concerns of Sudeten Germans Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP) in 1933. While Czech and Slovak citizens voted for a variety of parties Sudeten Germans put all of their focus on the one party which enabled the SdP to become the second largest party in the country by 1935. Even so, life for the Sudeten Germans was becoming increasingly difficult as the Sudetenland was more industrialised than the rest of Czechoslovakia and relied heavily on exports which resulted in a higher impact on the region from the Great Depression. Although only 24% of people in Czechoslovakia were German they made up 60% of the unemployed in 1936.
Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28th March 1938 to discuss how to improve the situation for the Sudetenland. The Chancellor ordered that Henlein should make impossible demands on Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia, in order to provoke a ‘crisis’. Hitler had begun the re-armament of Germany in breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938; the taking of Czechoslovakia was to be the next step in his plan to create a ‘Greater German.’ On Hitler’s orders, one of Henlein’s demands was that autonomy should be granted to Sudeten Germans; the Czech government tried to be placatory and said that they would provide more rights for minorities but they would not grant autonomy, which is just what Hitler had hoped for. He used this as an opportunity to support the demands of Germans living in the Sudeten region.
The Czechoslovak government felt under pressure from their belligerent neighbour and hoped that Britain and France would assist them if Germany were to invade, they were therefore disappointed to find that Prime Minister Chamberlain was willing to compromise with Hitler. Chamberlain took this position in part because he felt that many of the Sudeten German grievances were justified, but he also wanted to avoid another war at all costs and so advised the Czech government to give in to Hitler’s demands. Benes, the Czech President, could not agree to this and so on 19th May 1938 he ordered a partial mobilisation to oppose any possible threat of a German invasion.
Hitler had already drafted a plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, codenamed Operation Green, as well as ordering that U-boat construction should be speeded up, and the completion dates for the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz brought forward in the hope that these preparations for war would deter Britain and France from intervening on behalf of Czechoslovakia. He wanted to move against Czechoslovakia as quickly as possible because the country’s defences were still being improved and so left the Czechs vulnerable; he also felt that British rearmament was behind that of Germany and so Chamberlain would be less likely to intervene on behalf of the Czechs than if Hitler waited until Germany was fully prepared for an extended European war.
To ensure support at home and put pressure on western powers to intercede on his behalf Hitler turned to his propaganda machine. August 1938 saw the German press full of stories of Czech atrocities against Sudeten Germans, whilst at the same time 750,000 German troops were sent on ‘manoeuvres’ to the Czechoslovakian border. Early in September President Benes offered to grant almost all that Henlein had asked for; but Hitler instructed the SdP not to compromise, instead they held demonstrations and provoked the police into arresting two of their members of parliament. This was the perfect excuse for the SdP to make other false allegations of atrocities and call off negotiations. Hitler continued to demand that Sudeten Germans should be re-united with their homeland, and made inflammatory speeches against the Czechoslovakian government, accusing them of violating international law, branding Germans as traitors and forcing them from their homes, and conspiring with France against Germany. War seemed almost inevitable.
Things came to a head on the 12th – 13th September when Hitler encouraged Henlein to rebel against the Czech government and demand that the Sudetenland be reunified with Germany. When Benes refused and declared martial law Hitler threatened to go to war. Chamberlain asked for a personal meeting with Hitler to try to defuse the situation and flew into Germany on 15th September for a meeting at Berchtesgaden. The German leader insisted that Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise their right of self-determination and join with Germany. To avoid a possible European war Chamberlain agreed, in principle, that Hitler could claim all parts of Czechoslovakia where Germans made up more than 50% of the population and Britain would not interfere. On his return home Chamberlain persuaded the French (who were allies of Czechoslovakia) to agree to this on condition that Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. No one consulted the Czechoslovakians who rejected the proposal.
On 16th September the Czechoslovak government dissolved the Ordnersgruppe (which was an organization of ethnic Germans living in the country) because of its link with a number of terrorist attacks. The next day Hitler set up a paramilitary group called the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps to take over from the Ordnersgruppe. The new organization was equipped and trained by German authorities and conducted cross-border raids into Czechoslovak territory provoking yet more unrest.
