Crown Princess Märtha Eludes Nazi Regency plot.

Following the German invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940, King Haakon, his son Crown Prince Olav, daughter-in-law Crown Princess Märtha and three grandchildren (Ragnhild, Astrid and Harald) journeyed northwards by train, accompanied by members of the government, from Oslo’s Østbanen Station to Hamar in an attempt to evade capture. By the early evening, the royals had settled at an estate at Sælid, a few kilometres outside of Hamar, where they were just sitting down to dinner when word was received from the local police chief of the impending arrival of several busloads of German troops. The little group immediately set out by car towards Elverum, to rendezvous with members of the government who had fled there from Hamar, arriving at 10.30pm. However, the news there was equally uncertain and it was at this juncture that a decision was taken to send the Swedish-born Crown Princess Märtha and her three children over the border into neutral Sweden for reasons of safety. A royal convoy of three cars crossed the border into Sweden from Trysil, in the early hours of 10 April, and proceeded to the Høyfjellshotell in the ski resort of Sälen. As it was a glorious sunny day, the children spent most of the time skiing on the nearby slopes, while their mother remained at the hotel glued to the radio for news of events in neighbouring Norway. What she heard could hardly have lifted her spirits, as the Germans were now bombing Eleverum and Nybergsund, killing dozens of people. At one stage, King Haakon and his son Olav are forced to take shelter in a ditch to avoid being fired on by low-flying Heinkel bombers.

Crown Princess Märtha’s mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden arrived at Sälen a few days later, visibly tired yet ‘filled with a glowing hatred of the Germans’, according to one of the Norwegians, for her homeland of Denmark had also been occupied. Ingeborg was also deeply concerned for the welfare of her brother, King Haakon and her son-in-law (and nephew) Olav. Meanwhile, the Swedish authorities were nervous of the Norwegian royalty remaining so close to the border area so, thanks to Princess Ingeborg’s efforts, the royal party was able to take up temporary residence at Count Carl Bernadotte of Wisborg’s home at Rasbo near Uppsala.

After about two weeks, Märtha’s paternal uncle, King Gustav V of Sweden, who was known to have pro-German leanings (and had already refused a plea from King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav to cross the border into Sweden for fear of provoking Hitler) offered Crown Princess Märtha and her party accommodation at Ulriksdal Palace, on the outskirts of Stockholm. Although at dinner on the first evening, ‘everyone was terribly kind and friendly’, there was no discussion of the increasingly perilous situation in Norway, where King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav remained in constant danger from a crack unit of German commandos’ intent on their capture or possibly death. But Olav was also concerned for the safety of his children and wife in Sweden and wrote to President Franklin D Roosevelt from Trangen, Langvatnet, on 10 May, mentioning an offer which Roosevelt had made, in late April 1939, during the Crown Prince and Princess’ weekend stay at the President’s country home at Hyde Park, ‘to take care of the children’ if the war should reach Norwegian shores.

Märtha, meanwhile, spent time playing rummy and bridge each evening after dinner while the children and their nurse played games of tennis, swam in a nearby inlet or went picnicking. However, underneath, the minutiae of everyday Palace life, the Crown Princess was increasingly anxious about the future, for her sole communication with her husband was via courier and, as he was constantly on the move, that was sporadic at best. This left her in a very vulnerable position and soon Märtha was subjected to considerable political pressure from the Administrative Council (among others) in Oslo, who indicated that they wanted her and Prince Harald to return to Norway and cooperate with the occupying power in order to save the monarchy. This would, of course, involve King Haakon’s abdicating. The timing of this political intervention was no accident for, as the Germans were only too well aware, the Norwegian King was no longer in Norway as, following the decision of the Allied powers to withdraw from Norway, he and his son Olav had departed Norwegian soil at Tromsø, on 7 June, to settle temporarily in England and carry on the fight for Norwegian democracy there. To make matters worse, the Swedes also became involved in discussions over the future of the Norwegian monarchy. In a telegram to Hitler on June 16, the Swedish King openly encouraged the Germans to adopt a ‘Norwegian Regency’ model whereby Harald would be proclaimed king, although his mother would act as regent until the Prince reached his majority. Märtha was clearly aware of the growing danger and sent a telegram to London warning her husband and father-in-law that her Swedish family (i.e. King Gustav) and Hitler were conspiring to remove King Haakon and set up a regency.

