Plots and Intrigues: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Madrid, June 1940

Late on the evening of 20 June 1940, a large Buick crossed the border from France into Spain and proceeded with all speed to Barcelona. Two of the occupants were the former King Edward VIII and his American wife, Wallis. Now styled the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple had arrived in neutral Spain to seek temporary sanctuary from advancing enemy forces in France and also to take stock as to what the future held. The couple had already been much shaken by the apparent indifference shown by officials in Whitehall to their fate.

However, the government in London had now little option but to act as there was always the possibility that, should the royal duo decide to remain in the Iberian Peninsula, they might run the risk of being captured by the Germans or used by them for propaganda purposes. This was a realistic view to take as there was a large network of Nazi agents spread throughout Spain. In addition, General Franco’s Falangist government was regarded by London as having pro-German sympathies. Particularly feared in Allied circles was El Caudillo’s brother-in-law (and the Interior Minister) Ramón Serrano Suñer. The latter was a friend of the German Ambassador, Baron Eberhard von Stohrer. The British Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare (whom the Duke knew well having served alongside him in the First World War) had been somewhat surprised by the arrival of his former sovereign but soon received firm instructions from his Foreign Office bosses to ‘offer…hospitality and assistance.’ Unfortunately, Hoare booked his royal charges into the Ritz which was a well-known hotspot of German intrigue and a favourite dining place of the German Ambassador.

On 22 June, Winston Churchill, keen to have the Duke safely out of danger’s way, telegraphed the British Embassy at Madrid and requested ‘Your Royal Highness to come home as soon as possible.’ Furthermore, the Prime Minister informed Hoare that a flying-boat was being sent to Lisbon, on 24 June, to convey the Duke and Duchess to Poole in England. All this information was passed on to the royal duo by the Ambassador in person on their arrival at the Ritz, from Barcelona, on the evening of 23 June. Sir Samuel also informed the royals that a house, Saighton Grange in Cheshire, had been put at their disposal by the Duke of Westminster.

The Germans had other ideas: They (and in particular the Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop) wanted to keep the Duke in Spain as long as possible. Circumstances were currently working in the their favour: The Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was currently hosting a visit from the Duke’s younger brother, Prince George, the Duke of Kent. He was leading the British delegation attending commemorations to celebrate 800 years of Portuguese independence. Salazar, whose private sympathies were for England, was determined that nothing should detract form Prince George’s visit and made this clear to officials in London. Thus, the Duke of Windsor’s journey to Lisbon was postponed until after his brother’s departure from Lisbon on 2 July.

In the meantime, German operatives in Madrid (aided by the Spanish press under the control of the pro-Nazi Serrano Suñer) were soon spreading rumours that Prince Edward had fallen out with the British government and had come to Madrid in order to negotiate his homeland’s withdrawal from the war. Another fanciful tale was that the Duke would be arrested if he set foot in Britain, a fact that had to hastily denied by London.

There were also other issues to take into consideration: In particular, Edward began to question whether he would be given some sort of official employment, for he did not want to be regarded as ‘an embarrassment to all concerned, myself included.’ The Duke also wondered how the Duchess would be treated by his family in the future, particularly as to her ‘status’. He made contact with Churchill by telegram, on 24 June, in an attempt to receive assurances. However, the British Prime Minister was wise enough to realise that he had currently enough problems to deal with without becoming involved in a royal feud between the ex-King and the Palace. Churchill’s response, next day, was evasive at best,’ It will be better for Your Royal Highness to come to England as arranged, when everything can be considered.’

On 25 June, the Duke of Windsor held a press conference at the British Embassy. This was carefully stage-managed by Sir Samuel and Edward was at pains to emphasise that Britain would be victorious. Nevertheless, the ex-King was dissatisfied with Churchill’s answer and cabled back that he would not return to England, ‘until everything has been considered and I know the result.’ Edward was also keen to elaborate on the ‘status’ question in a separate note to Hoare, explaining that he and the Duchess should be received regularly at Buckingham Palace so that they would not find themselves ‘regarded by the British public as in a different status to other members of the family.’

Of course, the deepening rift soon reached the ears of the German Embassy who now sought to use it to their advantage: Why not persuade the Duke to take up residence in ‘neutral’ Spain (for he spoke the language and was popular among the aristocracy and with the people) from where he might, over time, be coaxed into making helpful noises about England and Germany reaching a negotiated peace? The Spanish Foreign Minister, Colonel Luis Beigbeder, at Ribbentrop’s urging, went so far as to offer the Duke the use of a Palace, la Casa del rey moro at Ronda, in Andalusia, as a residence, should he decided to prolong his Spanish visit.

Meanwhile, the King’s Private Secretary at Buckingham Palace, Sir Alexander Hardinge, seemed determined to deny his former master a future role, informing Churchill, on 28 June, that he simply did not believe that it was possible for the Duke, ‘as an ex-King to perform any useful service in this country.’ The British Prime Minister was in many ways now caught between a rock and a hard place as telegrams continued to fly between London and Madrid. And then, suddenly, it was Edward himself who offered a solution: He would be prepared to take an official posting overseas! But how had this change of heart come about? Hoare acknowledged to Churchill that he had been quietly working for a solution behind the scenes and had also persuaded the Duke to limit his ‘status’ demand to a one-off, short meeting between himself and his wife and the King and Queen. This ‘audience’ would subsequently be acknowledged in the Court Circular.

Otherwise, the Duke and Duchess met with friends (including the Spanish diplomat, Don Javier ‘Tiger’ Bermejillo who had served in the Spanish Embassy in London and took them on a sightseeing tour to Toledo). Sir Samuel, keen to keep his royal charge in patriotic mode as well as extend his list of contacts (for Hoare had only been posted to Madrid a few weeks earlier), also hosted a large cocktail party-attended by 500-at the British Embassy. Indeed, this occasion was merely the pinnacle of the hospitality extended to the Duke and Duchess at the legation throughout the nine days they were in Madrid. The Ambassador, of course, was no fool: It was far more preferable to have the royal duo lunch or dine under his watchful eye than expose them to the trickery and chicanery of the Ritz’s dining salon.

On 2 July, the Duke left Madrid for Portugal. For the moment Ribbentrop must have been somewhat miffed that his quarry had eluded him. However, there was always the possibility that Edward (who seems still to have been undecided as to what to do) might be susceptible to German overtures during his stopover in Lisbon, particularly if he did not receive a final, suitable offer from London.

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