On 22nd September Chamberlain flew to Germany to present the joint British-French proposal to Hitler at Bad Godesberg. He received a great welcome from the German people who felt that the agreement to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland would ensure peace. Hitler himself, though, was irritated that Chamberlain should think that Germany needed the approval of Britain to further his plans. Hitler put his foot down and told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely broken up with her lands divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Chamberlain was stunned, but Hitler said that it was all because of the atrocities committed by the Czechs since his last meeting with the British Prime Minister. To support this one of Hitler’s aides came into the room (a pre-arranged event) to say that more Germans were being killed in Czechoslovakia. Hitler flew into a rage and vowed to avenge the deaths by destroying Czechoslovakia. For a time it looked like the meeting would fail, but later that day Hitler told Chamberlain that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland as long as Czechoslovakia began the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from German majority territories by 8am on 1st October; if this happened Germany would have no more claims on Czechoslovak territory and would enter into an agreement to guarantee the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The Czechoslovaks saw this as a provocation and excuse to provoke war, and so ordered a general mobilisation on the 23rd with one million men joining up to defend their country in the first 24 hours. The French also ordered a partial mobilisation on the 24th, whilst on the same day Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum saying that Czechoslovakia must give up the Sudetenland by the 28th or Germany would take it by force. Many people in Britain felt that Hitler’s demands had gone too far and they wanted to stand up to him, even if that meant going to war. On the other side of Europe the Soviet Union said that they would come to the assistance of Czechoslovakia if they could cross Polish and Romanian territory to do so, but both countries refused to allow it.
Czechoslovakia could see that things were looking hopeless and so, on the 25th September, they agreed to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. Instead of accepting this victory however, Hitler now insisted that the demands of ethnic Germans in Hungary and Poland should also be met at the same time. On the 28th, with Germany’s deadline running out, Chamberlain invited Mussolini to join the negotiations in an attempt to get Hitler to delay the implementation of his ultimatum. Mussolini agreed and persuaded Hitler to accept a 24 hour delay (he also promised, in private, that whatever happened he would support Hitler!)
To try to prevent war breaking out Chamberlain, Daladier (the French Prime Minister), and Mussolini flew to Munich to meet Hitler on the 29th September. No Czech or Russian representative was invited to the conference, and although Chamberlain asked the Czech ambassador to Berlin to come to Munich as an adviser he was not allowed in the same room as Hitler. The Czechs were presented with a stark choice – to accept the loss of the Sudetenland or face Germany alone. They chose to accept.
On the 30th September Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement stating that Germany would complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by the 10th October whilst an international commission would be set up to decide what would happen to other disputed areas. Chamberlain had a separate pact drawn up, based on the Munich Agreement, which would guarantee peace between Germany and Britain, it was signed by the two leaders on the 30th. When Chamberlain arrived back in Britain later that day he waved the paper in his hand, declaring that it guaranteed ‘peace for our time’. At the same time, German troops were marching into the Sudetenland where they were welcomed as heroes.
Chamberlain was greeted by ecstatic crowds whom he told that he had achieved “…peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” Winston Churchill immediately criticised Chamberlain by declaring that “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
The following months seemed to prove Churchill right. Elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland in December 1938 resulted in over 97% of the population voting for the NSDAP. Around 500,000 Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party making it the most pro-Nazi region in the Third Reich (17.34% of Sudeten Germans joined the party whilst the average in Germany was 7.85%). Then, in March 1939, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia to become a separate state which was highly supportive of the Nazi Party; Hitler sent his troops into the remainder of Czechoslovakia and occupied it as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Poland was now surrounded by German possessions and people in Britain began to fear that this country would be the next target for Hitler, to prevent this an Anglo-Polish military alliance was signed. Chamberlain felt betrayed by Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. His policy of appeasement had obviously not worked so he now began to mobilise British forces. France did the same. Italy felt threatened by the mobilisations and invaded Albania in April 1939. The final nail in the coffin of ‘peace for our time’ came with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939. Chamberlain declared war on Germany two days later.
Since 1939 the Munich Agreement has been seen as a classic example of the futility of trying to appease totalitarian states who are set on expansion. Yet was it as simple as all that? Did Chamberlain sacrifice Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement, or did he see it as a necessary evil? It is true that after the horrific losses of the First world War he would have done almost anything to avoid the same thing happening again. But is it also possible that he knew that war was inevitable but that Britain was not yet ready to face the rapidly growing German military machine? Could it be that the Munich Agreement and Pact were his attempt to buy time to rearm and prepare for the conflict ahead? Perhaps we will never know.
On 10th May 1940 Hitler launched an attack into Belgium and France. What no one could have imagined on that day was that just six weeks later Marshall Pétain would sue for peace, signing an armistice which ceded three-fifths of French territory to the Germans. To add insult to injury, Hitler insisted that the armistice was signed in the same railway carriage in which Germany had been forced to admit defeat at the end of the First World War. So what had gone wrong for the Allies?