It has to be said that there was now the very real danger that Prince Harald might be kidnapped and taken to Oslo. This must have crossed the mind of Crown Prince Olav for, on 22 June, he had written again to President Roosevelt from Buckingham Palace asking him to make good on his offer of sanctuary to his children, but this time he also included a request on behalf of his wife. Olav also made an approach to the US Secretary of State via the US Ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, entreating ‘if there is anything you can do in a hurry to get the [Crown] Princess out [of Sweden].’ On 12 July, the US Secretary of State sent a message to the US Minister in Stockholm saying that President Roosevelt was arranging for a naval transport vessel to be sent to Finland to evacuate the Crown Princess and her family along with a group of ‘stranded’ US citizens. Both the German and British governments had agreed to grant the ship safe passage. The US Minister was now instructed to meet with Märtha and ascertain if she wished to proceed with this offer.

Meanwhile, in Norway, word had reached the Administrative Council that King Haakon was refusing to abdicate, thus placing in doubt on the regency option. According to the US Minister in Stockholm, the Administrative Council were now trying to reach a satisfactory agreement with the German occupying authorities, whilst also being careful to avoid upsetting the local population by attempting to ‘dethrone’ Europe’s only elected Sovereign. A National Council was proposed to conduct state affairs while the King remained overseas.

On 18 July, Märtha received a telephone call from the Norwegian Minister in Washington, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. He informed a somewhat surprised Crown Princess (who, not unsurprisingly, seems to have been in the dark about Crown Prince Olav’s recent correspondence with Roosevelt) that an American warship was being sent Finland to transport her and her children to the US. On 20 July, Märtha received the US Minister to Norway, Mrs Florence Harriman, who was now ensconced temporarily at the US Legation in Stockholm, and indicated to her that she was happy to accept President Roosevelt’s offer. Nevertheless, Märtha was keen to emphasise that she wanted to enter the US ‘as quietly as possible’ and ‘would not be required to meet reporters or a reception committee’. The Crown Princess also clearly hoped the date of her arrival would be kept confidential.

On 22 July, Mrs Harriman was informed by the US State Department that a naval transport, the USS American Legion, was about to leave for the Finnish port of Petsamo (now Petsjenga, Russia) and should reach there around 5 August. It was also made clear that there was ‘no possible way’ the Crown Princess’ arrival in the US could be kept confidential. Indeed, soon after Märtha left Ulriksdal, on 12 August, the Norwegian Legation released a statement to the press, also broadcast over Radio Sweden, stating that the Crown Princess and her three children ‘will leave for the United States in the next few days to visit President Roosevelt’ who had issued ‘a personal invitation’ to the Norwegian royals. In the interim, the Crown Princess travelled northward into Finland and on to Petsamo where, on 15 August, she and the royal children embarked the American Legion which transported them across the Atlantic to New York. Märtha appeared on the ship’s manifest as ‘Mrs Jones.’ Others in the party included her Chief of Staff, Peder Anker Wedel Jarlsberg, a Lady-in-Waiting, Mrs Ragni Østgaard, the latter’s son Einar and the royal children’s nurse, Signe Svendsen. Touchingly, Prince Harald was pictured clutching his beloved teddy bear. However, in her luggage, Märtha also had a touching, splendid farewell gift from her mother: a magnificent suite of emerald and diamond parure which had once belonged to Queen Sophia of Sweden. The intention was that should the Crown Princess ever be in financial difficulties, during these difficult war years, she could raise cash by selling the parure.

The author of this blog takes a keen interest on the fate of royalty during World War II. He examines the wartime adventures of Princess Olga (the onetime Consort of the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia) in Africa (and much else besides) in the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.

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