In the spring of 1940, the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII prior to his abdication in December 1936) was attached (with the rank of Major-General) to the British Military Mission to the French Command in Vincennes. He was tasked with making tours of various French Army Sectors to report on the quality of the defences, as well as the morale and bearing of the French troops. Following the completion of his last trip in March, the Duke had returned to the opulent rented house he shared with his wife, Wallis, on Paris’ fashionable Boulevard Suchet, where he remained twiddling his thumbs throughout April into May, as no further work was currently forthcoming. The nearest he came to any action was entertaining the British Ambassador to dinner.
Soon everything was about to change: On 10 May, German forces invaded France and the Low Countries. The Duke went to Mission HQ at Vincennes each day where he was initially kept busy studying troop movements on wall maps and undertaking useful liaison work with the French forces at the front. The Duchess of Windsor, meanwhile, was occupied with work for the French Red Cross and Le Colis de Trianon, a charity which distributed ‘soldiers’ boxes’ and comforts to the troops. Matters reached a head, on 16 May, when German Panzer divisions reached the Oise, having successfully crossed the Ardennes and the Meuse with minimal opposition. Panic ensued in Paris and the British Embassy began evacuating all female members of staff, as well as the wives of British diplomats. The Duke, on his own initiative, rushed home and, parrying aside her objections, instructed his wife to pack as he was relocating her southwards for her own safety. Within hours the duo were en route to Biarritz. Although, the roads were packed with refugees heading South, the royal couple managed to find overnight accommodation at Blois from a sympathetic innkeeper who recognised the Duchess, who had overnighted there previously, at the time of the Abdication crisis.
On 17 May, the Duke and Duchess reached Biarritz. After checking his wife into the opulent Hotel du Palais, the Duke headed back north to resume his duties with the Mission. However, the situation there was growing ever more dangerous and the Duke’s brother, Prince Henry of Gloucester, who was serving as Chief Liaison Officer to General Gort, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, was winched out of Boulogne on 19 May and flown back to England. However, as there was no guidance from London regarding his own (increasingly perilous) position and, having been assured by his superior, Major-General Howard-Vyse, that there was ‘nothing for him to do’, Edward decided to take matters into his own hands: He proposed a plan whereby, as he later put it to the British Ambassador, Sir Ronald Campbell, he would return to Biarritz to collect his wife and then ‘settle the Duchess in’ at their holiday home, the Château de la Croë at Antibes. From there, he could easily undertake a tour of inspection of French forces on the border with Italy. The Duke did, of course, obtain permission in advance from Howard-Vyse who thought it ‘a good idea.’ Thus, on 27 May, Edward was formally seconded to the French Armée des Alpes and the couple’s house in Paris’ fashionable Boulevard Suchet was soon closed up for the duration of the war. On the beaches to the north at Dunkirk, London had already set in motion ‘Operation Dynamo’, the plan for evacuating the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops who had been completely surrounded by German troops.
At La Croë, which they reached on 29 May, the Duchess packed up the Duke’s family silver (which was to be stored at a château in Aix-en-Provence), while the Duke travelled to Nice to report for duty. Antibes was filled with troops and a strict black out was in force and, when not otherwise occupied, the royal couple camped out nervously, eating off tin plates to await further developments. A nearby neighbour was a Captain George Wood and his wife Rosa. The Captain knew the Duke reasonably well as had been attached to the British Legation in Vienna during Edward’s sojourn at Schloss Enzesfeldt, following his Abdication in 1936. The Duchess’ childhood friend Kitty Rodgers and her husband Hermann were also ensconced along the coast at their Villa Lou Viei at Cannes. Inevitably, word of their presence soon reached press who soon posited that Edward had ‘resigned his military appointment’. This was denied by the Ministry of Information on 8 June.
From the North the news was devastating. By 10 June, the Germans were on the doorstep of Paris and the French government had evacuated to Tours (and subsequently to Bordeaux). But of more relevance to the Duke and Duchess on the French Riviera, this was the day Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. Fortunately, the French forces managed to repel an attack by Mussolini’s troops the following day (this came as no surprise to Edward as, during his recent tour of inspection, he had found the French defences in the Alps to be ‘excellent’). The only physical manifestation of the war at La Croë was when the sirens sounded during an Axis air attack on the airbase at St-Raphael to the west. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall for both the Duke and the Duchess. They had to find a way to escape or risk capture.
On 16 June, the Duke decided to seek the advice of the British Consul-Generals at Nice and Marseilles and eventually a plan was formed whereby Edward and his wife, along with their neighbours, the George Woods’, would join a consular convoy to the Spanish frontier organised by Major Hugh Dodds, the Consul-General at Nice and the Vice-Consul at Menton, Martin Dean. The Windsor’s Buick, driven by their chauffeur Ladbrook, was filled to bursting, for in addition to themselves, the royal duo were accompanied by the Duchess’ maid and the Duke’s comptroller, Major Gray Philips, as well as three Cairn dogs. A lorry containing the royal luggage followed on behind. The group left La Croë on the Duchess of Windsor’s birthday, 19 June, just three days after Marshal Henri Pétain had assumed the office of Prime Minister and was on the verge of signing an armistice with Germany. The main problem now was that neither the Duke nor Duchess had the relevant visa to enter Spain. There was also the possibility that the Duke-who was careful to travel in civilian clothes- might be arrested by the Spanish authorities on the basis that he was a serving British army officer entering a neutral country. Nevertheless, there was little option but to keep going as Italian planes were bombing Cannes as they passed through and there was word that German forces had already reached Lyon.
After an uncomfortable night spent at a hostelry in Arles, the party set off at dawn for the Spanish frontier, inching their way along congested roads. Throughout the journey the Duke, who was perhaps better known in southern Europe as the iconic Prince of Wales of yesteryear, managed to pass through the many barricades manned by locals en route by announcing, ‘Je suis le Prince de Galles. Laissez-moi passer s’il vous plait.’ On reaching Perpignan, however, no amount of Princely charm seemed to work on the Spanish consul and it was only after the Duke made a telephone call to the Spanish Ambassador to France, José Félix de Lequerica, that the party were allowed to pass through the frontier around 7pm.
An hour later, at the British Embassy in Madrid, the Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, informed the Foreign Office of the Duke and Duchess’ arrival in Spain. The royal couple spent the first night on Spanish soil in a hotel in Barcelona. Next morning-21 June-the Duke called on the British Consul-General in Barcelona and sent the following telegram to London: ‘Having received no instructions have arrived in Spain to avoid capture. Proceeding to Madrid. Edward.’ However, far from being safe in this neutral country, the Duke and Duchess were about to enter a world of subterfuge, plots and intrigues….