World War 1 had been a long-protracted conflict in which the opposing armies were static for the majority of the time, dug-in in extensive trench systems across northern Europe. Between the wars the Allies had assumed that if there were to be another war it would also be trench based and so they had planned accordingly. The French had used their huge defence budget to build a line of super-trenches with fortifications, tunnels, and underground bunkers on the German border (the Maginot Line), whilst the BEF supported French troops on the Belgian border. Therefore, when the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France at the outbreak of the Second World War they were ready for the prospect of a static defensive war. What the Allies were not prepared for, however, was Hitler’s intention to fight a swift, offensive war.
At dawn on 10th May 1940 29 German divisions began an invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium; in response the Allied commanders positioned the bulk of their forces defensively inside Belgium, playing into the hands of the enemy. What they were initially unaware of was that this attack was a feint and a further 45 divisions were thrusting forwards through the Ardennes. The French had believed this forested area to be impassable by enemy troops and so had left it woefully undefended. This second German force swiftly breached the Allied right flank, pushing them back towards the English Channel. With the fall of France and the disastrous retreat of the BEF from Dunkirk blame was placed on an innovative German tactic of blitzkrieg in which the enemy used the new technology of tanks and dive-bombers to force a swift victory. In German blitzkrieg means lightning war, a term which seemed apt for surprise attacks which made lightning fast advances into enemy territory, and in which air power supported ground troops to overwhelm the defenders. But blitzkrieg was not, in fact, a completely new idea.
The key elements of blitzkrieg are speed, surprise and superior firepower, and as such the concept can be traced back to Prussian military tactics in the early 19th century where limited resources meant that the only route to victory for the Prussians was through swift, powerful attack. Carl von Clausewitz, who made a detailed study of generals from Alexander the Great to Frederick II of Prussia, argued in his 1832 book ‘On War’ that all military force should be focussed in a single action against the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’, its Schwerpunkt. Once this vulnerable point has been identified a frontal attack combined with a double flanking movement should crush the enemy, even if attacking troops had to be withdrawn from other areas and risks taken to achieve this objective.
The German Alfred von Schlieffen developed a plan for a swift attack against his country’s old enemy, France, and this plan was put into action at the beginning of the First World War. Developing the ideas of von Clausewitz, Schlieffen’s aim was to achieve a swift victory by using 90% of the German army to move through Belgium and northern France to take Paris in a quick and decisive campaign. The plan was good in principle, but the attacking forces were slowed when they met with unexpected Belgian resistance, and this in turn gave the British time to prepare a defence at Mons. Although the Schlieffen Plan had failed it was believed to have a solid basis and so the idea of a lightning fast attack was used again in the spring offensive of 1918 when German armies reached within 75 miles of Paris before their advance was halted.
Between the wars the theory of blitzkrieg was further developed by Heinz Guderian who advocated the integration of light tanks and dive-bombers to improve the manoeuvrability of the German army, insisting that every tank should have a radio to give them an added advantage. Hitler had fought in the trenches during World War 1 and wanted to avoid further trench warfare if at all possible, so when he saw Guderian’s plan he was very taken with the idea of victory through speed and movement. The German High Command were derisive of Guderian’s plan, telling Hitler that his claim that he could reach the French coast in a matter of weeks was idle boasting, but Guderian insisted that if they could break through the enemy frontline the panic and confusion caused amongst the civilian population would hamper any defending army’s movements to the front and so make success even more assured. Despite the misgivings of his senior officers Hitler was prepared to take the gamble. Germany tested its modern blitzkrieg tactic with a combination of both air and land action in the Spanish Civil war in 1938 and in Poland in 1939, with promising results.
When Germany pushed into the Ardennes in 1940 stukas were sent in just ahead of the armour to soften up the target and destroy rail links and communication centres. The German tanks, supported by infantry in half-track vehicles, began their advance at the same time with the bombing only stopping at the last minute, leaving the Allies no time to re-group. Once the first objective was taken the attacking army moved on leaving civilian refugees to clog the roads needed by the defending army, and also attacking the fleeing civilians to add to the fear and panic. The use of FM radio communication gave yet another advantage to the attacking army, enabling quick decisions to be made based on reliable evidence rather than waiting for orders from HQ. It was left to units following this initial attack to secure the gains made, thus freeing the panzer units to move on to the next Schwerpunkt.
