As the volatile political situation in Europe throughout the spring and early summer of 1939 threatened to escalate into war, Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia, whose Balkan Kingdom was already under threat both from Italian expansionist desires and an increasing economic dependence on Germany, was feeling decidedly unsettled. A recent State Visit to Berlin, which included a massive military display, had only served to increase his disquiet. Worryingly, he also confided to his old friend, Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera, that Hitler was ‘mad’.
It must have been somewhat of a relief to receive a telegram from his friend, King George VI (‘Bertie’) asking him to pay a visit to London for ‘important, though informal, discussions with British Ministers’. Paul was the supreme anglophile: he had been educated at Christ Church, Oxford and counted the British aristocrats (and fellow Oxford graduates) Walter, the 8th Duke of Buccleuch and Robert, Viscount Cranborne (‘Bobbety’) as close friends. Furthermore, the British Queen Consort (formerly Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) had often entertained Prince Paul at her childhood home, Glamis Castle, near Forfar and counted him as a member of her ‘inner circle’. However, the Prince’s most recent link with England was through his wife, Princess Olga. The latter’s youngest sister, Marina, had married Britain’s Prince George, the Duke of Kent, less than five years previously. It also happened that King George VI was godfather to both fifteen-year-old King Peter of Yugoslavia and to Paul and Olga’s (British-born) eldest child, Alexander.
On 17 July, the Prince Regent and Princess Olga arrived at Victoria Station for a two-week visit. The Kent’s were waiting to greet them, as was Alexander, who was currently attending Eton. Although the visit was not a ‘State’ but a ‘private’ event, the royal couple’s strong links to the British monarchy ensured that they were quartered in great comfort in Buckingham Palace’s ground-floor Belgian Suite. The British press were suitably kind to the Regent noting that in Yugoslavia, ‘Prince Paul is bearing a burden a heavy burden and bearing it exceedingly well.’ Furthermore, as the senior ‘trustee’ of the Yugoslav crown, they observed that, ‘his policy is that nothing should be done which will jeopardise the position of King Peter when he attains his majority in two years’ time and will then take over the responsibilities of government.’ The press, nevertheless, praised Paul for ‘striving for peace within and without the country’ and acknowledged it had been ‘an exceedingly difficult task to hold the balance evenly between the [Orthodox] Serbs and the [Roman Catholic] Croats’ whilst also having to ‘resist the overtures’ of Italy and Germany.
On 18 July, Paul and Olga joined the King and Queen on the front stalls of the Little Theatre to watch the musical revue “Nine Sharp” starring the Australian actor, Cyril Ritchard. Next day, the Prince lunched and held talks with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at his residence, 10 Downing Street. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Minister was also present, as were various British military chiefs and the President of the Board of Trade. Paul was at pains to point out that Germany and Russia were in talks with a view to signing a non-aggression pact. If Britain did not consummate a deal with the Russians then Germany would. Later, the King invested Prince Paul as a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Britain’s oldest (and most prestigious) order of chivalry. In the evening, Bertie and Elizabeth hosted a ball attended by 800 at which the Prince Regent and Princess Olga were the guests of honour. This would be the last major event to be held at the Palace until after the Second World War.
Yet, despite this lavish display of royal hospitality, the British press later seemed surprised that the Yugoslavs maintained such a ‘living sentiment’ for all things British which went beyond simple royal family ties, even although Britain had failed to offer Yugoslavia similar aid or guarantees as those offered to its neighbour Greece. Indeed, Lord Halifax, appeared slow to appreciate Dr Ivan Subbotic’s, [the Yugoslav Minister in London] recent entreaties for armaments and improved trade terms. This situation had continued despite the fact that the British Minister in Belgrade, Sir Ronald Campbell, had pressed his Foreign Office masters in London, prior to Prince Paul’s visit, for ‘more substantial assistance to this country.’ Campbell’s intervention was driven by a sense of embarrassment exacerbated by the Prince Regent’s oft expressed ‘surprise that we do nothing practically to help [Yugoslavia].’ Campbell was also aware that despite the lack of British military aid, Halifax had tried to press the Regent into making some sort of declaration as to what Yugoslavia intended to do should Germany invade Romania. Paul was furious at such a crass display of diplomacy, fearing that such a declaration would antagonise the Germans at a time when his country was short of arms and unprepared militarily. Furthermore, it remained a delicate time in Yugoslav internal politics, as the Prince was involved in trying to obtain an agreement (Sporazum) between the Serbs and the Croats. (This would eventually be achieved in late August.)
Meanwhile, in late July, following a weekend stay at the Duke and Duchess of Kent’s home at Coppins, near Iver, the Prince Regent entered a London nursing home for three days for an operation by orthodontist Mr Bowdler Henry on a wisdom tooth. He and Princess Olga departed for their summer home in Slovenia on 2 August. The couple’s loyal friend, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon waved them off at Victoria Station. However, the presence of 100 policemen, who formed a tight security ring around the Prince Regent (there had been numerous death threats against Paul over the years), somewhat unsettled Chips and caused him to take ‘a gulp of misery’ while wondering what the future held for his friends. Prince Paul, for his part, was left with the distinct impression that Britain had little interest in coming to Yugoslavia’s aid.
On 22 August it was announced-as Prince Paul had predicted to British officials in London-that Germany and Russia had signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression. The British press succinctly noted that ‘Nazi-ism and Bolshevism… are now shaking hands’. Worryingly, the Treaty had a secret protocol appended to it which divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence and gave the green light for further German advances, particularly into Poland. Indeed, within weeks, Germany would be at war with both Great Britain and France.