After an attack on their rented home at Pontoise, Queen Geraldine and her husband, King Zog of Albania, decided to relocate to Paris’ Hôtel Plaza Athénée in early June 1940. The Albanian Queen was growing increasingly anxious: Geraldine rarely saw her husband who was always occupied with meetings, while hotel life was not at all to her liking. Furthermore, her fourteen-month-old child, Leka, exasperated at being constantly on the move, screamed loudly when anyone tried to pick him up. But even more disturbing was the sound of gunfire from advancing German troops, who were now literally on the outskirts of Paris. Why, the Queen demanded of her husband, were they still in Paris?
Perhaps to placate his wife, the King had rented a hotel-pension at Royan, near Bordeaux. Yet, still he prevaricated. Indeed, it was only at eight o’clock on the eve of German troops entering Paris, that Zog finally agreed to travel south, by which time the Diplomatic Corps and French Government had long departed for Tours. The Albanian convoy was composed 36 people travelling in six cars with a luggage lorry bringing up the rear. The King and Queen’s car was a large, scarlet Mercedes-Benz, which had been their wedding gift from Hitler.
Conditions on the road to their first stop at Orleans were hazardous. The cars were not permitted to use their headlights and were forced to edge their way in the darkness through a continual stream of refugees coming out of Paris. By the following morning, the Albanian party had only travelled twenty kilometres. However, they were at least thankful that they were still ahead of the Germans who had now entered Paris. Later in the day, the convoy was brought to an abrupt halt when it was discovered that the car carrying little Leka, his nurse and bodyguard (along with the Queen’s jewels and a box of gold Napoleon coins) had disappeared. Fortuitously, the vehicle soon re-joined the convoy: the Hungarian driver, being unsure of the roads, had taken a wrong turning amid the chaos of soldiers retreating from the front.
The outskirts of Orleans were reached in the afternoon to the noise of an air raid overhead. While most people sheltered in the ditches, Queen Geraldine and her son took refuge in a nearby station building. King Zog remained resolutely in his car. The town was by now full of refugees and with no accommodation being available, the entourage moved on, eventually stopping for the night at a shooting lodge. The next few days were equally harrowing, with long delays caused by a shortage of petrol and nights spent together out of doors, huddling together for comfort.
It was fully a week before Royan was reached, a journey which would normally have taken a day. Unfortunately, the military commander of the town had requisitioned the property the King had leased but the local Mayor, taking pity on Queen Geraldine and her child, arranged for the duo to stay in a local hotel, while the others had the use of his summer residence nearby. Eventually, all were reunited in an abandoned convent only a few kilometres away.
The King, meanwhile, travelled into Bordeaux where he eventually made contact with the British Consul, Oliver Harvey, requesting visas and sea transport to England. Zog also backed this up with a telegram to King George VI. However, although the British were courteous, the Albanian King was required to prove that he had the financial wherewithal to support both himself, his family and an entourage of around thirty. Having satisfied the British as to his liquidity, the King and his party boarded the SS Ettrick (which was already full of returning wounded soldiers) at St Jean-de-Luz on the evening of 24 June. The boat was due to set sail for Liverpool next morning. However, just as the Queen was about to embark, some drunken soldiers snatched her personal jewellery case. This was later ‘rescued’ thanks to the efforts of Geraldine’s Hungarian chauffeur.
It was with a sense of relief that the Albanian royal party now sailed to England where, as I will reveal in a later article, they set up home in rural Buckinghamshire.