Blitzkrieg was so successful in the initial phase of the war that Germany went on to use the tactic on the Easter Front against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, and in the North Africa campaign (Rommel, who commanded the German Afrika Korps, had been involved in the May 1940 attacks which forced the surrender of France). The Allies also adopted the ‘lightning war’ tactic in the Western Desert, on the Eastern Front, and after the D Day landings, relying on firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. Germany last used the blitzkrieg tactic during the Battle of the Bulge, yet the Allies continued to push forward and by the end of the war Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated by the very tactic which had brought it such success in 1940.
The Roots of Blitzkrieg by James Corum
Panzer, a Revolution in Warfare: 1939–1945 by Roger Edwards
The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl Heinz Frieser
To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne.
History of the Second World War by B H Liddell Hart
This is my third and final article about the British royal family during the Second World War. My pieces about King George VI and Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) showed two individuals with a keen sense of duty who, despite their privileged position, tried to understand what it was like for the ordinary British citizen – staying in London during the Blitz, living on the same rations as everyone else, serving in the ATS etc. – but for the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, the role he played before and during the conflict is a more controversial issue altogether.
Prince Edward had trained in the Royal Navy from the age of 13, but at the outbreak of the First World War he was commissioned and served as a staff officer in the Grenadier Guards. After the war he toured many parts of the British Empire and took an interest in national affairs; his support for the unemployed made him incredibly popular with the working classes. But as the years progressed Edward appeared to develop a dislike for the official world he was forced to live in and began to cultivate friends from ‘high society’ rather than the aristocracy. 1930 proved to be a pivotal year for the future king as that is when he met and fell in love with Wallis Simpson, a married American. When George V died in 1936 and Edward became king his affair with Simpson was the subject of much speculation in the foreign press, but pressure was put on British newspapers to keep it quiet as Edward VIII was Head of the Church of England and, as such, would not be able to marry a divorcee. Under pressure to choose between the throne or the woman he loved Edward chose Wallis and abdicated saying ‘I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.’ After his abdication Edward moved to France and the couple were married when Wallis was finally divorced in 1937. The new king, George VI, created his brother Duke of Windsor but refused to allow the new Duchess the rank of ‘Royal Highness’, something which the Duke and his new wife both resented. There were also conflicts within the royal family as to the financial worth of Edward who had hidden some of his wealth from his brother when the abdication settlement was worked out, relations were therefore frosty between the former king and his family. And so the scene was set for the role that Edward and Wallis would play during the war.
During 1937 and 1938 the Duke and Duchess lived in France although they spent a lot of time traveling around Europe, including a visit to Germany where they met with Hitler, a visit which was well publicised in the German media. The Duchess, who always felt slighted by the British royal family and government, was treated like royalty during the visit with German aristocrats bowing and curtsying to her; Edward was inordinately pleased that the Germans treated her with the status and dignity which he felt she was due as his wife and yet was withheld from her by his own people.
According to Albert Speer Hitler believed that Edward was friendly towards Germany so the fact that he was no longer king had a negative effect on the Fuhrer’s plans for Europe, as Hitler is reported to have said – ‘I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.’ The Windsor’s visit to Germany went against the advice of the British government who felt that their opposition was vindicated when the Duke was seen to give a full Nazi salute on a number of occasions whilst in Germany.
Some historians have defended Edward’s links with Hitler by saying that he saw fascist Germany as a barrier between western democracy and communism and that having seen the horrors of the battlefields of the Great War he was willing to appease Hitler to prevent such wholesale slaughter happening again. In May 1939 Edward gave a radio broadcast for NBC in which he appealed for peace. The recording took place on the First World War battlefields of Verdun where he said ‘I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead, and I am convinced that could they make their voices heard they would be with me in what I am about to say. I speak simply as a soldier of the Last War whose most earnest prayer it is that such cruel and destructive madness shall never again overtake mankind. There is no land whose people want war.’ The speech was broadcast around the world but although many British newspapers published the transcript in full the BBC refused to air it as it seemed to be supporting appeasement.
It is difficult to assess just how much the Duke supported fascism and Nazi Germany although many believe that his words in 1940 were quite revealing when he said that ‘In the past 10 years Germany has totally reorganized the order of its society… Countries which were unwilling to accept such a reorganization of society and its concomitant sacrifices should direct their policies accordingly.’
When war broke out Edward hoped to be reconciled with his brother but George VI was still angry that his brother had abdicated. Rather than being given a royal role to play Edward was given a position as liaison with the French. Years later, in February 1949 Count von Zech-Burkersoda, who was the German Minister in the Hague at the outbreak of the war, said that the Duke had passed the Allied plans for the defence of Belgium to Germany which had helped the swift invasion of France and, consequently, led to the disaster at Dunkirk. After the fall of France the Windsors travelled to Madrid where the Duke appears to have been introduced to a plan for the Nazis to put him back on the throne with Wallis at his side, a not very subtle plan to use the former king against the established government in Britain. Edward travelled from Madrid to Lisbon where he is said to have received a number of telegrams with details of the plan to reinstate him on the throne in return for his support for Hitler. Copies of the telegrams (which were found in Germany at the end of the war) say that Edward had initially believed that he could never be king again after abdicating but that when he was told that it was possible that the British constitution could change after a Nazi victory ‘the Duchess in particular became very thoughtful.’ One telegram even suggested that the ‘Germans expect assistance from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the latter desiring at any price to become queen.’
The British were not aware of the telegrams at the time, but Edward’s reluctance to return to England forced Winston Churchill to threaten to court martial him if he did not immediately travel to London; then the Prime Minister offered him the position of Governor of the Bahamas as there were ‘fears for his safety’. The Windsors travelled to the Caribbean in 1940 and remained in post until the end of the war. In December 1940 the Duke gave an interview to Liberty magazine in which he was reported to have said that ‘Hitler was the right and logical leader of the German people,’ he went on to say that the time was coming for the American President to mediate a peace agreement between Germany and Britain. The former king said that he had been misquoted and misrepresented in the article, but the Allies were sufficiently worried that President Roosevelt ordered the Duke and Duchess to be placed under surveillance when they visited Florida in 1941. The Allies concerns were further enhanced when they received information (which may or may not have been true) that Wallis had slept with Ribbentrop (the German Ambassador) in 1936, was still in contact with him and passed secrets to him.
After the war ended the Windsors returned to France to live, and the Duke never held another professional position after his Governorship of the Bahamas.
Just after the war ended the Americans found 400 tons of German diplomatic papers near Marburg Castle; included in the haul were around 60 letters, telegrams and other papers about the Duke of Windsor and his links to the Nazis. Amongst the documents were details of ‘Operation Willi’ which was the codename for the plan to conquer Britain, overthrow George VI and put Edward back on the throne. It appears that there was a concerted effort to manipulate Edward into helping the Nazi plan, including telling him that his brother, the king, planned to have him assassinated. Copies of the documents were sent to America, and Churchill appealed to the Americans and French to refrain from publication for at least 10 to 20 years, saying that the documents were ‘tendentious and unreliable’ and likely to leave the misleading impression that the Duke ‘was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal.’ Eisenhower replied, saying that the telegrams were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the Duke. The telegrams were suppressed but not for as long as Churchill had hoped. They were eventually published in 1957. Included in the documents were statements attributed to the Duke saying that he was convinced that war could have been avoided if he had not abdicated as he was a firm supporter of compromise with Germany. Another telegram said that the ‘Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace’ (some historians believe that his comment could have been the reason that Hitler shifted the focus of Luftwaffe actions in 1940 from the Battle of Britain to bombing cities). American naval intelligence also published a report from a German conference held in 1941 that said that the Duke was ‘no enemy to Germany’ and the only English representative with whom Hitler was willing to negotiate peace terms, saying that Edward was ‘the logical director of England’s destiny after the war.’ When he found out about them the Duke of Windsor said that the telegrams and documents were ‘complete fabrications…and gross distortions of truth’. Edward admitted in his memoirs that he admired the Germans but had never been pro-Nazi and that Hitler struck him as a ‘somewhat ridiculous figure, with his theatrical posturing and his bombastic pretensions.’
Some historians don’t believe that the Duke of Windsor knew about the plan to put him on the throne and that his contacts with Germany were more about working for peace and finding a place for himself and Wallis in government circles after his abdication, as well as making the Duchess feel important and a part of state affairs (something which the royal family never did). On the other hand Andrew Morton, the royal biographer, suggests that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser saying that he ‘was certainly sympathetic…even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war’.
The Duke of Windsor’s attitude to Germany and conduct during the war is in stark contrast to that of his brother, King George VI, and his niece, Princess Elizabeth. There will always be controversy about just how much of a Nazi sympathiser he was and how deep his admiration and support for Hitler went but, if the historical documents are to be believed, then many people feel that he should never have been allowed to return to live in France after the war ended and that he certainly should not have received any further funds from Britain. True, he was socially ostracized and had very little contact with his family for the rest of his life, but many people felt that was far too lenient and he should have been tried for treason.